Wednesday, 19 December 2007


The Public Administration Committee has said that appointments to the House of Lords should not be made by party leaders and that an independent body should do it instead. They also suggest that it should be possible to boot Lords out of the House, presumably if they fail to follow their Commons' masters' orders, and that the number of Lords should be proportional to the vote-share at the previous general election.

So, they want to allow our Lords to be appointed by people who are unaccountable to the public, removed from office by their political masters when expedient, and composed in rough proportion to the contents of the House of Commons?

Good idea? You decide.

Thursday, 13 December 2007


The ever-superb Ministry of Truth is onto the story of that physics teacher who a while ago wrote an open letter to the authorities, demanding his subject back.

After the privatization of the exam boards, it should be thoroughly unsurprising that the exams have gotten easier - the boards are competing against each other. And since the GCSE is a fixed standard (or rather, they aren't allowed to call theirs "GCSE++"), there are two ways to compete to attract submissions: firstly by streamlining business processs and becoming more efficient, which is what the market was introduced to encourage but is, in practice, difficult and subject to diminishing returns, and secondly by making their exams easier so that schools that want to boost their kids' grades will pick them over the competition.

This may appear to be a bug in the system, but it might perhaps be a feature - the people in charge of the privatization might have thought at the time that gradually rising grades would make the government look good. It has, of course, just led to complaints of dumbing down. And ruined the secondary education of millions of children.

This is exactly why politicians shouldn't be able to control anything to do with education except for the budget. I'd rather have a separate executive making decisions on how to spend its budget to best benefit the children under its control than the current highly-politicized mess.

The preferred option around these parts is vouchers or equivalent. In that circumstance, though, we also need to make sure that there is either a well-understood market for qualifications, or that there is some kind of (government-run?) qualifications rating bureau that will rate qualifications against each other so that parents know what they are choosing for their children, and crucially so that employers and universities can differentiate between the poor, mediocre, good, great, and geniuses.

Can't Stop The Pot

The government has responded to the petition to legalize cannabis on the No. 10 website. Here is their response in full, followed by why I think that it's a pile of shite. I have numbered the paragraphs for reference, the rest of the text is as produced on the No. 10 site.

(1) The Government has no intention of legalising cannabis and regulating its control. In response to the Home Affairs Committee report on The Government's Drugs Policy: Is It Working? in 2002, it stated that "We do not accept that legalisation and regulation is now, or will be in the future, an acceptable response to the presence of drugs" and that includes cannabis. Supply and possession of the drug are and will remain illegal.

(2) The Government considers that cannabis is a controlled, illicit drug for good reasons. It has a number of acute and chronic health effects and prolonged use can induce dependence. Most cannabis is smoked and smoking, in any form, is dangerous. Even the occasional use of cannabis can pose significant dangers for people with mental health problems, such as schizophrenia, and particular efforts need to be made to encourage abstinence in such individuals.

(3) Legalising cannabis would run counter to this country's international obligations as a signatory to the relevant United Nations Conventions on drugs and there is no prospect of unilateral action.

(4) Legalisation would also run counter to the Government's health and education messages. The message to all - and to young people in particular - is that all controlled drugs, including cannabis, are harmful and no one should take them. To legalise the possession of cannabis for personal consumption would send the wrong message to the majority of young people who do not take drugs on a regular basis, if at all, with the potential risk of increased drug use and abuse.

(5) The Government's objective is to reduce the use of all illegal drugs - including cannabis - substantially, not to encourage increased consumption due to more ready access to increased supply. While our drugs laws cannot be expected to eliminate drug use, there is no doubt that they do help to limit use and deter experimentation.

(6) The Prime Minister announced on 18 July that, as part of the consultation to review its drug strategy, the Government will also consider whether it is now right that cannabis should be moved from Class C back to Class B under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

(7) There is real public concern about the potential mental health effects of cannabis use and, in particular, the use and availability of increased strengths of the drug, commonly known as skunk. In these circumstances, the Government is considering whether it is necessary to toughen the penalties relating to cannabis possession to complement its education and treatment programmes.

(8) The Home Secretary has therefore asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which advises the Government on drug issues, to again assess the medical and social scientific basis of the classification of cannabis. This review will take into account the fact that there are stronger forms of cannabis that may cause more harm.

(9) The Government will consider carefully the Advisory Council's findings, expected next spring, before making a final decision that will be consistent with its aim of reducing the harm caused by drugs and ensuring that people - and especially young people - are well aware of all the risks.

(Incidentally, if you want more ammunition to fire at the government, I recommend that first link)

So let's summarize:
(a) Cannabis has acute and chronic health effects eg. addiction, lung problems, schizophrenia.
(b) Legalization runs counter to international obligations.
(c) Legalization would send the wrong message.
(d) Government objective is to reduce use.
(e) No doubt that drugs laws limit use and deter experimentation.
(f) Skunk is more available now.
(g) Government aim is to reduce harm and raise awareness of risks.

Tackling those one at a time:
(a) Health effects: while there is no doubt that cannabis can have negative effects on health, this is true of a whole host of perfectly legal activities such as drinking, driving, diving, skydiving, surfing, motorcycle riding (deadly, that, both my grandads died in bike accidents), yachting, mountaineering... the list goes on. Why is it that it's okay when it's an "extreme" sport, or a day-to-day activity to get to work that it's legal, but when it's a mind-altering recreational drug, that suddenly becomes a problem? I never saw a notice anywhere that said SURFING KILLS.

(b) International obligations: I believe that the Netherlands manages to avoid this by making cannabis illegal but not actually enforcing the law, and explicitly stating that it won't. Anyway, I suspect that invading Iraq ran counter to a few international obligations. If HMG can do it to kill a million Iraqis, they can do it for cannabis.

(c) Laws should not be made to "send a message", they should be made to accomplish stated outcomes. If it could be shown that legalization would reduce use (like it did in the Netherlands), would the government still be ideologically opposed to legalization? If so, why? That would run counter to their practical aims to reduce use and therefore harm. Anyway, lawmaking based on "sending messages" is really code for "we don't want the tabloids disapproving".

(d) I simply don't believe that. If the government's objective was to reduce use, then they would have seriously investigated, and possibly trialled, legalization. Evidence from the Netherlands shows that after a short spike, usage falls to levels below pre-legalization levels.

