Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Dominus illuminatio mea (‘Do less to illuminate me’)

I’ve had a letter from the Vice-Chancellor of my old university, probably asking for money. I say probably because I didn’t read past the moronic first sentence:

Today, the defining struggle in the world is between relentless growth and the potential for collaboration.

Sigh… He sounds like he’s on day release from Comment is Free. Maybe General Melchett was right:

Sunday, July 25, 2010

“The Secretary of State may enter into Academy arrangements with any person”

So reads the first line of the Academies Bill, which the government is pushing through parliament with the kind of haste usually reserved for emergency anti-terrorism legislation. It’s expected to get passed into law early next week. And, as befits its opening, it does devote a great deal of attention to giving Michael Gove more power.

Why the rush to get it enacted? Of course a government that thinks it has a good policy on its hands wants to get it up and running ASAP, but you could say that about any Bill.

Gove has a useful political skill: he knows how to make empty bluster sound like the sharp, forensic workings of a keen intellect. In his recent interview on Today, he said that of course there has been ample scrutiny: the idea of allowing all schools to become academies had been discussed a lot over the last few years and the Tory manifesto proposal had been debated during the election campaign.*

This is vacuous tripe and he knows it. There’s a world of difference between forming an opinion on a policy in principle and the close scrutiny required to test whether a Bill will indeed achieve what it aims to and check it for unintended consequences. Parliament has just not had the chance to do this properly, and certainly the 232 new MPs hadn’t previously been able to debate it.

So, in the spirit of the big society, I’ve had a quick look myself. Of course, I have no particular expertise.

The desire to minimise consultation and accountability isn’t just a feature of the parliamentary process; it’s key to how the new academies will be set up. Under John Major, would-be grant-maintained schools had to hold a parental ballot before opting out of LEA control, but under Gove’s law, things will work differently:

(5) Consultation on conversion
  1. Before a maintained school in England is converted into an Academy, the school’s governing body must consult such persons as they think appropriate.
  2. The consultation must be on the question of whether the school should be converted into an Academy.
  3. The consultation may take place before or after an Academy order, or an application for an Academy order, has been made in respect of the school.

There’s nothing to suggest any check on whom a governing body considers “appropriate” consultees. Themselves? Their friends? And there’s nothing to suggest that they need to abide by the views of those consulted. And what a wonderful idea to allow them to consult after the decision has already been made.

Gove himself is not required to check whether such consultation has taken place, nor to do any consulting of his own when deciding whether to approve an application, nor to make public the grounds on which he makes these decisions.

But he does appear to be a fan of consulting people after the event. The Sunday Times (paywall) reports that he is already writing to schools and approving their applications - before the Bill has even been passed.

If this is true as reported, then he’s acting illegally. I suspect that it’s not quite that stark, but rather that he’s told schools what decision he’ll make just as soon as he’s legally able to. Even so, there is still scope for the Bill to be amended, so neither he nor the applying governing bodies can know exactly what the deal will be, and no one can have been consulted meaningfully.

This Bill is not about ‘parent power’. It’s about Gove’s power to bypass local councils and parliament, and it’s about governing bodies being able to bypass parents.

Is it a good idea to change the academies programme from being a way to rescue failing schools into an optional upgrade for potentially any school? What will be the effect not just on the schools that go for it but also on the wider education system? I’m afraid I’ve not had the chance to think this through. I’m not sure who has.

* The Lib Dem manifesto pledged to “replace Academies with our own model of ‘Sponsor-Managed Schools’. These schools will be commissioned by and accountable to local authorities and not Whitehall”. Oh well.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Bradman’s brilliance, Donald’s duck

I rarely if ever blog about cricket, but Norm, whose forte it is, has drawn me in. He writes:

'For ever to be remembered as one of cricket's nearly men' - so says Rob Eastaway (behind the Times paywall) about... Donald Bradman. I nearly spilled my breakfast cereal. Bradman a nearly man? He only had a Test batting average at least 50 per cent better than all the other most successful batsman in the history of the game. Eastaway is referring, of course, to the four runs by which Bradman fell short of an average of 100. But still - with 99.94 I'd say he was more clearly way above nearly than he was nearly, merely.

