Thursday, May 21, 2009

Politicians and journalists, put the statistic down and step away.

A person with a little bit of information is usually a danger to themselves and possibly society.  This is particularly the case at a time when something must be done.

A good example of this is the present scandal on MPs' expenses (does it have an official name yet - "Duck-gate").  A number of people have jumped on some analysis by Mark Reckons, a LibDem blogger, that seems to indicate there is a positive correlation between the size of an MP's electoral majority and the chances that they will abuse the expenses system.  In essence, the more safe an MP feels, the more likely they are to be a crook.

This apparent correlation has led Mark and a number of other people (such as Polly Toynbee and Ben Bradshaw) to suggest that we move away from the First-Pass-The-Post election system.  Their reasoning is that a PR election system would lead to lower majorities for MPs', and according to this correlation, more honest MPs.

Now, the first problem with this is that (I think) the analysis doesn't stand up to scrunity (details of my concerns are here).  Mark has been careful to caveat his statistical conclusions, though I don't think his caveats go far enough.  The caveats, of course, have been ignored by everyone else.

Secondly, even if there is a correlation, it does not mean there is any real or useful link between majorities and honest MPs.  A classic example is the correlation that areas with high level of policing having a high level of crime, leading to the policy conclusion that policing should be reduced as it causes crime.

And finally, what no-one seems to have tried to show is how PR will help, even if the correlation holds.  Though there may be many reasons for PR, tackling MPs expense dodgies seems the flimsest.  Consider:
  • While PR will change the majorities of some MPs, it needn't necessarily lead to the fall in the majorities overall.  You could have some MPs, which after first and second votes, have a larger majority.
  • Some forms of PR can lead to more corruption.  For instance, voters have little ability of getting rid of a hated MP in some forms of close list systems, where that MP heads the list.
  • It would seem from the evidence of the unseating of Neil Hamilton in the 1997 election, and the current mass sacking of tarnished MPs, that the current system can act to get rid of sleazy MPs when the voters have the facts.
So please, before advocating constitutional reform, can we stop and think for one moment.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Sorry is the hardest word, but I can do regret

What I can't get is why Gordon says sorry so badly. The secret of political apologies to so say sorry quickly and completely, to close the story down (you may also want to say sorry because you mean it, that works too). Brown's apologies are slow and grudging.

Gordon has waited five days before apologizing about Smeargate.  By waiting and then saying sorry, he's guaranteed further damaging coverage of the story as the morning paper report his apology and analysis it. If he had said sorry straight away when McBride had resigned, the story would have been over already (assuming there's no further emails).

Also, his apology is so mealy mouthed.
I take full responsibility for what happened. That's why the person who was responsible went immediately.
If you take full responsibility, you take full responsibility. You can't say I take full responsibility, but in the same breath say I'm not the responsible person. And I'm sure that Gordon is "sorry for what happened", but is sorry that people in his office considered smearing people.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Tail wagging the migration dog

Is the Home Office insane, listening to a BNP dog whistle?

Jacqui Smith is proposing that skilled work must first be advertised in the Job Centre before it may be given to a migrant, so that British workers have a chance. Non-EU migrants need a master's degree before coming to the UK for skilled work; EU migrants can come as they please unless they're a Dutch Parliamentarian. How many master-level jobs are advertised in Job Centres at the moment? How many master-level British workers look for jobs in Job Centres? Pure posturing.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Taking a leak

The Government has just sprung another leak.  As reported by Iain Dale, an email has just been leaked showing that Harriet Harman is to have a meeting with the Speaker's Office and the Serjeant at Arms to discuss the Speakers statement to MPs on Wednesday about allowing Police to search Damian Green's Parliamentary Office.  Other invitees to Harman's meeting include Gus O'Donnell, Jacqui Smith and Jack Straw.

However, apart from the irony of another leak (and the desperation of Labour's news management), the best bit about this story is Harman's office attempt to wriggle out.  According to the BBC, her spoken has said:

"The purpose of the meeting is to discuss the parliamentary business and handling of issues that arise from the fact that the speaker's statement and the Queen's Speech will be happening on the same day."