(e) Bollocks. Cannabis has always been considered counter-culture and edgy precisely because of its illegality.

(f) It is not at all obvious that cannabis is vastly stronger now than it ever was, nor that most users are actually smoking the strong stuff. Furthermore, there is good reason to believe that the rise of skunk is due to the illegality of the drug, and the requirement to make more money per plant on the part of producers due to the criminal risks involved in production. If cannabis were to be legalized, firstly, the strength could be controlled, preventing legal skunk from being sold, and second, the demand-for-supply of skunk (if that makes sense) should actually go down since production would no longer be illegal, and cultivation would not need to be done in secret.

(g) What better way to raise awareness of the risks of cannabis than to emblazon "CANNABIS CAUSES SCHIZOPHRENIA" on every packet in every newsagent? The harms associated with drinking and smoking are well-understood and often discussed, because they are legal.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Intellectual Poverty

(Is it a wonder that most blog posts are fatuous? Bloggers must surely expend most of their mental energies thinking up suitably punnishing titles - I know I do!)

I find the current discussions on child poverty infuriating. The notion of 60% of median as a floating scale for child poverty is, frankly, bonkers. We should be looking at how much it costs to actually house, feed, clothe, etc a child today. If a parent doesn't have that much money to spend on their children, then those children should be definitionally "in poverty". Otherwise not. Okay, it may be that right now, 60% of today's median income corresponds to enough income to feed oneself and one's children, but in five, ten years?

Second, I don't really believe that 1 in 3 children in the UK live in poverty by any sensible definition of the word. Hardship? Sure. But starving? Or living without heating or electricity? I find that very unlikely. Is this figure being calculated *before* benefits are paid? If so, then no suprise that the figure is going up.

Fortunately, there's a very easy way to end child poverty: it's called a "Citizen's Income". Pay everyone a CI, and pay <16-year-olds a half-share. A 2-parent, 2-child family then receives £18k at a CI of £6k. Oh, hey, that's way bigger than the £12k that is currently 60% of median income.

And you free parents from the benefits trap that keeps them at home, hopefully increasing economic activity all round (particularly if the minimum wage is abolished and the restrictions on childcare reduced).

Finally, if the kids' half-shares are actually full shares, but with 50% going into a trust, then every child will have ~£45k (in today's money) available at age 18 to give them a real start in life. Okay, so 18-year-olds can be irresponsible, so we might limit the uses of the trust to educational (etc) purposes until age 30. This frees children from the fear of getting into huge debt through a university education, whilst also making them think sensibly about what to spend the money on.

I know Mark's going to pop up and disagree with me here, on the basis that we should be keeping things simple, but I think that sometimes a compromise is worthwhile if it provides good outcomes. I think that a stakeholder grant of this form would disproportionately benefit the poor whilst solving the funding problem for universities, amongst other things, and so I believe that it would be really worthwhile.


A separate thought on child poverty and attainment: children who are born to richer, older parents do better than those born to younger, poorer ones. One might naturally think, therefore, that one should incentivize parents to have children later and richer by making the monetary rewards for bearing children later and richer be greater. However, it seems awfully unfair to thus disadvantage children born to poorer, younger parents, through no fault of the child themselves. Part of the problem, I suppose, is that it's pretty hard to distinguish between money going to the children and money going to the parents from an institutional point of view.

How about a one-off bonus paid to every couple, of £250 per year past age 20 (capped at £3000) of the mother's age at the birth of her first child (age 21 = finished uni!). Not enough to materially affect the child's development, but perhaps enough to encourage everyone to wait for as long as possible? (£2.5bn a year, tops. Peanuts in terms of government spending!)


There are two issues that I want to talk about relating to censorship. I've been muddling my responses to them together, so this is really a post to clarify my own thinking.

1. Torture porn
Basically, I think that films like Sin City are pretty gross. I usually avoid them, and only saw Sin City on the basis of faulty advice (and left the cinema when Clive Owen started chopping dead bodies up). Honestly, I don't think that Sin City is really the worst offender, because most of the films I put in the "torture porn" category involve a lot more women screaming as horrible things are done to them or are about to be done to them. I always find the threat of sexualized violence in the narrative context of a 'mainstream' movie quite stomach-churning. I have a sense, though, that there have been a rash of recent films in which "this sort of thing" is being done purely in order to titillate the audience rather than because the scene is strictly necessary in the movie. That's what I find detestable, that the filmmakers seem to be speaking to the audience and saying "we've got what you like", rather than actually making films with a reasonable story.

On the other hand, I find the gleefully gratuitous fight scenes of Shoot 'Em Up and its ilk highly entertaining, and casualizing violence is arguably worse. I guess what really gets me about the "torture porn" genre is that people actually want to watch that stuff. But I guess that I can't claim any moral superiority since I'd list The Matrix and a couple of John Woo films in my top 20 favourites. And I can't even watch an episode of House without looking away at least five times.

NOTE: I don't really include S&M movies in the "torture porn" category, since they are pretty clearly harmless. Not that I've seen any. No, really. What?

2. Hate Speech
(You're thinking, how does he get these two confused?? Thinking about censoring things that people find offensive, that's how.)

On the one hand, I am pretty firmly anti-censorship in all its forms - I think that people should be able to say what they like, and if other people find that offensive then tough. I think that I'm even "pro" hate speech and incitement, at least in theory, because the people being spoken to surely have their own minds.

On the other hand, I find Chris Bertram's argument compelling.

So I'm in a quandary. The notion of a blanket freedom of speech seems "instinctively liberal", but sometimes our instincts are wrong. Should we give up a part of our freedom of speech in order to foster equality and tolerance? So that "the strong should not harm the weak"?

Monday, 3 December 2007

Jack Straw's vast conspiracy

Mr Straw also said " 99.9%" of people in the Labour Party had not been involved

Maths quiz: how many party members are there, and how many are therefore implicated?

Fiscal engineering

Buying peerages or policies via donations to political parties is, in security terms, an "exploit". Unfortunately, it's not an easy one to fix, even aside from the fact that the people who would be attempting to fix the exploit are the same people who are benefitting from it, and thus have to reason to get the fix right - you wouldn't hire the guy who hacked your bank's software to write the fix to his own exploit (not without some serious review mechanisms).

