Sunday, October 31, 2010

Deficit metaphors: the state took a bullet

What with the government trying to flog us the old ‘government budget as household finances’ metaphor, Liam wondered if anyone had any others.

I suggested we could think of the deficit as a metaphor: a powerful use of it can be stimulating and help to move things along, but if you stretch it to breaking point you’ll lose credibility and have to spend even longer getting back to where you started.

More seriously (and more partisan), here’s one that occurred to me this morning:

Unlike the Tories’ laissez-faire attitude, during this recession Labour decided the government should take a bullet to protect the economy. To prevent the worst of the harm to businesses and households, we let government borrowing take the strain.

Letting the deficit rise was the right thing to do. In normal times, this much borrowing would be a terrible idea, but a global financial crisis is not normal times. And it worked: unemployment and repossessions have not been nearly as bad as in previous recessions. The Tories, on the other hand, wanted us to gut the public sector at the same time as the private sector was taking hits, and they opposed the VAT cut that helped people struggling to make ends meet.

So the government took a bullet, and now we have to repair the harm to the public finances. There are two ways we can cope with this bullet-wound: cut off the injured limb and hobble on as best we can, or stop the bleeding and then take time to heal and grow back to strength. The first option is quick but brutal, causing irreparable damage. The second is less dramatic, but it allows us a fuller recovery.

Does this have potential? Maybe not – it’s a bit all-or-nothing – but I’ve been blogging so little lately I figured I owed you something.

I’ve also got a half-formed idea about the dangers of slamming on the brakes when your car’s skidding, even though it seems the instinctive thing to do – instead, you have to slow gradually and turn the wheel back steadily. Anyone’s welcome to develop that one, but I’m too clueless a driver to do it myself.

(The standard political metaphor for deficits is the ‘black hole’, the most destructive thing in the universe, swallowing anything that comes near it and becoming all the more powerful in the process. If it hadn’t been cheapened by overuse to describe any old gap in the public finances, then it would have been perfect for those warning of a catastrophic debt spiral.)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Words fail me

I am ‘editing’ (turning gibberish into language) a graduate recruitment pack. The section that lists the qualities applicants should have is currently divided into subheads with sets of bullet-points underneath, and I’m supposed to turn each of these into a paragraph of flowing, meaningful, engaging prose. One of the sets looks like this:

Curiosity and Critical Thinking:
  • Critical thinking
  • Curiosity

I especially like that they’ve reversed the order to try to avoid the impression that they’ve just typed the same thing twice.

It’s going to be a long day.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Who says geeks can’t get dates?

A couple of friends of mine have been involved in creating the Geek Calendar. They’ve put in loads of work, and luckily it’s really very good, so I can plug it without feeling embarrassed.

What is the Geek Calendar?
It’s what it says on the tin, not that it comes in a tin; that would be madness. It’s a 2011 wall calendar, featuring geeky pin-ups for every month – and it also includes December 2010 and January 2012, so you get extra geek value! (16.6 recurring % more months than a boring regular calendar, or 16.9863% more days.)

Did you say “geeky pin-ups”?
I sure did. These characters are some of the very best (and most photogenic) of British geekery: crusader against bad science Ben Goldacre; maths and science writer Simon Singh; actor and comedian Chris Addison; chess champion Sabrina Chevannes; physicist Brian Cox; former Lib Dem science cheerleader Evan Harris; comic book artist Sydney Padua; gadget obsessive Jonathan Ross… and many more!

Um, are they–
No, they’re fully dressed. Don’t be disgusting.

Well, it sounds fun anyway. So have they done this just for a laugh, or to make a bit of cash?
Neither! Geeks all take a solemn oath to use their powers only for good. And the good cause here is libel reform: all profits from sales of the Geek Calendar go to the Libel Reform Campaign. English libel law, as the calendar geeks explain, is notoriously restrictive, and risks undermining the principles of free speech that are particularly vital in debates on science and medicine.

