Tuesday, 29 May 2012

How do you solve a problem like the media?

Brian Leveson has given some early indications of his thinking on press regulation. This includes independent oversight, pre-notification (so factual errors can be challenged by subjects), group complaints (which the PCC didn't address), and a "mechanism for swift resolution of privacy and small libel-type issues". There should be no surprise that a lawyer sees the issue in terms of legal recompense, i.e. specific wrongs can be righted, and that such recourse should fit within the existing legal regime, thus pre-notification will co-exist with injunctions and "large" libel claims will still be the preserve of the rich.

In respect of giving an independent regulator more teeth, specifically financial sanctions, he noted: "I recognise entirely the parlous financial position of much of the press but it's important that sanctions are taken seriously". This is an interesting statement as it may show that he has accepted at face value the claims of various press people that newspapers don't make money (some do, some don't), and that only a fine would be an effective sanction (as opposed to a correction of equal prominence, approved by the victim).

The non-barking dog is ownership. Both this and the more nebulous concept of plurality are within Leveson's terms of reference. His reluctance to comment on either at this stage may indicate that he is keeping his powder dry. That is to be hoped for, because ownership is ultimately the key to abusive press behaviour and therefore the only effective route by which it can be tackled.

Media tycoons aren't in it for the money alone, if at all. It should hardly need saying that the true value of a newspaper is the platform it provides to pursue the owner's political as well as economic agenda. Despite the competing charms of TV and the Internet, the combination of greater freedom (no need to provide balance) and a guaranteed audience means that a newspaper still counts. It can still provide an entree to polite society for ambitious men, such as Alexander Lebedev, in much the way that it once did for Beaverbrook and Murdoch (still trading as an anti-establishment larrikin in his 80s). It can also offer the rejected a means to take revenge on that same social elite, a la Maxwell and Desmond.

The British press has long attracted unsavoury characters such as Alfred Harmsworth (Lord Northcliffe), Harold Harmsworth (Lord Rothermere), Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook), Conrad Black (that's enough lords), Tiny Rowland, Robert Maxwell and Rupert Murdoch. However, a "fit and proper person" test would be as ineffective as it has been in football. The only credential ever demanded is money, and the source of that money will not be examined too closely.

The only sure way of limiting the ability of a single media mogul from exercising excessive influence is by limiting the number of media he owns. The real danger that Murdoch posed was his concentration of power, first within the newspaper sector with the addition of the Times and Sunday Times to the Sun and News of the World, and then across sectors with the launch of Sky and the aborted absorption of BSkyB. His so far inept attempts to build an online presence (MySpace, The Daily) are equally driven by a desire to grab as large a slice of the cake as possible.

Where an individual has a dominant share of the media, that dominance inevitably corrupts some politicians who come within its orbit. The "war criminal" interjection as Tony Blair was giving his evidence yesterday rather detracted from the frank admission he made. He may not have finagled us into supporting the invasion of Iraq in return for a sack of cash, but he was quite up-front about admitting that he decided to schmooze Murdoch as confronting the press was too big a task. Excusing this as a matter of priorities was an example of spin (he had ten years to do something), as was his claim that he frequently took action against Murdoch's interests (blocking the takeover of Man Utd and increasing the BBC licence fee were not major challenges to the Dirty Digger). Basically, Blair was arrogant enough to believe he could ride the tiger, and, to be fair, he proved he could do so for the first half of his premiership.

Without the quid pro quo of favourable (or the absence of unfavourable) coverage, politicians will be less tempted to trim or fawn. Having half a dozen megalomaniacs to deal with is better than having just one as it allows an astute politician to play them off against each other. Where a newspaper owner believes he is king-maker, he will tend to act as such, and some politicians will treat him so.

Such restrictions should apply not only within each medium but across multiple media as well. For example, no more than one national daily newspaper and one national TV channel, and no more than n% of total readers/viewers. If media plurality means anything, then it is that no single person or company should own so much as to be considered a king-maker by anyone. Blair didn't jet off to the other side of the world for every national newspaper owner, just the one.

A policy also needs to be devised for the Web. Leveson said: "I am struck by the fact that what the BBC does is covered by quite different rules to what the Guardian or News International does, and yet you could look at their websites and on the face of it they're doing similar things". Well, that's because they are. Their Web presence is intended to advertise and augment their paper or TV presence. The issue online is less the ownership of individual outlets, as anyone can setup a website, and more the online extension of existing brands (there's a reason why the BBC site gets more hits that this blog). An online presence should be treated as part-and-parcel of the "paper" or the "channel".

It will be argued that this may lead to fewer media outlets, as many are only viable today through cross-subsidy, however even loss-making titles will find a buyer as a vanity project if the brand has value (e.g. the Times), and those that do end up folding (perhaps the Star) are presumably unloved by both readers and potential owners, so we shouldn't shed a tear.

Limits on intra and cross-media ownership will not fix all problems. The ideological spectrum of the British press will remain narrow, so true plurality will be elusive. The bias towards middle-class concerns will continue, with too much on house prices, the feral underclass, and the horrors of comprehensive education. Foreign affairs will still be seen through the lens of what Britain's reaction should be, as if that actually mattered.

But despite all this, limits would help to keep the hubris of the press in check. The 1992 claim that "It's the Sun wot won it" may have been incorrect, but the fact that they thought they could make it, and that so many politicos were in awe of it, tells you the extent to which Murdoch's baleful influence had already served to corrupt the political space.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

German cold turkey

Iain Duncan Smith's intention to dock the benefits of drug and alcohol addicts if they refuse treatment and the Eurozone crisis have some common features. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions says of his cunning plan:

The universal credit will allow staff in Jobcentre Plus offices to say: this person has been unemployed for some time. The staff know if people are addicted to alcohol. They know the people they are dealing with. But we want this to be positive and to be about signposting people to superb organisations that can help them. This is about changing their lives. It is very important to support addicts into the workplace.

Addiction charities have been politely appalled by the idea, as these "superb organisations" will have to deal with either increased demand with no extra funding or the fall-out from addicts driven to desperation. There is no reason to believe that the plan will work even on its own terms, as reliance on the subjective opinion of Jobcentre staff is an open invitation to them to sideline it, unless management decide to set arbitrary targets for the number of referrals/penalties. Should the policy be vigorously implemented, you can be sure we'll see false accusations and petty spite aplenty.

The mechanism to enable this coercion is the "claimant contract", which is central to the new universal benefit due to be introduced in October 2013. This is the concrete result of all that talk from Blair onwards about tackling the "something for nothing culture". The support of society for the most vulnerable must be reframed as a fair exchange, a quid pro quo, rather than a moral obligation or the acceptance of an implicit social contract.

Benefits are increasingly to be made conditional not only on a willingness to work, but on a willingness to address whatever personal behaviours the state considers to be impediments to work. As usual, this is not based on any empirical evidence but is merely a moralistic assertion. There are plenty of functioning alcoholics and addicts holding down jobs, many in The City, so why start with alcies and junkies? Why not pick on the morbidly obese or the clinically depressed? Presumably because addicts are a less sympathetic target.

