What the hell are the Tory Party up to?

The Tories have refused to put a Front Bencher forward to appear on tonight Question time as they were unhappy with the panel offered.

In his speech, The Trouble with Trust, the BBC director-general Mark Thompson called for greater transparency in the BBC’s dealings with political parties:

“There are steps we should take to make our own dealings with politicians and other public figures more open to scrutiny. When A refuses to debate with B or sets other conditions before an interview or debate, there’s often a case for letting the public know – for example, via the Editors’ Blog…”

So here goes. This week, for the first time in my three years as executive editor of Question Time, we were told by Downing Street that a cabinet minister would only appear on the programme if another member of the panel was replaced. According to No 10, a senior member of the cabinet was available to do Question Time but only if Alastair Campbell was replaced by a member of the shadow cabinet.

Can anybody explain this behaviour? Are the Tories attempting to Manipulate the BBC? Are they scared of Alastair Campbell? Are they trying to force the BBC into compromising their impartiality? What the hell are they doing?

It looks like they’re throwing their toys out the pram from here.


RIP Evidence Based Government: 12th May – 27th May 2010

Some of the examples of the last administration’s policy based evidence making are well known, others are less well known but equally damning. Last year The Heresiarch highlighted an article by Nick Davies of Flat Earth News who highlighted the manipulation of figures coming out of the Home Office, bending evidence to agreed upon policies.

First, estimates were made using flawed methodology and unjustified assumptions – often by researchers with a settled view (that all prostitutes are by definition abused victims, for example, or that all foreign sex-workers are by definition “trafficked”). Next, caveats were disregarded and figures rounded up. Then different sets of dodgy statistics were lumped together without regard to accepted scientific practice. “Up to” became “at least” and then “by the most conservative estimate: the actual figure is probably much higher”.

This lower profile abandonment of evidence when formulating policy is every bit as important as the furore which surrounded the sacking of David Nutt. In case you cannot recall, David Nutt was sacked in October last year by Alan Johnson for criticising the Government because of its plans to reinstate cannabis as a class B drug, a position not justified by the evidence.

While there are no reasons that any party should be more ideologically predisposed to evidence based policy making than any of the others, I admit I did not hold much faith in any improvement. The population of the Tory benches with Nadine “smear Tim Ireland” Dorries and the appointment of Philipa “cure the gays” Stroud to the back room of the Department of Work and Pensions left me nonplussed, to say the least. The lamentable loss of Evan Harris from parliament further dented any hope I had of a rational approach to evidence and policy from this government.

So I think it safe to say that I never had Chris Giles‘ faith that the formation of a Conservative-Liberal coalition government would announce the resurrection of something long dead. Today the temporary Lazarus of evidence based policy making has been put firmly back into his cave with the publication of the State of the Nation report.

The State of the Nation is a policy document which is fairly hot on correlation, but as Chris Giles points out, weak on causality. In pointing out that…

“Children in lone-parent and stepfamilies are twice as likely to be in the bottom 20 per cent of child outcomes as children in married families”

… the report is entirely correct. Yet evidence from the Institute for Fiscal Studies show that there is little or no evidence that marriage has any discernible effect on a child’s emotional of social development. Better educated and richer parents are more likely to be married and are also more likely to be better parents. This is a fact which is readily conceded in the report. The evidence would thus suggest that we do not meddle in family structures as both family structures and child development are dependent on another variable. So other than encouraging people to be better educated and wealthier this Government may not have much chance at tackling either of its aims.

You would imagine then, that the policy recommendation following on from the above evidence would bare some resemblance to it, right?

Wrong. Rather than accept that meddling in the private lives of others is usually counter-productive and at worst a massive waste of resources the, report falls back upon the old fallacy that correlation is causation in recommending various interventionist measures despite being inches from evidence suggesting this is a waste of time and resources.

Is it clichéd yet? Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Saying goodbye to a voice of reason against illiberal nonsense

Blogs are strange things (and bloggers stranger still) one moment they are ticking along quite happily and the next they are gone.

Giles Wilkes of freethinkingeconomist is the first blogger I’ve been regularly following to have committed autolysis before my very eyes.

