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.