A senior Tory has allegedly stated a belief commonly held amongst central party managers everywhere: that their activists are ‘swivel-eyed loons’.  ‘Loon’, of course, is ultimate derived from ‘lunar’; the traditional belief that madness was more common during full moons. If we assume that voting Conservative is a form of madness, we can check whether a full moon does in fact impact upon the Tory vote by cross-referencing it with daily polls:

Loony ToriesSource: Polling undertaken on the UTC date of a full moon since beginning of 2012 when YouGov started recording UKIP separately.

There is a small but noticeable impact on both the Conservative and UKIP voting intention, with the former impact significant at the 5% level*. This is the inverse of what people who would also be happy to dub UKIP nutters would expect, and presents a danger for Mr Cameron. The first Thursday in May 2015 is the day after a full moon. The motion of our nearest celestial partner may yet cost the Conservatives the next election.

*This relationship attenuates as the data set grows, precisely as a non-crazy person would expect. From 2010 to the present day it’s practically insignificant. One could attribute the short-term effect to science being right or Nigel Farage being a werewolf.

I’m a man. I’m in crisis. At least, this is the contention of Diane Abbott and Laurie Penny, who claim I’m currently being oppressed by outdated gender stereotypes about my role in society, and that I feel under constant pressure to get out there and win some bread.

Obviously, they’re not referring to me personally, but to men in the abstract. This Abstracted Man doesn’t understand his place in the world now that women are in the workplace, because he’s been told that he’s got to get out there and earn money for his family while the little woman stays at home looking after the kids.

Who is it who’s saying this? Laurie Penny claims it’s a conglomerate of evil Tories and enigmatic Forces of Conservatism who push the idea that a woman’s place is in the home. Unfortunately for this argument, the forces of Conservatism are exceptionally bad at their job:

Percent Ag

Source: European Values Survey, GB Data

People think that women working doesn’t harm children and that both men and women should win bread. More significantly for the argument to hand, they see both men and women having the same responsibilities for homelife:

men should

Source: EVS Data. This question was only asked in the 08-10 wave.

But regardless. We men are suffering from these social changes, which is why we’re killing ourselves in greater numbers than ever before:

UK Suicide Rate


Source: Samaritans

Clearly more men kill themselves than women. It is absolutely true that the suicide rate amongst males rose between 2011 and 2010. It’s also true that it rose amongst women as well. What’s not true is that we have a sudden onset crisis of masculinity that is just begging to be solved; men and women clearly kill themselves at different rates, and may always have done so.

What is a problem is the fact that gender roles continue to be reinforced. Take this example, from someone talking about encouraging employment amongst young men:

The decline of heavy industry and manufacturing jobs has left a lot of men in a position where they don’t feel the jobs on offer – particularly service jobs – are ones they feel comfortable with.[…] We need more advanced, rigorous vocational courses and a new focus on technical learning and skills”

Apparently men are only men if they bang bits of steel together. I’ve spent my entire life being told that men will lose out in the ‘new’ workplaces because we don’t have ‘soft skills’. Unaccountably this hasn’t happened; by and large, men still run the world. However, working class men – to whom the author of the quote was apparently referring – aren’t given the sort of ‘soft’ skills that the men who went to private school and now run the country were given. This is because people like the person who wrote the above, which was taken from Diane Abbott’s speech, keep reinforcing gender roles which require working class men to feel bad about taking service sector jobs. I can guarantee you that middle class men never have this problem.

An extremely limited understanding of the roles that men play in society – which for Diane Abbott is apparently either gang members in Hackney or traders in the City, with nary a fella in between – should disqualify you from pretending to say anything useful about issues relating to men. There are specific issues for working class men which are related to the impact of globalisation & immigration on unskilled labour, but those issues also apply to women with the same skill sets. If demand is increasing for employees in the service sector (which is a big ‘if’) our politicians need to stop banging on about how apprenticeships and big factories are what we need for our young men, and start saying that there’s nothing wrong with men being secretaries. If they don’t, we’re going to continue seeing people with limited viewpoints banging on about a crisis of masculinity year after year.

It is no coincidence that UKIP’s rise is in line with popular concern about immigration. Or is it? It’s true that Britain hasn’t been quite this concerned with immigration since 2011, and everyone remembers those days two years ago when Farage’s face beamed from every channel twenty four hours of the day. We’ve taken as read that their rise means the British public is positively infuriated with the thought of dirty foreigners coming over here and ruining everything with their ethics of work. It’s possible that we might be wrong.