This sounds like the best thing since the idea of using sliced bread as the benchmark of innovative brilliance. How much does it cost?
A mere £11.75. (But don’t forget those 62 bonus days: once you take those into account, the notional – seasonally adjusted? – price, for real-terms comparisons with unambitious 365-day calendars, would be just £10.04. Excellent value.)

A bargain indeed. And are you a geek yourself?
Of course not! I work for as a copy-editor for a medical research charity, I blog about politics, and I entertain myself with such down-to-earth blokeish pursuits as writing poetry about economic policy and reconstructing famous philosophical arguments in words of one syllable. I am therefore obviously a mainstream alpha male. But I have nothing against geeks: many of my best friends, etc. etc.

But doesn’t your blog have about 12 readers? If you’re doing the PR, that’s a bit feeble, isn’t it?
Oh, it’s not just me. This week the Geek Calendar has featured in the Telegraph, the Guardian, the Metro and elsewhere. They’re selling like hot cakes, albeit non-edible ones at room temperature made of paper and in calendar form.

So, to summarise, should I buy it now?
That’s a very good question. Yes, you should buy it now. Thank you.

Let Clegg join the Bullingdon Club

I’ve finally worked out the dynamic at the top of the coalition.

Oxford’s notorious public-school drinking-and-mayhem Bullingdon Club, which counts David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson among its alumni, has a characteristically deranged initiation ritual.

Members will turn up at the new boy’s room in the middle of the night, force their way in, smash everything he owns to pieces – pictures, furniture, records, manifesto pledges, opinion poll ratings, backbench morale – and then storm out again, after roaring at him that he’s in.

This is what Osborne is currently doing to Nick Clegg.

It’s taking a while longer than the usual initiation, though. Clegg, like most new recruits to the Club, doesn’t particularly welcome the wreckage that’s forming around him as such, but on the other hand he’s thrilled to bits by what it means: the much bigger prize of a place in the cabinet Buller.

Now and again, though, one of the braying mob crushes something of sentimental value, and a pang of sadness and frustration runs through him. Like the Lib Dem commitment to helping the poor, for instance.

Back in the Budget in June, for instance, Osborne produced a graph that showed poor people came out best. A torrent of independent experts, led by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, promptly tore this claim to bits for its manifest shoddy falseness on multiple counts.

George didn’t care; that wasn’t the point. It was Nick who charged into the media, struggling to defend the indefensible, and he (and his party’s reputation) got a thorough kicking.

Now we have the spending review, and George has stuck another distributional chart in there, with most of the same inadequacies as the earlier one, and the IFS et al. have reacted in the same way, and once again it’s Nick who’s taking the hits.

Enough damage to the new boy. Dave, you need to call George off. Let Nick in, let him buy his fancy jacket and tails, and the three of you can get on with the serious business of smashing other things up.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Trained in the ways of the Dark Side

Best. Fact. Ever.

When Christopher Reeve first got the part of Superman, he was tall and fairly athletic but not all that muscular. So he took an intensive training programme to bulk up, which was run for him by David Prowse – weightlifting champion, Green Cross Code Man… and the occupant of the Darth Vader suit.

One of the great movie clich├ęs is the training montage. Wouldn’t you just love to see one of Darth Vader training Superman?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

George Osborne: cheerleader for higher public spending

I gather there’s some sort of spending thingy going on today. What better occasion for a stroll down memory lane?

Whenever you hear the Tories blame Labour for the cuts on the grounds that spending was too high before the recession, remember this, from 3 September 2007:

George Osborne today pledged to match Labour’s public spending plans for the next three years

In his Times article that day (which began by noting that “mortgage defaults in America have sent shock waves through financial markets in London”), Osborne proposed to “share the proceeds of economic growth between the funding our public services need and the competitive lower taxes our economy demands”. He mentioned the (then-smaller) deficit briefly, but didn’t mention anything about reducing it. He also smirked that Gordon Brown “has now been forced to adopt our approach to spending”.