Yes, if you are going to have a meeting about Parliamentary procedure,
you invite the Head of the Civil Service, the Justice Secretary and the
Home Secretary (as well as the Labour Chief Whip) at less than 24 hours
notice; they are busy people, who enjoy nothing more than talking about
seating arrangements.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Putting destruction in context

The third headline on the BBC news website was "Amazon deforestation accelerates".  The article, in doom laden tones, usually consider appropriate by the BBC for environmental stories, states that:
The destruction of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil has accelerated for the first time in four years, Brazilian officials say. Satellite images show 11,968 sq km of land was cleared in the year to July, nearly 4% higher than the year before...

In recent years the Brazilian government has been able to celebrate three successive falls in deforestation. But the latest estimate from the National Institute for Space Research, known as INPE, shows that this trend has come to a halt.
Now, at a time that the world seems to be falling apart, with the terror attacks in Mumbai, protests in Thailand, the end of Western capitalism, and the assault by the Met police on Parliamentary sovereignty, you would think the ordering of BBC stories is strange. But the biggest sin, is the poverty of the story.

The lesser error is the suggestion that one year data can signal an end of a trend. To be honest, I wouldn't be sure that three years of downward data shows there is a downward trend; but there there is no way to tell whether this year's rise was a new trend or a blip.

But the howler is saying the 12,000 sq km were destroyed (as opposed to trees just being cut down) without any context.  How big is 12,000 sq km?

Using what seems to have been the international benchmark of choice when discussion Amazon destruction, 12,000 sq km is around half of Wales; that seems big.  A more appropriate comparison is that 12,000 sq km is but 0.2 per cent of the total rainforest area of 5,500,000 sq km.  Or put it another way, this rate of loss would have to continue for 50 years for the present rainforest to fall by 10 per cent; hardly disastrous.

So the bottom line of the story is there is no evidence that the slowdown of a already very slow fall in the Amazon rainforest has stopped.  A good news story.

Monday, October 20, 2008

BBC has only one way to skin a cat

Ben Bernanke has been offering some support to proposed fiscal boost in the US during is Testimony to the US Representative. So far so Keynesian (and so now).

What is the most interesting about the story is how the BBC reported it. The headline is "Bernanke supports higher spending". The first paragraph was:
US Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke has said more government spending may be needed to combat economic weakness.
It was if Ben was channeling Gordon Brown, in his new found love for spend, spend (after all, it helped the Japanese no end).

The thing is that Bernanke made no such direct comment. He did offer qualified support for a fiscal package, saying:
... consideration of a fiscal package by the Congress at this juncture [of weak economic growth] seems appropriate.
But what the BBC seem to have forgot is that a fiscal package can be a tax cut as much as a spending increase (or as Bernanke says himself, "increased federal expenditure or lost revenue"). The first US fiscal stimulus was a tax cut after all. The BBC could not however entertain such as ridiculous idea.

I admit I'm being a pedant, but there are two serious points here:
  1. Whatever the advisability of attempting to fiscally fine-tune the economy (the consensus has been don't for around 20 years now), why do most governments consider only spending increases, which typically become permanent structural spending?
  2. Why is the level of economic knowledge so low in the BBC, they have bought the new Brown narrative that only spending increases are somehow a worthy response. I thought it was their job to give people information about the present downturn and policy solutions?
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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Time to make allowances?

On 1 October last year, Alistair Darling, commenting of the Tories proposes to reduce inheritance tax by around £3bn, said:
"Yet again, this is an example of where the Tories are making promises on tax which they can't afford to pay for,

"[George Osborne] is making a promise he hasn't got the money to pay for.

"If you do that, you create the very instability which is the last thing the economy needs and people in this country would pay for that."

Just over six months later, Alistair Darling, commenting on his proposals to reduce the tax on basic tax payers by around £3bn through higher borrowing, said:
" I made clear at the time of the Budget it is right and sensible to allow borrowing to rise and investment to be maintained as the economy slows.

".... Our fiscal policy ... is designed to support stability in these uncertain economic times generated by the turbulence in world financial markets and global commodity price inflation."

That's clear then. Unfunded tax promises are only reckless and damaging to the country's economic stability when they're from the Tories; otherwise they support stability in uncertain times.

As an aside, Darling's tax policy has been to increase personal allowances while reducing the bottom of the top rate band. If this policy was extended to its logical conclusion, you would end up with a flat tax rate. Maybe Labour has been taking lessons from the Adam Smith Institute.