Friday, October 22, 2010

The management of a household

Tories seem particularly keen on making comparisons between the economy as a whole and how a family might run their household - hence Thatcher's remark about how the British economy couldn't survive by 'taking each other's washing in', or Cameron's criticism that the previous Labour administration should have 'fixed the roof while the sun was shining', or more general stuff about 'belt-tightening' and most recently Gideon's remark about how this present administration would live within its means.

Now, every economist - or even anyone interested in economics - would immediately recognise the fallacy of composition that is being made here - the understanding of which lay behind the paradox of thrift, an idea popularised, but not invented, by Keynes.

But the word 'economy' has in its Greek roots the idea of the management of a household, after all - and it occurred to me that perhaps Labour needs to find some homey analogies of its own. Here the present make-up of this government could serve as a guide. On this, Johann Hari is in good form:
"It can't be coincidental that this is being done to us by three men – Cameron, Osborne, and Nick Clegg – who have never worried about a bill in their lives. On a basic level, they do not understand the effects of these decisions on real people."
I don't think it can be a coincidence either. Only people completely removed from the reality of life as it is lived by ordinary people could possibly imagine that borrowing per se is indicative of irresponsibility.

Here's an example from my own experience, which I'm frankly embarrassed about and wouldn't normally share with you, but it rather illustrates the point. I found myself a bit short recently so I had to borrow some money to put petrol in my car so I could go to work. It seemed a prudent thing to do since it has maximised my income in the long-run.

What would Gideon and the rest of these rich fuckers have me do instead? 'Living within my means' here would have involved not going to work, sitting in the house with no heating on and foregoing the income I have now earned. I understand Alan Johnson also has experience of how the shoe pinches - so perhaps he would do better to work some of this into his rhetoric, rather than stuff about 'ideological cuts', which while true doesn't necessarily resonate with people who were skint before these cuts.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The CSR: prophesy more quietly, please.

I'm thinking outside the box here but what we really need is some new cliches. Or rather, we should dispense with them altogether because, drawing as they do from the past, the use of cliches have a tendency to fall into the trap of hyperbole. Like, for example, the tiresome way in which any public misdemeanour by politicians today comes reported with the suffix 'gate' - regardless of how trivial. ('Bigot-gate', indeed!)

I'm concerned that too many of us who are opponents of the Conservatives will fall into something like this trap when responding to this 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review. Where were you when the Osbourne Axe fell? asks Paul Sagar, with the suggestion that this spending review will, like 9/11, come to be seen as an epoch-changing event.

I think this is unlikely in the extreme. Budgets, never mind spending reviews, are rarely events of great political theatre. The so-called People's Budget was, but that was the precursor to a constitutional crisis. And even with this - did anyone remember where they were that day? This is a process with uncertain outcomes and while I share the view that they are unlikely to be good, it is unwise to hold hostages to fortune by being so emphatic about it - especially in language that evokes the ghost of Geddes. Whatever British society and economy looks like in the next five or ten years, it is not going to be a duplicate of the interwar period.

And if resting a political programme on a prediction about the shape of the British economy is unwise, how much more so is one based on assumptions about what people's reactions are going to be? Political Betting ask, will Johnson's 'ideological charge stick'? I wouldn't have thought so. A majority of people seem to have been convinced that the cuts are being made out of necessity and are therefore only likely to be influenced by how poor they feel as a result of them rather than what motivated them. Now, Polly Toynbee is already convinced that the "comfortable 70%" will care when the cuts bite. "You bet they will". No, you bet if you want to; I'm not gonna because here's a paradox: the extent to which this will be true depends on how evenly public spending reductions are felt - but from what we can gather so far, what the same critics insist on, is that they are not going to be spread evenly.

Mass public disquiet tends to be prompted by issues that effect almost everyone and here I'm concerned that this government's opponents haven't spotted how they've tried to avoid this. Services that most people use, like health and education, have come off relatively lightly. The rest are targeted, as far as we can tell, on groups whose disadvantage is unlikely to produce mass rebellion. Most people don't live in 'social housing'; people aren't going to riot because higher earners aren't getting child benefit anymore; and the influence that mass unemployment, and the poor treatment of said unemployed, has on political opinion is often exaggerated by people with hazy memories. The Thatcher regime survived years of mass unemployment with contemptuous ease; the poll tax, which affected everyone, was another matter.

