Playing Euro Survivor

It’s starting to look like we’re all going to be entertained this summer watching the monetary reality show, Euro Survivor: Who can be the last country left in the Euro? Greece has already been voted off the island, even if it hasn’t left yet. Ireland and the Iberians are looking decidedly unpopular, and Italy seems headed downhill as well. (I never understood why Italy was not on financial deathwatch. Is such a massive default just too horrible to contemplate? Or perhaps people just assumed Italy couldn’t possibly print lire until Berlusconi has arranged adequate shell companies to siphon the printing contracts discretely into his own syndicate.) My money is on Luxembourg. It seems fair that they should get to keep the Euro for themselves, since I can’t remember what their currency was called before the Euro. Belgium may end up with two new currencies. (But what’s the first prize? Maybe they get the rump European Central Bank, and a free set of dominoes.)
20eurofr_HR

Continue reading “Playing Euro Survivor”

Credit and Credibility

Are banks crazy or a cartel?

bommel3

When a government (let us say, in Athens) could possibly renege on promises made to banks who loaned them money or bought their bonds, which that government is unable to fulfill without draconian cuts to public services, all right-thinking people attack the feckless politicians and threaten a collapse of confidence and the world economy. This is a DEFAULT! Other governments and the IMF might jump in to pour money into the state coffers, on the condition that they flow out the other end into the investors’ pockets.

But when a government (could be in Athens, or in London, or for that matter Madison, Wisconsin) has made promises of pensions to government employees, but has failed to fund them adequately, it is short-sighted and greedy for these civil servants to insist on these promises being honoured.

Why is a default such a terrible thing? Because, they say, if the country defaults on its debts it will be shut out of the credit markets. Hmmm. Let’s suppose it is true. Why? Suppose you own a bank, and your thinking of lending to one of two countries, let’s call one of them Piigsia and the other Sameria. Both are heavily indebted. Piigsia introduces crushing austerity measures, while Sameria repudiates its sovereign debt. Which of those countries would you rather loan your bank’s money to? The one that’s shown a great willingness to pay off its debts but is financially crushed, or the one who may be more likely to try to weasel out of its debts, but is eminently capable of paying. Solvency is not merely (or even primarily) a state of mind. I mean, what good is it to have the current government express a willingness to pay off its debts, knowing that it’s likely to be punished by voters for these “good” intentions? Maybe they just don’t want to be serial defaulters, so having avoided defaulting this time will encourage them to default on the next batch of loans.

As for Sameria, it sucks for the other banks that have lost their money, but why should I give up a chance to make a good profit for the sake of punishing Sameria for hosing my competitors? In fact, in a competitive market, why shouldn’t I be happy that my competitors have made a loss, and just try to get better conditions for my loan?

Continue reading “Credit and Credibility”

New Year Austerity Plan

A Press Release from the Ministry for Calendars, Clocks, and the Underclass

Deputy minister for Temporal Affairs Nigel Thwart (Lib-Dem) is releasing today guidelines for the coalition’s plan to save £120 billion by cancelling the new year. ‘We found that 1983 was still in excellent condition. Military chronologists have refurbished the year and put it into place to be serving us again starting shortly after 23:59 GMT on 31/12/2010. The year has functioned flawlessly in intensive testing, and we are confident that it will meet all the nation’s chronological needs through December, if not longer. We do recommend early bedtimes, though, to avoid overstressing the slightly threadbare post-midnight hours.”We reject claims of some malcontents that the Liberal Democrats have violated the pledge famously signed in blood* by Nick Clegg and other party leaders to “move the country into the future”. This is a coalition government, and we cannot expect to govern as we would like to had we a majority. We are most proud of our party’s influence to moderate the initial Conservative Party plan to return to 1940, which is currently owned by the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. While this year would have been substantially cheaper, the Liberal Democrats maintain that such a regressive move would blatantly contradict our election manifesto pledge.’The year will be sold to a consortium of private investors, and leased back by the Crown, leaving the taxpayers with substantial savings.’We are confident that it will still be possible to modify the year to introduce a referendum on election reform.’
* Mr Clegg’s spokescaitiff has emphasised that it was not the Deputy Prime Minister’s own blood on the signature.

(by DS and JB)

Obesity and education standards

Applying lessons from education reform to win the fight agains obesity

2006rate

recent article in the British Medical Journal reports that obesity costs the UK £2 billion in direct and indirect costs. 22% of the British population is thought to be obese, defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher; some experts predict that this cost could rise to £45 billion by 2050. The problem of rising obesity, with its multifarious costs, has been described as intractable. These defeatist sentiments ignore the lessons of some of the great successes of social policy, and how seemingly intractable problems can melt away, when attacked with the right combination of zeal and creative new thinking. Consider the progress in state education over the past two decades, and particularly in the 13 years of the Labour government, after Tony Blair announced his three top priorities in the election campaign to be “education, education, education”.

Back in the 1980s, doomsayers were lamenting a collapse in UK secondary education, with the dissolution of the grammar schools. Today, A-level marks are the highest they have ever been, which must surely reflect a huge increase in British school children’s educational attainment. Education experts have expressed amazement at the educational progress over just the decade from 1997 to 2006: In 1997 only 87.2% of A-level (age 18) marks were passes, while by 2006 that had risen to a stunning 97.2%. The fraction of A grades (the highest possible) rose from 16% to 24%. Similar progress was recorded in the GCSE performance (age 16). The percentage of state school applicants admitted to Oxford rose in that time from less than half to 55%, which can only mean that these pupils are learning more, compared with their counterparts at expensive independent schools.

The key insight came from the Prime Minister’s Office for Post-Structuralist Policy Initiatives (PMOP-SPI, pronounced mop spy, the first P being silent), which recognised, in the words of director Pauline deVrouw, “Standards were created for man, not man for the standards. Therefore the Commons is lord over the standards.” This has been extended in the brilliant new Department of Health white paper “Health consequences of the  standard kilogram”. “Obesity,” states the white paper’s forthright preamble, “has many causes, but ultimately it is a matter of centimetres and kilograms. The standard kilogram, although it was manufactured in London, is now kept in a vault in Paris, indifferent to the particular British mensuration needs.” The paper goes on to explain how just a 10% increase in the size of the kilogram  — easily achievable with current technology, and barely even noticeable to the casual observer — would produce a 9% reduction in BMI, and thus reduce the number of obese Britons and the attendant costs by more than half. This approach is found to be vastly cheaper than the next most cost effective plan for reducing obesity, a complicated scheme which involves citizens exercising more and eating less junk. (What costs do accrue — mainly new scales — would be borne by the private sector, and would, in the present economic climate, be useful as an economic stimulus.)

For all that the French call their jealously guarded kilogram “Le Grand K“, the fact is that the kilogram is underweight. Not only has it failed to keep pace with the increasing demands that our population puts on the scale, it has apparently been shrinking even in absolute terms. According to one estimate, the French have managed to misplace 0.005% of Le Grand K (50 micrograms) in its first century. That may not sound like much, but a 0.005% reduction in the size of a kilogram leads inexorably to a 0.005% increase in BMI for the entire population. From this we may infer that there are about 3000 British adults who are currently obese, who would not be obese had the kilogram not diminished.*

Just as Britain’s leaders had the wisdom to withdraw from its fixed exchange rates in the 1990s, and to avoid the unworkable European monetary union, so we need politicians intrepid enough to withdraw from our archaic pessantory union with France. Like the European Central Bank, maintaining its hard-money policies which suit powerhouse Germany and impoverish weaker economies like Ireland and Greece, the myopic French small-kilogram policy, while perhaps acceptable to gallic lightweights, is having unacceptable consequences on this side of the Channel. How could we expect the same kilogram to suit a nation of snail-peckers and a nation of haggis-and-roast-beef-chompers? We are still calculating BMI with a kilogram that was milled in the era of top hats and whale-bone corsets. It’s time to repatriate the kilogram, and take control of the Britain’s weight problem, just as we have set British education on its unstoppable upward trajectory.

* These are the individuals with BMI currently between 30.000 and 30.0015.

johnson_matthey_kilos

What’s a queen for?

One really peculiar thing that immigrants from republican lands need to adjust to in the UK, is that they actually take this monarch thing seriously. Not in the sense that people regularly drink toasts to the Queen, or speculate about fine points of the order of succession, but that people genuinely think it a reasonable constitution order that the head of state should be selected on the basis that her father held a similar position many decades ago, and that her son (and grandson) should be presumed to take on the job after her demise. Having always lived in republics (except for a brief stint in the Netherlands) kings and queens seemed to me figures from fairy tales and history. I knew that there are people called kings and queens existing in the modern world, but that always seemed an unreal and somewhat ridiculous anachronism, like the toga party in Animal House, or hobby jousters. But when the most recent elections descended into chaos, the experts were clear that it would be the Queen’s prerogative (after consultation with her advisors) to decide which politician should be “invited” to form a government. Again and again the Prince of Wales makes scandals by interfering in London city planning, among other functions of government. They fuss and fume about the prince overstepping his constitutional bounds, but no one would think of telling the prince to just go fuck himself, and treat his “black spider letters” with the same consideration they would give to the letters of any citizen — is he even a citizen?

Which leads to my proposal, which I hope will be taken seriously, given the depth of the current financial crisis in Britain: A lottery for the right to be the next monarch. I suspect that very many people would be willing to stump up a few pounds for a shot, and quite a few might pay several millions for a really substantial chance. The winner of the lottery has exactly the same chance of having the personal qualities required of the head of state as the monarch selected by the genetic lottery currently in force. We might have to eliminate certain requirements of the job, like weekly meetings with the prime minister, to make it more attractive. They could keep the post until death, and then it would revert to the state for a future lottery.

Now, this may seem like a huge constitutional change, but when I read about the British Constitution, the only argument that ever seems to be presented for the hereditary principle is that it saves the British the nuisance of having to vote for their head of state, or of having some washed up old politician appointed head of state by his old confederates. I think it should be clear that my scheme also avoids these problems, as well as complying with all EU directives.

I’m sure the professionals can work out some good advertising slogans (“Paris is worth a mass, but London is worth a pound”; “The new Magna Carta” — stamped on a mock-up lottery ticket; “It’s never too late to have a royal birth”?)maybe a jingle or two, and a legal and constitutional framework.

All British institutions have submitted to the exigencies of finance, except the monarchy. It’s about time the Queen gets with the program and moves to the City.

Will small hospitals kill you?

Disquisition on medical statistics in The Guardian

A recent front-page article in The Guardian claimed to show that small NHS hospitals are killing people. “Huge disparity in NHS death rates revealed” was one headline. “Patients less likely to die in bigger hospitals“. “Safety in numbers for hospital patients” is another headline. The article makes no secret of its political agenda: “The results strongly suggest that smaller units should close. This presents a major challenge to the health secretary, Andrew Lansley, who has stopped all hospital reorganisation.” Online, Polly Toynbee decries “Hospital populism”, saying “Local hospitals may be loved, but they can kill.” Wow. That’s pretty bad. Here’s the schematic of the story: Smart and selfless experts want to save lives. Dumb public clings to habit (in the form of community hospitals). Evil politicians pander to dumb public, clings to campaign promises. “The health secretary, Andrew Lansley, has now put the project on hold, in line with his election promise to halt hospital closures, to the dismay of experts who believe that lives will continue to be lost.”
Continue reading “Will small hospitals kill you?”

Xenophobia: An international perspective

I find the difference in perspective on immigration between North America and Europe all the more striking, because on the standard left-right axis the European consensus — typically to the left of the U.S. on issues like healthcare, private enterprise, and invading other countries and torturing captives — is so far to the right on the U.S. and Canadian political spectra that it’s hardly to found at all. This was made clear in the recent controversy over the Arizona law that would have police checking papers when they have “reasonable suspicion” that someone is illegally in the country. This was treated as such an obvious affront to decency that even most of the right wing didn’t want anything to do with it. In most European countries, there would be nothing controversial about permitting police to stop anyone to ask for identification. (The U.K. is a slight exception here, as the irrational hatred of foreigners has to contend with an irrational hatred of identity cards. Utility bills are considered a superior form of identification.) In Germany (which, despite the popular association in the anglophone media with police-state tactics, is fairly casual about immigrants) I needed to show proof of immigration status in order to get a library card. And whereas even the farthest right in the U.S. distanced themselves from Republican representative Duncan Hunter’s proposal that the children of illegal immigrants be deported (presumably after having their citizenship revoked), I don’t know of any country other than the U.S. and Canada that automatically grants citizenship even to the children of legal immigrants. For instance, my daughter born here is not a U.K. citizen, even though her mother, as an E.U. citizen, has the right to live and work here. (The usually even-tempered journalist Joan Walsh has called Hunter’s proposal “crazy“, and says “I’m not sure Hunter has a soul.” I don’t think it’s a good idea, but it’s obviously not an absurdity, even if it does involve the procedural hurdle in the U.S. of requiring a constitutional amendment. There’s clearly a problem of having minor U.S. children whose parents can be (and are) deported.)

