Friday, 2 December 2011

Lies, Damn Lies and Politicians

One of the sights in politics that makes me doubt whether democracy is really the best form of government is the sight of a politician saying something that isn't true. It happens often and it happens from all parties. But it's not the fact that it's not true that bothers me so much as the fact that the people listening, the people who vote for this politician, can't see that it's not true.

So when a politician announces that their brand new drug policy is to impose longer minimum sentences, reject the notion of harm minimisation and clamp down even harder on the druggy scum that are ruining our beautiful country, and that these will be the first steps towards winning the War on Drugs, it makes me want to punch someone. All the evidence (which I won't repeat here) clearly shows that this is nonsense however, fuelled by newspapers that repeat these lies, the facts are ignored and the problem gets worse. Yet the voters applaud the move and keep voting for him or her.

Why? Because of a failure of public choice. Voters suffer from rational ignorance. An individual vote is worth so little, the world is so complicated and politicians are so adept at spinning that the time input required from any individual voter to properly understand the issues is far greater than the benefit than any individual will get from choosing to vote for someone who will actually look out for them. There is simply no point in any individual being knowledgeable because it makes no difference on an individual basis whether they are. So people vote from a position of gross ignorance for what sounds good  rather than what will genuinely benefit them. This allows for small well-funded lobbying groups to pressure the government to do what benefits them, even when this is harmful to the wider population. The politicians do what they are asked because it benefits them and they are safe in because the average voter won't even notice, much less care.

Of course, the big issue of the day isn't drugs any more. It's the economy, stupid. This is where things become even more challenging because, unlike drug policy, economic policy is harder to understand. Because of this it has become perfectly possible for politicians to state that a particular economic policy will do "x" despite the fact that it will actually do "y". That might be because the politician simply got it wrong or it might be because the politician really wants to do "y" for ideological reasons or to keep the groups lobbying him happy but is aware that he won't win the election if he says so. So he simply claims that the policy will do the politically acceptable thing, whether or not it actually will. The public can't see through it because they don't understand it. The lobbying groups get to have their way and nobody calls them on it.

For those of us who would rather not operate from a position of gross ignorance, this leaves us with a problem. How do we tell if the politician is telling the truth or if he's wrong or if he's lying? Despite having a small amount of economic knowledge I am anything but an economist. Thankfully, there are lots of other people, economists, journalists and commentators, who are perfectly willing to tell us what they think in simple understandable ways. The difficulty, of course, is that they regularly contradict each other so it might seems we're back where we started.

However, while I am not an economist, I am the proud possessor of a law degree and a huge part of the learning process involved in that was developing the ability to assess competing arguments on new topics and form an opinion. If you can't do this, then you've got no business being anywhere near a law textbook. So how can I use this to assess the relative merits of the economic arguments I mentioned above? Hold that thought for a minute because we have to address another issue first.

The point was made to me recently that macroeconomics is such a woolly "science", with no real testable principles, that making any kind of claim as to the future impact of an economic policy is pointless. We just can't know what will happen so any assertion or opinion is meaningless. The implication was that only deluded idiots put any stock in macroeconomic predictions so we may as well just shut up and hold on for the ride.

Leaving aside the fact that millions of economists would reject the notion that macroeconomics wasn't founded in reality, there is a basic and fundamental error in this assumption. The error is this: we may not know for sure what a particular economic policy will do but we DO know that it WILL do something. The logical extension of the argument made to me was that, because we cannot say for sure what this policy is, it doesn't matter what we do. This is clearly absurd. If you accept that principle then we may as well go back onto the Gold Standard, exempt anyone on an income of over £50,000 from any tax whatsoever and invade Poland. "Hey, we don't know what will happen, so who cares?".

It does matter what we do. One option WILL be better than the other, even if we can't say with certainty what that is. All we can do is make our best guess, which neatly brings me back to my earlier point. How can I, as a non-economist, decide which economic policy I think is best? Remember, I HAVE to decide because, come the next election, I'm going to be faced with choosing between two political parties offering competing economic policies. If I can't tell them apart and just vote for the one with the shiniest forehead, I may as well move to Burma for all the good my vote will do.