ImmigSource: Ipsos MORI

Concern about immigration is not bound up with concern about unemployment or indeed the economy. In fact, when times are bad and people are worried about jobs, they’re less likely to be worried about immigration. This is completely counterintuitive to anyone raised on a diet of history lessons in which the Nazis exploited fears about the economy to scapegoat the Jews. However, it would appear that we’ve drawn the wrong lesson from history.

Opposition to immigration, along with gay marriage, the EU and other things that UKIP is on record as not liking, is not driven by economic circumstances. Rather, it appears to be cultural: opposing all of those things appears to be what you do in order to signify your membership of the Fuddy Duddy Tribe. Like all cultural issues, it’s something people only have time for when they’re not worried about where the next meal is coming from. This leads us to an interesting quandary for the Conservative Party: the rise of UKIP is as a result of the Coalition’s stewardship of the economy no longer being quite so dreadful. This has given their former voters the freedom to vote with their ‘resentment of change’ hat on, rather than their ‘must be sensible’ hat. If we were back in recession, UKIP wouldn’t be doing so well.

Over on City AM, Eamonn Butler, the Director of the Adam Smith Institute, has written an article about what he calls the ‘powerful moral arguments’ against taxation. It’s fairly standard Randian demagoguery about taxation being confiscation through force, the use of force being necessarily evil; clearly, no-one should ever try to section a libertarian even if they’re a danger to themselves.

Butler also argues that people who disagree with what the Government does with their money are being forced to pay for things they don’t agree with. This is absolutely true, and a good thing too: if Government had refused to collect taxes during World War 1 because conscientious objectors didn’t want their taxes to be used to fight the dastardly Hun, we’d be part of the Second Reich. One of the downsides of living in society is that you’re prevented from doing absolutely everything you want, because other people have opinions about how things should be done. Adults realise this and figure out how to work with others to achieve the majority of what they want while comprising where necessary; children join the contemporary Republican Party.

This is because, quite fundamentally, moral claims are not relative when you’re the person making that moral claim. If you think doing a particular thing is good, then you think it’s good regardless of whether someone else thinks it’s bad. If you and that other person have to get along, then you need to find a way of compromising over this. If both of you think your moral claim should be privileged, then you’ll compete to find a way of implementing it. In a democracy, this often takes the form of competing over the right to implement a moral claim as part of law. In this context, the compromise is that you both sign up to a system that adjudicates the competition: democracy.

However, Butler seems to be saying that because all claims are relative to the person making them, allowing one moral claim to win out is bad. This is classic moral relativism, but in itself it involves a moral claim: that any form of non-individual moral adjudication is bad. Luckily, for those of us who disagree with this claim, it’s repeatedly lost out in the competition we run to determine who gets to implement their moral claims. By pushing it in the pages ofCity AM, Butler seems to want to get into this competition.


Butler also goes for the now classic claim that higher taxation means people give less to charity, based on two data points: the US and the UK. This has been repeated so many times it’s almost become a trope, but is it really the case?

Let’s map out this by using the Heritage Institute’s figures for percentage of GDP made up of Government spending in 2012 and the comparative data of the John Hopkins Centre for Civil Society Studies from between 1995-2002. While the distance between these two dates is a factor, comparable data for 1995-2002 is not readily available. The length of time the JHCCSS study covers should provide a useful average that we can extrapolate, however, especially as the relative figures for the US and the UK are broadly in line with the figures that Butler uses.

This is Government spending as a percentage of GDP against share of GDP made up by charitable giving:

It should be immediately obvious that there’s no relation, and indeed the correlation between the two is 0.13, implying if anything a tiny positive effect. However, the relationship between Government spending and volunteering as a percentage of GDP is more interesting:

The correlation is relatively higher at 0.44, implying that people in countries with a higher share of Government spending as a percentage of GDP are more likely to spend more time volunteering. This would imply that voting for a higher tax take by the Government is related in a positive way to people being willing to spend their own time working for society.

On Excessive Executive Pay

January 26, 2012

Vince Cable’s been in the news with his proposals for curbing executive pay. These amount to small increases in transparency and shareholder power, and have been vilified by both left and right, normally a proxy for good Lib Dem policy-making. George Monbiot wants to see a cap on maximum pay, set at a level amusingly below that of his editor. The IEA thinks the Government should stay out of the business of executive pay entirely, and that shareholder interference should be avoided.

