Friday, November 11, 2011

Students Protest: Bourgeoisie Of The World Unite!

A graduate can expect to earn on average £125,000 more in a lifetime than someone without a degree. For a student of medicine that figure is over £400,000. Put another way, a person entering the workforce at 18 can expect to earn 27.4% less for an extra hour worked than a graduate can.

On Wednesday I watched the battalion of 3000 or so student protesters march the Strand, all armed to the teeth with festival wristbands and threatening rhetoric. They were flanked on all sides by police helicopters and cavalry, at whom they threw words of apocalyptic warning rather than the customary glass bottles. Amongst the well-meaning quixotic freshmen and serial ‘anarchists’ (who confusingly seem to want bigger government) I spied members of that most prolific militant special interest group – UKUncut. Fancying themselves as vigilant X-Men of the working class, they are in fact a violently oppressive gang, who gleefully flout democracy in favour of what they feel is right ‘in their hearts’.

The event was organised by the ‘National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts’ (NCAFC) who want (amongst their many impracticable demands) higher education to be free for all. Their contention is that it is a human right and consequently immoral to put a price on such a thing. They say the government has ‘failed on every level to understand the intrinsic value of higher education to society as a whole’ and that any form of market association can only lead to ‘low quality courses at bloated prices’. Within the same paragraph they claim the proposals imply a ‘one size fits all mentality’ but also that they are ‘not uniform across the disciplines'… disproportionately affecting ‘the London School of Economics for example, that consistently produces world class graduates’. How to oppose such wisdom…

Why should something that so clearly provides such enormous individual returns be free? We can agree that higher education is a right. But I’m sure we can also agree that food is a right, yet we see few calls for the abolition of its competitive supply.  We can also agree that there exist wider ‘external’ benefits to society, not taken into account by the individuals educated. But then we’re just arguing about the right numbers, the correct balance between individual and societal contribution, not the principle. Until recently 1/3 of the total cost was borne by the student, the rest by taxpayers. It would be hard to conjure a more regressive policy than the income tax funded ‘free’ university education the NCAFC demand. For a start many more non-graduates than graduates contribute to income tax revenues (presently only around 18% of the population have degrees), and we’ve established you’re more likely to be poor without a degree. Secondly it is ‘horizontally inequitable’: if a graduate earns enough to pay £20,000 more in income tax (than he otherwise would) and £5,000 of that contributes to university costs (so £15,000 go to public services everyone benefits from), a non-graduate also paying £20,000 in tax is paying significantly more for the same public services the graduate enjoys

The impossibly high cost of acquiring the information required to make appropriate health care decisions and the sudden unexpected nature of these needs make it a good candidate for public provision. Equally a child is likely to be ill-equipped with the necessaries to make good education decisions. This is not so with university students.
Provided applicants are fully informed, it IS fair that graduates pay for most of the costs of their education when they end up earning the money to do so. Why should a taxpaying policeman be subject to such exorbitance for our extraordinary privilege?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Victims of Virtue: another take on the 2011 Riots

‘A life without adventure is likely to be unsatisfying, but a life in which adventure is allowed to take whatever form it will is sure to be short.’

Reading Christopher Hitchens’ analysis of the 2011 Riots brought to mind the work of another fine wise man: Bertrand Russell; to whom the quotation above is attributable. I shall attempt to nudge the baton between the two.

Amidst the hysteria on all sides, the Hitch’s article is uncharacteristically dispassionate. The emergence of gangs is to blame, he says; inner-city brethren of anarchists, whose allegiances lie with the pack and not the state or indeed the other packs. Spurious or otherwise, this naturally poses the question: why are more people joining gangs?

That this is clearly not the first question being asked by MPs is incredible. Infuriatingly the Tory’s have chosen to reinforce and justify accusations of ‘knee-jerk’ and ‘reactionary’ politics by meeting aggression with aggression: ‘make their lives hell’ I believe is the threat. From what I can gather this means bring in the Thought Police and casually tiptoe around any human rights issues. This is half-baked short-termism and a second best solution.

Bertrand Russell gave the inaugural BBC Reith Lecture in 1948, titled ‘Authority and the Individual’ (highly recommended listening). In typically eloquent and amusing style he provides a concise history of human civilization, in which the pendulum has rocked between liberty and control; passion and frugality; autonomy and coercion.

When we traded our prehensile toes for dexterity and wit, we lost the ability to swing from the trees and hang upside-down (what shame), but gained the ability to plan and add up (what joy). We came to appreciate the gains from co-operation within our group and were hostile to those outside it. Competition within and between tribes led to leadership and riches (from land and slavery) respectively.

‘Social cohesion, which started with loyalty to a group reinforced by the fear of enemies, grew by processes partly natural and partly deliberate until it reached the vast conglomerates that we now know as nations.’

Russell emphasises the stresses caused by negating these basic human instincts of competition, and how seemingly virtuous arrangements will lead nature to ‘take her revenge by producing either listlessness or destructiveness, either of which may cause a structure imposed by reason to break down.’

And so it goes. We have breached the upper bounds of the balance between individualism and collectivism, and the vacuum left by competition, in infancy adolescence and adulthood, has been filled with resentment and rage. These feelings have further been exacerbated by envy of those outside and above this virtue-trap. Russell again:
‘There are those who get it – film stars, famous athletes, military commanders, and even some few politicians – but they are a small minority, and the rest are left to day-dreams: day-dreams of the cinema, day-dreams of wild west adventure stories, purely private day-dreams of imaginary power. I am not one of those who think day-dreams wholly evil; they are an essential part of the life of imagination. But when throughout a long life there is no means of relating them to reality they easily become unwholesome and even dangerous to sanity.’