If Labour is guilty of complacency about the economic good times, so are the Tories. If Brown is to blame for wanting higher public spending rather than ‘fixing the roof while the sun was shining’, so is Osborne. Like ERM membership, it was a misjudgement shared across the political mainstream. As he likes to say, they’re all in this together.

Monday, October 18, 2010

How not to get sperm

(I’m experimenting with search engine optimisation in my headings)

I saw an ad on the Tube the other day and couldn’t help but notice this logo:


I would love to have been a fly on the wall when the ad agency managed to rationalise this to the client. But then, after my teenage sense of humour calmed down, I noticed the oddness of the rest of the ad:


This is an attempt to appeal to sperm donors, not to would-be mothers or couples wanting to conceive. Does the LSB really think that potential donors, who may be tempted to get some cash in hand in return for taking, er, something else in hand, want to be reminded that the consequences of this will be their biological kids running around out there?

This level of communicative incompetence makes me think that the logo was genuinely thought to be a good idea rather than something someone did for a dare. I fear that the ad campaign will come to nothing (sorry).

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Cable, Clegg and the fine art of manifesto escapology

I’ve already looked at why David Cameron feels that he’s entitled to abandon his election promises – despite the fact that the deficit is not turning out to be worse than predicted pre-election.*

The Lib Dem leadership has also, of course, been dropping its own commitments willy-nilly. Yes, part of this is to do with the necessity of coalition compromise, but not all of it is. Like Cameron, the party leaders in the Cabinet are subtly implying that the Lib Dem manifesto is something that it’s positively right for them to discard as they see fit.

Vince Cable (the one who’s allegedly a bit of a disgruntled lefty) offered a fine case study this week on tuition fees. On the subject of the pledge (“I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament”), he told the Commons:

Like many Members, I wanted to ensure that my children's and my grandchildren's generations enjoyed that free system of university education. In an ideal world, that is what we would do, but we are not in an ideal world. We are in a world in which we have inherited a massive financial mess. We have come to terms with reality, and it is time that the right hon. Gentleman and his friends did the same.

Implication: Before the election, even though everyone knew full well about the big deficit, the Lib Dems were not in touch with reality; now, he, Clegg and the rest are having to shake off some of the party’s delusions so that they can run the country properly.

I signed that pledge with my colleagues, and I have explained the reasons why I did so. It was a stand from a commitment to try to keep universities free, which is what I enjoyed. I have explained, however, that in the current financial situation, which is truly appalling and which we inherited, all commitments and pledges will have to be re-examined from first principles.

Implication: And it’s not just fees. A lot of what his party said before the election was impractical rubbish, and he’ll have to bin a good amount of it.

The DUP’s Willie McCrea tried to challenge him on the ‘financial mess’ card, which he keeps playing as a fig leaf when disowning his party’s policies, and got an answer that in part was frank but refused to give any kind of explanation:

Is the Secretary of State telling the House that he did not understand that the United Kingdom was in dire financial straits when he signed the pledge five months ago?
Vince Cable: Of course we realised that the financial position of the country was serious. We must now make very difficult choices on the back of that, which I am sure is understood as well in Northern Ireland as it is everywhere else in the UK.

Implication: He fears that his party members did not understand the financial position (and politics forced him to play along with them); he, Clegg and other senior Lib Dems in government are U-turning not out of unexpected fiscal necessity but because they think their party was wrong – and perhaps they always did.

*Darling’s March Budget put the deficit at 11.8% of GDP in 2009/10, then 11.1, 8.5, 6.8, 5.3 and 4.0.
The OBR’s report in June put the deficit at 11.1% of GDP in 2009/10, then 10.5, 8.3, 6.6, 5.0 and 3.9. This was after the Greek crisis had supposedly made everything worse and before Osborne’s Budget had supposedly made everything better.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Mr Cameron, what a big society you have...

