With friends like these …

No-one can have a detailed and expert view of every topic that comes into the public domain.  Many issues involve value judgements, but relatively few can be judged without some factual or historical input.  And, regrettably, if you have ever mastered an area of public controversy – like the workings of the social security system or the reasons for a housing shortage, for example – you will know that the common discussion is very impoverished.  The man who is as sure about penal policy as he is about Iraq or taxation is likely to be a saloon bar boor rather than a polymath.  It can be argued that we are in a democracy, and so we must do what the people want, but my take on democracy is that we allow the people to decide the broad thrust of policy, not have a plebiscite on every issue.  Getting a round of applause on “Question Time”, as Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse have deliciously shown, is not a sign of wisdom.

One factor that often affects my viewpoint is the intellectual honesty of those making an argument.  I feel that someone cannot be very confident of their stance if they feel the need to bend the truth or cut logical corners when making an argument.  This can sometimes influence me, even when I am sympathetic to the argument made.  For example, the euro.  Now, I used to teach economics, and economists are (generalisation coming up) broadly in favour of smaller currency areas.  They enable economies to adjust more easily to changes in productivity, avoiding the need for socially damaging deflationary measures that raise unemployment, or import and export controls that interfere with efficiency.  I am actually in print at the time of the EEC referendum in 1975 arguing against a single currency.  But once the anti-euro brigade got going, I began to wonder whether I was right, simply because of the dishonesty of the arguments made.  “This will mean we no longer have the Queen on our currency” – well, if that matters to you, a cursory glance (or visit to Belgium, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Spain etc) will confirm that European monarchs are on euro coins. “The Queen will no longer be on our notes” – well, monarchs weren’t on our £ notes before 1960, and no-one complained.  “Once we are in we will not be able to leave the eurozone” – nope, there are plenty of examples of countries leaving currency unions in our lifetime.  The list includes Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, which we should remember because it was the £ sterling they gave up.  I was in  France when they converted to the euro, and it was a trouble free experience: even the car-park meters were faultlessly changed overnight.

Now we have the controversy about the recommendations of Lord Leveson’s report on the recent press abuses.  Now, I think there is an overwhelming case for a tougher press complaints authority of some sort, and the argument that it needs a statutory backing seems to me to be strong.  Otherwise, how to stop it sliding back into the old pals’ act we have suffered for the past 60 years or so ?  But I am willing to be persuaded, especially as people who I respect – like Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye, and the Times columnist David Aaronovitch – seem to be so opposed.  But the arguments against the Leveson proposals are beginning to show the same intellectual dishonesty as the Euro-nutters.  For example:

  • William Hague tells us that having a statutory backing will reduce our influence in the world in favour of press freedom, and will encourage tyrants to control their media. This rests on the idea that Kim Jong-Un, Bashar al-Assad and Robert Mugabe will free up their press and TV in response to a decision to abandon Leveson.  Which begs the question – why have they waited so long before becoming Guardian reading liberals ?
  • Simon Jenkins tells us in the Guardian that there must surely be better things for the government to concern itself with when the economy is depressed and the nation at war. This is not quite out of the Sir Humphrey Appleby book of why not to do anything, but gets pretty near.  It suggests that a government spending £681 bn. (that’s nine noughts) and employing 5.8m people cannot be engaged with more than one matter at a time.  Now, I know people say the public sector is inefficient, but …
  • He also says that it is bad law for the victims to decide how offenders should be dealt with – and others making the same point hint at mob rule. But no-one is putting victims in charge: what is required is a system in which victims can have some confidence of redress.
  • David Aaronovitch tweets that Ofcom (the agency that it is suggested assesses the effectiveness of any new scheme) has allowed the Jeremy Kyle Show to continue, which presumably shows that it is unfit to supervise any arrangements for the press. Might we ask what his view would have been had Ofcom intervened to ban a TV programme because it offends people ?  Wouldn’t this have been used as an argument against their involvement, as it would be an attack on editorial freedom.
  • Another argument is that the reported abuses are against the law, and so it should be left to the law to deal with it. But one of the abuses was that the police are paid by the press, and the first police investigation into phone hacking reported that there was no problem, just before the officer in charge started writing for the Murdoch organisation.
  • John Kampfner tells us that the Leveson proposals will prevent the press from scrutinizing matters like WMD pre-Iraq and financial weaknesses pre-crunch. Er, you mean, rather like they the way failed to scrutinize matters like WMD pre-Iraq and financial weaknesses pre-crunch ?  You might even argue that spending less time in Steve Coogan’s dustbin will free up the press for more important matters.
  • Then we get the ‘slippery slope’ arguments, which basically mean “what you’re proposing seems sensible, but might lead to something stupid in future”.  Ok, let’s not do something stupid in future.
  • “It’s all changing because of the internet, and who is regulating that ? Well, answer me that ?”.  This is at base the idea that because we cannot solve everything, we should solve nothing.  The term for this has recently been coined – “whataboutery”.