This micro contract bears a resemblance to the macro contract of the EU's Stability and Growth pact, which was updated last year to include automatic penalties for excessive debt and deficits. After turning a blind eye to problematic behaviour during the 00s (including that of Germany), the EU is now getting serious about adherence. No more something for nothing.

The Eurozone crisis is often discussed as a morality play in which feckless Southern Europeans (and the Irish, who have become honorary olive pressers) became debt junkies because of low productivity and expensive lifestyles. They must now mend their spendthrift ways, knuckle down and work towards salvation. They must become more Protestant. The other main approach is to view it systemically as a flawed plan that unintentionally lowered interest rates in the periphery states, so avoiding the need for politically unpalatable structural reforms and cuts in welfare spending to achieve competitiveness. They must either quit the Euro, devalue their new/old currency and wear a hair-shirt for a few years (Methadone), or they must accept the treatment of austerity now and grin and bear it (cold turkey).

Robert Peston's recent TV summary, The Great Euro Crash, showed how these two tropes have been blended together. Euro-sceptics in The City (Terry Smith and Louise Cooper, the BBC's go-tos for this perspective) highlighted the flaw that meant Greece and Germany enjoyed similar borrowing rates but failed to explain how such a thing could happen. The different states of the USA have widely varying credit ratings despite being part of a federal union (including fiscal transfers) based on the Dollar. The decision to assume that the EU (or Germany) would stand equally behind all Eurozone nations' debts was made by the banks and financial traders. In other words, Peston interviewed the pushers, who were keen to blame the irresponsible users.

There was little recognition that the sovereign debt crisis was a consequence of the financial crisis of 2008, and that prior to the bailouts Eurozone deficits and debt-to-GDP levels were (with the exception of Greece) at manageable levels. There was also no recognition that the convergence of government bond yields (i.e. borrowing costs demanded by the money markets) among the EU states started in the early 90s, long before the introduction of the Euro.

The idea that the Germans are more industrious and averse to debt (cue reference to Swabian housewives) is a simplification. Their current happy position is the consequence of under-par performance in the decade that followed economic reunification in 1990. It's worth remembering that Helmut Kohl's decision to convert the Ostmark 1:1 with the Deutsche Mark in respect of wages (and 2:1 for savings) meant that industry in the East was thereby overvalued, on top of suffering low productivity, when exposed to the free market. The absorption of the tattered remnants of the East was a painful process that led to high unemployment, high interest rates and increased government deficits.

The pressures of the 90s caused Germany to implement austerity early, under Gerhard Schroder in 2003, at a time when it could be supported by the buying power of the rest of the EU (and under the stability and growth blind eye). Of course, only a cynic would suggest that the Germans spotted the opportunity that the Euro presented of a boom in the South coupled with devaluation in the North (German real wages were flat during the 90s as the costs of reunification were borne, however they then started to decline in the 00s as the Euro led to internal devaluation). Emulating Germany in the current economic climate would be hugely difficult for a single country. Trying to apply the same medicine simultaneously across most of the EU is insane.

The fundamental connection between Duncan Smith's plan and the Eurozone crisis is growth. The chief impediment to work is the lack of decently-paid jobs, not over-generous benefits or addiction. Unemployment hasn't risen because we've increased the JSA. The solution to the Eurozone crisis (in the short-to-medium term) is stimulus and moderate inflation, as this will produce surpluses and shrinking debt quicker than mass mutual austerity will. Germany's reluctance to consider this is because it must bear the lion's share of that inflation, or else accept de facto fiscal transfers through eurobonds. It is caught between the folk memory of hyper-inflation and the more recent experience of funding the rebuilding of the economy in the East.

You will hear the phrase "kicking the can down the road" repeatedly in reference to the EU's dithering, but in truth the policy is more a deliberate and cynical decision to kick cripples, just like Duncan Smith's playing to the press gallery. Like the war on drugs, austerity predominantly means harrassing the victims. Meanwhile, financial firewalls have been erected so that the Greek exit (or capital flight) does not damage the banks. The pushers will always be with us

Monday, 21 May 2012

Sack the lot of them

There has been much chuntering recently on the right about "freeing up" the labour market in order to promote growth. The ultras case is outlined in the report prepared for government by the venture capitalist Adrian Beecroft, which has been leaked today. This is purely advisory, but it is a fair indication of the bias of the government's thinking (they commissioned it from a man with known views), or at least the thinking when Steve Hilton was warming his socks on the Downing Street radiators.

The headline proposal is no-fault dismissal, which Vince Cable has promptly set his face against, leading to the suspicion that it is already doomed. Looking at the detail, this is actually termed "compensated no fault dismissal", the idea being that so long as the notice period and termination payments are the same as would be the case for a redundancy, then there should be no grounds for a claim of unfair dismissal. In other words, a formalised pay-off that would be cheaper than a compromise agreement. But is it even needed?

Since April this year, a new employee can only claim unfair dismissal if they have worked for 2 years. In effect, an employer can dismiss an underperformer with a minimum of effort, as you’d expect at least a couple of written performance reviews in that time. If the employer cannot spot a wrong ‘un within 2 years, then they are incompetent. Sacking longer-established workers who "go bad" is also straightforward if you've done proper performance reviews over prior years. The drop in performance can be clearly delineated and, assuming no improvement in response to warnings, termination will follow.

The real problem is that the regulations assume that all businesses have competent HR functions and that best practice is followed, such as contracts that define job performance criteria and appraisals that are regular and substantive. In reality, many businesses pay lip service to this. Even when top management mandate it, line management often skimps in practice. The onerous burden they are really complaining about is the need to properly performance manage staff.

The rest of the report covers a variety of current regulations that are considered a burden to business including flexible working, parental leave, gangmaster licensing, equal pay audits, and checking new employees' eligibility to work in the UK.

The last of these is a good example of the flavour of Beecroft. The current regulation amounts to asking an employee to provide a copy of their passport or work permit when they sign their contract. It really isn't much of a burden, assuming your business issues employment contracts and has some basic clerical competence. The report suggests the eligibility check should become the responsibility of the UK Border Agency. In other words, remove the burden for business by increasing the role of the state.

Most of the report is noise, intended no doubt to give the impression that business is enmeshed in red tape. For example, the "right to request flexible working" extends only as far as the name suggests. The employer is under no obligation to accede to the request, they just have to consider it before they pop it in the bin. This isn't made clear in the report, which is generally a pretty poor piece of work, with no empirical evidence and a surfeit of assertions and suppositions. It's hard to believe a venture capitalist would accept a business plan of such poor quality in his day job (unless he specialises in new technology).

There is also a general proposal for micro-businesses (less than 10 employees) to be exempt from the above regulations regardless. In other words, if the government is reluctant to abolish them for medium and large businesses, they can at least curry the small business vote by making them an exception.

While it is possible to believe that a large corporation, with a bureaucratic HR department, might struggle to get its shit together in terms of performance reviews and actively managing underperformers, it is not credible to believe that this in the case with small businesses. An underperformer in a 10-person company will be spotted pretty quickly. If 10% of the workforce are failing to earn their corn, that’s a big hit on the bottom line. And while the HR processes may be rudimentary, you can bet they will be effective.