Norm bemoans, as I have now and then, the term ‘big society’. But listening to this bit of Cameron’s speech, I stopped to think again:

So that great project in your community - go and lead it. That waste in government - go and find it. That new school in your neighbourhood - go and demand it. The beat meeting on your street - sign up. The neighbourhood group - join up. That business you always dreamt of - start up.

He sounded tired just saying this – imagine how we’ll feel after trying to find time to actually do it. Big? It’s bloody huge.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Cavalier Cameron: I’ll say what I like and then I’ll do as I see fit

Does anyone else find this a disturbing attitude in a Prime Minister? From the Today programme [about 8’05 in]:

Jim Naughtie: What I’m suggesting is, perhaps, that if the chancellor says something in the run-up to the election campaign – “we will preserve child benefit” – quote, George Osborne – that is changeable...
David Cameron: I don’t think that is fair. Look, what we’re having to do as a government – and frankly, we’ve all made pledges about child benefit, ’cause we all like child benefit... We’ve all made these promises. But in government, you cannot afford to just put off difficult decisions, you have to go through them, and with child benefit we’ve made a difficult decision.

Does he think that being in coalition entitles him to abandon promises so breezily? Does he think that the problems with the public finances give him carte blanche to do anything? Maybe a bit, but I think it’s more that he finds this whole electoral politics business a dreary, distasteful chore that one has to go through in order to get hold of power; that promises and manifestos are vulgar trifles when what really matters is his freedom to exercise his own thoroughly sound judgement.

Out of the danger zone, into the...

If I were David Cameron, I’d be careful about saying that Britain was “out of the danger zone”. It suggests that “Labour’s debt crisis” has now been averted, which rather implies that large, rapid spending cuts are now simply a matter of choice. The popularity of these cuts depends in part on maintaining an air of crisis.

What’s more, if Cameron and Osborne have taken us “out of the danger zone”, then any future economic difficulties would be an entirely new danger zone that they’d have taken us into.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Some employers are more unequal than others

As John Rentoul and Sunder Katwala note, we’re inundated with party leaders who emote about the gap between rich and poor while having little to say about policies to address it.

Here’s a small suggestion: require organisations to publish, as part of their annual accounts, the ratio between the highest- and lowest-paid of their workforce.

This in itself wouldn’t force any changes in pay, but it would at least give us information about which employers produce the biggest inequalities. What’s more, those that like ‘nudge’ thinking may see this as something that could motivate change, if the media compile league tables and campaigners put moral pressure on employers to narrow their own pay gaps in light of social norms.

Perhaps as a second stage, once we’ve had some data to look at, government could offer tax breaks to those that have lower ratios. But let’s walk before we run.

And the lack of coercion may help such a policy’s political appeal: people may be concerned about massive pay inequalities but that doesn’t necessarily mean they want government-imposed salary caps. This policy would be a clear statement that the gap matters and that a rising tide really should lift all boats without any suggestion that the Chancellor should become every firm’s payroll manager. It’s not against success; it just want to encourage that success to be more widely shared. (If you like the kind of soundbites that only think-tank wonks can digest, you could call it ‘progressive aspirationalism’.)

It would also demonstrate that the biggest pay gaps by far are in the private and not the public sector.

There are plenty of practical questions about this policy, some of which have clearer answers than others. For instance:

Should all employers have to do it? I think smaller ones should be exempt from having to jump through the hoops. Individually, they have little social impact; collectively, there are so many of them that we’d be snowed under with numbers; and smaller organisations tend to have smaller gaps between top and bottom pay anyway.

Should bonuses be included? Yes, otherwise it’d be a way to play the system. Should benefits in kind be included? Likewise, yes.

Should the pay of external contractors be included? Yes, as many larger organisations outsource lower-paid functions like catering, cleaning and security, which artificially reduces their own direct payroll ratios.

How should we treat part-timers, people getting overtime pay, and people doing unpaid overtime?

Should we just look at the very best- and very worst-paid individuals or take, say, the top and bottom 5%?

Would it be worth breaking the ratio down into bottom-to-middle and middle-to-top as well?

Just thought I’d throw that out there…