Autolysis, and not hari kiri or any other such synonym, because it appears it is his own success which has brought down his blog.

He has been offered a position with the new Government and has accepted.

Sadly this entails the closing down of his blog, although this is much to detriment of my education and the blogosphere at large, I am sure it is much to the improvement of Giles’ life and our new Government and I’m very happy for him.

A voice of reason against illiberal nonsense? Just what I think we’ll need.

They’re coming to America! Some Thoughts on American Demographics and Growth

My last post looked at the changes which occurred around the end of the 1970s. Specifically it looked at the collapse of the post war settlement and neoliberal response many states took to bolster growth. Scott Sumner argues that growth slowed because technological progress slowed and neoliberal reforms helped growth to be better than it otherwise would have been. He presented data to show that rich countries which reformed most caught up with the US most. I had some problems with this interpretation of events, but concede Sumner makes his argument well (even as others do not).

First of all, as Paul Krugman points out, the differences between US and European GDP per capita since 1980 are not all about economic growth, some of it reflects different leisure choices.

In the 1970s the long-run trend of taking productivity gains out partly in the form of shorter working hours came to an end in the US, while continuing elsewhere.

Further to this I pointed to the exorbitant privilege which the US enjoys by virtue of the dollar’s status as the reserve currency of the world. This would have boosted growth using a policy tool to which nobody else has access. I also added that three of the states he highlighted as successes, Hong Kong, Singapore and the UK, were success stories that relied in large part for their success on the large role they played as regional or global financial hubs. They gained on the United States following 1980 but the growth model they followed may not necessarily be easily copied.

The United States differs from most other countries and the enthusiasm with which it embarked on neoliberal reforms and the growth which followed in part reflect this fact. I am not convinced that its neoliberal reforms are the main reason that the US has maintained the GDP per capita it enjoys over other countries which reformed less.

There was another point which I thought of addressing in my last post but left out, as the previous post was already somewhat lengthy and covered a lot of ground. The US is a country of immigrants and it continues to see immigration at which European states would (and have) baulked. One thing which immigration has ensured is the US has a younger population than most other developed countries and has done since the 1980s.

The young, as well as being more inclined to crime (which is bad), are also innovators and entrepreneurs (which is good). For a rather esoteric example, Nobel Laureates may show a tendency to be elderly but this is caused by a predilection to give awards to people before they pop their clogs. The work which wins awards is usually done when relatively young.

Immigrants too have a long reputation of starting businesses and improving their own lot. They are generally young and as the Economist said of them only a few weeks ago “it takes a lot of get up and go – to get up and go.” Entrepreneurs don’t just improve their own lives, as Tim Worstall never tires of pointing out, much of the benefit from their work accrues to society as a whole rather than the entrepreneurs as an individual, perhaps as much as 97% (link courtesy of Tim).

Take a look at the population pyramids below to get an idea of the different demographic shape of the US and France, two countries with very different performances.

This demographic difference will have helped to bolster economic performance for both the entire economy compared to other nations, and importantly for our comparisons, on a GDP per capita basis.

Although it has always enjoyed this advantage, I would argue that it is only once the catch up growth of the post war period was over that it started to affect relative performances. Think about it, if post war growth in GDP outside the US largely reflected technological catch up then other countries could still exploit the late mover advantage of adopting already developed technologies. Once European nations had caught up they had to rely on their own innovation, which was retarded by their older population and relative lack of migrants.

The benefits of migration are open to all, but open borders for people rather than goods or money has never been a neoliberal policy, as those who saw Thatcher’s treatment of migration will attest. So again, I would say that a policy adopted by the US which has little reference to the neoliberal revolution has been responsible for the US economy’s relative strength.

Rather than reflecting a decisive policy shift in the US relative to the rest of the world it seems that the higher GDP per capita enjoyed across the pond is the result of a confluence of a number of political, demographic and geopolitical factors over which governments have little control. The dominance of financial sector led growth in the countries which gained on the US (the UK, HK and Singapore) show the difficulty that there was in honing in on a successful growth model. So I would contend that a combination of the below factors are a better

  • Migration as described above.
  • Exorbitant Privilege as described in my previous post.
  • Leisure choices as described by Paul Krugman.
  • A change in monetary policy played a larger role than the reduction of marginal tax rates or the other reforms described. I am a monetary novice but this is my instinct.
  • Related to the above, the formation of a common currency in the heart of Europe was a mistake which retarded growth.