It's also worth remembering that most employees in micro-businesses are recruited from the pool of family and friends, or friends of friends. Not only does this mean that hiring a wrong 'un is much less likely, but that performance management actually benefits from a wider support structure than you'd get in a big business. Conversely, when conflicts arise they are quite possibly going to relate to matters outside of work as much as in. A right to arbitrarily sack someone may appear to solve a problem, but it may well produce other, unintended consequences in a kinship group (I haven't used that term since O-level Sociology, but it sounds just right).

Given that people are a business's number one asset (supposedly), the need for employer's to have the right to arbitrarily sack staff indicates a massive failure of management. In fact, it now sounds like business groups are less excited by these proposals than Tory MPs, with more interest being shown in the possibility that the employment tribunal system may be streamlined (i.e. made quicker and less costly).

The real significance of this report is that it was built up beyond its merits as an example of the radical supply-side reforms that Tories advocated to kick-start the economy. The OBR have now admitted that they do not expect the cut in the top rate of tax to make any difference to growth, which has put paid to the other classic supply-side manoeuvre (and calls for a flat-tax are unlikely to gain support at present). If labour market reforms are a damp squib as well, what exactly is left? Probably more cuts, inflation and stagnant wages. And you thought Chelsea winning the Champions' League was depressing.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Reasons to be cheerful

Reasons to be cheerful: Spurs have been relegated to the Europa League; John Terry wasn't on the pitch;  er ... that's it, really.

One of the annoying features of ITV's coverage of the Champion's League Final was the way that the camera regularly cut to check on Roman Abramovitch and his entourage (latest squeeze and mini-me to the fore). Not since the days of the Colosseum have the reactions of the rich bloke in the best seats been so carefully scrutinised. His symbolic acceptance of the trophy at the end was both appropriate and slightly nauseating at the same time. Does he think he now owns it?

At one point (just after Drogba's equaliser, I think) we saw security trying to prevent others further up the tier moving into the empty seats just behind the Russian as they celebrated. I assumed these seats had been reserved to provide a cordon sanitaire around a man who we must presume has grounds to fear a bullet in the neck, however it transpired that the seats were occupied by dignitaries who chose to spend most of the game elsewhere. The mystery of their identity was solved at full-time as a grinning George Osborne appeared alongside the German Finance Minister.

I'd hazard a guess that what they were up to during the game involved the simultaneous G8 summit at Camp David in the USA. But I suspect Osborne's absence during most of the match was due less to the need to get on the blower to the PM and more to his total lack of interest in the sport, though he'll no doubt be a lifelong Chelsea fan from henceforth, the freeloading glory hunter. To judge from another officially released photo (i.e. staged for you and me), David Cameron was engaged in some competitive banter with Angela Merkel at the time, with only Barack Obama stopping things turning ugly.

I don't imagine Merkel cares much for football (unlike the seated guy in front of her who looks like he is about to be sick). Cameron, with his clenched fists aloft pose, is trying too hard to look like a typical British sports fan. It's the sort of thing you do in a bar, but looks naff in a conference room (note the sleeves rolled up to show that real work is going on too - I doubt the aircon has failed). To some, this is just an example of politicians trying to connect with more ordinary folk, but the sight of the PM celebrating the triumph of Russian gangster capitalism is as distasteful as all that Murdoch arse-licking.

Cameron is on record as claiming an affiliation with Aston Villa, sparked by being taken to Villa Park as a boy by his uncle, Sir William Dugdale, a former chairmen of the club (no, I don't supposed he ever stood on the Holte End). A real Villain wouldn't be seen dead celebrating the success of another team, particularly a mob who play in blue. You can always tell the casual fan (or non-fan, as I sniffily prefer to think of them) when they ask you who you will be supporting as a neutral in a big match. I predictably wanted Bayern to win, for purely negative reasons (i.e. I didn't want Chelsea to lift the trophy), but I do not support them. Neutrals don't support, supporters do.

The 2011-12 season is likely to prove a watershed. The success of Man City last week and then Chelsea last night proved beyond doubt that money can buy you success. The cheerleaders of the EPL and CL will point to the last-minute drama and insist we have just witnessed two "miracles", but the bald facts don't lie. Spend enough and you will win. The only surprise has been that John Terry's slippers, dodgy refereeing, and Abramovitch's impatience with managers have conspired to delay his acquisition of the big one.

The danger for Arsenal is that the clamour for Silent Stan to spunk a billion, or move over and let Alisher Usmanov do so, will now intensify, particularly if Robin van Persie moves to a club willing to do just that. A win for Bayern would not have been a triumph for humble values. This is FC Hollywood after all, and their success has owed much to big money signings such as Robben and Ribery, though they are a club that lives within its means, albeit those means are boosted by strong commercial revenues that reflect a nationwide fanbase.

On the night their nerves got to them. Perhaps playing at home was less an advantage than a burden. How often will you see someone as stereotypically German as Schweinsteiger miss a penalty? Chelsea were dull but effective in killing most of the game, and Drogba managed one good move for the equaliser (Lampard's role in blocking the defender's run should not go unacknowledged). When it came down to penalties, despite Mata fluffing his lines, Chelsea had less to lose and were consequently the more clinical.

This final will not live long in the memory of neutrals, or at least not for footballing reasons. This was a balance sheet victory. Will Roman feel he has achieved all he can and so wind down his interest in Chelsea? He's got to spend his billions on something, and even converting Battersea Power Station into a new stadium will only soak up so much. Expect a bid for Messi or Ronaldo this summer.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Good cop, bad cop. Still a cop.

Are you a Cavalier or a Roundhead? Perhaps you're a Cavalhead or a Roundier. Perhaps you occupy that third, indeterminate state where the light switch is poised between off and on. Tricky to sustain.

One of the key structural features of politics is the ready recourse to the false dichotomy, or false dilemma, where a topic is presented as a choice between two, and only two, options. This is not the consequence of the adversarial nature of politics (i.e. blaming the weird furniture in the Commons), or even a reflection of the dialectical method (the belief that knowledge progresses through contradiction, i.e. thesis and antithesis). It is not even a pragmatic simplification, excluding the also-rans and the don't knows, a la the BBC swingometer. There are grounds to believe that we humans are psychologically predisposed to prefer black and white propositions, i.e. extreme and clearly opposed choices, rather than shades of grey and nuance, however that doesn't necessarily mean we always reduce choices to only two options. Poker would be a different game if we did.

The main impetus in politics for the false dichotomy is a conscious attempt to exclude heterodox ideas from the frame of reference. In other words, when we said that Spurs could win the Premier League, we were only messing about. C'mon, be serious, only a Manchester club is allowed to win it (until Roman purges the ancients from the Chelski squad). A recent example of this was the minor spat over Lords reform, where the idea that we might just abolish the fuckers altogether was studiously ignored in favour of a debate about what percentage should be elected (the "angels on a pin" metaphor is surely in danger of losing its popularity in the face of such competition).