Now the obvious way to tell these arguments apart, as good historian will tell you, is to look at the motive. Why is person saying one thing and someone is saying something else? We can safely discount the politicians themselves - they don't care if they're right, all they care about is convincing me that they're right. And we can safely discount a large section of the media. For example, the business editor of the Daily Telegraph, a right-wing Conservative supporting publication can safely be ignored. If he said anything that was contrary to Conservative policy or advocated a policy that would benefit poorer people over the wealthy he'd be sacked on the spot. And we can safely discount the advice of financial professionals, City workers and hedge fund managers. None of them are going to advocate anything other than what benefits them personally.

So we have to look further. Look at independent publications that attempt to present balanced viewpoints or have a history of presenting competing views. Look at foreign publications. Look at reports from the Office of Budgetary Responsibility. Look at economics blogs. Try and understand the issue from a balanced perspective. Assess the quality of a source, understand the topic and then form an opinion. For what it's worth, I've done this and have formed the opinion that this current government is dragging us to hell in a handbasket to keep their wealthy backers happy and to push through ideological cuts. I'm certainly not alone in this opinion but, that said, someone else may reach a different opinion. What matters though isn't the final outcome - it's the process. If you're not engaging with the subject and forming an opinion then whatever you think is nothing more than a guess and about as useful as Michael Gove.

Being widely read is the only solution to ignorance and encouraging this in the wider population is the only way we will ever be equipped to move away from this failure of public choice towards selecting representatives that genuinely do have our best interests at heart. We may not know all the answers to the questions we have on drugs, economics or anything else for that matter. but accepting the notion that we mustn't try to answer these questions because they are too complicated for the non-expert to understand and we can't be sure whether we are right anyway? This would be calamitous for all of us.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Homophobia is alive and well in our schools

Opera North and an unamed school have recently pulled the production of an opera on the grounds that it mentions homosexuality. There have been many arguments about who was responsible and whether it is appropriate to "expose" children as young as four to the obviously horrific idea that sometimes people of the same like each other. Leaving aside the fact that neither organisation seem to have any problem "exposing" children to the idea that people of a different sex sometimes like each other, it cannot be avoided that the opera was withdrawn because it mentioned homosexuality. This is a bad thing. Sign this petition to protest it. Email ON to complain.

Monday, 27 June 2011

The tabloid press is rarely a force for good

On Friday The Mirror published this story about the tragic murder of Milly Dowler, detailing how their journalist had obtained a supposedly crucial confession from the convicted Levi Bellfield. Roy Greenslade praised the paper in a Guardian blog. The print headline in the original article read "I Nailed Milly's Killer", though it has since been changed to something less distasteful on their website. Either way it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.

If the Mirror reporter did manage to get a crucial admission from Bellfield then that is obviously good, especially if the police had failed to do so. But I utterly dispise the gloating headline and think that it reveals the true motive behind the reporter's work. Whatever his personal beliefs, clearly his professional motivation was to get the story at all costs, purely so he could use that kind of headline and sell more papers on the back of a horrific and tragic murder.

I am glad if a byproduct of that was a positive outcome but let's not pretend that the reporter and paper did this for the sake of the public good.

As a perfect example of the hypocritical behaviour of the Mirror, it is currently being prosecuted for contempt of court for their reporting of the initial arrest in the Joanna Yeates murder case. The judge, allowing the attorney-general to bring proceedings, stated that there was cleary an arguable case that the reporting by the Mirror would have prejudiced any trial.

I imagine that the Mirror would probably not have run a gloating headline "I Helped Joanna Yeates Killer To Go Free".

Additionally, though I do not know this for sure, I would be prepared to bet that the Mirror ran articles that contributed to the jury being discharged over the second kidnapping allegation against Bellfield. The victim in this case stated that she was "hurt and angry...at being robbed of justice".

I await the headline "I helped rob an innocent girl of justice".

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Piracy - it's not about persuasion

I recently read an article in the Guardian by the always entertaining Charlie Brooker looking at the recent fuss over the move by Spotify to limit free access to its service. He believes that people are wrong for objecting when things on the internets that were free stop being that way.

