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.