Planet Littlewood

June 24, 2013

Mark Littlewood recently called for the names of benefit recipients to be made publicly available. Let’s imagine what that kind of world would be like.

There was a sign on his window again. Every morning when he opened his curtains, it would always be there, blocking out the light. He ripped it down every night, but it was always put back up. Even worse, it’d started changing every day. Originally the sign was just £2,953.60, but now it’d started rising by £8.11, every day. He considered just leaving it up this time, but Kev felt very strongly that this would be letting the bastards win.

It was his neighbor. He’d caught him at it a few times, coming back in from another fruitless job hunt, finding John slapping paste onto the glass and placing the various sheets of paper along a carefully measured line. His balding head bent over in intense concentration, John actually brought a level along with him to ensure that the sign was perfectly aligned. Such fastidious attention to detail doubtless explained why John had been able to keep his database job when the call centre downsized.

Every confrontation went the same way. Kev would yell out, and John would turn around with a vicious grin on his face. He’d then turn back to his task, aware than Kev could do nothing at all. Kev didn’t own his house, and his landlord was perfectly happy for scroungers like Kev to have their shame displayed on his property, even though he’d made his fortune on the back of the diminishing pool of Government housing benefit. When Kev had first complained, the landlord had laughed him out of his office and added John as a Facebook friend.

It had been so different, only two years ago. John and Kev had been colleagues, although never friends. Then the banks had gone down again. Prime Minister Littlewood, as he now was, had told the public that the problem wasn’t the banks, it was the Bank, and had come to power on the back of a promise to scrap the Bank of England and prevent credit bubbles ever happening again. Now there was no interest rate, only multiple competing interest rates, but somehow things hadn’t picked up. The papers were saying that this was all a necessary market correction and there was nothing the Government could or indeed should do.

But this correction seemed to be taking a very long time. People were getting angry, and so the Government had created The Register. It was a big online database containing the name and address of every benefit claimant in the UK, along with the amount they were claiming. Initially it had been an identity fraudsters’ paradise, with hundreds of thousands of people finding they’d lost their benefits to a range of criminal gangs. The Government claimed they’d sorted all this out, but Kev kept hearing stories about old ladies found dead in their flats because their pensions had stopped and they didn’t know how to look for help.

The call centre Kev and John worked in had let hundreds of its staff go. Lots of new centres were opening in Uganda, apparently, as part of this African Boom. Kev was happy for them, but there seemed to be a great deal less work around here, and every job he went for he seemed to be competing against people with far higher qualifications than him. Shortly after he left, John had started pasting signs on his window.

He should leave, he supposed, and look for work elsewhere. He really wanted to – the day after The Register was extended to people who used the NHS John had put a sign on his window saying ‘Treatment for herpes – £30′ because Kev had gone to the doctor to get cream for a coldsore. But if he left he’d count as Voluntarily Homeless and under the very strict new restrictions on benefits he wouldn’t be able to get a place to live anywhere else without already having a job. His benefits just covered the cost of living, and certainly didn’t extend to the train or bus ticket he’d need to attend interviews. He felt trapped.

Turning away from the window, he switched on the radio and started to make breakfast. The Today programme was playing, and the Prime Minister was on.

“…The Register has been a fantastic success in incentivising people to get into work and letting the public know exactly how their hard-earned money is being spent. That’s why today I’m pleased to announce the logical extension of this programme.

“From today, all benefit claimants, young and old, will be required to wear a yellow armband on which will be written the precise amount they claim from the State every year. When you meet a benefit claimant on the street, you should know exactly who they are so you can tell them what you think. Only through transparency and public information campaigns like this one will everyone be able to take part in monitoring how taxpayers’ money is spent. Remember, cutting spending helps the economy – and that’s what this initiative would help to do.”

Kev swore. Things were about to get a lot worse.