Jock outlines a neat solution in this post. The reason it works is because it purports to vastly reduce the demand for cash by political parties by reducing all campaigns to face-to-face discussions. I'm not sure I totally buy this, incidentally - presuming that the party system were to stay intact in such a system (and I'm not at all sure that it would), I can see that parties could win more by spending money in a different way - instead of national advertising, training candidates on public speaking, debate, and so on, and providing high-quality campaigning materials such as powerpoint presentations (you just know that cellular democracy will result in campaigning-by-powerpoint), flyers, websites and so on. But anyway, I think it's a neat idea on other grounds anyway, so I share it with you. My three readers, one of whom is Jock anyway :P

I'd like to propose a different solution: eliminate the demand for donating to political parties. Many (not all) donors give large sums on the presumption if not outright agreement, that they will benefit somehow themselves. There are three obvious ways in which rich donors could benefit from donating either to the party in power, or the party who is about to come into power. Incidentally, this is why the Lib Dems have, I suspect, significantly fewer large donors - because they are unlikely in the short-to-medium term to gain power and be able to pay back favours.

1. A peerage or other honour: since the scandal, I suspect that the likelihood of rich donors being nominated for peerages will have dropped significantly. However, leave it a few years, and the parties will start to peddle them once more.

Solution: a sortitioned Lords. If the Lords is drawn at random from the public, there's no way to buy one's way in. For other honours, well, who cares? Knights don't get to rule anyone.

2. Favourable policy decisions: Lord Ashcroft seems to be bankrolling the Tories on the basis that they will bring in policies more to his liking.

Solution: a sortitioned Lords would help here, along with a written constitution and a transparent and well-managed lawmaking process that rejects spurious or bad laws. Giving MPs cash bonuses for sponsoring "good" laws would incentivize them to not just follow the party whip. Finally, a system of election that is more representative of the people's views would make parliamentary votes closer, meaning that governments would be less able to steamroller bad legislation through parliament, particularly if their own MPs stood to lose money on the proposition.

3. Favourable executive decisions: Local councillors seem to be being bribed all the time to make favourable property planning decisions.

Solution: separate the executive from the legislature. Ministers should not be responsible for policymaking, running their department, and representing their constituencies all at the same time. Instead, the heads of departments should be appointed by Commons committee and ratified by the Lords. An ombudsman with real power to investigate complaints and abuses in the departments, and to recall the head of department, could be appointed by the judiciary and ratified by a jury (because parliament should not be appointing both head and ombudsman - perhaps the Lords could appoint an ombudsman instead?).

Finally, the rules on donations at the moment need to go. They are just too easy to circumvent. There are only two sets of rules that I think would be easy to enforce and difficult to game: either no donations from 3rd parties at all, or no restrictions on donations at all. The former can still be gamed by gifts in kind (need somewhere to hold your conference? Use my hotel. Need someone to make your party political broadcast? Use my TV company!) so I'd tend towards the latter, presuming that my solutions were implemented.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

I've been having an entertaining debate -> argument -> flamewar with Laurence Boyce on LDV on the notion of a national universal DNA database. Finally had a comment "moderated" (I think they mean "deleted") when I told Larry to "STFI noob" and er, something a bit more complicated to explain but was about as offensive.

Remember, kids:

Anyway, this thread is partly so Laurence can come here and comment in an environment which won't be "moderated" (promise), and partly so I can outline my concerns on the notion of a national universal DNA database (I'll refer to this as a "NUDNAD" from now on, because it sounds childish and rude):

My first objection is that the idea that any large bureaucracy can build, maintain and run a system as vast as a NUDNAD without data compromise would frankly be hilarious if it weren't so terrifying.

My second is that any government with access to a NUDNAD would be sorely tempted to scope creep it into The War Against Terror, the "war" on drugs, or just to sell the data in it to interested 3rd parties. The consequences of this could be devastating.

That's without even getting to the argument about whether it would be liberal or not to do it.

To be fair, there are a few possible benefits: it would become a lot easier to figure out all of the people who had been at the scene of a crime. That could be handy if the crime scene was visited by relatively few people, and if the identity of any of the people was in question.

However, the idea that a NUDNAD would facilitate personalized treatments on the NHS is a joke - sure, having your DNA sequenced might help, but there's no need to then put your DNA sequence onto a NUDNAD - the GP's computer system would be fine.

Anyway, what do you think?

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

V is for, uh... Truth

I commend to you the Ministry Of Truth's lengthy and brilliant vivisection of David Cameron's speech on rape. I keep forgetting about MoT, for some reason, despite the fact that it is one of the, if not the, best-written political blogs going.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

If I were Vincent Cable, I'd say something like this

HMRC has today displayed exactly why entrusting this government with an identity card database would be a terrible idea. Can Mr. Darling categorically state that such a cock-up could never happen with the National Identity Register? He cannot.

And yet, he will blab that this latest incident is not his fault. Well, he's right. It's not. He can't have been in the Treasury long enough to set the policy and the senior staff that presided over this incredible blunder.

That honour lies with Gordon Brown. Another nail in the coffin for his alleged brilliance. Since his time in office begun, Mr. Brown and his government have displayed gross incompetence, appalling judgement and disgusting atavism across a whole spectrum of issues.

Simply, LABOUR ISN'T WORKING. Mr. Brown bottled an election because he was afraid to lose it. Now it's clear why. Mr. Speaker, we will put forward a motion of no confidence in this farcical administration at the earliest opportunity, and put an end to a decade of incompetence, waste and corruption.

Saturday, 3 November 2007

I don't often just post links, but this one has been nominated as "one of the best blog posts ever", and I have to agree: The D-Squared Digest One Minute MBA - Avoiding Projects Pursued By Morons 101

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Addressing Voucher Deficiencies

In a previous post, I outlined my two qualms with education vouchers:

1. The flight of the middle classes to better schools, due to reduced deadweight costs.
2. That poorer children require more expensive education, and yet are least likely to get it.

I would like to examine a different idea: reverse-auctioning children to the bidder who offered to teach them for the least amount of money.

You'd need to collect a bit of information about each child and hir parents - household income, geographical location, disabilities and so on, not more than about four variables. Then the children can be collected up into tranches of similar kids for consumption by schools.