With the assimilation of the LibDems into the Conservative government, the false dichotomy has become even more pronounced as they have given up trying to establish a third position on many topics. Thus Clegg parrots the Tory line that our debt is unsustainable, it was Labour's fault, and the double-dip is a consequence of the Euro crisis. This display of wilful stupidity will come back to haunt him as much as tuition fees. The space between Conservative and Labour is too narrow to support much in the way of a distinctive position anyway, so this was always more cosmetic than real, but the absence of even a token attempt to establish a third way has been revealing.

The loud rejection of a plan B for the economy has helped give the impression that the binary clash between austerity and growth is a chalk and cheese choice. In reality, the growth plans being floated by Labour and the French Socialists include a lot of austerity, just not as much as advocated by the Tories. Even Syriza in Greece has been cautious about its policy beyond a generally anti-austerity and pro-Euro stance (and their sartorial policy is unconvincing - auditors enjoying Friday beers). Similarly, the government is now being criticised from the right because austerity is shrinking neither the state nor the deficit quickly enough. We are not facing a black and white choice, indeed the general air of frustration may reflect the lack of such a clear choice.

TV loves the simple and colourful clash of opposites, so we should not be surprised that false dichotomies are particularly rife in its treatment of history. A hilarious example this week was a programme that suggested that Britain has been spiritually divided into Cavaliers and Roundheads since the 17th century. The conflict was presented almost as a face-off over fashion, sober black versus beribonned cod-pieces. The vague attempts to introduce genuine substance were repeatedly undermined by recourse to the colourful (shots of those amusing nutters in the Sealed Knot) and spurious modern parallels: Boris as a Cavalier and Ken as a Roundhead (Boris is the City's man - The City was the key supporter of the Parliamentary cause).

There were passing references to the Levellers (but not the Diggers), but broadly the desire was to present the Civil War as a conflict between killjoys and roaring boys. There were no references to Catholicism, the Irish, or the Scots, let alone the economic basis of the rise of the Puritan bourgeoisie and the new gentry. No wonder the battle of The Boyne baffles the English.

In this the producers were unconsciously influenced by Sellar and Yeatman's 1066 And All That, which characterised the Civil War as the struggle between the Cavaliers ("Wrong but Wromantic") and the Roundheads ("Right but Repulsive"). This comic classic had in turn been a 1930s reaction to the Victorian romantic rewriting of history in such novels as Children of the New Forest. It was, in other words, a conscious satire. How strange that in the early 21st century we should have missed the joke and taken this as a serious analysis.

Meanwhile "growth" is being recast as compassionate austerity. Cut back the welfare state, just don't do it so quickly or so gleefully. Don't cut tax for the "wealth creators" today, but be ready to do so once the storm has passed. Invest in infrastructure, but be ready to flog it off at a discount to private business ASAP. A false dichotomy was false because it presumed there were only two options. Increasingly the modern version is false because it presents two options that are merely variations on a single theme.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

That's totally radical, dude

Michael Gove's privately educated tongue was firmly in his cheek when he recently expressed concern that the top jobs in society are dominated by public school graduates. Calling something "morally indefensible" is a way of excusing it from government responsibility, morality being a private matter. The "oh dearey me" tone was particularly noticeable when he sniped at the BBC and the Guardian ("edited by privately educated men for the last 60 years").

His repeated name-checking of actors, musos and athletes as examples of this entrenched privilege is typical Govian weaseliness. Though we all know that contacts and access to superior facilities can make a huge difference, we're reluctant to believe that named individuals are wholly without talent (though I'm prepared to make an exception for Chris Martin).

Gove gets to the main course when he claims that politicians have failed to tackle the problem with "anything like the radicalism required". His break with this shameful past is based on more academies (education removed from local authority control), greater diversity (free schools and no challenging the charitable status of private education), and beasting those lazy teachers. Merging Eton with a Slough comprehensive presumably fails because it isn't radical enough. You'll notice that "radical" appears to have been drained of all meaning in recent years.

The strategy for whinging teachers was articulated by Michal Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, at the same conference of private school heads. In particular, he rubbished the claims that teachers have been put under a lot of stress by successive educational reforms and the focus on league tables. "Stress is what my father felt, who struggled to find a job in the 50s and 60s and who often had to work long hours in three different jobs and at weekends to support a growing family". Meanwhile, teachers are complaining about the lack of respect they receive.

Just as Gove's use of named individuals takes the sting out of the observation of class bias (your anger is slightly diluted when he mentions Hugh Laurie), so the dialogue between Wilshaw and the teachers is emotionalised by the use of words such as "stress" and "respect", not to mention the chippy reference to Wilshaw's dad that pits honest working class "strivers" against self-indulgent middle-class teachers.

Respect is clearly a codeword for the fear of downward social mobility. Wilshaw's dad anecdote tells you where he sees teachers in the social pecking order. Since the mid-80s, there has been a concerted attempt by successive governments to de-professionalise teaching. While lawyers and doctors have retained a large degree of independence over the management of professional qualifications and the governance of professional practice, teachers have been disempowered by the imposition of successive regulations by Whitehall. They have less control over the curriculum, there is more inspection and assessment of their performance (as if they were on a production line), and over their shoulder they notice the increasing use of unqualified learning assistants.

This week, Nick Clegg has chipped in with a few more quid for the pupil premium as the solution to improving the life chances of disadvantaged kids, though with the proviso that schools use of the cash has to produce results, not just staunch the effect of other cuts. "We won't be telling you what to do, but we will be watching what you achieve," he said in typically confused LibDem fashion.

Gove's game is pretty obvious: use anxiety over standards to centralise control; encourage the revival of the grammar schools through academies and free schools (wholly at ministerial discretion); insist that education is a competitive market and that there must be winners and losers. Once academies are in place, the rump of comprehensives will become secondary moderns in all but name. Floreat Etona.

The solution to the issue of social mobility is quite simple, and does not require the destruction of private schools (fun though that might be). While some parents may genuinely believe that a "better" education is a moral good, most people see it in purely instrumental terms. If you pay for private education, you expect to get tangible advantages in terms of exam results, university access and entry to the professions. Social mobility can best be advanced not by trying to open up more opportunities at the front-end of the sausage machine but by implementing quotas at the back end. Equality of outcome, not equality of opportunity.

In his speech Gove noted that the privately educated (7% of all pupils) are disproportionately represented among CEOs. The figure for FTSE 100 companies is 50%. What he didn't mention is that the comparable figure for finance directors is 70%. Given that some companies still favour the hereditary principle (see Rupert Murdoch), and given that rich businessmen/owners often send their kids to private schools, you'd expect the CEO figure to be above 7%. If you also bear in mind than many CEOs work their way to the job via the finance director role, then 50% isn't really that surprising. What is more significant is why over 70% of top finance jobs are occupied by the privately educated, a figure not far short of the 75% of judges. The old Peter Cook joke was that the latter required "Latin for the judgin'", which wasn't on offer outside of private schools and grammars, but basic bean-counting is taught everywhere.