None of this is to be pro or anti Leveson.  There are strong arguments about press freedom, many of which involve issues of ownership, of defamation, which have not played a full part in discussions.  Similarly, the euro debate never seemed to me to go into issues like transaction costs or gains from trade, which might have been more powerful than the flexibility offered by individual national currencies.  That’s the problem with intellectual dishonesty – not that it annoys the hell out of me (though it does) but that it prevents real debate about genuine issues.

Science and optimism

Whilst our libraries and adult education services are being demolished around us, we must seek our enlightenment where we can.  The internet is a splendid source, with sites like TED offering challenging and expert views across a wide range of topics.  The good old radio is also still providing magnificent programming: every episode of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time is available for downloading.  I brushed my teeth this morning to an explanation of why Bertrand Russell’s Principia Mathematics was so important to the development of modern philosophy.  And then there’s Frontiers and The Infinite Monkey Cage and Material World.   It’s wonderful how radio can inform us whilst we’re doing something else.  Most of my understanding of modern science has come from Radio 4 whilst I’m painting the spare room or raking leaves.

TV is also pretty honourable in explaining how the world works – just think of David Attenborough’s lifetime of work. I also liked Brian Cox’s explanation of the universe – despite silly reviews, having a regional accent doesn’t disqualify you from being a serious scientist (see Priestley, Maxwell, Thomson and probably Newton).  So I had a look at Dara O’Briain’s Science Club on BBCtv last night, and learned that life goes better for optimists.  At first I thought – well, is this a sampling error ?  Of course people are upbeat if life goes well for them.  But that was allowed for in the surveys – the researchers identified glass half-full people in their youth, and stood back to see what happened, and they did better than matching glass half-empty people.  Now, this does fit with what we know about performance psychology – sports people are trained to visualize success, which helps them to attain it.  My problem is that I am a congenital and extreme pessimist.  Glass half-full ? Not only is it half-empty, the wine is probably sour, and I’m going to have to wash it up, and then I’ll drop it and break it, and it will be turn out to be of my wife’s favourite glasses.  And irreplaceable.  My daughter works in mental health, and describes this as ‘catastrophising’, and I’m world class at it.  I worry about tuning in to an England sports performance, because I know that a wicket will fall or a goal conceded as soon as the TV warms up.  And there’s nothing I can do about it. I think.