The Right argues that high executive pay is the result of a newly globalised market for executives pushing up prices. This appears to be based on the assumption that a global market will be competing for a fixed pool of executives, and the expansion of that pool will therefore increase wages paid. It would also imply that executive pay should be proportional to exposure to foreign markets. Let’s test this. As a proxy for exposure to foreign markets, I will use both inflows and outflows of foreign direct investment, and stats for the US as they’re the easiest to come by:

Sources: Forbes/OECD

That looks like a pretty strong correlation to me. Having a cap on wages would only mean that Britain wouldn’t have access to the international executive market. If there is a limited supply of executive talent globally – and the stats appear to indicate that is the case – it’s worth considering why this should be the case. The strength of the market should incentivise more people to try to enter it. An explanation may be that overseas expansion by multinationals pushes out competition, and this combined with overseas merger & acquisition activity would serve to reduce the pool of individuals with global CEO experience. However, having fewer firms in competition for CEOs should also lower CEO compensation.

It may be that barriers to entry are unnaturally high as a result of corporate directors picking people like themselves, in which case Cable’s reforms should have concentrated less on shareholder representation over executive salaries themselves and more on ensuring that shareholders are represented during the shortlisting process. However, it’s clear that while his reforms are welcome, they don’t get at the root of the problem. High executive pay is a global phenomenon, and has little to do with the UK’s corporate governance.

Death, and its fan club

August 1, 2011

This is Anders Breivik:

He believes that someone – specifically him – has the right to kill other people.

This is Paul Staines:

He believes that someone – specifically, a state-appointed murderer – has the right to kill other people.

Equating people you disagree with to murderous child-killers is a churlish argumentative technique, I would normally aver. Even in this more exceptional case, it still feels somewhat distasteful. The reason I have used it is that Staines’ campaign to re-instate the State’s right to kill child murderers (like Breivik) and cop killers throws the question of what death is – and whether it constitutes a suitable punishment for anything – into harsh relief.

The nature of death is not widely discussed in our society, beyond the witterings of teenage Goths. The rest of this post will therefore most likely resemble bad teenage angst poetry, because it’s very difficult to talk about death without lapsing into cliche.

Death represents the end of consciousness; the end of the means by which we have access to the material world, and the end of any possibility of altering one’s fate. It is the end of all experience. As such, it’s something I’d quite like to avoid if at all possible, being a fan of my continued experiencing of the world. However, inevitably, one day I shall die and my consciousness will end. I will cease to be in a sense which is fundamentally unimaginable; one cannot even conceptualise the absence of imagination, thought or conscious awareness, for they are the means by which anything is conceptualised. It is ultimately unknowable, the boundary of knowledge and the limit of understanding. It’s pretty bad.

What it is not, however, is punishment. Everyone dies, eventually. The death penalty simply means bringing this date forward. Breivik’s victims were not punished by their murder. My grandmother was not punished by dying. Punishment is an adverse outcome for a particular crime or transgression, but death is the end of any possible outcome, the termination of potential adversity. Certainly, death is a bad thing, as we cherish continued existence, but not all bad things are punishments. Being threatened with death, or being on death row, is a punishment, because you’re there to experience you not wanting to die. But as soon as you’re killed that want vanishes and it no longer makes sense to say that you’re being punished. How could you be? You’re dead. I am glad that the Moors murderers have spent decades in confinement, rather than being granted a swift death after they were judged, as that is far more punishing than a simple death could ever be.

Killing is not a punishment. Rather, it is an elimination – a removal of a potential threat to our existence. That is why we mandate the State to kill on our behalf in war. That is why we grant the right to kill in extreme self defence. If we kill child murderers and cop killers, we portray them as threats to our society, to our existence. To do so is a very dangerous thing, because it allows politicians to claim that they are defending our society by killing people who are not genuinely a threat to it (click for big):

Sources: National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund & Death Penalty Information Centre

In the US, executing more people doesn’t reduce the number of cops who are killed – if anything, the correlation works the other way round. All it provides is another tool for politicians to use to satisfy a primal lust for revenge on criminals, rather than a real tool to reduce the number of policemen killed in the line of duty. I don’t need to tell you about the uses to which politicians have put tools of the former sort in the past.

Both Breivik and Staines believe murder a suitable fate for people they despise. These fans of death both seek to open the door to the worst sort of politician. In the end, their endeavours may lead to deaths – albeit, not the ones they hoped for.