He has a point, and it's a good one. Spotify ran a free service for years. I used it. I loved it. All that music, free of charge, with just the odd advert for blood donations. I went for the paid service for a while, mostly so I could use it on my phone. I even looked into donating blood. However, during that time, it never made any money. They eventually had to limit access to new subscribers to cut costs and they've now decided to drastically cut back on how much music non-paying users can listen to.

The people who run Spotify aren't idiots, and they must have known that this would lose them a huge number of listeners. But clearly they had realised that they couldn't make money from the free model and probably had little choice but to force a small proportion to step up to a paid membership, while cutting costs by shedding non-paid listeners. This makes sense. If I don't want to pay I can go somewhere else.

But Mr Brooker is peeing against the wind. It's not possible to persuade any real number of people to stick to offical services, nor is it possible to put the file-sharing genie back in the bottle. If none of the official services, paid or otherwise, provide anything more than you can get from torrent filesharing then torrent filesharing will always win. It's free. Free always wins. Attempting to turn back the tide by technological means will always fail because the fast moving torrent community will always find ways to circumvent them. Likewise litigation can only scrape the very edges. Most people reason, correctly, that the odds are with them. Even if you live in a country where rights holders can actively pursue filesharers the sheer number of people doing it means that the chance of being the unlucky one is very very slim. If Freenet ever takes off then there'd be no possibility of tracking anyone at all.

However, fairly enough, the industry will point to the amount of stuff being pirated and claim that this means money is disappearing from their pockets and destroying their businesses. This does miss the point that most of the stuff pirated wouldn't have been bought if it wasn't available free. Some teenager in their bedroom might download 1000 albums a week but it's fairly safe to say that he wouldn't have bought that much if he'd had had to pay for it.

But, let's take it at face value for a moment and think about the what the long term consequences if piracy really does take the funding out of the creative industries.

With music, people will always make it. It doesn't require much investment, there's little cost in distributing it and, if it's good, some artists can still make lots of money from gigs and live performances. The rest will probably keep making it, but with a day job. Less people will make a living from it and it might be harder to find the good stuff, but at least we'll see the end of manufactured acts, and that would be a blessing.

But film is different. If I want to make a film, it costs money. A lot of money. I can't make Avatar in my basement with a bunch of teenage friends. And if I've spent money then I have to make that back, or I won't be making any more. So, the more film gets pirated, the less money gets spent and less good films will be made. Studios will end up focusing all their money on the big blockbusters that "have" to be seen in the cinema and we all lose out on the indie stuff.

You can see this today with tv. The proliferation of channels and fragmentation of tv audiences has meant that less people watch any individual program, so advertising revenue has dropped. Less is spent and quality drops. Just look at 5, 5* and suchlike. The only channels making good tv are ones like HBO, such as with Boardwalk Empire which cost $50 million for the pilot. Now, to get HBO you pay for it separately to any other fee. It's the only way they can get enough money to pay for all the money they need to spend to make the good tv. The good tv attracts lots of viewers, who are the right kind of viewers from an advertising perspective, so advertising increases. Good reviews mean yet more people take up the paid service, and you have even more money to make even better programs. It's a virtuous circle. The rest of the channels? Repeats and crappy dramas. Because that's all they can afford. Even the BBC, publically funded and better than most, has channels full of repeats.

But this identifies a potential solution. People are prepared to pay extra for these channels because it's the only way they can watch these programs. By making very high quality programming available behind an effective paywall HBO has found a way to make the money they need to fund these new productions. Granted these programs may end up online pretty soon but, for people who want to watch them as soon as possible, on their tv, in high quality, this works for them. The same situation is happening with 3D films. I don't have a 3D tv so, if I want to watch a film in 3D, I've got to go to the cinema.

So content producers, both of music and film, have to innovate if they want to survive. They need to come up with a way of being better than filesharing, while still collecting revenue.