Timmy has put up something very silly about abortion this morning. Here’s my response from the comments:

Of course it’s a fucking feminist issue, Tim. If the Government forced you to have someone clamped to your todger for nine months in order to save their life, you’d be screaming about civil liberties and demanding that someone be strung up. But somehow because it’s about wombs and biology, it’s ‘different’. It’s not. Governments are notoriously not to be trusted when it comes to deciding whether something should be allowed on the basis of ‘biology’. And as long as people like yourself who are otherwise bang-on when it comes to liberty think otherwise, it will remain a feminist issue.

UPDATE: It appears that the post I originally referred to here has been taken down. The Wayback Machine does not have anything on it, regrettably, so you’ll have to rely on my quotes as representative. The author has put up another post about the coverage the original post received from the local media here.

Handily summarised for you in blog post form by an Ipswich councillor. This is not a parody. This is really someone who writes a blog post entitled ‘Why I don’t listen to experts (or facts and figures)’ and means it.

I know what you’re thinking. No-one could possibly be that arrogant as to assume they know absolutely everything. You’d be wrong.

“I have long been a believer that we need only use our gut instinct to make any decision and to form a pretty intelligent opinion. I didn’t need anyone to show me how to look after a baby (surely one of the most difficult jobs in the world and full of danger) and in fact was quite indignant with anyone who tried to show me. […]I have not needed anyone to tell me that global warming is a sham. I knew that years ago. The same as my gut instinct told me that the so called Ice Age, in the 70’s was a load of old rubbish.The same as I knew that this country was in great financial danger, probably just before Vince Cable and I was warning lots of people to cut down their credit card bills. I just sensed it. I also knew Clegg was a salesman (Radio 2 quoted me the day after the so called TV interviews) and I knew that David Davis would be better accepted than Cameron.   I also dreamt that my roof would blow off in a hurricane the night before it actually did in October 1987, In fact my dream was so accurate, my then boyfriend called me a witch.”

Apparently, your ‘gut instinct’ can tell you how to look after a child, assess the state of the global climate, comprehensively assess the state of the economy, fail to predict the next Conservative leader, and predict when your roof will fly off. But it can’t tell you that the so-called ‘TV interviews’ were actually called ‘debates’.

The sheer amount of arrogance lying in the presumption that anyone can know all of things absolutely is astonishing. This is a classic case of confirmation bias, one made all the more amusing by this statement:

“For if you think the world and it’s people is an awful place filled with terrible ‘types’ of communities, then you will find it so, wherever you go. But if like me you believe that everyone is basically good and doing their best in a life that still has a lot of answers to give up, then you will find it so, wherever you go.”

Apparently, confirmation bias is a good thing. Not analysing your own assumptions because they make you happy is a good thing. Anything that makes you unhappy you don’t have to believe, because your gut instinct tells you it’s wrong.

It’s fine to trust your gut instinct, because experts you agree with tell you you can:

“There is a book called Blink written by Malcolm Gladwell that talks about ‘The power of thinking without thinking’ and how we all have this instinct of just ‘knowing’. A recommended read to fully understand where I am going with this. […] Our subconscious literally has millions of pieces of information going into it and so apparently 95% goes into our subconscious leaving the 5% for our conscious to reasonably manage. The information in our subconscious can be tapped into easily if we listen without our ears and look without our eyes. Its all there, everything we need for survival, success and knowledge, and I trust mine 99.99%,”

Let’s be charitable and assume that you can acquire knowledge through photosynthesis. These are the things that would need to be true for the claims above to hold true:

  1. You intuitively know how to be a parent, which is why everyone is great at looking after children and no-one is ever messed up by bad parenting.
  2. It is possible to adequately assess the global climate using observations taken only from Ipswich.
  3. The credit risk associated with several people you know who have credit cards is directly correlated with the state of the global banking system.
  4. You know that opposition politicians sometimes try to put their case across in an underhand way.
  5. You don’t understand why citing someone who lost an election as ‘more approachable’ does not bolster your argument.
  6. It is possible to assess the exact direction and strength of a gust of wind twenty four hours before it happens. Actually, I wish this were true, as it’d be very handy for operating the electricity grid.