Dead right. I don’t know much about the sport, but I know enough to know that Bradman stands in a class of his own. And I know enough about numbers to know when one is absurdly bigger than all the others. Here are the top 20 career batting averages:

More than 60 years on, this is still the sort of achievement that deserves to be gawped at in awe.

But in fact, I think I’d go further than Norm. Of course missing a round 100 average must have been frustrating, but I think the story of Bradman’s swansong – or ducksong – makes his stunning achievement that bit more memorable, a more captivating human story, a more bittersweet legend; it’s a flaw that give the gem more depth to its beauty.

There’s nothing objectively special about 100. But there’s a lot that’s humanly astonishing about 99.94.

How to mouth off in parliament about the legality of war and get away with it

Nick Clegg’s “illegal invasion of Iraq” moment has raised questions about whether minsters speaking in the Commons are there as ministers or as random people with opinions. Lucy Mangan has some fun, as does the Daily Mash.

Hadleigh Roberts has an intriguing theory – that George Osborne fed him the line and was mouthing along as he delivered it – but I’m not convinced. I’ve watched the clip four times and I’m not sure Osborne’s lips are doing anything more than slightly, randomly wobbling.

I think the explanation is much simpler: Clegg was using the dog whistle. He knows he’s achieving less in the coalition than many of his party would like, so (to switch canine metaphors) he threw them a bone. His statement is of no consequence for government policy, but plenty of Lib Dems will have been heartened to hear it.

Just a thought, though: a senior member of the government has made a confident and unambiguous declaration on the legal status of a war without even bothering to consult his Attorney General. I’m sure that the usual suspects are rushing to the comment pages of the Guardian and the Independent to denounce his lack of respect for proper procedure…

Thursday, July 22, 2010

How big? Introducing the Societometer

I had a mild rant the other day about the phrase ‘big society’ and how the concept of society’s size makes no sense. But, like a good blogger, I’ve now done some research and it turns out that there is an accepted measure, the Societometer, that gives regular assessments of how big society is.

Historical records show that society was huge in the 1950s, tending to shrink a little in the 1960s and more rapidly in the 1970s. Apparently, due to a small fire at the Office for National Statistics information warehouse five weeks ago, no figures exist for the years 1979-97, so we cannot possibly draw any conclusions about what happened during that period and must never mention it.

But it can clearly be seen that over Labour’s time in office, society hardly increased in size at all, and has even shrunk since 2007 – although the very latest figures show that in the five months leading up to the election, society did grow by 1.7%, as Labour leadership contenders have been quick to seize on. However, Downing Street argues that this increase was due to people expecting a change of government, and so acting so make society bigger in anticipation.

The current Societometer reading, for June, puts society at 33.2 SBU (social bigness units), although this preliminary estimate is subject to revision.

David Cameron has set an ambitious target, aiming to double the size of society in real terms by 2015. He has established the Office for Societal Embiggenment to assess progress towards this aim, although its independence has been called into question after it produced a set of very favourable predictions.

By contrast, the respected think-tank the Institute for Quantifying Woolly Abstractions calculates that policies announced so far will enlarge society by little over a quarter, and that this increase will be concentrated in better-off neighbourhoods where people share the same private security firm and know each other’s interior designers’ names.

There has been speculation that the government may change the way society’s size is calculated, giving less statistical weight to poorer areas on the grounds that they are ‘broken society’ and so appear smaller than they actually are. Furthermore, given the general austerity drive, it would be more efficient to measure fewer parts of society – the larger bits are easier to do – and then extrapolate from them. Critics say that this would be fiddling the figures, but no decisions will be taken until a commission led by maverick Labour MP Mark Meadow has reported.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


SSL International, the maker of Durex condoms, is set to be sold to Reckitt Benckiser - the firm behind Cillit Bang cleaner

And in other news, I am a mature grown-up with a sophisticated sense of humour.