The advantages of such a system would be:
1. The most difficult children to teach would get extra money to pay for their education.
2. Schools could specialize in teaching particular kinds of children without fear of collecting 100% difficult children - even if they did, the financial rewards would make it worthwhile.
3. That every child would get an "equal" education.

The disadvantages being:
1. Parents don't get a say in the matter.
2. Presuming there is an open market, new "schools" could easily buy tranches of children and then teach them really badly, skimming the money off for a profit.
3. It's impossible to capture the additional cash that some parents are willing to pay to get a better education for their child, leading to there potentially being less cash in the system as a whole. Simultaneously, parents would still be able to buy home tutoring, etc, for their children, partially defeating advantage(3).

Adding a performance bonus for successfully getting children to target educational milestones would help negate disadvantage(2).

Adding some sort of parental "veto" (which puts the child back into the pool for a second round of auctions) would help with both disavantage(1) and disadvantage(2). Since all schools should become equal over time, there should be little reason to veto a bid eventually. Repeated vetoing could lead to problems.

Anyway, I put the notion out there in the hope of some constructive comments.


ps. it occurs to me that a lot of the problems of vouchers would go away by awarding vouchers to a value inversely proportional to parental income - since poor kids are likely to do less well - however, I further suspect that schools would pick "the best of the worst", further clustering the worst pupils in the worst schools.

pps. a possible alternative to a bid-down auction could be a bid-up auction played in several stages - each child starts out with a ~£3000 fund. Schools make offers for children they think that they can teach for £3000. Any kids not taken up (all of them?) would have £1000 added to their fund. Schools bid again for the kids they want to teach at that price point, and so on up. Parents can either pick a school offer, or they can reject all offers, and accumulate half the £1000 for the next round. Parents can perhaps make 5 refusals. There are probably weaknesses in this approach, it's just something that occurred to me right now.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Clegg, but with a heavy heart

I'm going with the general consensus (not often you'll hear me say that!). I'll be voting for Nick Clegg, barring any unforeseen circumstances. Clegg is the better presenter, and that's what counts. I am far from convinced that Chris Huhne, whilst holding policy positions closer to my heart all round, will be the best person to raise the public profile and standing of the party.

Melanie Phillips: part 2

One of the (few) specific claims Melanie Phillips made about drugs on the Moral Maze was that "75% of parents who kill their children are cocaine users". Now, apart from what I call the "Ribena effect" (their advertising claims that 98% of British blackberries are used to make Ribena in a way that implies that Ribena is 98% blackberries. It's not), there are so many qualifiers that you'd need to add to this statement to make it meaningful:

1. Just how many parents have killed their children in the UK in the last, ooh, 50 years? If it's less than about 1000, then I'd say that you'd need to put some pretty big confidence intervals around your 75% claim.
2. What proportion of cocaine users who are parents kill their children? If it's <0.1%, I imagine that it's starting to look comparable to rock climbing, road accidents, etc in terms of risk.
3. Does the number of parents killing their children over the last fifty years correlate with cocaine usage over the last fifty years?
4. Is it a particular kind of cocaine? Crack?
5. Is it a particular kind of user? An addict taking *much per week?

I realize that I shouldn't get so angry over someone who is so obviously an idiot. But she seems to embody everything that's wrong with the popular press that it's hard not to be angry that she gets to express her views in print to hundreds of thousands (millions?) of readers and attempt to sway them. Bah.

Vouchers for Education - a first thought

The notion that the government should get out of the business of providing education and instead grant vouchers to parents to spend on schooling their children where they like is a notion that I instinctively agree with, but on further reflection, I think that there are some important caveats that need to be made on such a position in order for such a proposal to actually work.

Here's a thought experiment:

Imagine that we have vouchers and that therefore parents can spend their vouchers and contribute their own funds on top of the vouchers. I presume that this is traditionally possible under voucher schemes.

Now, at the moment, if the parents of a child want to take hir out of state schooling and put hir into private education, they must meet the full additional cost. However, with vouchers, those who can afford even a small amount of money beyond the vouchers can send their child to a better school.

What I imagine that would lead to would be a greater flight of the middle classes from what are currently comprehensive schools to what are currently grammar / independent / grant-maintained schools. To higher-quality schools, anyway. Leaving those without the ability to pay with a mediocre school and, far more importantly in my view, surrounded by all those others who cannot pay for a better school either. Poor families are disproportionately dysfunctional, and so the poorer schools would be disproportionately stocked with dysfunctional pupils, who not only fail to attain themselves, but can hold back the attainment of others. That's what I consider to be deeply unfair about vouchers.

If one stopped parents being able to pay on top of vouchers, you'd basically criminalize home tutoring and so on, which would be madness. And it probably wouldn't work anyway - the best schools would be oversubscribed and thus able to pick all of the least-likely-to-be-disruptive pupils, because they are cheaper to teach and are less likely to negatively affect other pupils' outcomes, maintaining their reputation as a good school.

My qualms are therefore twofold:

1. That by reducing the direct cost of improved education to parents, that more of the richer parents will take their better-quality pupils to better quality schools, thereby giving their children an advantage over others that is solely due to ability to pay. This does not sit well with my egalitarian beliefs that everyone should get the same life chances, as far as we are able to give them.

2. That by allowing schools the power to select their intake, coupled with a requirement to teach each child for £x000, will naturally encourage all schools to select the pupils that are cheap to teach, which are largely the bright and hard-working.

I would therefore like to propose a different market-based solution to the problem of privatizing education, to be discussed in a later post.

Sunday, 21 October 2007


Do you know why Ariane-5 exploded 39 seconds after take-off? It was because the inertial guidance system failed. And then the backup inertial guidance system failed. Then the rocket made a course correction it didn't need to, put the rocket in an aerodynamically dangerous position, and then the auto-destruct sequence was called, as designed in the case of significant malfunction, and worked perfectly.

Amongst the many lessons one could take away from the explosion is that having a backup system that works exactly the same way as the primary system means that if the primary system fails due to an inherent flaw (rather than failing due to an individual component malfunction), then the backup system will fail in exactly the same way. Indeed, that's exactly what happened in Ariane-5.

So, why the hell would we want to elect the Lords? We already have one elected chamber, and the people in it are, as previously mentioned, not necessarily the best people for making laws.