But confirmation bias and random selecting of preferred experts in line with your prejudices is one thing. Quite another is rejecting expert advice entirely:

“For every expert that tells you Yin, there will be someone that tells you Yang. For every fact and figure that tells you this is happening, there will be charts that says it isn’t.”

Because there is debate in elite discourse, we should reject it. Because often a matter is not settled, we should reject disputation and scholarship as routes to the truth.

“I have had enough over the years of being told ‘the truth’ by experts only for it to be retracted by differnt experts years later so now I listen to all sides and just use by gut feel to come to a decision without going into the nitty gritty detail, reexamining, looking at all the stats (which are usually lies anyway) I take a big picture view and then act upon it, in all areas of my life.”

Because expert opinion differs, it cannot be relied on. Statistics lie, and the only way of accessing the truth is through one’s own intuition.

No. We should listen to experts precisely because they disagree, because they are engaged in an iterative process of trying to get at the truth. We should listen more to experts who change their view when new evidence comes to light, because fundamentally knowledge is about what is real, rather than what we’d prefer to be real.

It is this: the valuing of a preferred reality, enabled by a media that aims to serve palatable news product and tame ‘experts’ who never deviate from a single ideological position, which is what is wrong with Britain today. We did not become a great country by wallowing in a reality we constructed to please us, and we will not remain a great country if the kind of hopelessly arrogant thinking outlined above is not challenged.

And it’s the job of this man:

In all the debate about what the Tories might offer the Lib Dems to get their precious boundary changes, there’s a fundamental truth that seems to be being avoided. While both Lords Reform and changes to constituency boundaries are ostensibly constitutional issues, they don’t lie at the heart of the reason the Coalition was formed. The real electoral dividends are to be reaped from a strong performance on the economy, and this is why Osborne needs to go.

The deficit reduction strategy formed a key part of the Coalition Agreement, and relied on growth picking up in short order. This has not happened. The ostensibly independent Office for Budgetary Responsibility, which Osborne set up, has managed to get every single one of its growth predictions incorrect. If it were managing a fund based on its predictions, it’d already be out of business. We are now back in recession, and Osborne’s response to this is to attempt to restrain one of the few remaining growth sectors we have in order to take an economy-wide punt on gas prices going down – right when the market expects them to rise. Take a look at the price of gas in Winter 2014-15 on the futures market for an indication of the kind of stories we can expect to see at the beginning of the next General Election campaign.

If we have been part of a Government that has failed to deliver growth and plunged hundreds of thousands of people into fuel poverty, we can expect to be decimated by the electorate, even without changes to constituency boundaries. Therefore, Osborne has to go, to be replaced by one of our own. Hell, even William Hague would be better.

We need a price for carbon. Preventing climate change requires that we find a way of minimising our emissions of carbon dioxide and its equivalents, and by far the best way is by assigning a price to those emissions, providing an incentive to people to innovate their way round the difficult process of decarbonising our economy. However, I’ve always been slightly ambivalent about how we do this. There are, broadly speaking, two options:

  • A market for emissions permits, making the right to pollute a tradeable good. This is exemplified by the EU’s Emissions Trading System. This has the advantage of – if the number of permits are set correctly – setting a price for carbon that genuinely reflects the cost of displacing emissions, as markets are excellent at price discovery.
  • A tax on emissions, providing a flat cost (rising under some models) per tonne of CO2 produced. This has the advantage of being set at an appropriate social cost of carbon, reflecting it as an externality rather than the technical difficulties associated with no longer emitting it.

I have always found it difficult to decide which mechanism I prefer. The first allows us a clear way of reducing emissions to zero, while the second appeals to the classical liberal in me. However, the news today that Poland has been claiming emissions permits for coal plant that doesn’t exist has decided me.