The explanation is twofold. As a self-regulating profession, accountancy is a closed shop. Like attracts like, with the consequence that the privately educated have a far better chance of getting on the gravy train in the first place. This is what entrenched privilege means. The second dynamic relates to the even more restricted world of finance. A company listed on the London Stock Exchange needs a credible go-between to the banks, investment analysts, brokers and fund managers. As the City is dominated by the privately educated (the clever proles do trading and quants), this biases selection for the top finance roles towards public school alumni: chaps like us.

The idea of quotas has recently been floated in the context of female representation on company boards. While this will be resisted, it is likely to come about because the resisters have daughters as well as sons, and those daughters increasingly want careers (see Rupert Murdoch again). Ultimately, co-opting women from the same social class (and even family) is not seen as a threat to existing privilege, so it will be accommodated.

A key argument in favour of female quotas is the idea that at a gross enough level there will be as much talent in a female-only pool of candidates as among a mixed-sex pool, so you're not restricting yourself to second-best. In the short-run, "boardable" women will be at a premium, but the mechanics of supply and demand will soon change that, just as women-only shortlists for parliamentary candidates have resulted in more women seeking seats. Companies will be encouraged to promote more women from within if the alternative is riskier and more expensive recruitment from without.

An ideological reason for resisting female quotas is that it proves that a "pull" strategy (equality of outcome) can be more effective than a "push" strategy (equality of opportunity). In other words, engineering an outcome is preferable to mere exhortation or cosmetic levelling of the playing field (the Nick Clegg approach).

Social mobility would be transformed if we adopted a pull strategy. Mandating that all businesses have to ensure a certain quota of non-privately educated hires among their management tier would be clumsy and probably unworkable. A quota works best at the most gross level, where individual talent is not statistically significant. The place to start would be with the professions. The qualifying bodies for accountancy, law and medicine should be required to award 80% (rising to 90%) of their qualifications to applicants who spent their secondary years at state schools.

I'd go further and introduce quotas for "top" university courses, to ensure that the professional quotas were not undermined by constricting graduate supply. The Russell Group of the top 20 universities takes in about 75,000 undergraduates each year, and there are about 4,000 secondary schools and sixth form colleges in the UK. Assuming that intelligence and aptitude are evenly spread in society, i.e. the youth of Cardiff are no thicker than those of Chelsea, it would not be unreasonable to simply allocate these places proportionately by school.

I don’t know how many of the 75,000 places go to international students, but let’s assume 35,000 for argument’s sake and simple maths. This means each school/college would have 10 places to allocate each year to its best-performing upper-sixth pupils. (I appreciate that this doesn’t allow for the intricacies of course choice, so there would still have to be "clearing" of some sort, but that doesn't invalidate the principle). This approach would be both meritocratic and progressive. It would, at a stroke, remove the inbuilt bias toward public schools, and might even lead to a healthier approach to local schools by the sharp-elbowed middle class - i.e. their interests would be best served by spreading across the maximum number of schools instead of concentrating in a few.

The one profession I wouldn't initially introduce quotas for would be teaching. After all, if more of the privately educated start to gravitate towards this career, we might see a reversal in the denigration of the role and an increase in respect.

Monday, 14 May 2012

I'm glad that's all over

Well, we managed to hang on to third spot, with a large dollop of luck (merci, Marton Fulop). Titles are won through consistency and sheer bloody-mindedness: draw when you should lose, and win when you should draw. We've won when we should have lost (Spurs at home), drawn when we should have won (Norwich at home), and lost when we should have at least drawn (any number of bottom-half teams, home and away). Our season has been a Jekyll and Hyde performance, as if an unstable time-warp had appeared in the middle of the pitch. At times we witnessed a classic Wenger side, all slickness and subtlety, at other times we appeared to have regressed to a mid-90s George Graham team, all clumsiness and absent-mindedness.

The most obvious difference was the speed of play. Unlike Brazil 1970, when we slow down we look clueless. Critics of Wenger and his funny foreign ways forget that his best sides have always played the game at an English pace, just with better control and the ball passed along the ground. When we play like a Ligue 1 side, walking about and gesticulating, we're rubbish. Arteta has been our most valuable player for his ability to raise and maintain the tempo. RvP has rightly got the headlines for his goals, but it has been pace and accurate passing that has given him the space to score.

Though Wenger is playing down the transfer speculation post-Podolski, I suspect we'll see more signings. A new keeper (assuming Fabianski wants to move on) and a defensive midfielder to challenge Song, who has been a bit Billy Big Boots at times (Frimpong and Coquelin are not quite ready). Gervinho will probably get the benefit of the doubt, as Arsenal wide players usually take a season to bed in, but I suspect we've seen the last of both Chamakh and Bendtner (if both go, another striker will be signed). RvP's position now looks inscrutable.

The final day was understandably dominated by Man City's narrow failure to maintain their tradition of fucking it up big time. It would appear that spending a billion can (just) cure Cityitis. Many Arsenal fans were hoping they would screw up just to annoy Samir Nasri. My youngest placed great store in the fact that Barcelona lost the Primera Liga title, so disappointing Fabregas in his decision to move for domestic medals. Surely Nasri (who hasn't been much value to City) would similarly suffer the wrath of the footballing gods? Personally I was quite happy to see them win, because: a) it means Manure end up potless, and b) City are still capable of royally screwing up in the future. That Cityitis is genetic.

As ever, the media coverage of the day threw up a few choice examples of stupidity. On Final Score, dumb blonde Robbie Savage opined that Sergio Aguero's late winner was superior to Michael Thomas's goal in 1989, presumably fogetting that QPR weren't odds-on to win the title, that the game wasn't at Loftus Road, and that Man City hadn't won by two clear goals. What a berk. There is a general tendency, given their history, to treat City's alchemical success in transmuting a huge amount of gold into a much smaller piece of silver as the wonder of the age, but that is going too far.

On MOTD Hansen and Shearer gave the goal of the season to Cisse's second against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Presumably Hansen because a defender wasn't at fault, and Shearer because it was the Magpies' number 9. As anyone who has played the game knows, the most spectacular goal is usually the product of luck (the ball dropping at the right angle for your body shape) and sheer bloody luck (a hopeful wellie catching the ball so sweetly that it arcs into the top corner), not to mention a healthy dose of luck (the keeper being badly positioned). I'm biased, but I thought RvP's volley against Everton should have got the prize. As the behind the net view shows, he had to adjust his body quite radically to make a shot that was precisely calculated to hit the bottom corner, Howard having most of the goal covered. At least he got the Player of the Season award and the Golden Boot.

Overall the season will be touted as an example of why the EPL is the most exciting league in the world, though it's been pretty poor in truth. The excitement is a product of frailty, not quality. Manure have flogged a dead pantomime horse (Giggs and Scholes) just once too often, while City have shown that systemic ill-discipline is no bar to success when the opposition can't take advantage (if either Tevez or Balotelli leaves, they can always re-sign Joey Barton). That Arsenal should prove the best of the rest is amusing given our horrible start. It just shows you how much the campaign to restore Spurs' to their "rightful place" was down to rose-tinted reporting.