In short, even if the most dire predictions of this government's fiscal strategy are vindicated by events, it is the fact that we are not 'all in this together' that should cause us to eschew the perils of making political prophecy.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Bloggers' bad manners and other myths

Here's one or two critical comments in response to Andrew Marr's denigrating generalisations about bloggers and blogging.

But the question I was left with was not why does Marr think it's such a bad thing to be single, as Chris Dillow asks - but why does he seem to think bloggers represent a distinct sociological type at all? For he doesn't provide much in the way of evidence, if you think about it. Bloggers have pimples, stay with their mothers and they're bald? You were left wondering if he's met any at all. For where would he meet them? The socially-inadequate by definition tend not to attend social functions.

I suppose it depends what blogs you read but there doesn't seem to be any particular type to me. Academics and students are pretty well-presented - as are journalists, let's not forget. And then there's political activists and a few MPs. The sort of people who are interested in politics, in other words. I'd have to add that while I haven't met many bloggers and would have no way of knowing whether the ones I have are at all representative, none of them have been particularly young and all of them, without exception, have been a damn sight better-looking than Andrew Marr.

I'm trying to get at the notion that bloggers are a different species and I think something that illustrates the point I'm reaching for is this issue about manners and the tone in which conversation is conducted online. Marr says:
" Most of the blogging is too angry and too abusive. It is vituperative.

"Terrible things are said on line because they are anonymous. People say things on line that they wouldn't dream of saying in person."
Sure but so what? This isn't evidence that bloggers are either psychologically or sociologically different from anyone else. I'm afraid this is how people behave when they feel insulated - just like they do when they're in their cars. Two people get in each other's way in the street and they're the model of politeness - but in a traffic jam? How much more when people feel even more insulated and are talking about those things - politics and religion - that are most likely to stir strong emotion?

Andrew Marr: If I was meeting him in person, I would be the epitome of charm. But since I'm sitting in my flat in Glasgow, instead I'll say, "Hey fuck-face, where do you get off making remarks about the appearance of people you've never met? Do you actually own a mirror? If you do, I'd be surprised - it certainly makes your comments about baldness rather difficult to explain."

Saturday, October 09, 2010

John Lennon

I'm not the world's greatest Beatles fan but there were pretty damn good - before they degenerated into St Pepper self-indulgence, that is. Unquestionably the whole was greater than the sum of the parts because these taken individually were fairly dreadful - and none more so than John Lennon, who would have been seventy today, had he not got himself shot.

I wish he had lived because without his untimely passing, his woeful solo output would have disappeared into the obscurity it so richly deserves. All of it was utterly dismal but the song that deserves special mention is Imagine.

The melody is moronic, the facile lyrics make you weep for all the wrong reasons - plus it is badly-performed. Also, this great steaming turd of a song was at No. 1 for what seemed like an eternity when he died. All this prompts me to ask the question, hoping against hope that I am not alone: was there ever a more excruciating song in the English language than this appalling dirge?

To Miss With Love x

This was the title of an education blog by Miss Snuffy aka Katharine Birbalsingh, which she has now taken down following her speech to the Conservative Party conference and her subsequent (short-lived) suspension.

Having taken the view that she is, or was, being persecuted for simply telling the truth about the state of our schools - and coming out as a Tory - a number of bloggers have given her their unequivocal support.

Now, what she said about 'dumbing-down' and indiscipline I think most teachers would recognise - and the management of the school behaved in a rather heavy-handed fashion, so I'm happy to add my name in support - but unequivocally?

Mr Chalk writes that, "everything she says is completely true." Hardly the most critical commentary, I think you'll agree. I have to allow that the education system is different in England but leaving aside the general issue of standards and discipline, there was a fair amount of what she said, both in her speech and on her blog, that I simply don't recognise.

This stuff about Marxist/leftist teachers, for example. I have to say I rarely, if ever, meet any. I'll allow for the possibility that English schools may have more of them than Scotland but when one looks at the way things like voting preferences break down across this land, I would suggest that there is at least reason to be sceptical about this. Anyway, it wasn't exactly clear who Ms Birbalsingh thought was the problem - Marxists or liberals?