Talking of pessimism and optimism and sports psychology, I stand back in open-mouthed admiration at athletes who can overcome enormous odds or ‘unbeatable’ opponents.  When Muhammad Ali first fought Sonny Liston, he was a 7-1 outsider: 46 out of 43 boxing experts predicted an early knock-out, and some expected serious physical harm.  But Ali went in with enormous confidence, and won well.  In 1990, Buster Douglas faced the undefeated heavyweight champion Mike Tyson at odds of 42-1.  And he won.  Mr. Douglas was obviously a powerful and fit man, but how on earth did he get the mental strength to face up to – and beat – the ‘baddest man on the planet’, who had won all his previous 37 fights, 34 by knock-out ?  And last weekend, the England rugby union team faced the New Zealand All Blacks – the world champion XV who were unbeaten in their previous 20 matches, and thrashed them.  People often perform as they are predicted to, which is why teachers are urged to have high expectations of pupils.  But the sort of mental strength needed to face up to the apparently unbeatable – and, in rugby and boxing, physically intimidating – and win, that requires quite exceptional confidence and toughness.  Not sure I’ve got it (translation: I know I haven’t).

The economy again, inevitably

Back to the economy.  We have just had the Autumn Statement – the Chancellor’s view of the future prospects for the economy and the government budget.  The orchestration of these announcements follows a common pattern.  On the day itself, the Chancellor flits over any negative news (or blames it on his predecessors), spends more time magnifying any tiny ray of hope, and ends with a minor concession that is dressed up as a vastly generous gesture.  The rhetoric generally talks of shared burdens and concentrating help on those ‘most in need’.  The great man sits down to cheers from his supporters.  In the days that follow, when people have had time to analyse the figures, it becomes clear that (a) a very optimistic spin has been put on the facts but even so (b) things are much worse than presented and (c) on the whole, the poorest people will get it in the neck.  A particular feature – which governments of both persuasions use – is to present money already announced and committed, or a reduction in cuts, as an expansion.  This has happened in the last week in respect of more resources for tax inspectors (the service is not being cut quite as much as originally planned) and for overseas aid (a previously agreed fund has been re-announced).

A particularly unpleasant part of this year’s event has been the demonization of social security claimants, who are presented as people who choose to lie in bad whilst their neighbours – who are described as ‘strivers’ – get off to work.  Matthew Taylor feels that this has been so over-blown that the Chancellor has, in media language, jumped the shark.  I’m not so sure.  One explanation of Labour’s pallid response to the autumn statement is that their private opinion polls report the unpopularity of social security, even amongst low wage earners.  Surveys indicate that respondents vastly overestimate the proportion of benefit cheats.  About a fifth of the population think most claims are fraudulent: the actual figure is thought to be around 2%. But the reason we have growing benefit claims is because there are few jobs, particularly in depressed regions.  The fact that unemployment varies with the business cycle indicates that people become unemployed because they can’t find a job, not because they want to stay in bed.  This is also the main reason why the outcomes of schemes aiming to get the unemployed back to work are so disappointing.  And this is even more true of those claiming disability benefits.

Which brings me to my main point, which is that the important point is to achieve growth in the economy so that more worthwhile jobs are created.  This will require something more than the coalition approach, which is almost literally clueless.  It is not reassuring when even the Chief Executive of a major corporation tell us that a right wing government has no growth strategy.  But it will require rather more than the current Labour strategy, which is to do more of the same except for a bit of window dressing – such as funding more apprenticeships with a tax on bankers’ bonuses.  What those apprentices will do when qualified ? The current economic prediction is that we will have a triple-dip recession.  Who is going to employ even skilled people if there is no demand for their products ?

What is needed is an imaginative strategy (not a word that I like, but it represents the fact that we will need to go beyond tactics) for growth and jobs, one that involves employers and unions, that confronts the issue of funding expansion, that stretches over a substantial period of time, and one that does not regard reducing the National Debt as the crucial element of government policy.  One reason we have got to the pass we are at is because of the National Debt obsession.  I think my next post needs to concentrate on that.  It comes to something when a fallacy, exposed by Keynes in the 1930s and that I discussed in passing in a textbook written in the 1970s, comes back as government policy in 2012.  Marx said history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.  Looking at the human costs of unemployment, and of social security cuts, and wage freezes, that there’s not much farce about.  This time round, we have had two doses of tragedy.