Of course it's not quite over. I'd rather see Bayern win on Saturday than Chelsea, simply because the latter's boasting about being the first London club to win the big-eared trophy would be horrible, and even though a German victory will promote Spurs to next year's Champion's League. I can handle that because I suspect they'll struggle both in Europe and domestically.

On balance, I'm glad to see the back of the season. Let the transfer speculation frenzy begin.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Fu Manchu in Rochdale

I automatically think of dogs whenever the word "grooming" is used, but I guess I'll just have to get used to the general adoption of the term to describe predatory sexual exploitation. Originally the word tended to be limited to cases involving paedophile rings, which then broadened with the advent of online one-to-one grooming. Today, the term seems to cover pretty much any sort of premeditated sexual abuse where the perpetrator is not a total stranger to the victim, and has even hopped over into the domain of terrorism to describe the psychological preparation of suicide bombers.

While the word has been over-used, what it has not lost (in this context) is the sense of sly manipulation, of evil men preying on an innocence that they all too obviously despise. Grooming has become the "white slavery" des nos jours. This earlier phrase had two notable incarnations that caught the public imagination. The first was the orientalist fascination with harems and sex slaves, which coincided with the mid-Victorian revelation of industrial prostitution (in 1875, campaigners succeeded in raising the age of consent from 12 to 13). The second was the arrival on the international scene of the inscrutable Chinaman as the all-purpose baddie, which coincided with the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the century. The distance from Fu Manchu, luring white girls to their doom via his Limehouse opium den, to a group of Muslim cabbies hanging round a takeaway in Rochdale, preying on vulnerable white girls in care, is not as far as you might think.

Under the beige canopy of "grooming", the press coverage of the case has been a seething pit of prejudice. Consider the following choice excerpt from Tom Chivers in the Telegraph:
First, it is idiotic for people to pretend there is no connection to race, or culture, or religion, or something. If these crimes are more common among Asian men then there must be a reason. Racists might like to believe that it is a genetic one. Of course, that is a possible explanation (again: it's an empirical question, and one we should address honestly), but those of us who are not racists will demand evidence to support it, and as far as I am aware there is none, so we can ignore it
The "or something" at the end of the first sentence is hilarious, though I don't think the humour is intended. I will not be the idiot who claims there is no connection to something.

Chivers proceeds to build one straw man after another. Racists generally avoid reference to genetics because there is no relationship between a genome and the social groupings described as races. Two Africans can have greater genetic diversity between them than either has relative to a Norwegian. Racists insist that race has an independent existence, so it cannot be disproved, much as believers in flying saucers do. There is no Pakistani gene (the country is not ethnically homogeneous), and no one has suggested that the cabbies are all closely related (one is an Afghan), carrying a family gene that increases their propensity to rape. But, as Tom says, we can ignore this idea (which he has now planted firmly in your mind). Straw man number 2, come on down ...
The more serious suggestion is that there is something in the religious or cultural background of British Pakistani men which is behind the problem. It's not the only remaining possibility – it could, for instance, be economic – but that seems unlikely, given that British Asians do not make up 46 per cent of unemployed or poor people in this country. Also, trying to blame child abuse on economic circumstances is bizarre, as though these men are doing it because they can't afford cinema tickets. Again, it's a possible explanation, but there is no evidence for it, so we can ignore it unless and until there is. We're left, then, with culture and religion.
This is an example of a man made from only the finest straw, hand reaped by an artisan with a silver-gilt sickle. Having floated the idea that there may be a religious or cultural cause, Chivers immediately wheels in the on-the-other-hand suggestion that the "problem" may be rooted in economics, which he immediately demolishes with a flourish ("cinema tickets"). Who exactly is trying to blame child abuse on economic circumstances? The consequence of this knockout blow is that the last man standing is the first, unchallenged accusation.

The next paragraph starts not with supporting evidence but a further assertion: "Secretive, closed-shop religions and cultures, laden with sexual taboos and rigid hierarchies, seem to have more problems with sexual abuse". The giveaway is the use of "closed shop", a cultural practice long-beloved of the enemy within. Chivers then goes on to cite the examples of sexual abuse in Ireland and among New York's orthodox Jews. Quite how this illuminates the Rochdale case is not clear.
Does Islam "encourage" this behaviour? What does that mean? Do imams go around telling people that they should try and molest as many schoolchildren as they can? Obviously not, just as no one encouraged parish priests in Ireland to take advantage of their young flock. But clearly there is something which enabled it.
You've probably spotted the pattern now: "Is it 'cos they is black/Muslim/Irish/Jewish? Obviously not, but just hold that thought". Chivers does not come to any conclusion as to what the particular cause of this crime was, probably because there is no simple causal explanation. The whole piece is merely an excuse to rehearse a series of odious smears. His sign-off is the usual riff: "What it does mean is that we need to drop any lingering postmodernist nonsense about cultural and moral relativism". Again, I'm not aware of anyone suggesting that this crime be excused as a tradition that whitey just don't get.

Chivers quotes David Aaronovitch to the effect that these Muslim/Asian communities are beset with misogyny (unlike Eton, presumably). Aaronovitch long ago painted himself into a corner over his support for the invasion of Iraq. The result is his continued attacks on Islam as a matter of desperate principle, though proving that religious nutters with beards are dickheads does not retrospectively make weapons of mass-destruction any more concrete. The point is that misogyny is no more a cause of rape than misanthropy. Rape is about power, not an irritation with gobby women. Aaronovitch should have a chat with the Abu Ghraib prison warders.

Chivers then proceeds to bang on about female circumcision and honour killings. No, I couldn't see the relevance either. This proves to be merely the build-up to an attack on the real enemy: "It would be stupidly blinkered of liberals and the Left to turn a blind eye to these disgusting and illiberal practices, solely because they are being carried out by an ethnic minority". So, let me get this straight: the Rochdale case is the fault of lefties who deny the reality of female circumcision? The Telegraph (now in the form of Alison Pearson) appears to have decided that the real villain is political correctness. It should hardly need reiterating that PC is a right-wing straw man.

What abuse needs to prosper is opportunity (vulnerable girls in care) and the willingness to exercise petty power (a place where a bag of chips is a medium of currency). These guys didn't rape because they considered it their duty as muslims, nor did they consider it a time-honoured cultural practice of Pakistan. They did it because they could. No one (literally no one) is attempting to justify what they did or mitigate it in any way. To judge from the fulminating Telegraph (and others among the usual suspects), you'd imagine the opposite were true.

The core of Chiver's argument is the disproportionate representation of Asian (specifically Pakistani) men among those suspected or convicted of on-street grooming. He quotes the Guardian in support of this. The article in question makes clear that this estimate is statistically unreliable, being based on a study of "potential offenders" by CEOP, the police child exploitation agency, which recorded ethnicity for only 1/3 of the data (so there may be a degree of selection bias), plus an analysis of 5 specific crimes (too small a sample).

I'm not suggesting that this apparent disproportionality isn't real, though the exact figures are probably some way short of the scary 46% that Chivers quotes. It should be obvious that organised sexual abuse tends to come to light less often when perpetrators and victims are part of the same community, and where the latter are subject to peer pressure and a genuine fear of estrangement (this is where the otherwise gratuitous references to Irish children's homes and New York's orthodox Jewish community are relevant). Conversely, abuse across community lines is more likely to be spotted, reported and prosecuted. This is what we might call the Fu Manchu principle.

The other structural point to note is that prostitution and the trafficking of young girls are well-established in Pakistan (and not just an upper-class vice), despite the fact that it is an Islamic state. This obviously isn't an excuse for the behaviour of certain Pakistani men, but it is an explanation as to why a minority of them may be used to having access to sex on demand, and that sex provided by "out group" women.

The bottom line is that we cannot draw general conclusions about Pakistanis or Muslims on the basis of the Rochdale case, any more than institutional abuse by Irish priests allows us to draw conclusions about the Irish or Catholics as a whole. Nor does the abuse within the orthodox Jewish community of New York shed much light on the settler programme of the West Bank. Every commentator who has fretted over what Rochdale tells us about Pakistanis or Islam is trading in guilt by association. What is really notable is the lesser attention paid to the girls. They were undervalued and despised by their abusers, and now they are largely ignored by those who claim a concern about their case.

In 1885, W T Stead, the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, bought a 13 year old virgin for £5 in order to prove the prevalence of child prostitution in London and to drum up support for an Act to raise the age of consent to 16. The Act was passed but Stead ended up being sent to jail for his impertinence. The girl, Eliza Armstrong, was returned to her parents, but beyond that we know nothing.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Spectrum analysis

One of the smaller gems from Andy Coulson's written statement to the Leveson inquiry is the suggestion that the Guardian considered the possibility of endorsing the Tories before the 2010 general election. The report of this in the New Statesman prompted online comments such as "flying pigs", though there is really nothing incredible about the idea at all. The Guardian editor has denied this was ever considered, and there are many who suspect it is just mischief-making by Coulson, however the fact that he thinks it worth the punt is revealing.

What it tells us about the UK press, and its relationship with politicians, is that the ideological spectrum is not as wide as you may think. After all, when Polly Toynbee, former doyenne of the SDP, is accused of being the chief ideologist of "the left", you know somebody is either deluded or having a laugh.

In truth the left (i.e. the real left, not La Toynbee) has never had much representation in the mainstream press. The Mirror has traditionally supported the right of the Labour party, while the self-proclaimed "progressives" at the Guardian and latterly the Independent have usually supported the Liberals or other centrists. The support of many papers for Labour in the Blair years was obviously not an endorsement of anything remotely left-wing.

This is where an understanding of ideology as the self-serving justification of what 'is', rather than an argument for what 'ought' to be, comes in handy. The press has a symbiotic relationship with political power, which the Leveson inquiry is shining a light on. The question is, do we have a political spectrum that runs from barely left of centre to just-short-of-lunatic right because that is the range that the press represents, or is the range of the press the product of the political spectrum? Ultimately, it is the coincidence of the two that is significant, rather than the priority.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

The Fresh Prince of Holmfirth

One of the features of modern life (well, my modern life) is the ubiquity of the American sitcom. We now have whole channels whose main selling point appears to be re-running the likes of Friends, How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory, but not necessarily in the right order. Of course, plot sequence isn't that big a deal in a sitcom. Indeed, to judge from the ridiculous denouements of most US drama series, narrative coherence isn't any sort of priority, and hasn't been since Bobby Ewing's "dream year" in Dallas.

In the late 70s and early 80s US sitcoms were a rarefied taste, with gems such as Taxi or Barney Miller often buried late night on BBC2 or Channel 4. Before multi-channel TV got to double digits, we even had the pleasure of re-runs of The Phil Silvers Show, which made a change from Terry and June. The mid-80s saw the start of the decade-long hegemony of Cheers, superseded in the 90s by Frasier and Friends. These behemoths exhibited what became a recurrent structural problem for sitcoms, namely the need to suck dry every smidgen of possible backstory in the search for new plots. Family members would suddenly appear out of nowhere, as if they'd been in a witness protection programme for years; old lovers would resurface, provoking much angst (in real-life, this would just provoke a fight); old schoolfriends would materialise, wanting to right old wrongs or pick old scabs. Yadda, yadda.

In contrast, British sitcoms of the 70s and 80s seemed to make a point of keeping the back story off-stage. The simple explanation is that they tended to have many fewer episodes, and were thus less ravenous for plot devices. Steptoe and Son and Till Death Us Do Part both had fewer than 60 episodes, while Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads ran for only 27, and Fawlty Towers for only 12. In contrast, Cheers, Frasier and Friends all had over 250 episodes. Even those British shows that ran for the best part of a decade, Dad's Army and Only Fools and Horses, only notched up 83 and 71 episodes respectively.

I think there is more to this than the need for the regular injection of plot stimulant. What is notable is the way that the British shows made use of off-screen elements to provide context and depth, rather than just an excuse for a guest appearance by Elliot Gould or Brad Pitt. It probably sounds pretentious to cite Beckett's Godot in this regard, but the off-stage presence exerts a powerful influence, but only while it remains off-stage and therefore uncertain and unresolved.

In many cases this background revolves around women, which probably reflects the fact that the protagonists (and writers) were invariably men. In Steptoe & Son, the wife/mother is the key absence. In The Likely Lads, the entire series was built up from the back story of Terry's army tour in Germany where he has left a wife who is never seen. In Minder, "er indoors" is frequently invoked as an invisible power.

Probably the most interesting (because uncertain) example is in Dad's Army. Why doesn't Sgt Wilson marry Mrs Pike? The matter is never directly discussed, though everyone accepts that he is her common-law husband and the father of young Frank. Eventually, in the 5th of the nine series, Wilson reveals to Fraser that he has a daughter from a failed marriage. We are left to assume his wife would not grant a divorce. Nothing more is said but you get the sense of an entire life beyond the painted backdrop.

What I think this shows is that British comedy can accommodate pathos, being often a study in failure and the consoling power of delusion. Many idiot Brits claim that Americans don't understand irony, which is not merely absurd (like claiming they breathe funny) but ignores the fact that almost all of US comedy is actually over-reliant on irony, and not just the verbal, wisecracking sort. What US sitcoms struggle with is pathos. Any attempt almost immediately collapses into maudlin sentimentality, which is why Last of the Summer Wine is the British sitcom that, despite its Yorkshire parochialism, is at heart the most American - all 295 episodes of it.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Time and money

I was reading a piece earlier today on what could be done about youth unemployment, which incidentally rehearsed the hoary old lump of labour fallacy fallacy (so good they named it twice). This got me to thinking about how the benefits of retirement (i.e. not having to work) and pensions (i.e. not having to starve) are allocated across society.