I can't say I recognised much of this stuff about the reluctance of 'we teachers' to allow kids to know how they compare to others - so 'leaving them in darkness' - either. Again, maybe it's an English thing but when she said this, I thought, "Who's this 'we'? Speak for yourself". Would I really find myself in a minority of one south of the border in thinking this?

But it was the analysis that was so disappointing. What, exactly, is the point of yet another diatribe against failing standards in schools that merely describes the problem without offering either a proper diagnosis or, in as far as you could identify one from what she said, a coherent cure? Here her new choice of friends is truly bizarre.

"League tables have teachers pursuing meaningless targets instead of teaching", said she to the conference of the party that brought in league tables.

So England should get rid of these, I would assume is what she proposes? She didn't actually say but I think she would be unwise to assume that Mr Gove's agreement on this point is guaranteed.

Quotas for exclusions are nonsensical too - so no disagreement there. But beyond this, there wasn't much concrete; just some vague notions about 'unshackling heads' and 'setting schools free'.

Let's back up here a minute. Much has been made by righwing bloggers of the 'Blairite' credentials of this particular headteacher. But unless anyone is seriously suggesting that Tory heads are incapable of behaving in an authoritarian manner, the bleedingly obvious point here is being missed: this was a head behaving in a rather 'unshackled' manner, was it not? Yet Katharine Birbalsingh chooses to throw her lot in with a party that wants to make heads more power...

Here I'd argue the 'faith' nature of the school is not irrelevant. A lot of garbage is written about these. The truth is that they only make a difference at the margin and in my view the number of things they make marginally worse outweighs the number they make marginally better. One of the common features of them that I don't like is that they tend to be more hierarchial with more authoritarian heads who expect more deference from staff. Even within the constraints set by local authorities, some of them already behave like little Caesars. Yet here's Ms Snuffy addressing the party that wants much more of this sort of thing?

I don't understand this. And I don't understand her attitude to unions either. Some commentators have linked to the remarks made by the NUT. Christine Blower, the General Secretary said:
"No teacher will want to damage relationships with the school community within which they work, but as the experts on educational issues teachers must be allowed to speak out about the impact of government policies and give their views on the education system.

"The NUT may not agree with a teacher's views but we will assert their their right to express opinions about the system within which they work."
It is unfortunate that Ms Birbalsingh has taken down her blog because on it you would have learned that while this is all very well and good, it is largely irrelevant as she is not, or at least wasn't*, a member of a trades union - along with comments written in direct response to me that part of the reason for this is she thinks the unions are 'too powerful' and are 'part of the problem'.

Powerful unions? Again, it's one of the many aspects of Ms Snuffy's view of the world I don't recognise. Certainly unions can be fairly conservative and occasionally obscurantist - but most of us don't join them for their views on education, but simply as an insurance policy. Feeling the weight of the bureaucracy coming down on you? This is exactly when they come in pretty damn handy. Thus endeth the lesson.

*Disclaimer: at the time I am referring to, Ms Birbalsingh was by her own account neither a Conservative nor a trades union member. Since one of these has obviously changed, I fully accept the other might no longer be the case either.

Update: This is funny.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Three reasons why books will survive

Norm's concerned that he finds himself unable to enthuse about Kindles:
"Because I not only don't want to have a Kindle. It's more active than that: I want not to have one. The thing is, when I think of my books, or at least those of them that I really care about, and then think of no longer having them but having their contents on a Kindle, I feel bereft. Already. Just imagining that. For each of them, I want the actual book, not just the words the book contains. Is this some kind of magical thinking?"
Nah. It's always the same when some new technology comes out and everyone predicts that the old format will be eliminated as a consequence; it's a failure to recognise that just because something is technologically possible, people will find it desirable. Not just this: exclusively desirable.

But this is not so. What usually happens is that people will continue with the old technology and the new. People have DVD collections and go to the cinema. Video did not kill the radio star. A generation that is accustomed to downloads seem to have taken to vinyl. People shop online but still want to get out and about - and pick their own fruit and veg, thank you very much.

Same with books. They'll survive for at least three reasons:

1) Enough people share Norm's delight at the aesthetics of a book - the touch and feel of it, the smell of it. The look of it when you have mixed it with your labour...