The Lords as is has its problems, but imagine if it had roughly the same composition as the Commons. Every law introduced by the Commons would get passed through the Lords on the nod, and vice versa. The Lords currently provides an important balance to the excesses of government because it is composed of members appointed by previous governments many years past. That is to say, the backup system uses a different algorithm to obtain its members.

I'm not claiming that the Lords as-is is a perfect or even near-optimal solution, but I'm damn sure that electing the Lords would make things worse, not better.

Melanie Phillips: crackpot?

This week's "Moral Maze" on Radio 4 was awful. It was about the legalization of drugs. The quality of argument was so poor. Unsurprisingly Melanie Phillips was the main culprit.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Tax Simplification

Income / Wealth Tax Simplification

I once wrote a mod for Quake that allowed fiends to run along walls and ceilings in the manner of aliens in the Alien Versus Predator game. The code worked pretty well, apart from one part: how to decide which angle to draw the fiend facing.

That bit of code was a nightmare. I threw everything at it - I hacked and hacked and hacked, adding tweaks here, taking away angles there, guestimating everywhere. It was a total mess, an utter botch job, with lines cancelling each other out, doing the same thing twice, with arbitrary decisions taken as to where and when which angles should be set how. It worked, after a fashion, but not very well, and really not very efficiently.

Is this reminding you of anything yet?

You probably know already that there is more tax law in the Commons library than one person could read in a lifetime. This strikes me as a little bit silly. Combined with the vast number of different means-tested (or not) benefits available, it seems that the current tax and benefits system is much like that fiend drawing routine.

Here's an idea: let's tax everybody at two simple rates - one on income, and one on wealth. Since the basic rate of income tax is 20%, and NI is ~10%, let's have a flat rate of income tax of 30% on all income between £5k and £500k. To pull a second number out of my arse, let's have a wealth tax of 1% on all assets between £50k and £5m.

Combine that with a Citizen's Income of £5k, paid as per my earlier post about children and stakeholder grants, and then abolish:

- National insurance
- Inheritance tax
- Capital gains tax
- Council tax

- Jobseekers' allowance
- Housing benefit
- Council tax benefit (obviously)
- Incapacity benefits (and make lots of services for the disabled available free on the NHS, such as care and transportation services)
- Child benefit
- Public funding for universities (perhaps excluding the Open University)
- Student loans
- There are surely more...?

If I were standing for Lib Dem leader, I'd say something like this:

Liberal egalitarianism is the future. The 20th century was a century of war, physical and philosophical, between the authoritarian socialists of the left, and the authoritarian free marketeers of the right. The battle between left and right has been resolved, the result a draw, the conclusion that each needs the other.

"'New' Labour" and the "'Modern' Conservatives" - what a contradiction, modern, Conservative - are out of date. Watch them stealing policy clothes from each other as each stand on the centre ground between left and right. They are not parties of conviction or of ideology any more. They have no story to tell. Their time has passed.

The battle of the 21st century is between the musty old authoritarians struggling to remain relevant and the liberals who are speaking sense on so many issues today. Who is to defend the cause of liberty in this century? And not just defend it, but take it to the people, show them why liberalism is better than authoritarianism, for everybody.

That task falls to us.

Authoritarianism has provided the basic services that people now take for granted - schools, hospitals, policing and so on. But on the substantive issues of the 21st century, authoritarianism has failed to deliver. Failed on poverty, failed on inequality, failed on education, housing and the environment. Failed on freedom.

Now it is time for liberalism to shine. We should be making the case for traditional libertarian policies - small, simple government, local power, land value taxation, the legalization of drugs - and showing people how and why these policies work. Challenge the received wisdom that is so often misguided. Hand in hand with this liberalism goes the egalitarian policies of citizen's incomes and stakeholder grants.

As leader of this party, I would campaign tirelessly to bring these issues into the public eye. To make the case for liberal egalitarianism as the solution to the problems caused by a century of authoritarianism.


Problems of poverty - 2(?) million people in poverty in this country.

Problems of inequality - in which the richest ten percent control 35%(?) percent of the money.

Problems of societal breakdown, ASBOs, single parents, slums, a spiralling prison population of 80,000(?).

Problems due to pollution through inefficiencies, overconsumption and poor regulation by past governments.

Problems of poor service and quality in the police, the health service, education.

Problems of corruption and rent seeking in a vast government looking to justify its own flabby, shabby existence, spending 45%(?) of the UK's GDP last year.

Make no mistake, the authoritarianism of the last century has provided basic systems to provide shelter, food and clothing, and fair health. But it has done this barely, at great cost, and with varying success. Liberal egalitarianism can fix these failing systems.


A citizen's income, a breadline income for every person in this state should be a core plank of liberal party policy. An income that would guarantee basic freedoms to all, equally, with dignity, instead of the degrading and stigmatizing means-tested, inspected, examined and regulated indignity of the mess that is the current benefits system.

Coupled with the egalitarian policy of a stakeholder grant - a grant for every person as they reach the age of majority, to spend how they wish, and recouped via a capital tax, we could bring unprecedented equality of opportunity for generations to come. These two measures alone would vastly increase the quality of life for every citizen in this country.

But we can go further.

By putting administration of schools, hospitals and police forces into the hands of local people, and letting them decide how money is spent, we can further guarantee the equal freedoms due to good health, a good education and good policing, and ensure that those freedoms are delivered at a reasonable cost to all. It's time to end the culture of targets and misreporting upwards.

By shrinking the central bureaucracy by these measures and by the elimination of QUANGOs, the Department for Trade & Industry, the failed Child support Agency, and many, many benefits agencies besides and replacing them with small, simple government with good oversight and good governance, we can provide everyone the freedoms guaranteed in the bill of rights at a reasonable price. It's time for an end to rent-seeking bureaucrats.

By legalizing narcotics and prostitution, we can reduce crime due to their domination by hardened criminals. We can free police to solve more violent crimes, the sort of crimes that do the most damage to our society. We can reduce harm done to addicts and streetwalkers and reach out to help these damaged people take their place in our society. It's time to end the stigmatization of those in need.

By giving every citizen in Britain the right to a clean and healthy planet, we can ensure that we limit our impacts on the environment, so that the freedom and equality of our children, and our children's children can be guaranteed.


Six radical policies for a liberal Britain - on income, wealth, localism, small government, crime and the environment, form the cornerstone of my offering to the party, and to this country.

I'll be honest, many of them sound like "vote losers", unpopular with mainstream voters. Many of you are sitting out there thinking "this man is a mentalist, and will drive this party into the ground. Can you say '0%' already?".

But every policy is sellable on a practical level. What parent would refuse a forty-five thousand pound grant for their child? Which worker would forsake the security of a breadline income, giving them the freedom to change jobs or to demand better conditions? Which hospital nurse would refuse more local control? Which teacher would not want to be freed from the millstone of our curriculum? Which taxpayer would argue for a larger, more bloated state in exchange for less money in their pocket? Which police officer would rather spend time arresting youths smoking cannabis than chasing real criminals? Which citizen wants a dirtier planet, a shorter lifespan?

None of them want any of them. It is up to us to show people that liberal egalitarianism provides the answers to these problems, not more, bigger government with more centralized control, more targets, more spin, more corruption and more lies.


It will be difficult. The print media seethes against this party. We have to show the newspapers that we will be good for them too. They may ridicule these policies at first, but as businesses they stand to benefit from the freedom and equalities granted by liberal egalitarianism, through a better quality workforce that is better motivated and paying less tax and so on. Every business is made up of people. One would have thought that newspaper owners would be very much "for" the party of small government, elimination of red tape, and so on. We are that party. The Tories are no longer. One would have thought that the traditionally Labour papers would see that our principles of egalitarianism are better for their readers than the broken promises of Tony and Gordon. If given time. If we go out there and engage with them, if we make the case for a free and equal Britain.

As party leader, I will take it upon myself to begin that engagement and to drive it ever on, with the media and with the people, in every way and on every level. Through old media, new media, through lecture tours like Al Gore has so effectively done, through meeting people, through blogs and adverts, radio and television, books and magazines.

We will have spokesmen for our core policies speaking on them and shaping their details together with the party, in public, so that we can show people that we are not only enthusiastic, but intelligent and inclusive too.

We will raise our profile in the national eye through advertisments, articles and debates on our ideology and our core policy.

We will court endorsements by respected public figures, from scientists to singers, firefighters to film stars.

We will show ourselves to have human faces, cares and worries like everyone else with TV appearances, magazine articles and so on. People love people, so these are a great way to engage with people. Show them that we are kind, honest, thoughtful, interested people who really want to make a difference. And who are not stuffy and humourless, too!

Through these means we can bring the battle for the 21st century to the fore, and show that we are the people with the right answers, not the vacuous, vacillating politicians in purple.


So, on a clear ideology, radical and right policies, and an unprecedented level of public engagement, I put myself forward as leader of this party. Except I don't, because I'm not an MP. Damn.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Citizen's Income versus Child Benefits versus Stakeholder Grants

I'm a big fan of citizen's income schemes. Having read this, though, I also really like the concept of stakeholder grants. So I'd like to see a fusion of the two schemes, thus:

Most CI schemes seem to only apply to those over 18. Well, I'd like to see a CI that's paid from birth. Part could go to the parents in order to help with childcare, food, clothing, etc. The remainder would be invested in a trust fund that would become accessible to the child once they became an adult.

At today's suggested CI rate of £5-6k, one might consider it reasonable to pay a child's CI at half rate. Presuming that the child retained roughly 50% of the CI in a trust fund, at age 18 they would receive a windfall of ~£45k in today's money (presuming a 5% interest rate).

Alstott and Ackermann are explicit about their $70k stake being possibly used for a "college" education. So in the UK, one could abolish the state funding of universities (at least for undergraduates), taking the state out of another sector of industry. Off the top of my head, here are the things that the government would no longer need to provide:

- Child Support Agency (or whatever it's called this week)
- Child Benefits
- Management & funding of universities
- Student loans

Furthermore, the percentage awarded to parents can be fine-tuned to ensure that baby production is not an activity that is preferential to work: at the moment, it seems that in a lot of poorer areas, there is a choice between working a shitty job for long hours and low pay, or having a baby and living on benefits. If I was an unskilled, working-class teenage girl, I know which option I'd choose.

(It should be noted that one of the alleged benefits of a CI is to remove such a poverty trap by awarding a flat rate of benefits to all, so perhaps this problem would sort itself out anyway.)

Further, second and additional babies could be paid a greater proportion of their CIs - perhaps 75% for the second baby, and 100% for successive babieS), in order to discourage population growth, if one believes, as I think I do, that there are really too many people in the world already, and we would be individually a lot better off if there were less of us.

On top of that, it may be that having a large family becomes the mark of a rich couple, rather than as it currently is, the mark of the poor. This is a good thing if you believe that children born in wealthy families have a better quality of life and are more likely to be more successful adults.

Your thoughts?

Saturday, 13 October 2007

I've just finished watching season 3 of The Wire. There's an interesting political thread running through it to do with how society treats drugs, and it reminded me of something that I should have blogged about on here a while ago: the UK government's ongoing drugs consultation.

The government are asking for your views (there's an online questionnaire to complete, only 7 questions). The deadline is the 18th of October. Here are my thoughts:

Firstly, I'm coming at this from a moral point of view - I strongly believe that people should be able to do what they like in private (and maybe in public), so long as it's not harming anyone else. UK law mostly respects this principle these days - you can screw any number of people of any combination of genders in your own home. Super. You can write pretty much what you like on blogs like this one, say what you like to your friends, and so on. We live in a pretty free and tolerant society, all told, certainly in comparison to the rest of the world, and certainly when it comes to doing things in private. The one major exception seems to be ingestion of narcotics.

Now, I can totally see why hard or intensely addictive drugs like heroin and crack should be controlled substances - the amount of harm they can do to one's family and friends through their use is, I imagine, serious.

On the other hand, there appears to be a class of fairly harmless recreational drugs such as magic mushrooms, cannabis, ecstasy and so on that have relatively minor effects with relatively small risks, when used properly, whose use and sale is illegal. Why?

As far as I can tell, there is no good "moral" reason.

