Is “open for business” fit for purpose?

One peculiarity of British political culture that I find most striking, coming to it from the outside, is the occasional coining of technocratically flavoured verbal taunts, and the incessant efforts to shoehorn as many of the old chestnuts as possible into whatever attack is currently being made.

Witness the reaction of energy companies to Ed Miliband’s proposal to freeze energy prices for 20 months (which, on the merits, sounds like a pretty awful idea, managing to be offensive both to oil tycoons and environmentalists):

The companies have reacted with fury to his plans, saying he is risking power blackouts and sending a message that Britain is not open for business.

(More quotes used the same slogan to attack proposals to fund the reduction in business energy rates by raising corporate income tax.) The phrase gets associated with Margaret Thatcher, though it’s been used intensively both by the current government, and by Tony Blair, who has been well paid to travel around the world attesting to other countries being “open for business”: Palestine, Sierra Leone, Thailand.

Ambiguous Yids: The problem with speech bans

David Cameron has gotten himself onto the front page of the commuter newspaper Metro by commenting on the bizarre controversy over the use of the word “Yids” in English football.

Tottenham fans often chant the word, referring to themselves as “Yiddos” or “the Yid Army”. Some say it is a defensive gesture, to deflect abuse from opposition fans.
But the FA, backed by Jewish leaders, say it has no place in football and want it stopped.

The prime minister’s solomonic opinion is that the use of the word should be prosecuted only when it is used as an insult, not when people are applying it to themselves. The article quotes one Jewish supporter of a different team who says the word should be banned: “Yid is a race-hate word. It was daubed across the East End by Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts.” And a Jewish Tottenham supporter who says “This is part of our identity. As a Jewish person, I always find it empowering. We have turned this word into a positive.”

(I recall that when I lived in the Netherlands in the 1990s there was a similar controversy around the AFC Ajax football team in Amsterdam, that had the nickname de Joden, and whose rivals would taunt the fans with antisemitic chants like “Hamas, Hamas, de joden aan het gas” (“Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas”). According to this Wikipedia article, supporters of Ajax would sometimes wave Star of David flags, and at one point Hava Nagila could be downloaded as a ringtone from the club’s official website.)

Maybe Cameron should have gone the extra step, to realise that trying to come up with a sensible set of criteria for banning speech based on its content is a fool’s errand. There’s no way to deal with all the shades of meaning, when one person hurls an insult, the victim appropriates the insult as a badge of honour (as has happened with gay, queer, Black, Quaker, and impressionist), and someone else comments on the verbiage ironically.

Richard Dawkins says child molestation is no longer acceptable

But it’s still not as bad as Catholicism.

Regular readers of this blog are already aware that Richard Dawkins thinks that, among the crimes perpetrated upon children by Catholic priests, sexual molestation is less bad than teaching religion. (The quote is here.) Now he has given an interview to the Times magazine (reported by Katie McDonough here) in which he describes a schoolteacher who “pulled me on his knee and put his hand inside my shorts”, and says this “mild touching up” and “mild pedophilia” is something he “can’t find it in me to condemn… by the same standards as I or anyone would today.” Being an expert on something or other, Dawkins opines that “I don’t think he did any of us any harm.”

Some of those school masters presumably also taught religion, but it’s sadly too late (by several centuries) to bring them to justice for that crime.

I find myself wondering why this man keeps coming back to publicly trivialising child abuse. Maybe the Bible can provide some insight.

Starving children for progress

Apparently the US Fox News network has recently advocated withholding free lunches from poor schoolchildren, as an effective means of teaching their parents the lesson that being poor is a bad life-choice, and they should have chosen to be rich instead. (It should be noted that this represents an upgrading of American right-wing attitudes toward nutritional support for the poor, who were previously compared by leading politicians to dangerous ravening beasts.)

I’m surprised they didn’t cite the wealth of studies from the UK, showing that children receiving free school meals went on to have significantly worse GCSE (age 16 qualification) marks — suggesting that free school meals impede learning of lessons by the children as well as their parents — and had higher rates of obesity (suggesting that Fox News correctly judged that lunch is superfluous for these children). English as a Second Language and Special Education teaching, as well as foster care, appear to have similarly detrimental effects, suggesting that eliminating these supports will yield major improvements to children’s health and educational success.

(For details of the statistical methodology, see here.)

The gambler’s cross

2013-08-28 15.55.13The 13th century University Church of St. Mary is an important Oxford landmark. It was the first building of the university, and stands as an imposing symbol of traditional Anglicanism on the High Street. And now, apparently, it is funded by the proceeds of gambling.

I’ve long been fascinated by the gradual moral detoxification of gambling, something that I discussed at some length in my review of The Quants. Christians have vacillated between viewing gambling as a heinous sin and as a good way to fund their churches. Not unlike their earlier views of loans at interest and capitalism more generally.

It’s particularly striking to see a church displaying the symbol of the cross in the sacrilegious form of the gambler’s crossed fingers. I wonder how Christians react to the symbol. It seems like a gestural swear word, as though a priest began his sermon with “God almighty, it sure is hot this week. What are we doing in church, for Christ’s sake?”

Evasion and avoidance

Following up on my recent comments on piracy, recent news reports have forced me to learn the subtle difference between “tax evasion” and “tax avoidance”. Apparently “evasion” is when you don’t pay the taxes you’re required by law. “Avoidance” is when you don’t pay the taxes you’re required by law, but structure your property or income in such a way that you don’t pay (much) tax. It sounds like a pretty clear distinction, but the application can be dubious.