(I hope they get ‘Barry Scott’ to do the adverts.)

Polysyllabic misanthropy

I was reading an old Stephen Fry book over the weekend and came across this passage, in which one of the characters has just started a newspaper column:

Ashley found that he had a gift for tediously obvious opinions expressed in a formulaic polemical style that exactly suited the kind of brain-fagged commuter most ready to confuse polysyllabic misanthropy for intelligent thought. … He had in particular that peculiar journalistic gift of stating all the prevailing bourgeois prejudices in a language that represented itself as ‘maverick’, ‘daring’ and ‘unconventional’.

I’m giving serious consideration to using a chunk of that as my blog strapline.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Candidate selection and the boundary review

Danny Finkelstein (paywall) has been struck by a thought:

It takes a long time to do even a very simple boundary review, doesn't it? And the boundary review that equalises constituencies and reduces the number of MPs to 600 isn't simple. There must be a big question mark over whether the review will be ready. And this by itself will tie in the politicians to a late election.

Yes – although of course both coalition partners say they want to go the full five years anyway. The review will take a good while. Unlike Danny, I expect it will be finished in time, but its lateness in the parliamentary term will still be significant.

Two words: candidate selection.

This can’t take place until we know what constituencies there’ll be. So it will have to take place late and quickly. This will mean would-be candidates (including MPs for seats that have been taken apart and then put together with bits of other old seats) rushing to get selected by their local parties and then known to the local public. The obvious consequence is that, except where one of them is a sitting MP for a mostly or wholly unaltered seat, the candidates will be less familiar than usual to the voters come polling day.

(Many, perhaps even most seats will be unchanged. But nobody will know which until the review is done.)

But also, I think this means that local prospective candidates will have an advantage in selections, as they may at least be known in the area as campaigners and/or councillors. National party ‘stars’ and leadership favourites will have much less chance to cultivate local party supporters, as they won’t know which seats will look tempting prospects until the review is complete. And if selected, they’ll have much less time before the election to get to know the area and its people.

Finally, while sitting MPs always have an advantage over other candidates in terms of their profile, next election this edge will be greater than usual: if they are selected to fight mostly/or wholly unchanged seats, then the lateness of the selection won’t make much difference to their long-term self-promotion campaign.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Exactly how much bigger should society be?

Please imagine that question being asked by Chris Morris on The Day Today.

Because whatever you might think of the general principle, or the motivations behind it, or the policies that may be produced in its pursuit, “big society” is a bloody stupid phrase.

Before Cameron coined it, had you ever heard anybody discussing the size of society? Sure, you’d hear about a strong society, a vibrant society, an active society, a good society, a flourishing society, an open society and so on. But had you ever heard anyone complain that society was too small, or argue that society ought to be made bigger?

Yes, I understand why he went for it: “big society not big state” sounds less nasty-old-Tory than “small state not big state”, so it was an effort to change the terms of the debate. But given that “big society” also makes it sound as though English is his second language, couldn’t he have done better? I gather that many on the Tory right thought that the idea was a very hard sell during the election campaign, and that doesn’t surprise me at all: “big society” is a category mistake.

Oh no. I was going to leave it there but then I made the mistake of looking for the Big Society website. It says: “The Big Society is a society in which we as individuals don’t feel small.”

Think about that for a moment. Surely, the bigger society is, the smaller I as an individual am going to feel by comparison.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Doing my bit for the cuts

At first I sneered, but then I felt guilty and resolved to help out by adding my own suggestions to the government’s Cut-U-Like website.