Turning to the practicalities of the matter, access to narcotics is, by their nature, controlled by criminals. Now, the student cannabis grower, while technically a criminal, is not really a threat to anyone, but I suspect that there is a class of drug dealer dealing in recreational drugs, for whom the margins are sufficiently large that serious criminal activity such as extortion and violence becomes worthwhile. Further, there are probably some dealers who sell both "soft" and "hard" drugs, who would rather their clientele be hooked on something fantastically addictive rather than pot or ecstasy.

Legalization of soft drugs for sale in eg. pharmacies would deprive dealers of revenues and of the gateway mechanism. This would result in a contraction of the number of dealers and (hopefully) therefore a reduction in the non-drugs crimes that dealers are involved in. Hell, some dealers could become registered pharmacists!

There's the obvious public health benefits, too, in that health information would be available to users, and grade and purity would be guaranteed.

The final worry is that with legalization comes an increase in demand. I would ask where that demand would come from - and I suspect that the answer is the kind of people who already drink alcohol would maybe try something different. I can't imagine many teetotallers would decide that alcohol is evil but ecstasy - well, that's awesome. So there would be an increase in competition in the legal mind-altering drugs market, but the market itself would not necessarily get much bigger. Considering the effects that alcohol has on people, in terms of health effects, public disorder and so on, I am all for encouraging some of them to switch to drugs whose responses vary from "wanting to hug everyone" to "wanting to sit eating cookies all night" instead of alcohol, which seems to make a lot of young males do stupid and nasty things to each other and the people around them.

Here's that link again. Please go and give your views.

Andy Burnham: twat?

Another cabinet minister has identified himself as a moron - this is unsurprising, and has been mentioned around the blogosphere a bit already, but I'll throw my two bits in.

Leave aside any party-political clothes-stealing for a minute and instead think about the content of Andy Burnham's comments on marriage. He claims that "there is a 'moral case' for promoting the traditional family through the tax system".

Unfortunately, he doesn't actually make this case, because, well, heaven forbid that any serving ministers would have anything approaching an actual ideology or political philosophy. His other comments seem to be hinting back to that good old chestnut "kids that are raised by two married parents are more likely to do better than kids raised in other circumstances". This is another one of those indicator problems: married couples are far more likely to be committed to each other because - duh - they chose to get married. Marriage is the signal. Increasing tax incentives for married couples will probably raise the number of people getting married, sure. But it's the people who are less committed and less in love than the ones that already got married (broadly speaking). So in time, the child-outcome stats for married couples would get worse as those that would previously have been registered in the "cohabiting and beating our kids" bracket move into the "married and beating our kids" bracket.

Also, today getting married is expensive. I bet that the average married couple (of a given age) is hella lot better off than the average unmarried couple of the same age. Wealth correlates well with child success, because the wealthy can provide for their children better in terms of toys, education and so on, and are likely to be brighter and marry later, both of which themselves correlate well with child success.

But no-one wants to talk about this shit in the mainstream media. Where are the journalists hanging politicians out to dry for stuff like this? It's not rocket science. Hell, it's not even "dual award" science, and that's saying something.

ps: "There’s sometimes a metropolitan myth that Labour people are all a bit liberal" oh fuck off, Andy. No-one in their right mind thinks Labour are liberal. Hello? ID cards? Detention without trial? Not ringing any bells yet? Tosser.
I'm not very good at this blogging business, am I? Trouble is, I'm not so interested in publishing daiy shout outs to places that you see on the right, who are pretty much all of the blogs I read frequently. However, I did discover openDemocracy the other day, and recommend it for commentary on meta-political issues like what I am trying to do here.

The other trouble is that I find that my writing is not up to the standards of the blogs I read myself, which is quite dispiriting.

Friday, 5 October 2007

Can't get enough o them left/right flamewars.

And on the topic at hand, I do recommend kateshomeblog on the matter.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

MP selection algorithms

One of the parts of a safety case for a safety-critical system is a list of the engineers who developed the system, and a reasoning for why they were selected. For a safety-critical system, you want smart, well-trained and diligent people who "do their utmost" to make sure that the system turns out well.

Lawmaking is a safety-critical system: bad laws can result in harm to millions. So why do we select our lawmakers in such a poor way? We must be, because the people who get elected are frequently cunts.

One of the problems is that the average voter probably doesn't know what makes up a high-quality lawmaker, and probably doesn't care to find out.

So, how about an exam for potential MPs? We have exams for doctors, lawyers, teachers, and, of course, engineers. Why is law-making exempt?

The exam would cover questions of political history, use of statistics, logic, policy analysis and development and so on. It would be set by a board of academics drawn from leading universities, appointed by a crossparty committee from the House of Lords.

Candidates' exam results would then be shown on the ballot paper next to their names. In fact, the ballot paper could show a "star rating" for each candidate which would be influenced by their exam score, length of previous experience (in local or national government), any criminal convictions, and so on. The ballot paper could show the salient details in successively smaller fonts, so that the party affiliation can be used for those who care not at all, the star rating for those who care somewhat, and the details for those who care a lot.

Some might say that anyone should be able to represent the people, education or not. Some might say that the exam excludes the working class, that the "experience" part of the star rating excludes the mavericks and includes the party apparatchiks. They may indeed be right.

But would you really want an uneducated person making your laws? Look at George W. Bush.

Would you want an inexperienced person making your laws? You probably wouldn't want an inexperienced engineer designing your car or your holiday jumbo jet.

Monday, 1 October 2007

Michael Gove Is A Muppet

So Tory education secretary Michael Gove wants all children to wear a blazer (scroll down), on the basis that 48 out of 50 of the best state comprehensives enforce the wearing of a blazer.

Here's a similar idea: being in Who's Who is probably a fair indicator of success. So why don't we simply list everyone in Who's Who, and then everyone will be successful?

Or how about: the presence of condoms in the home indicates a low(er) rate of STI infection. So why don't we mail all those pesky Catholics a free box of Durex?

Something in the inverse: imagine you are in charge of safety at a nuclear power station. Your sole job is to watch a "DANGER OF MELTDOWN IMMINENT" indicator light and act on it. If the light ever lights up, do you:
a) investigate the problem using all the other monitoring equipment, determine that there is a serious fault, evacuate the building, press the "emergency shutdown" button, and later begin an investigation into the problem or,
b) disconnect the light.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Fixed-term elections

Lynne Featherstone has been blogging about the fact that the prime minister currently gets to pick the election date (and notes that Gordon Brown was for fixed parliamentary terms in 1992, but not, wonder of wonders, now that he's in charge).