In the U.K. context, it’s barely controversial to bash legal immigrants, much less illegal immigrants. In the most recent prime ministerial debate, the one thing David Cameron and Gordon Brown agreed on was that the Liberal Democrats’ proposal of an amnesty for long-term illegal residents was simply insane and indefensible. They didn’t even have to respond to his counter-arguments, pretend that they had an alternative solution for the problem. It’s the putatively left-wing party in power for the past 13 years in the U.K. that can’t think of enough new ways to attack foreigners, that they have to invent bizarrely creative ways to attack foreigners, like the law banning foreigners from marrying without Home Office approval, or instituting new proposals that immigrants need to perform “volunteer” work to earn citizenship.

What I find amazing is how clear the consensus in the U. S. and Canada in favour of (legal) immigration is, and that the very idea of basing citizenship primarily on parentage rather than on birth in the country is treated as an absurdity by right-thinking people.

Where the money is…

Mathematical finance as an accessory to crime

Not long after I finished my PhD in probability theory, a significant fraction of the field was devoured by the financial mathematics moloch. Particularly in Europe, probability theory positions disappeared, to be replaced by openings in financial mathematics, which either went unfilled or cycled among a very few senior researchers and a few quick-change opportunists (and, gradually, their fledgeling academic progeny).

Everyone felt they had to get in on the action, and of course there was a certain amount of positive feedback. When many jobs chase few graduates, it generates huge demand among students for training in such a demonstrably burgeoning field. Obviously, the academic feedback was limited by the fact that most of the eager young ‘uns were seeking employment in banks, not in academia — but the banks were hiring as well. Anyway, just about 10 years ago, a Dutch colleague asked me if I might be interested in joining his own institute’s planned financial mathematics group, for which they were proposing to create TEN new positions. My reply was that finance did not interest me as a topic of research, but I added that there was something unseemly — bordering on unethical — in mathematicians’ headlong chase after banking lucre. The current generation of mathematicians is the trustee of a vast and powerful system of analysis, whose creators were supported, honoured, and financed by public institutions. What is it but a crime, when we abscond with the fruits of this scholarship, and sell it off (cheaply) to banks, who will use it to extract billions of dollars from financial markets? Continue reading “Where the money is…”

In praise of the National Health Scapegoat

All over the world babies are babies, and birth is birth, but having a baby in Oxford is certainly quite a different experience than having a baby in California. The comparison is mostly favourable to Oxford, in our experience. The prime directive of the NHS (which recently celebrated its 60th anniversary) is borrowed from Douglas Adams: Don’t Panic.

The NHS is a great success by any definition. When you factor in the constitutional niggardliness of the British taxpayers and Her Majesty’s government — leading the UK to spend per capita on healthcare substantially less than half what the US spends, and much less than any major industrialised country except Japan — it seems a veritable miracle of efficient socialism. Whereas health research in the US is dominated by the profit motive, producing marginally improved drugs at breathtakingly higher prices*, the NHS has a brilliant record of pioneering cost-effective healthcare solutions, which may be individually trivial, even slightly absurd, but which together add up to systematic and measurable improvements in public health. (For example, this scheme to prevent complications due to chronic lung disease by providing patients with automated telephone warnings of impending cold snaps. Or something as simple as reducing infections by requiring doctors and nurses to wear short sleeves.) Continue reading “In praise of the National Health Scapegoat”

Missing Canada

I was recently in Montreal for a conference, and briefly in Kingston and Toronto. Registering at the conference (actually, filling out a receipt when buying a Canadian Mathematical Society t-shirt) a secretary wanted basic address information. She looked at my conference name-badge, and asked, “Oxford… Is that in Ontario?” (To be fair, it was the France-Canada Mathematical Congress, so it was not unreasonable for her to assume that anyone apparently not French was probably Canadian, and the best guess for an English-sounding place-name is Ontario. In fact, there is an Oxford, Ontario, though it is actually a county — or, more precisely, a regional municipality — and does not, to my knowledge, have a university.) What followed, though, was typically Canadian. “No, UK.” “Oh, you came all the way from the UK? Welcome to Canada!” The greeting seemed touchingly enthusiastic and heartfelt. It was like someone saying, “So glad you could drop by. Sorry, the place is a mess, but make yourself at home.” It’s a sense I’ve often had in Canada, of an unpretentious pride in their humble home; it’s really not much, but we hope you’ll enjoy it. I really enjoyed the three Canada Day celebrations (July 1, naturally — British imperial order ensured that any important events would happen January 1 or July 1, and you’d be crazy trying to make anything happen in Canada in January) that I attended — in Vancouver, Kingston, and Ottawa. The tone was remarkably inclusive and I felt none of the crazy world-dominating fervor of US patriotism, or the weirdly forced exceptionalism of British national pride, expressing itself in such atavistic ideas as the recent government report on citizenship, which proposed encouraging school children to swear a formal loyalty oath to the Queen. (What is this monarchy thing about, anyway? I’ve never seen people more touchy than the British about someone putting on airs, or acting like he’s better than someone else; and yet, they’re content to let their country be formally ruled by someone whose qualification for the post is that her great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather was Elector of Hanover (or something like that). Of course, the Canadians also have Queen Elizabeth on their money and stamps, but they keep her at arm’s length through the Governor General.) It is perfectly possible to be proud of being Canadian, without hating other people for being something else. The US finds its existence threatened by the mere existence of people in the world who neither are nor aspire to be American, and in this struggle the UK sees its proper role to be the valet de bourreau.

Last fall I received a letter from our Toronto lawyer, informing me that our permanent residency application in Canada had been approved. It was not only the accompanying bill for $4000 that left me feeling slightly sad, but also the sense of a missed opportunity. Of course (!) I miss the Kingston winter, the bracing -20°C mornings, tramping through the snow, and skating with Chaya in the park, or the Market Square. (I noticed here a day care mentioning in its brochure that the children would go outside every day, unless the temperature were below 0°C. You’d never leave the building for months with that policy in Kingston!) I loved Chaya’s Waldorf school in Kingston, and am struggling to come to terms with the state church here. But there was something more fundamentally attractive about Canada and the idea of Canadianness. I have always cherished my status as an outsider to any group I may be suspected of belonging to, but I think I could have enjoyed getting to be a Canadian. What’s more, it seemed even vaguely possible, whereas regardless of good intentions, oaths sweared and formal conferral of citizenship it seems absurd to imagine becoming British. I don’t think there is any country more welcoming of foreigners than Canada. (Well-off and well-educated foreigners, to be sure, but then that is my experience.) Just compare the immigration authority home pages: Immigration and Citizenship Canada is full of smiling faces and links to promotional information like “Coming to Canada as an immigrant is an exciting opportunity” and “Canadians are proud to hold one of the most prized citizenships in the world. Every year about 150,000 people become new citizens of Canada.”  The grim UK Border Agency page, on the other hand, leads with the declaration “The UK Border Agency is responsible for securing the United Kingdom borders and controlling migration in the United Kingdom.” On this particular day (15 July) it prominently features the news flash that “Foreign nationals wishing to become British citizens will have to earn the right to stay, the Government announced today. The tough new approach will require all migrants to speak English and obey the law if they want to gain citizenship and stay permanently in Britain.” The presumption being, of course, that migrants are unlikely either to learn English or to obey the law. (This is followed by somewhat defensive sounding citations of public opinion polls which supposedly show the populace supporting this “tough” approach — or some tough approach, anyway.) The underlying legal regimes may be quite similar, but there’s no mistaking the difference in attitude, between the Canadian “Please consider joining us. I hope we can use your skills” and the British “We may desperately need your skills, so please come, but fuck you anyway.” (For specifics, see my comments on Polish nurses and maternity ward overcrowding here.)

canada-map UK map