I don't know how they do this. My bet is that, eventually, all content on the internet will be paid for by a standard fee, similar to Spotify. You pay, say, £50 a month on top of your ISP fees. Then your ISP records everything you look at and splits that money between those content producers. If I watch 100 films a month then each one gets £0.50p. And, if someone else listens to just one album, then that one gets all £50. Granted it would require a lot of organisation, probably a big jump in tech and would be pretty harsh on those people who just use the web for email. But, given that you'd need to pay the fee to get online, it couldn't be avoided. Then, once you're on, everything is free at point of use so there is no incentive to pirate, but content is still monetised for the producers. Everyone wins. It might not work, but some solution needs to be found,

Either way, the message to content providers is simple. Either they innovate and provide something better than free or they die. But if they chose the latter then, in the long run, we all lose.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Diane Abbot, Sharon Shoesmith and the ongoing point missing competition

Dianne Abbot recently published an opinion piece in the Guardian looking at the recent court victory by Sharon Shoesmith following on from her sacking over the Baby P scandal. It's not necessary to rehash the content of the article, except to say that Ms Abbott believes that the court decision meant that Ms Shoesmith has avoided responsibility for the failure of Haringey Children's Services to prevent the tragic death of Baby P. While she accepts that "It may be that there were procedural problems with her sacking" she finishes by implying that this decision means that senior social workers are less likely to pay for such failure with their jobs. Ms Shoesmith also attempted to paint this as a vindication of her performance in her job. Regrettably both seem to miss the point of what is an important, and yet entirely expected, decision. This case did not revolve around whether Ms Shoesmith should have been sacked. It revolved around the way that she was sacked. 

Ms Shoesmith was removed from her position live on television by the Children's Secretary, Ed Ball's, without being given any opportunity to defend herself or to respond to the allegations against her. She had, so I understand, not even seen the Ofsted report that had been so damning. The courts decided that this course of action had resulted in her being denied "the elementary fairness which the law requires". I do not doubt that Ms Shoesmith was a poor manager. Given that she had no social work experience prior to her appointment, questions should be asked about whether she was a suitable person for the role. It may have been the case that there was no defence or response that she could have given that would have prevented her from losing her job. But equally, I do not doubt that she was sacked in the way that she was because it was politically expedient for Mr Ball's to do so.

The issue of whether a government minister can intervene to require that a civil servant can have all the protection afforded by both her contract and employment law removed purely because it is politically expedient is a fundamental issue. It is fundamental because the requirement of the government to act within the Rule of Law is what separates us from a dictatorship. What if Mr Ball's had decided that Ms Shoesmith should have been imprisoned for her failings? Or deported? Would these have been acceptable outcomes?

It is entirely right that the courts have rejected Ed Ball's arbitrary decision. An individual is entitled to these protections because Parliament has decided that they should have them. If Mr Ball's believed that individuals should not have these protections then, as a Member of Parliament, it is open to him to try and change the law to reflect his belief. It is not open to him to simply ignore the law.

I made a comment on the Guardian article supporting a comment made along these lines. I also stated that I believed that Ms Abbot was an intelligent person and that I felt she was being hypocritical and playing to a crowd. I felt this because as an intelligent person, a Cambridge graduate no less, I am sure that she is as capable as anyone of understanding what this judgement means. However she has clearly made a decision to write this article to, in effect, jump on what she sees as a popular bandwagon.

I was very surprised that Ms Abbot actually took the time to respond to my comment. She stated that she believed that accountability was lacking in social services and that it is a huge problem. I don't disagree with this. However, by referring to accountability, she simultaneously hits and misses the point. This issue decided by the court was not whether Ms Shoesmith was accountable for the failing in her department, but it was whether Mr Ball's was accountable for his arbitrary decision to sack her without following the "elementary fairness" that the law requires. Fortunately the court decided that he was.

As a consequence of Mr Ball's hasty and unlawful attempt to deflect public and media attention away from the real issues of underfunding, overwork and poor reorganisation that impact social services department across the country, the real root causes of the Baby P Scandal, by dismissing Ms Shoesmith, he has placed a reported one million pounds in the pocket of someone who probably doesn't deserve it. Had he behaved lawfully and fairly Ms Shoesmith would not be receiving this money. Mr Ball's response to this is that "he would do the same again" betrays an inability to accept fault and an inability to recognise that he should behave lawfully that does him no credit. 

Likewise, Ms Abbots attempt to join him in missing the point leaves her open to the charges that either she genuinely doesn't understand the meaning of this judgement or that she does and is attempting to make political hay out of a tragic situation for all involved. Whichever one of these positions is true, it does not reflect well on the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington.