EU Budget

The political parties seem to be so spooked by UKIP that they have lost leave of their senses.  Two recent news stories as evidence.

There is a proposal that the UK pay an additional £1.7bn  into the European Union budget.  This is because budget contributions are based upon national income, and the UK’s national income has been underestimated (and others overestimated) in the recent past.  This has produced outrage from all political parties.  How dare these foreign johnnies do something so dastardly ?  Well, I’ll tell you.  Ask yourself two questions.  Firstly, should contributions to international bodies be based on income, or not ?  Should Luxemburg pay the same as Germany, Greece the same as the UK, or not ?  The answer, I would have thought, is obvious.  The second question – when we find that the income figures have changed, should we change them or keep them as they were, knowing they are inaccurate.  Again, the answer seems bleedin’ obvious to me.  EU subscription should be based on ability to pay, and should change as circumstances change.  Why is no British politician saying this, choosing instead to join a Dutch auction of Europhobia ?

Secondly, we are asked to be outraged that European Union nationals working in the UK can claim family benefits for children who remain in their own country.  The sum is £30m – heavens above, that’s  .001% of the cost of one new aircraft carrier.  But stand back a moment and think.  Workers pay into the national coffers of the country they work in.  Why shouldn’t they get any due benefits paid from the same source ?  Or am I missing something ?

Answer – yes, I am missing the fact that MPs fear they might lose their jobs to a swivel eyed loon at the next election, and so they have to generate false fury at anything – no matter how rational – that might benefit a foreigner.  For evidence as to how far this idiocy has penetrated the British psyche, see below, and weep.

Targets and indicators

I was interested to see that the viewing figures for Newsnight, the BBC’s evening current affairs programme, are falling.  This is thought to be because the news is so appalling – Ebola, Gaza, Ukraine, ISIS, austerity & the rich, UKIP, the demonization of immigrants and the attack on the poor and the rest – that no-one would want to go to bed with that stuff in their mind.  I’ve tended to steer clear of newspapers for that reason.  As a recent commentator pointed out, it is not just the awfulness of the events, it is the fact that we are powerless to do anything about them.

Another reason to shy away from bad news is that it seems so random, so disconnected.  But in many ways, in my view, it isn’t.  Let me take three recent stories, in themselves minor when compared to Syria or West Africa.  One is the mess at Tesco, where the profits of the business have been wildly overstated by financial skullduggery – basically, bringing receipts forward and pushing payments back.  This seems a brainless activity, not least because it plainly cannot be repeated – you can’t book in receipts years ahead, or refuse to pay suppliers forever.  Why, then, did it happen ?  Well, no-one seems to know, and cleverer people than me are being paid several thousand quid a day to be on the case, but here’s my guess.  The managers involved were set profit targets that had to be hit, and ‘incentivised’ to high heaven to hit them.

Second story.  Chris Woodhead, the former Chief Inspector of Schools, has a column in the Sunday Times where he answers readers’ queries.  Being the Sunday Times, the queries often concern selective or private schools, but this week a parent described her horror and fascination that secondary schools were now visiting primary schools to make a sales pitch for their brightest kids to come to their establishment.  Mr Woodhead professes revulsion at this practice.  Surely, he writes, schools should stand on their reputation for excellence, not glitzy come-ons.  Well, Chris old lad, you were in charge when the whole regime of targets an league tables came to town.  What did you think would happen when head teachers and schools were judged on their results, unencumbered by considerations of location, context or intake ?  Choice certainly exists at age 11 – but it is generally the desirable secondary school that has the choice, and the parents and children who have to accept the decisions.  Targets and indicators, indicators and targets.

And then we have the attack on the NHS in Wales.  A note of explanation.  Running health care is a devolved matter – so that the national administrations in Wales and Scotland have some say in how it is organised.  The English NHS – or rather, the senior managers and politicians who decide these things – have brought more private providers and market systems into the provision of health care.  Welsh government has chosen a path which involves more planning and a reliance on public service.  The result has been – what a bloody surprise – a concentrated attack on the performance of the Welsh system by right wing politicians and press in England.  Why, they ask, are death rates in hospital higher than in England ?  The answer they seek is that there are not enough competitive pressures and market disciplines.  But a recent article that smells like truth to me points out that Wales is a country with worse health than the UK because it has more heavy industry, more poverty, more unemployment.  Compare it with the North East of England, not with the English average.  And what’s more, the Welsh government does not judge hospitals by their death rates, knowing that to do so will encourage them to send people home to die, and to avoid risky patients.  English hospitals have targets and indicators, indicators and targets, and so they play the game that will enable their managers to boast of hitting them, whatever the effect on patients.  A measured assessment of the Welsh performance suggests it is on the right track, and that England has much to learn from it; indeed, in some areas, is learning from it.

I am sure that there are bad hospitals and poor doctors in Wales, just as there are in England and (to judge by the Ebola stories from the USA) in Texas.  But the way to improve them is by better practice, not more statistics.  A thoughtful policeman made the same point recently about police targets – work out how to do things, don’t bellow at those that (apparently) can’t.

So, three stories, all linked by the adoption of the modern management religion of targets and indicators.  There is a very substantial literature now that shows this stuff doesn’t work, and encourages what is called ‘gaming’ – behaviour that makes the institution or individual look good without actually improving or achieving anything very much.  Problems – like falling sales at Tesco – will be hidden rather than confronted.  Important challenges – like improving the education of the average child – will be ducked.  What is worse, judging performance by numbers alone starts to pervert the very numbers you rely on to assess quality or volumes.  Judge police regions on the trends in crime, and serious offences will be downgraded to trivial, and others ignored or mis-categorised.    You end up not knowing what is going on at all.  This has been known for years – its most popular formulation is in the form of Goodhart’s Law, which states that ‘any observed statistical regularity will collapse once it is used for control purposes’.  Or, more simply, use numbers for targets and they lose touch with reality.  Goodhart wrote in 1975. Takes a while to learn things, doesn’t it ?

Jackson and Linda

Here’s a clip of Jackson Browne – still the best singer-songwriter of our generation, despite what appears to be a visit to the Mickey Rourke Clinic for plastic surgery.

And while we are on the ‘whatever happened to the West Coast generation’ theme, how sad that Linda Ronstadt has recently announced that she’s got Parkinson’s Disease.  Time therefore to look through YouTube which has hundreds of stellar performances, like this.

Austerity part 94

Just in case you feel my constant rants against austerity are the ramblings of a deluded person, here are a couple of references.  The first – those revolutionaries at the Financial Times reporting what those Trotskyite wild men at the International Monetary Fund are advising – shows that public investment would actually pay for itself.  The second – written by economist Ben Chu, and published in that icon of ultra-leftism the London  Evening Standard – shows how there is no urgency at all to make further cuts in the public budget.

Which makes one ask – what the hell is the Labour Party doing, trying to play Osborne Lite rather than  challenging the coalition’s cruel economic illiteracy ?

Powerpointy heads

Last September I wrote about the Party Conferences.  Party Conferences used to be a big thing, as members voted on the policies that were to be adopted the next time that they were in government.  That seems a long time ago.  These days, conferences are Nuremburg Rally Lite – there is never a debate, and the main purpose is to look adoring as the leader (should one say Leader ?) makes the closing speech.  The only discussion is at side-shows sponsored by big business.  What the hell is the Labour Party doing accepting money from Barclays Bank, or inviting the IEA, for discussion of economic policies ?  We have even seen members of the audience dragged out by bouncers and held by the police for heckling the platform.  The idea, post-Mandelson, is that parties are not associations of like minded people aiming to develop and implement policy, they are fan clubs with as much influence on the leadership as Take That’s fan club has on Gary Barlow’s tax affairs.

In a digital age there must be better ways of making policy than getting a thousand activists into a big room and listening to speeches from the chosen few, but having policy decided by Oxbridge chums picking the most plausible think-tank report is not one of them.  Nor, I suspect, is the use of focus groups.  What is needed is committees of activists who are specialists in the chosen field interrogating the evidence, which is why the speeches of the party leaders are so disappointing.

Cameron offered us the expected stuff, reading his electoral bribes from teleprompt screens.  Ed Miliband tried to mimic Cameron’s old party trick of wandering round the stage and apparently speaking extempore. As a result he actually forgot chunks of his speech.  As a number of commentators have said, it is difficult to choose between a leader who lies about the deficit and a one who doesn’t mention it.

My point is rather different, which is that none of the party leaders use modern means of communication.  Any manager briefing his staff on the direction the company is taking, or new opportunities and threats, or trends in sales or quality, would use PowerPoint or something similar.  Stand up comedians have been using it for years, and theatre productions too.   My 8 year old grandson took a PowerPoint presentation on a memory stick to school, and it was uploaded by another 8 year old.  Why can’t political leaders use the basic grammar of modern communication ?  Think of the Miliband speech with inserts and diagrams to show how the National Debt has risen, how our growth is lower than our competitors, the deteriorating living standards of 99% of the population as against the rich, to show what has happened to police or nurse numbers, to local government budgets. It would not only be more persuasive – it would be impossible to forget chunks.  And talking an audience through the facts, and explaining the conclusions you draw from the facts, is actually more human and appealing than staring ahead or prowling around the stage like an SAS platoon commander enthusing the troops the day before the attack.

Heavens above, it might even create the idea that policy depends on evidence.

Footnote: President Obama used diagrams to support his case in an interview in February 2015.  The reaction of the opposition – “it was like a Scientology recruitment film”.  You despair sometimes, don’t you ?