An ETS provides an incentive to ‘invent’ sources of emissions that can accrue free permits if free permits are permitted as a result of political pressure to not over-burden sections of the economy. Conversely, a carbon tax provides an incentive to conceal sources of emissions. However, concealing sources of emissions is difficult for one very clear reason: they continually release big clouds of smoke.

I know I’ve been blathering on about the Adam Smith Institute quite a lot lately (my reasons for doing so aren’t unique, though), but this is particularly egregious:

“Do we need an inquiry on the Libor scandal? No. The boom phase of every boom-bust cycle breeds this sort of excess and dishonesty. It is to be expected. All another banking investigation will conclude is that we need more curbs on the banks. That might cure the symptoms – quite probably by killing the patient – but it will not prevent the disease from coming back.

Instead, we would be much better investigating and curbing the excess and dishonesty of the politicians who created the artificial, unsustainable boom in the first place, and thereby encouraged the banks – and we borrowers too – to make some pretty massive mistakes and do some pretty colourable things.”

Dr Butler, Director of the Institute, is asking us all to ignore the actions taken by bankers over the period during which Barclays, amongst others, were purposely manipulating the LIBOR rate in order to gain pecuniary advantage. Instead, we should blame the politicians who were responsible for the cheap credit that inflated an unsustainable boom. Apparently, bankers are incapable of controlling themselves in the presence of large amounts of money, and so should be left well alone:

“And sure, in the process, a lot of people did a lot of stupid things, and a lot of bad things. It’s pointless, though, for the people who actually hosted the party now to wring their hands, blame the people who got drunk on their easy credit, and say that we need new investigations over what went on, and new restrictions to stop them doing it again. What went on is perfectly obvious. And it was encouraged by government-created disincentives and excess.”

What Dr Butler is saying is that if you host a party and provide alcohol, you’re to blame if people get drunk and vomit all over the upholstery. This provides an interesting, but I’m sure inadvertent, insight into Dr Butler’s social life: at parties hosted by the Adam Smith Institute, the host always pays to clean up when people get too tipsy for their own good.

I regret to say, at my parties people who act like twats get kicked out (although in one notable instance, they did try to kick down the door afterwards). Perhaps I’m insufficiently libertine for the ASI, but I think the problem lies in an interesting inversion of standard left-wing tropes about the poor.

During the London riots, the instinctive response of many Guardian-reading types was to point to the social conditions of the rioters as an explanation for their actions. They were always very careful to say that these conditions did not excuse the riots, but they were something we should bear in mind when considering our policy response. This is in much the same vein as Dr Butler’s plea that the venality of the bankers involved in manipulating LIBOR should be understood in the political context of the times.

Both parties are making the claim that the structure of incentives surrounding the actions of their preferred social group at a given point go at least part-way to, if not justifying, then explaining their actions, and demanding that Government action bear this explanation in mind. Both parties are making the fundamentally patronising and dehumanising claim that their preferred group is incapable of making moral judgements because of a nice big fat pile of cash or a lovely pair of trainers. Both parties are guilty of spouting bollocks.

No-one can claim that someone else is incapable of making moral judgements, because no-one gets exclusive access to morality. Making such a claim is tantamount to saying that only your moral vision is true and pure, and that the vision of other people is in some way fogged by returns on interest-rate derivatives or a flat-screen telly.

In this case, Dr Butler is doing precisely that. Moreover, he is doing so in a way which ignores the facts of the case, and the sheer spivvery of the people involved. The role of Government and the Bank of England in setting LIBOR is tangential – the short-term interest rates which are in the BoE’s gift do have an impact upon on it, but the strongest influence rests with the group of banks whose estimates for the rates other banks will charge them for money go into deriving it. Blaming Government for this is rather like blaming the party host for the people who make ‘cocktails’ using every available kind of alcohol, and are surprised when they’re violently ill. The best way of dealing with such people, of course, is to not invite them back to the party.