On the one hand, a change to fixed parliamentary terms ensures that governments can't wait until the high-water mark and call an election when they are popular. On the other hand, considering the fickleness of the media and of opinion polls, having fixed terms could lead to a situation in which a government that had been largely popular throughout most of its rein was thrown out at a low point.

This strikes me as a sampling problem. Imagine a graph with government popularity on the Y axis and time on the X axis - you'd get a wiggly, wavy line. Taking a sample every 4-5 years is a very, very imprecise way of recording how popular the government has been over time.

I propose that government is sampled more often, and that, say, 20% of constituencies go to election each year, at a neutral time of year like spring or early autumn. That way, a government's power can be continually regulated by the people. Of course, there would be no more landslide victories for one party or another, since it would take several years for the total composition of parliament to change. But would that be a bad thing?

Thursday, 20 September 2007

What This Is All About

This is a blog about how the principles of software engineering could be applied to the UK Parliament.

Software engineering is different from mere "computer programming": it is concerned with developing high-quality software, not just a "botch job" that gets by. That means making sure that things get done right throughout the development process.

Our parliament should be about creating high-quality laws. It currently isn't. That says to me that in order to improve our parliament, we need to change the rules under which it operates.


One of the most important ways to ensure quality in software systems is the process of review. A document, or piece of code, or test script, is not simply written by one person and accepted. It is written then reviewed, first by the author, then by a peer or superior, or more than one.

The UK Government has a system of review, too. A bill will often be published in draft form before being introduced into the law-publishing cycle. Amendments can be made here, then during the second reading, again when read in the Other house, then at the committee stage. Sounds good, doesn't it? Except that at all points, only a majority vote is required to pass amendments. When you have a system of majority government, that means that the party in power can pass whatever laws it likes. Sure, the review process will pick up on obvious and honest mistakes in the same way that the software engineering review process does, but anything really contentious will get left in. Bless the Lords, they've fought a few bills here and there, but the Lords can only delay matters.

This doesn't jive with the idea of creating high-quality laws. How often have we seen governments "toughen up" laws on crime when there is some political capital to be made from it? Or introduce laws that patently have the opposite effect to that which was intended? Partly this is a matter of defining laws well enough in the first place, but partly, it's a matter of review.

So how could one engineer a better system of review in parliament?

There are four groups of people who review things in software engineering:

1. The author. Bearing in mind that the authors are politicians, getting them to review their own stuff for the presence of "good quality" seems rather difficult. They already submit positions of intent for new laws to clarify their objectives, which are just as easy to fudge as the law itself. Let's presume, instead, that all politicians are self-interested sociopaths for the moment.

2. Peers. Laws already get reviewed in the Commons, of course, and in select committees, but neither have any real power of alteration. On the other hand, requiring a greater than majority could lead to the sort of compromise politics and horse-trading that makes a different kind of poor-quality law. One could, perhaps, require a 52% majority to pass alterations, meaning that at least a few members of the other party must co-operate. Or some interesting scheme whereby at least 5% of every opposition party in the house must agree. But again, I think that this is a flawed solution.

3. Superiors. In the political sense, I suppose that this would be the Lords. As it stands, though, the Lords is a body appointed by governments past and present. To ensure an independent eye is cast over any new law, one could constitute an entirely apolitical upper house - perhaps through sortition. If these Lords were given the powers to ensure that bills were appropriately SMART, then perhaps that would go some way to preventing spurious lawmaking.

4. Clients. Not much is reviewed by clients of a software product - tested, perhaps, but not reviewed. The only occasion in which they do get involved is if they are involved in construction of some initial documents themselves. The problem is that the clients largely lack the technical skills to review properly. One could say the same about the electorate, particularly given the (dis/mis)information fed to them by the mass media.

However, one of the biggest challenges in software engineering is giving the client what they actually need (different from what they want or what they ask for). That can only happen by understanding the clients well enough and it seems that in a political system the best way to figure out what voters need is by asking them. So perhaps we might think of having more referendums on more topics.
There's this thing in engineering called SMART requirements. You probably don't want to follow that link. Here's a summary:

Basically, when you make a piece of software, you need to know what to make. It turns out that this is the really hard part of software engineering. By and large, design, programming, testing and rollout are all well understood fields with a bunch of best practice books and so on kicking around in order to do them well. (Design is still a bit more of an art than a science, but I think that any engineer worth his salt can do good design intuitively.)

So, gathering a client's requirements and turning them into a system design that accurately reflects the requirements is quite hard. There is no accepted universal method, and even if there was, most clients probably wouldn't know how to do their part of it. It's also where the politics of engineering come in - who's in control of what, which bits of risky development can be parcelled out to whom, and so on.

One of the tools I've seen to ensure a higher quality of requirements gathering is the notion of SMART requirements. It is effectively a combination of a tree-structured hierarchy of systems requirements with a checklist for ensuring that each node in the tree meets some basic rules. Here are the rules:

S - Specific: Specific requirements are clear, consistent, simple, and "of an appropriate level of detail".
M - Measureable: The system can be checked against measureable requirements to indicate whether the system meets the requirement or not.
A - Attainable: Attainable requirements are those which can be reached by the system.
R - Realizable: Realizable requirements are those which can feasibly be reached by the system.
T - Traceable: Traceable requirements can be associated with every onward part of the system: design, implementation and testing elements.


So how can SMART requirements be useful in politics?

In the drafting of bills of law, that's how. If every law passed had to be Specific (not wordy, concise, clear), Measureable (identifying clear measures of success), Attainable (the aim of law was possible), Realizable and Traceable (any programs instituted would be clearly identified with measures and the individual laws and parts of laws that brought them into force), we might be a lot better off.

Particularly if a second, independent body were to be responsible for identifying measures of success and feasibility. I would hope to engender a situation like this:

"Cannabis is dangerous, we want to reduce the number of people who smoke cannabis because it is a health risk. Let's try reclassifying it to a class B drug."
"Sure. Let's take note of how many people are smoking it now, and how many are suffering adverse health effects, and you can give it a go."
-> 5 years later...
"Hmm, making cannabis more illegal didn't really work. We'd better repeal that law."