Anything to add to the above list?


The data on population was taken from here.

Hurrah for the neoliberals

There has been an interesting discussion taking place between Paul Krugman and Scott Sumner on the changes which effected most of the world in the late 1970 onwards. Exemplified by Reagan and Thatcher the neoliberal revolution saw big changes in the way economies were organised across most of the world. Scott Sumner summarises the changes thus:

1.  Sharp cuts in the top [Marginal Tax Rates]

2.  Deregulation of prices, trade and market access

3.  Privatization of state-owned enterprises, services, and infrastructure

The first of these, tax cuts, are shown in the below Graph from Paul Krugman. The top rate fell from over 90% at the start of the Korean War to lower than 30% under Reagan.


I don’t in reality have much of a problem with most of these reforms, at least as Sumner describes them as opposed to their real world implementation.

Marginal tax rates of 90% don’t raise as much money as lower tax rates. Tax rates that high are only good for discouraging behaviour – perhaps I’d want a 90% tax on Heroin sales if it became legal, but I don’t want to discourage earning. The growth of trade and the liberalisation of product and service markets have made us all wealthier. There’s no reasons I can think off for tariff barriers between the UK and France or why the US should protect its car makers from Japanese imports, we are all one people aren’t we? [1] Privatisation has had some negative impacts in this country, but there’s nothing intrinsically good in a state owning a steel manufacturer. [2] Singapore owns its eponymous airline but its run as a private capitalist enterprise and British Leyland wasn’t exactly run particularly well.

But that’s not what is important. Continue reading

Educating you: Tobacco smoke enemas

Yes. Tobacco smoke enemas.

Here is the machine which would give you one and with that I bid you welcome to 18th century medicine.


This was used to revive drowning victims by blowing warm tobacco smoke into their rectums. Of course it didn’t work and the fact the provision of tobacco to the anus was regarded as important as air to the lungs doubtlessly caused some avoidable deaths.

This did not prevent them being strewn along the Thames by enthusiastic members of the Humane Society.

But today we have things which are based on evidence and evidence has given us things like kidney dialysis, chemotherapy, blood transfusions and vaccinations. It is glorious, and phew, no smoke will make its way into your bum ever again (unless there’s proof its necessary).

If in doubt that life is better, check out these videos from Ben Goldacre on the Placebo and the Nocebo effect.

So if things were getting you down remember, the world is a much better place than it has ever been. Chin up guys.

More (virtual) ink wasted on Fox Hunting

Although I am loathe to discuss fox hunting, inconsequential spot of animal cruelty on our national character that it is, I suppose it must be discussed given our new overlords. Page 18 of the coalition agreement by which we are now ruled contains the below bullet point.

  • We will bring forward a motion on a free vote enabling the House of Commons to express its view on the repeal of the Hunting Act.

700 hours of Parliamentary time was spent on debating the Hunting Act. Of course while no illegal wars were launched while Parliament was thus engaged it is still a disgrace that so much time was spent debating what should be a simple matter of preventing animal cruelty.

There is one argument I suppose that irks me more than others. That hunting with houndsis done solely to keep down the population of the fox down. I am particularly unimpressed by this argument for a number of reasons. What springs to the fore of my mind is mid-nineteenth century Australia. Why you ask? Well…

The European Red Fox was first released near Melbourne in 1855 for recreational hunting

That’s right. It was introduced to the virgin plains of Australia for the sole purpose of hunting it. Hunting foxes was such a fun pass time that entire regions of the verdant new world were put at risk in pursuit of the pursuit of the fox.

So we confirm that people have ripped foxes apart with dogs because they found it fun and because it helped keep down the population.

I freely admit that foxes need controlling in a country with livestock and pets but I’ve yet to see an argument that convinces me that doing so with dogs is the most efficient, not just most fun, way of doing so.