Global Warming is Bad News

February 17, 2011

I’m surprised that I even need to say this, but global warming is a bad thing that we don’t want to happen. This simple message appears to have been lost as a consequence of the rise of climate scepticism. And so, when we get further confirmation that a bad thing looks almost certain to happen, our response shouldn’t be to be ever so slightly smug that it looks like we were right about the bad thing happening. It certainly shouldn’t be:

“…we can say, with an even higher degree of confidence than before, that climate change makes extreme events more likely to happen.”

It should be:

“…we can say, with an even higher degree of despair than before, that climate change makes extreme events more likely to happen.”

I understand the need to raise revenue, I really do. I understand that Osborne thinks a VAT rise is less damaging than an income tax rise. What I don’t understand is why he”d implement a policy that he knows will lower retail sales when retail sales are already decreasing. An export and manufacturing-led recovery can only go so far, especially when you’re simultaneously cutting support for, say, the marine energy industry. I don’t understand why Cameron, with his project of detoxifying the Tory brand proving really rather tricky, allowed Osborne to go for a policy that smacks of Thatcher. Sorry, that should be ‘smacks people about like Thatcher’.

It’s possible that this in fact a canny strategic move, preventing Labour from arguing about the balance of taxation and spending cuts that comprise our deficit reduction strategy. Indeed, after Milliband’s complaints today, it will prove difficult for him to argue that taxes should be raised in place of other cuts. However, I’m more inclined to chalk this one up to yet another instance of over-hasty decision-making.

If Osborne really must tax something, how about land values? Assuming we simultaneously reform planning, of course.

The Balance of Rage

November 22, 2010

Since the election, two interrelated phenomena have been simultaneously rising and falling. They’re two sides of the same coin, if it were possible to forge a coin out of undistilled rage and loathing. They’re the relative levels of anger on both the left and the right at the course the country is taking.

The anger of the Right appears to be abating. This was noted by the Guardian, who cleverly spotted that the anger of Mr Eugenides had come to a halt, amongst similar outbreaks of calm by other libertarian and/or right-wing bloggers. Even the original swearblogger, the Devil himself, has shut up shop, at least temporarily.

Guido, of course, endures, in much the same way that the Sun and the Mirror are now features of our national landscape. But Guido has always been less political than the adult version of the irksome pupil who runs to tell teacher that the big boys are smoking behind the bicycle sheds.

At the same time as the rage of the Right subsides, that of the Left is on the rise. Not necessarily in the terribly formal collective left-wing blogs, of course, but rather in comments on CiF and in a thousand and one personal blogs across the internet. CiF’s comments are an interesting case; there, the difference was clear almost immediately after the election. To take a random example, look at the comments on these two Jackie Ashley articles, and compare the relative rage. For me, I normally interpret the relative anger of the person writing the post by the level of hyperbole they choose to incorporate within it. This is a strong indication that the person felt so strongly about the subject that they felt no desire to check their facts, and that their urge to say something outweighed their concern for how they would look saying it.

That charge could be levelled at the old libertarian blogosphere, which often appeared more concerned with being angry over dreadful lefties infringing their property rights than anything approaching reality. Similarly, the Left now appears enraged by the Right’s besmirching of their moral code too, resulting in some ridiculous paranoia (witness the comments thread on this post on this blog in which the lefty claims that the Coalition will dismantle the welfare state. Really. I stopped responding after that).

We can therefore witness an interesting seesaw of rage that determines the scope and the borderlines of British political discourse. This rage typically has a strong moral quality; the enraged typically accuse their opponents of being immoral, giving that as just cause for their anger. It is very clearly directed at what is perceived as the transgressions of the governing party (or parties), which is interesting in itself – in a democracy, the source of power is the electorate – i.e. other people. But you’ll very rarely hear anyone actually attack the majority of the electorate if they’re on the losing side – rather, they’ll go straight for their representatives.