2) Practicality. Handy, no doubt, to have a wealth of great novels in one pazzy package but what happens if you drop your Kindle in the bath? Something pretty awful, I'd imagine.

3) Ignorance and relative poverty. I didn't know what a Kindle was so I looked it up. Turns out I can't afford it right now but when I can, and if I do get one, I'll still keep the books for the reasons outlined in 1) and 2).

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Stay-at-home mothers may get more support, says David Cameron

Read that and thought of this:

Apologies for the poor taste. But still - progressive? Was there ever a more elastic term in the modern political lexicon?

Monday, October 04, 2010

Child benefit: the middle classes are revolting

Has George Osbourne made a mistake with his proposal to scrap child benefit for higher earners? One argument has it that by doing this, he hopes to undermine support for the welfare state itself by depriving the relatively wealthy of any stake in it. The counter-argument is that he will succeed only in pissing off the kind of people who would have otherwise been expected to support, or at least go along, with his austerity fetishism.

If Cath Elliot's rant on Liberal Conspiracy is even slightly representative, the latter might seem more likely. Feel the outrage, people:
"George Osborne’s announcement today that from 2013 Child Benefit payments will be axed for any family with a parent earning enough to put them in the 40-50% income tax bracket is neither "fair" nor "right" as some commentators would have us believe: it’s actually an attack on the basic principles of the welfare state, and it’s an attack on women."
Uh huh? Now looky here. As someone who has worked both in welfare rights and in what was then called the Unemployment Benefit Office, I'm easily persuaded that means-testing is often ineffectual because it provides disincentives to work and to save; it requires the employment of people to carry out the means-testing; and the complexity of the administration often means the people entitled to the benefits don't actually get them. Then add to this my instinctive scepticism about anything this government, and in particular this Chancellor, does...

But I'll tell you a really crap argument against this proposal and it is that by introducing a means-test for frankly fairly comfortable people, it somehow represents some historic rupture in the universality of child benefit. There's a simple reason for this: child benefit is counted as income for people on income-based unemployment or in-work benefits. It is already means-tested, in other words. Now, I'll refrain from making mordant comments about not remembering the howls of outrage when this was introduced - partly because it was such a long time ago. But I would have to say that if you think means-testing child benefit is outrageous, you've left it rather late to raise your voice.

Update: Cath disagrees here arguing:
"No it’s not, it’s taken into account when other payments are means tested, but the amount of child benefit itself remains unchanged."
By this logic, Osbourne should have announced not the withdrawal of child benefit for high earners but the introduction of a new tax of exactly £20.30 a week for high earners with a child. This would be ok because what seems to matter is not the actual level of income received but what you call it.

Stop the Cuts Coalition?

Tim Gee suggests a few answers to his own question as to what the 'anti-cuts movement' could learn from the anti-war movement over at Liberal Conspiracy.

My own view would be that while there is technically enough space here, a comprehensive response to this would be too demanding of most people's attention. It's a terrible comparison in so many ways but I've been thinking about this quite a lot and since he mentioned it, I've got a couple of suggestions of my own:

1) Cutting spending is not the same as reducing the deficit. It's a fairly obvious point but it isn't being made clearly enough. This government hopes that the former will lead to the latter but neither they nor their supporters should be talking as if they were identical. There is good reason to think that fiscal retrenchment on the scale proposed by the British government will not have the effect they are assuming for reasons that have been well-rehearsed in various places but it is important to be circumspect here, which leads me to another suggestion...

2) No matter how likely a vindication of it might seem at the moment, opposition to the government's economic policy should not be based on a prediction. It's not just a question of allowing for the possibility that it might be wrong; I'm concerned that people aren't thinking about how difficult it will be to show it is right. Consider Ed Balls' 'like a hurricane' analysis, for example. His broad analysis, even if it turns out to be largely correct, won't seen to be so if the failure of this government's policy falls anything short of catastrophe.

It would be sensible to be more measured, which is one of the many reasons why the comparison with the antiwar protest movement is such a bad one. There was - for me, anyway - so much to disagree with the Stop the War Coalition on, but at least their basic position was straightforward: the alternative to war was not to go to war. But can it really be said that the alternative to the coalition's cuts is no cuts at all?

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