You can read my ideas here, at least until somebody realises and takes them down. Either way, I’ve reproduced them below:

How to save money literally
  1. Require retina scans to get into government buildings. All the faceless bureaucrats will be unable to enter as they have no eyes. They will have to stop drawing their salaries and get proper jobs for instance circus freaks or estate agents’ gimps.
  2. Use plain coloured tape rather than red tape for regulations. This will save money on unnecessary extravagant dye.
  3. Find a feckless single mum and start a religion around her based on the fact that she has become a mum without having ever had a feck. Demand a tithe from followers.
  4. Put an end to the something for nothing culture. Parminides said that “ex nihilo nihil fit”, which means that nothing comes from nothing and so welfare scroungers are breaking the laws of metaphysics. We should have more people like Parminides running the country except he was a foreigner.
  5. Protect front line public services. But get planning permission to move the front line to somewhere unpopulated like Leighton Buzzard and then you will be able to cut everywhere else.
  6. Harness the power of the black hole in the public finances to create a space time wormhole that will allow interstellar travel and then sell it to the military of a proper country.
  7. Abolish gold plated public sector pensions and put them in envelopes instead. And paper is lighter than gold so you will also save on the postage as well.
  8. Stop spending so much money on waste. I produce plenty of waste especially after curry night and can sell it to you much cheaper.
  9. Put a cap on immigrants. Make it a stupid one like William Hague used to wear so they will not want to come here and ruin our Green and Pleasant Land and expect us to pay them for the pleasure.
  10. You should have a bonfire of the quangos but the Health and Safety will never allow it because some chav kid with so called ADHD might run into the fire and get hurt. Yet they turn a blind eye to civil servants burning our money and that creates an even bigger fire. We have a smoking ban but they forget there is no smoke without fire and I think I have lost control of this metaphor now and need to stop.

You must be careful implementing these cuts. Above all make sure that they are PROGRESSIVE by means of saying that they are.

(Thanks again to Clifford for setting me off.)

Big society, small minds, big laughs

The government’s attempt to harness the wisdom of the internet is having predictable results. The Spending Challenge website, set up so that we can tell them what we’d like them to cut, looks like Blair’s old e-petition site on steroids. And on cocaine. And on and on and on and on and on. It’s proving to be a refuge for all those people too illiterate and hateful to feel comfortable in the Daily Mail’s online comment boxes.

There are doubtless some sensible ideas in there as well, but the words ‘monkeys’ and ‘typewriters’ leap to mind.

Clifford Singer has the full story.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Balls on borrowing

Yesterday Ed Balls said:

Halving the deficit in four years by cutting public spending... I think was a mistake. In government at the time in 2009 I always accepted collective responsibility, but at the time in 2009 I thought the pace of deficit reduction through spending cuts was not deliverable, I didn't think it could have been done.

I think it’s fair enough to say, in a leadership contest after an election defeat, that you didn’t agree with your party’s policy at that election. Collective responsibility in a government matters.

But what I don’t get is why Balls hadn’t recanted sooner. Indeed, just ten days earlier, he still seemed happy with the policy:

Of course we must start reducing the deficit, but it is the economics of the madhouse to do this before the recovery has been secured. In government we set out a plan to do this with a mixture of growth promotion through our new industrial policy, fair tax rises and spending reductions.

I smell tactical positioning. But then, what’s new?

I’ve heard people argue that Balls was wrong to soft-pedal on the deficit (although he has some support), but I’m more concerned about his apparent indifference to one of the main causes of the credit crunch.

On the Today programme this morning, his interview with the increasingly useless John Humphrys shed very little light on anything, except for one point when Humphrys raised the very high level of debt in the economy before the crunch. Balls at first didn’t seem to realise that this meant overall debt (including businesses and households, not just the government), and then once Harrumph had falteringly explained this, he seemed to shrug it off, saying that “the fact is we had low interest rates, the fact is we had low inflation, and people were borrowing – we had a million more homeowners and that was a good thing”.

There’s a significant body of opinion that rates should have been higher during the years before the crash, that we fixated on consumer price inflation to the neglect of asset inflation, and that borrowing in general should have been more restrained, perhaps by law. Balls should know this and at least be willing to engage on it, although to be fair Humphrys had left little time in the interview after wittering for ages about the Mandelson book. Where oh where is Evan Davis when you need him?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Memo to leadership candidates: please stop talking to us

I am fed up with hearing the Labour leadership candidates explaining to the party what we should do over the coming years to win over sceptical voters. Don’t tell us, show us. Stop trying to win a leadership election and start acting as though you’ve already won it.