There was some discussion last year about the class-bias of a universal pension age, specifically around two socio-economic factors. The first is that many manual workers will have started working at 15, and can expect to make NI contributions for 50 years, while many non-manual workers will not have started working till 21 or later (i.e. post-further education). The second feature is the difference in longevity between the classes, which means that the number of years you can hope to enjoy beyond a universal retirement age will differ. According to the Office of National Statistics, this difference amounts to about 5 years for men, though analysis by region shows that this average masks differences of 10 years or more.

Using the ONS data (2006 actuals and trend growth from 1982 onwards), I created a quick model to show the impact of the proposed increase in the state retirement age. To remind you, the plan is for the age to increase from 65 to 67 in 2026/8, and to 68 in 2044/6. I further included a more pessimistic scenario (for which there already appears to be a  growing lobby) that sees the latter increase revised up to 70.

What this shows is that the current retirement age of 65, if unchanged (scenario A), would be progressive in terms of the relative gain in retirement years for the bottom of the earnings scale compared to the top. Though the well-off gain more years in retirement due to increased longevity, they're starting from a higher base. The poor see larger gains because their average longevity is closer to the state pension age. What this highlights is the original expectation, dating from Lloyd George's 1908 Pensions Act, that the beneficiaries of state pensions would be few and short-lived. The Act provided for people over 70 at a time when 63% of the population died before 60 (pg 5). The pension was seen as insurance in case you had the "misfortune" to live on into old age, rather than as an entitlement that most could expect to enjoy. Increased longevity means that most people now clear that hurdle.

Interestingly, the planned increases in the retirement age (scenario B) result in a relative growth of retirement years that is the same for the top and the bottom, though again the absolute benefit is greater for the well-off. If the retirement age is pushed further, as some are already advocating, then we end up in a situation (scenario C) where the better-off gain both in absolute and relative terms. In fact, the years in retirement then start to decline at the bottom of the scale.

This highlights the fact that we are looking at two distinct problems here. To date, the focus has been on the pressure that increased longevity will create on pensions. This is often expressed in the hopeful phrase "we're all living longer". The second point, which pension reformers and government have been less vocal about, is that some of us are living longer than others and that this disparity is getting worse. In other words, the second issue is widening inequality.

If longevity continues to increase (and there's every reason to believe that it will), and this happens in parallel with a widening gap in living standards, reflected in bigger differences in longevity by social class, then there is a good chance that the rate of increase of the retirement age, which is universal and therefore a notional average, may be greater than the rate of increase in the longevity of the poorest. In simple terms, the historic growth in the number of years in retirement for the poorest, which has benefited from the male retirement age staying static at 65 since 1925 as longevity increased, will go into reverse.

De facto this means a transfer of wealth (in terms of pension payments) from the poor to the rich. On the face of it, this is pretty repellent, however it's worth noting the degree to which the contributory principle has become diluted over time, and may well be finessed out of existence in the coming years. Consequently, the idea that you are "owed" more may become difficult to establish.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Big Brother is mildly annoying you

The prologue of the 1954 BBC adaptation of George Orwell's 1984 features two arresting images that are significant for Londoners in election week. The first is the face of Big Brother on a massive circular billboard, positioned roughly on the site of St. Thomas's hospital in Lambeth. The camera pans from this across the river, taking in a broken Westminster Bridge in the distance, to alight on the second image. This is the Ministry of Truth, rising up amidst the ruins of Westminster.

The ministry building is a steeply-angled, many-windowed pyramid, disappearing up into the sky, which looks a lot like the Shard. While Renzo Piano's building on the other side of the river is not emblazoned with slogans such as "ignorance is strength", it is a very visible symbol of the power of The City (Southwark Council aren't likely tenants) and the hubris of the noughties, dwarfing the nearby City Hall.

The character of Big Brother does not appear in the flesh, indeed there is deliberate ambivalence about whether he exists or ever existed. He is the "embodiment of the party". The actor/extra who provides the face of yer man for the BBC production was presumably chosen to reflect a contemporary image of an authoritarian leader. He has the jowls of a Churchill, a moustache somewhere between Hitler and Stalin, and the general bearing of a man who once played rugby but has now resorted grumpily to golf.

What I find oddly compelling is that he appears to be a cross between Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson. Ken's flattened hair (GLC vintage) and 'tache, plus Boris's piggy eyes and flabby cheeks. Despite the best efforts of the other candidates, the London Mayoral election is a straight choice between these two.

The role of Mayor is not unlike that of Big Brother, being more apparent than real. Since the evisceration of metropolitan government in the mid-80s, central governments of both right and left have been reluctant to allow the development of anything approaching the power base that Ken achieved at County Hall (directly behind the BBC billboard), as leader of the GLC in the early 80s.

The role of Mayor of London has been limited to those functions that must be managed at a city-wide level, such as transport and policing, but the powers vested in respect of housing, planning or the economy are negligible. Transport and policing are photogenic and symbolic, which has led to the mayoral candidates being judged as much for their performance as their policy: the narcissism of small differences.

Transport has focused on the congestion charge or the bike scheme (both of which impact a very small number of Londoners), while major policy initiatives such as Crossrail, HS2 or an extra runway at Heathrow are effectively controlled by central government. The Met police remain all too obviously a law unto themselves, while Johnson is roped in for hilarious drug bust photo-ops and is criticised for not returning from his holidays during last year's riots, as if he were expected to personally wade into the crowds in Tottenham.

Elsewhere in the UK, the lack of enthusiasm for elected mayors reflects the well-founded belief that these roles are intended to circumscribe the power of city councils and provide a platform for super-egos. Directly-elected mayors are routinely equated with CEOs circa 2005: they'll be dynamic, they'll get things done, they'll be big-hitters. Yet this equation doesn't work in reverse. There is no government desire to extend democracy to business, and no appreciation of the limited impact that CEOs actually have on business performance, despite the ample evidence of the last decade.

These roles have almost no powers as regards economic intervention beyond "bidding" for inward investment. The CEO template they have in mind is Branson: marketing the city brand. Comparisons with Joe Chamberlain and 19th century municipalism are ridiculous.

But elections still matter. To see the London Mayoral face-off as simply a popularity contest for a super-salesman is to accept the belief that democracy is the expression of a consumer preference, rather than the expression of popular will for specific action. As expected, Johnson has turned his capering buffoon tendencies up to 11, while his loyal press (the "mind-forg'd manacles") busily blacken Livingstone's name.

To vote for Boris is to vote for a London where the interests of the rich are vigorously pursued (see his loud support for the cut in the top rate of tax), and where living costs for the many (notably transport) continue to climb. Livingstone is hardly perfect, but he does have a track record of cutting fares (so his promise is credible), and he is likely to be more robust in tackling the Met's shortcomings. Also in his favour, a vote for Labour will be interpreted as a slap to the coalition government in Westminster. What's not to like?

What we shouldn't forget is that Ken supported both the Shard and Crossrail. While he did try to wring wider benefits for London from both while Mayor, they remain projects whose purpose and viability reflects the continuing power of The City and its non-democratic base. Regardless of whose face appears on the billboards next week, the Shard will continue to dominate the skyline, "all bright and glittering in the smokeless air".