The Times recently reported on a widely used scheme that is so banal, so transparent, that one can hardly see it as representing anything other than a fig leaf to cover the authorities’ wish not to to tax the wealthy and powerful. The way it works is, extremely wealthy individual X doesn’t like his salary from company Y being taxed by government G, as though he were just an ordinary citizen. So he comes to an agreement with Y that they will stop paying him a salary, and instead pay an offshore shell company K2 for his services. So far so good. Y now pays no tax, because he has no income, but for obvious reasons this is not entirely satisfactory. Poor Y, who is now starving in a garret with no visible means of support, appeals to the good will of K2 (which has made such a great profit from Y’s tax aversion) for a loan. They’re a soft touch, and they loan him essentially all the money they’ve earned on his case, telling him, “Pay us back when you can.” He never pays it back, but they never lose hope. Loans are not taxable, of course, unless they are written off. Continue reading “Evasion and avoidance”

British riots

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The well-known history of enclosure riots in 16th and 17th century England fascinates above all for their orderliness. Describing one riot in early Jacobean Bedfordshire, V. Magagna writes “The assembly that plotted the riot met in the church[…] The leader of the riot was the village constable.”

I thought of this when I read the following on the BBC web site, on the third day of riots and looting throughout London:

“Full scale looting going on at Clarence convenience store right by the burning car on clarence road. “One by one” shouts one man as people crowd round to get into the shop, whose entrance has been smashed in. Women calling: can you get me a magazine? Other people asking for alcohol.”

One by one. That’s British looting for you. They’ll pillage, and they’ll rampage, and they’ll kill, but they’ll queue up in an orderly fashion to do it… particularly if they have hopes of being rewarded with alcohol.

“Petitioning implies a belief in a natural order of society protecting the interests of rich and poor alike, which the authorities can be expected to enforce once the misdeeds of individuals are brought to their notice. Even riot can be seen in this light, for the intention was usually to compell authority to maintain a traditional order, rather than to overturn it.” Underdown, 1985, p. 118

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Obesity and education standards

Applying lessons from education reform to win the fight agains obesity

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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.

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Drinking in the park

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We’ve been spending a month back in our old hometown of Berkeley, California. Of course, there are features that distinguish Berkeley from Oxford — the hills, the ocean, the redwoods and eucalyptus, the sunshine — but one that particularly struck me this time were the drinking fountains and toilet facilities in all the municipal parks. It’s not just Berkeley. The whole Bay Area, at least, seems to have these basic amenities in parks, as does Portland, Oregon, where we’ve also just been visiting. Some parks have clean, well-lighted, well-functioning toilets, while others have dingy, rudimentary sanitary facilities, but they all have something. Where I grew up, on Long Island, you also expected to have them, so I’ll make the inference that this is a general US thing. It’s not such a big deal if you’re not a parent or a child, but for children and their caretakers the opportunities to take in water and to let it out loom large. You can make a point of bringing water with you, but public displays of excretion are generally frowned upon in public, even if you do use your own containers, so the absence of lavatory facilities puts an effective time limit on playground visits. (Although, I’ve seen surprisingly large boys peeing on the grass at playgrounds in Oxford.) The only playgrounds in the UK that I’ve found to have toilets (I’m judgeing, admittedly, from a tiny sample, having been living there for less than two years) are the two in Regents’ Park in London, and these are exclusively for children, to the extent that each playground has a fulltime attendant who seems to have no duties other than to keep unauthorised age-groups out of the loo. Drinking fountains seem to be entirely unknown on the Sceptered Isle. Interestingly, there was recently a BBC report, on the suggestion of some children’s health advocates that providing water at the playgrounds would reduce the temptation to bring bottles of sugary drinks instead, a net plus for children’s health. A representative of the Local Government contended that it would be too costly to maintain the fountains, and that they would quickly be rendered unusable by vandals.

Now, it may be that the park officials were lying, and drinking fountains just seem like too much bother. But if they are to be believed, there is a huge gap between the US and the UK, either in the competence of municipal engineers and maintenance workers, or in the extent and intensity of antisocial behaviour. (The latter may really be the case. On my initial visit to England, for job interviews, I read in the local newspaper in Coventry that a new city playground had been taken over by feral youths, and that a father who had attempted to use the playground with his young child had been set upon and beaten.)

I’ve been in the UK long enough to be, at the first moment, shocked to observe in Berkeley signs, scattered around houses and apartment blocks, saying “No Solicitors” — much as I know that members of that occupation are not held in the highest esteem. For that matter, the trash bins stenciled “REFUSE ONLY” struck me for a moment as a polite variant of Nancy Reagan’s antidrug “Just say no” slogan.

An Omnibus named Perdition

christian_bus Atheist-Bus

The famous atheist buses have come to Oxford. What do they mean — other than that the redoubtable Richard Dawkins has found a new venue for self-promotion? I have already commented on the peculiar place — or, at least, what seems peculiar to someone who has generally lived in basically secular, non-theocratic countries — of religion in the public sphere of the UK, which appears to outweigh by far its importance in the private sphere (but maybe that’s just Oxford). It’s hardly a surprise, then, that the Anglican atheists would crave public acknowledgement of their private obsessions. The public forum par excellence is the public bus. The Christians are already there, and the atheists now have their gospel plastered on the side, saying “There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” (Or is it “no God”? Hard to say, given the typography…) For those craving more detail, there is a url for Dawkins’s website. (Which, interestingly, when I checked it just now, featured a large photograph of the man himself, next to the slogan “The Enemies of Reason”. He seems to be selling DVDs, which perhaps reveal whether he is numbered among the enemies, or the enemies of the enemies. I’ve heard he once had ambitions to be a scientist, which explains a lot, when you think about it.) Continue reading “An Omnibus named Perdition”