Make speeches aimed at the wider electorate. Craft your arguments and language for an audience that’s not terribly partisan and only intermittently interested in politics.

To win a general election, you need to be able to do this. So start showing us that you can.

Yes, intellectual depth and strategic analysis are important – David Miliband’s latest effort I liked, but then I’m a political anorak and a philosophy graduate. Or, in other words, a weirdo. Most people will be left utterly cold by phrases like “a compelling articulation of aspiration and hope”, which is of course not a compelling articulation of anything. And that’s a very mild example.

But while I agree with Hopi that someone needs to “stop Mr Miliband stringing abstract nouns together and calling it an argument”, I wouldn’t join him in calling this sort of thing “Cameronian”. Whatever his faults, the PM does know how to use language in a way that ordinary people can nod along to.

The Milibands aren’t as bad as Jon Cruddas, who can hardly open his mouth without the names of half a dozen long-dead political philosophers dropping out, but they’re close.

We know you’re clever. Now show us that you can engage with people.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

They’re sounding more and more alike

All politicians have their little verbal quirks. One of David Cameron’s that struck me during the third election debate was this:

It is completely unacceptable what has happened, and we need to grip it very, very hard to sort this out

they'd know their government had listened to them, gripped it, and got it under control

I say, let's grip this problem

What you can see is two parties that won't grip immigration, and one that will.

It’s very common to talking about ‘getting a grip on’ something, or ‘getting to grips with’ something else. But I’d never before heard anyone talking about simply ‘gripping’ a problem.

Now I’ve come across someone else doing this:

He said it would have been an "act of cowardice, socially deeply unjust and an abdication of political and moral responsibility not to have gripped the crisis."

It is, of course, Nick Clegg. I hear that sometime married couples grow to share each other’s tics. I also hear that pets can come to resemble their owners.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

The markets talk with money, not words

Martin Wolf’s latest piece has helped me to crystallise something that’s been floating around my head for a while. He writes:

Fiscal default is nigh, insist the doomsayers: repent and retrench before it is too late. Yet I have a question: do we believe that markets are unable to price anything right, even the public debt of the world’s largest advanced countries, the best understood and most liquid assets in the world? I suggest not. Markets are saying something important.
On Monday, the yield on 10-year government bonds was 1.1 per cent in Japan, 2.6 per cent in Germany, 3 per cent in the US and 3.3 per cent in the UK (see chart). Based on yields on index-linked securities, real interest rates on borrowing by these governments are very low (1.2 per cent, or less, in the US, Germany and UK). Investors are saying that they view the risk of depression and deflation as greater than that of default and inflation.

This is the moral: if you want to know what the bond market thinks, do not listen to the words spoken by any of its participants. Watch what it does instead.

Government borrowing has been consistently cheaper since the end of 2008 than it was in the couple of years before the crunch. And the recent fall can hardly be attributed to the new anti-deficit government: it dates back to the start of the Greek crisis and extends beyond the UK.

A caveat is that, as those of you with memories stretching back two or three years may suspect, the prices that markets allocate are not always right.

The perfect man for the OBR

The Office for Budget Responsibility needs a new head, as Alan Budd isn’t staying on. Various names have been suggested, but there’s one striking omission from the speculation.

The job needs someone with experience of economic policy, who knows the way the Treasury works and the tricks chancellors try to pull. It should be somebody who will be able to resist political pressure from George Osborne to do what’s convenient for the government. It should be someone who likes to be in a position of authority without having to court popularity or charm and inspire people. And it should be someone who’s probably not happy in their current position.


Oh, come on. It’d be so funny.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Predicting the next financial crisis

This has put me in a silly mood:

European regulators to publish doomsday scenarios for banks
European banking supervisors are tomorrow expected to try to assuage concerns that their stress tests have not been tough enough, by publishing details of the types of calamities banks have been asked to withstand.