This implies that the angry don’t want to believe that the majority could possibly disagree with them, and instead focus their anger on politicians instead. Given that our two main political parties have traditionally focused on economic identity as constitutive of their core vote, research which indicates that people tend to see themselves as economically average would point to this being a question of cognitive dissonance. If people believe themselves to be an average earner – i.e. representative of the majority of the population – information that indicates otherwise would dispute this interpretation. It’s difficult to imagine a more brutal example of why you’re not average if the party that represents your economic interest group is voted down.

Poor people will blame the Tories for cuts to benefits, rather than the middle-class people who voted for them. It’s almost as though voting is taken as a somehow morally blameless exercise in which you’re not accountable for your choices – only the people who you voted in are. This is completely irrational, and can only be explained if there’s a strong irrational driver pushing the other way. The above self-perception phenomenon would appear to cover that.

I therefore make the claim that our political discourse is driven in part by this irrational reaction to majoritarianism. People feel angry as a result of the cognitive dissonance that arises from believing themselves to be average while in an economic minority. They therefore seek out reasons why they’re right and their opponents wrong, to aid in restructuring the world in such a way as to make it clear that their worldview is correct. They then promote those reasons as the truth, to avoid dealing with reality. This sort of post-hoc justification is familiar to anyone who’s ever encountered NIMBYs, creationists, climate sceptics/hawks, old-style communists, religious literalists, libertarians, racists – indeed, practically any form of belief. The only check against it is what one could call intellectual integrity, or constantly re-examining one’s beliefs in the light of new evidence. In this sense, the post-hoccers provide a useful function: they are the ones who feverishly uncover new facts to suit their agenda, and while those facts may or may not be accurate they must be engaged with every single time to ensure that one’s own ideas are correct.

Engagement in this sense is engagement in good faith; not pre-judging the outcome of any given argument. I have frequently found that post-hoccers do come up with facts that challenge one’s beliefs – for example, I have accepted that wind turbines do have an impact on bats (although not birds) as a consequence of skirmishes with NIMBYs. Rage, therefore, while describing the outer edges of our discourse nonetheless has a crucial role in holding power to account.

…for property, that is, and it’s one that’s illustrated by his 10-minute rule bill that’s he’s speaking to as I write this. The idea is that the law should be changed to prevent banks from lending out any money you deposit with them without your consent, as legally when you deposit any funds they become the bank’s money. This means that banks can lend out your money even if they don’t have enough money to pay you back. Under Carswell’s scheme, this would be changed to banks being required to ask you if they could lend out your money, and otherwise merely holding on deposit until you collect it.

This notion is called ‘honest money’ and is derived from the work of the Cobden Centre, a libertarian think-tank. And it stands in astonishing contradiction to the rest of libertarian thought; which revolves around the idea that the private sector always knows best and that Government should stay out the interests of private concerns as much as possible. This is a clear state intervention in the banking market, ostensibly on the side of the little guy who’s being taken advantage of by these terrible, terrible banks.

The problem is that banks are a business. They do what they do for profit. Under Carswell’s scheme, say you’re on Jobseeker’s Allowance and are receiving £60 per week. Thanks to the largely free banking system we have in this country, you could immediately deposit that in a bank without incurring any cost. However, under Carswell’s scheme, the bank would incur a cost for taking your money (staff time, processing etc.) but be unable to make a profit on it unless you consented to allow them to lend it out. Why on earth, in that case, would the bank want to handle your money? They’d either charge you a handling fee or simply refuse to take deposits from those who want to retain full rights over their money. In practice, therefore, the £60 would become perhaps £58 per week, unless you gave up your property rights in a way which seems anathema to Carswell.

The upshot is that the little guy would be in the same situation as he is now, as the least well-off can’t afford a handling fee for the use of banks. They’d either be excluded from the financial system altogether or give up their rights. This is a logical consequence of banks being profit-making entities.

This bill seems to be the result of the fetishisation of property rights – the near-worship of property itself – to the point where they overwhelm the interests of the least well-off. But as I’ve said before, that’s what libertarianism is all about.