The Alternative is Silly

March 28, 2011

Numbers, numbers, numbers. Lots of them were banded about Saturday’s march – 250,000 being the most important one, at least if you agreed with the march’s aims. However, it’s quite clear that those who agreed were united by more than their opposition to cuts – they were united by a peculiar aversion to expressing the alternative in anything but the most vague terms, eschewing numbers – tax hikes, reallocations of funding, timescales for deficit reduction – in favour of saying why their cause was the most important, and clearly deserving of other peoples’ money.

Indeed, the other clear strand of Saturday’s march was its conservatism: a united stand for every marcher’s piece of the status quo; a fiscal NIMBYism. But perhaps I’m being unfair; the main argument of those who venture into the realm of numbers, however incidentally, is that of a form of Keynesianism. Broadly, activity to cut the deficit is counter-productive as it removes demand from the economy, thus reducing one of the factors required for growth. Instead of cutting the deficit, this additional demand should be left in the economy, allowing growth to raise tax receipts to the point where the deficit is eliminated.

Theoretically, this all sounds very good. However, I’ve yet to see anyone actually put numbers to this thesis: how much growth is required over what period of time in order to eliminate the deficit? I’m going to try to put together a very basic model of the economy to try to figure this out, in order to see if this argument works.

Warning: the following should be taken with a pinch of salt, as I am not an economist and liable to get my numbers wrong

Let’s use statistics from 2009, as they’re the most recent for which a complete set is readily available, and they stand outwith any actions taken by the Coalition Government. The UK’s GDP stood at £1,395,872m, our deficit at £86,302m and our debt at £617,100m. Tax receipts were £530,971m, and inflation (CPI) was 2.2%. Total government expenditure stood at £619,307m (including investment and depreciation), of which £31,570m went on interest payments*.

What we’re going to do is plug these top-level figures into a very simple model, to find out what level of growth we’d require to eliminate the deficit without taking any positive action, including tax rises or spending cuts. We’re going to assume that inflation remains constant (and that Government expenditure rises at the same rate), that tax receipts rise at the same rate as GDP, and that the interest payments on our debt will remain at around 5%. It’ll be a question of what level of growth is sufficient over what period of time. These are all enormous assumptions (e.g. inflation in various areas of Government expenditure, like the NHS, is higher than the CPI), as real life bears out, but they are assumptions which are highly favourable to people pushing the ‘alternative’. An assumption that may be open to challenge is my rolling of investment into general Government expenditure; investment may decrease in response to increased growth. Investment at this particular time represented about 5.9% of GDP.

Let’s start with our base case, in which Britain experiences no growth over the next ten years:

As you can see, if everything goes a bit wrong and we don’t have any growth at all, we’ll be well on our way to bankruptcy by 2020. But this is rather negative. What happens if we grow at the entirely respectable rate of 1%?

Not much. A minimal growth rate just slows down our inevitable decline. To actually eliminate the deficit with growth alone, we need to be growing at a rate of at least 4% every year:

All well and good, I hear you say: as long as we grow rapidly enough, we can ignore cutting the deficit. However, there’s a problem, and it comes in the form of this chart:

Growing at 4% for ten years would be historically unprecedented. In order to eliminate the deficit by growth alone, we’d need to enter a boom period almost unheard of in the history of the UK. This seems somewhat unlikely.

However, it’s worse than that. Assuming the worst predictions of those in fear of the bond markets came true, and the interest rates on our debate accelerated to Irish levels of 9%, we would never eliminate the deficit by 2020 even with growth rates of 4%.

Without that level of growth, the deficit would exceed our tax receipts before the end of the decade. Of course, a lot of our debt still has a good while before it needs to be refinanced, but that would merely prolong the inevitable downward spiral.

We need a strategy to tackle the deficit. If you’re a major political party without one – not mentioning any names – you’re de facto signed up the approach above. If you’re protesting the cuts without a clear alternative yourself, you’re guilty of what my Lib Dem colleague Ian Gaskin rightly called ‘a fear of change to an unsustainable status quo’. And you’re doing it unnecessarily – consider a different pace of deficit reduction, or a different mix of tax rises and spending cuts, there’s plenty of options for a preferred strategy. The question is which allows us to repair our economy in the most effective way while minimising the impact on our standard of living. There will be pain – pain for everyone, whatever option we take – but pretending that there’s some way to avoid is tantamount to ignoring reality.

*Do let me know if I’ve made any mistakes; I find economics intriguing but statistical releases very confusing.