I can exclusively reveal that these scenarios include:

  • An asteroid heading for Earth is blown up by Bruce Willis, but all the small chunks just happen to land on the banks.

  • A giant mutant lizard besieges the Santander head office after his mortgage application is declined.

  • A plague of the living dead ruins the actuarial projections on which pension funds are based; unable to afford the potentially eternal payments, they collapse.

  • Staff at the credit-rating agencies responsible for grading sub-prime-mortgage-backed securities finally notice that their keyboards have letters other than ‘A’.

  • Derren Brown snaps his fingers and we all remember that money is an illusion.

  • Hapless subcontractors at HSBC branches accidentally fill the staff vending machines with money and the cashpoints with snacks.

  • President Sarah Palin.

  • The euro breaks up, and the public bulk-buy Sellotape to stick the notes back together again. Higher demand makes the price of Sellotape rocket, leading to a surge in the number of gnomes employed in the tape mines. However, the now-overcrowded working conditions cause a series of industrial accidents, sparking civil unrest, government intervention and the bankruptcy of Sellotape plc. The resultant continent-wide tape shortage provokes sanctions and ultimately war.

  • The traders’ braces snap and their trousers fall down just as the vicar is about to come round for tea.

  • Bank TV ads finally cause a series of murderous rampages; victims’ relatives sue for compensation on the grounds that where there’s blame, there’s a claim.

  • Somewhere, a small child loses faith in the fundamental goodness of the finance industry.

But I’m sure there are other potential calamities…

Public- and private-sector employment

After the row last week about projected numbers of jobs, I was going to do a post based on this chart. Turns out I can’t be bothered, but here’s the chart anyway. It shows annual changes in the numbers of public- and private-sector jobs, and the size of the public-sector workforce relative to the total.

The ONS figures are for the second quarter of each year, except for 2010, for which the latest stats cover Q1.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

How could I have been so dense?

Admittedly, Wikipedia is not the world’s most reliable source, but this one from its list of common misconceptions is really incredibly obvious:

Black holes, unlike the common image, do not act as cosmic vacuum cleaners any more than other stars. When a star evolves into a black hole, the gravitational attraction at a given distance from the body is no greater than it was for the star. That is to say, were the Sun to be replaced by a black hole of the same mass, the Earth would continue in the same orbit (assuming spherical symmetry of the sun). Due to a black hole's formation being explosive in nature, the object would lose a certain amount of its energy in the process, which, according to the mass–energy equivalence, means that a black hole would be of lower mass than the parent object, and actually have a weaker gravitational pull.

A moment’s thought confirms that this makes perfect sense, and yet it had never occurred to me.

Yes, black holes have a huge gravitation pull for their size, but for their mass their pull is normal. So the reason nothing can escape the pull from inside a hole’s event horizon would simply be that of close proximity to so much densely-packed mass; by contrast, if you’re on the surface of (or even inside) a large, heavy star, you’re still quite a distance from most of the star’s mass. I think that’s right. It sounds right…

(Via Matt.)

Friday, July 02, 2010


I don’t care enough to do it myself, but has anybody thought of submitting a Freedom of Information request to the Office for Budget Responsibility?

Something like: What communications took place, on 29 and 30 June 2010, between the OBR and ministers or ministerial advisers, about the timing of the OBR’s release of its employment forecast?

The answer’s probably ‘none’, but if not it could be embarrassing.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Not just another click on the wall

The Times paywall goes up tomorrow. I’ve said my piece on this, but I’d like to add a comment on their new-look site, which has been up and running a couple of weeks now: it’s terrible. The pages are slow to load, the pictures are vast and almost all stories are now split across two or more pages – even if the last page just has a couple of lines – so that they can tell advertisers they’ve got a higher number of page views.

I may or may not go for the £1 introductory offer for the first month, but £2 a week thereafter – sorry, no.