By regression then, we have seen the disenfranchised re-forming ‘tribes’ - returning to the proverbial jungle - in resistance to this ‘listlessness’. The havoc caused by the Third Way is laid before us: an unsustainable burgeoning financial sector built with unnaturally low interest and a mass caught in the net dragged behind – without responsibility or any notion of it. William Beveridge, who devised the cradle to grave welfare system himself rejected the cognomen ‘welfare state’ on the basis that it should never reach this point, but merely serve as a subsistence that no ordinary person would be content with. 

It is inconsistent to blame all inequitable outcomes on the ‘deliberate’ policies of Margret Thatcher, whilst pointing out that the subsequent interventionist attempts of New Labour served only to stretch the gap between the richest and poorest (as John Pilger does in a daft, if brilliantly written piece here). And equally fallacious are the bleating calls to draw an indignant parallel between the looters and expense scandeleers, as if to exonerate the former by an inconsistency that simply does not exist: the guilty are punished in both cases.

The first-best solution is the one that tackles the cause. Finally, more delightful wisdom from Berty:

‘IF the unification of mankind is ever to be realized, it will be necessary to find ways of circumventing our largely unconscious primitive ferocity, partly by establishing a reign of law, and partly by finding innocent outlets for our competitive instincts.’

For a somewhat different take on things click here.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


Of the torrents of infuriating arguments I’ve been wading through (during the hours at work when they disable facebook and youtube), I’d say on balance the No to AV ones are the worst. Perhaps this is because I’ve tentatively pitched myself in their camp.

A little over a week ago Rob '' Powell, Comrade Joe and I dug in at the JS (Rob was allowed in there then), all armed to the teeth with pretentious rhetoric and ready for another exhaustive and inevitably inconclusive debate. So when Rob launched into his yes to AV campaign, and the Comrade into an enthusiastic retort, I silently panicked, beset by ignorance and contemplating launching iPhone Wikipedia..

Soon as I’d stumbled back I rushed online to the No to AV website (since opposing Rob ''’s view tends to be my disposition, and is much more fun than supporting it). At the top of their sparse list of reasons to oppose is ‘It’ll cost lots’. Really? Lots and lots? Lots every election or once off? What is the price of getting the right people in anyway? Irrelevant. ‘It’s complex which is why it’s only used Fiji, Australia and Papua New Guinea’…’and unlike Papua New Guineans, we aren’t able to understand complex voting systems’.
‘It’ll mean some people get more votes’ is another one flying about the comment pages. Literally bollocks.

For those without as much time on their hands as I, with AV you rank constituency candidates in preference order (as few or as many as you like). When the votes are in if no one has 50% or more first choice votes the party with the fewest votes is eliminated. The second prefs of those who had them as their first are then used in a recount. They aren’t getting more votes, the system simply assumes that if you voted for Comrade Joe Bloggs the first time round and he’s still in the race, you’ll wanna vote for him again. And this is where I take issue.

The problem with AV, as I see it, is about incentives. Incentives on the part of the voter and incentives on the part of the politician. For the purposes of amusement we’ll call these two characters Rob ‘’ Powell and Comrade Joe respectively. Comrade Joe is your hard-line comme, on a ruthless mission for utopia, with a flagrant disregard for facts and practicalities. Rob ‘’ Powell is a right-wing journalist who, when not providing financial advice to misers, parades about London with the pro-fascist organisation ‘Hate not Hope’.

In Comrade Joe’s constituency, his Communist Party has consistently come second in elections, losing to the Conservative Party. Rob ‘ Powell (henceforth to be called Rob ‘ supports the marginal and extremist National Socialist party.

Under First Past the Post (what we have now) the Conservatives, Communists and National Socialists tend to receive 40%, 35% and 25% of the votes respectively. Each party bids for the single vote of each person. Each person votes for one party, presumably based on a policy affiliation of some kind.

An alternative voting system tangles with this clear transaction. There is an additional bidding game for the second, third etc. preferences of voters, and voters distribute multiple votes with a single objective.
Where previously Comrade Joe has fought with eloquence and oratory to sell his utopian dream to the Thatcherites, he now has an incentive to glean second preference votes from the National Socialists (Conservative voters have no incentive for a second preference at all), perhaps appealing to socialist bit. 
Where previously elections were won or lost on the votes of those in marginal constituencies, with successful candidates selling promises to key swing voters, (on which they can be held to account) now there is a bidding game for the alternative preferences of those at the fringes of politics (and sanity).

On the other side there is also a perverse incentive for Rob ‘’, and indeed anyone of the 60% not voting for the most popular party. With AV there is no incentive for Rob ‘’ to list in his alternative preferences the most popular party because his first choice will definitely not win. They and the Comme’s are better off colluding in second preference to dislodge the Tories. When AV is triggered in the above example the second preferences of the National Socialists fall on the Communists and the Communists win with 60% of the vote. The party that most people want in definitely doesn’t get in. The second preference votes of the extremists are not only outcome determining, but they’re given equal weighting to the first preference of the sane.

Furthermore I’d question, in fact outright oppose the logic of letting us all vote on such a thing. It’s an ironically good example of the problem with hung parliaments – a miserable little compromise used by the Tory’s to pay (politically speaking) for the policies they care about. It’s not that the system itself is complex but it’s consequences. Vote no.