Posts by Jock

Are falling graduate salaries good or bad?

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What to think of this...the Times Higher reports that (new window): 

Research by the Complete University Guide says graduate starting salaries in professional posts fell by 11 per cent in real terms, from £24,293 to £21,702, between 2007 and 2012.

If falling salaries (many of them in fact "rents" in economic terms - the largest falls have been in heavily regulated, and therefore rent-receiving, professions, medicine and law) are going to feed through eventually to lower costs for consumers of those rent-supported services then this is, by and large, a good thing. And to be fair to them, for once a good part of Labour government policy if I recall correctly (at least in terms of training more medical professionals).  There are more people who potentially benefit from cheaper doctors or lawyers than there are people in those professions who will see their rent premium fall.  But that assumes that labour cost savings feed through to lower consumer prices, which is not a given...

On the other hand, the overall graduate premium has barely moved, so everyone (at least those starting out in employment whether graduate or not) has seen their income fall in a similar proportion (it is in fact of course a larger proportionate fall for non-graduates). And of course, this is not only the case for those starting out - in higher education as a whole, the pay settlements since the recession started have seen us all, of all ages and skills, worse off on average by 13% in real terms.  Maybe new graduates, in this context, should not grumble: "we're all in this together", as they say!

For those at the start of their independent lives also (graduate or not) one of the biggest costs for them, housing costs, which will take up a greater proportion of their income than it does for someone who has already half paid off their mortgage, have been rising and for many in excess of the average inflation rate.  Presumably (somebody correct my economics if I am wrong please) falling real salaries/wages is the same thing as saying a greater *proportion* of production being returned to either capital or land (in interest or rent), and a lower *proportion* to labour (wages).  And presumably implies a yet increasing transfer of wealth from young and least well off (less likely to have capital or land assets) to the older and best off (landlords and shareholders).

The article doesn't say that we are getting a commensurate number of extra doctors or lawyers though, only that employers are getting their pick without increasing the salaries offered. So longer term the rent problem is not going to go away through increased supply. And this must presumably apply throughout the labour market, skilled or unskilled. 

So, are they a good or bad thing, these declining graduate salaries? Well insofar as this is in line with the whole labour market, it cannot be good that the returns to capital and land are rising and the returns to labour falling, can it? In other words that profit and rent are taking a bigger share of the pie and wages a smaller share. But if the graduate premium itself is not falling significantly then the existing arguments for going to university still apply: "you'll be better off than if you don't go". And again, the money value of the premium may have fallen an incy-wincy bit, but because non-graduate salaries are already the lower of them, this means an increasing percentage graduate premium: "you'll be an increasing proportion better off than if you don't go".

If there is a greater relative fall in the longer term in salaries for those heavily rent-receiving graduate professions, that would be beneficial to those (most of the population) who have to pay for their services. Removing rent is a good thing, but if the saving just passes from employee to employer and not to consumer, the rent remains the same, just even more concentrated: definitely a bad thing.  

Not particularly related to the above, but something I want to mention anyway, I have a pet theory about the long term socio-economic effects of a higher proportion of the labour force being graduates that I don't really see discussed much in "the literature": that it will tend to diminish the difference in returns between management roles and production roles and therefore tend to lead to a more equal distribution of economic welfare.  Middle class technical/production/specialist graduates negotiating with their middle class management graduate peers, or lobbying their middle class graduate politicians are in a relatively better negotiating position, after three years of networking with each other, than when it's between management graduates and people from whom they diverged, educationally and very probably socially, at the end of their school years. That's if, in the case of former private school pupils, who still dominate in rent-seeking jobs and politics, they ever met in the first place. Once you are at university, those from less well off socioeconomic backgrounds have relatively greater equality of opportunity with their graduate peers from wealthier backgrounds than if they don't even make it to university.

For me, and especially as regards my dissertation, will all this translate into greater demand for postgraduate education and so financing? With a predicted level of up to 75% of the post-2012 £9,000 fees regime loans likely to go unpaid according to research released last week by the Institute for Fiscal Studies for the Sutton Trust (I believe it was) maybe we're into an era when people simply cannot afford to take on more debt. Though it's possible the opposite may be true - that to take out, say, £15,000 for a one year Masters on top of your nearly £45,000 debt from your undergraduate degree may produce more than a 33% greater premium and be very much worthwhile doing. 

Where have all the good men [and women] gone?

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[another piece of coursework recently handed in: this time a film review for my Theory and Practice of Human Rights module]

Film Review: "The Torture Question", PBS's Michael Kirk spotlights Abu-Ghraib torture whitewash

(watch the whole thing at Frontline's website)

Who deserves what “rights”? Who is responsible for ensuring people’s human rights? And who watches the watchers? These questions, framing a key dilemma in the contemporary Human Rights regime, are at the forefront of Michael Kirk’s PBS documentary, aired in the wake of military trials following revelations of prisoner “abuse” at the Abu Ghraib prison in US occupied Iraq in 2004.

In “The Torture Question” Frontline takes issue with the politicians’ conclusion that the trials of individual servicemen and women demonstrated that the abuse was exceptional and isolated rather than endemic, and that there was no official policy of abuse or torture of detainees (TTQ, 2005: Ch 6, 10:20). Kirk draws on compelling evidence, from official documents from the Whitehouse down, to often frank interviews with some key “people who should know”. The feature length episode explains convincingly how political priorities, and sometimes mere operational expediency for the intelligence and military authorities, led to policies stripping detainees from Afghanistan and later in Iraq of some of the most basic rights enumerated in the Post WWII supposedly “Universal” Human Rights declarations. Primarily, for the film and the Abu Ghraib trials, this means the right not to “be subjected to torture, or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (UDHR, art5), but in the wider context it involves rights to protection of the law (art 7), to procedural justice (arts 9, 10 & 11), and in some cases, even the right to life (art 3).

At the level of prime-time TV investigative journalism, the programme succeeds well in closely linking cabinet level political government to more or less explicit orders passed down the chain of command in military and intelligence services apparently authorizing and encouraging practices that to most people would at least be “abuse” of detainee’s “rights” and that many would, with me, see as torture. Whilst I am sure there remains sufficient uncertainty to enable some to deny either that there was a culture of abuse, and possibly torture, or, if they accept there was, whether there was anything wrong with that, it is worth remembering that the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal and subsequent investigations did eventually lead to the resignation of the alleged primary perpetrator of the abuse culture, Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, a year after this was aired.

For me there were two particularly memorable “take-aways” from the film. First, that there were some good people trying to do the right thing in the midst of an atmosphere in which dissent was likely to count against your career prospects at the very least. I thought it interesting too in this regard, that as an agency the FBI, answerable to the Department of Justice and perhaps, arguably, a “higher calling” than the military and intelligence services responding to more political oversight appeared more concerned about upholding conventional ideas of justice and human rights. A similar case can be made for Gens Baccus and Karpinski, whose roles as camp commandants were also more about administrative and procedural justice than about military, intelligence or political priorities. As Baccus puts it, “By charge of the president… the charge was to treat the detainees humanely”.

But while the DNA evidence appears to indict Donald Rumsfeld, at least to a “beyond plausible deniability” standard of proof, as a noted hate-figure for anti-war and predominantly anti-Republican critics of the then US foreign policy, the film-makers could have easily allowed this to become a one-sided trial of him and these policies. But my second “take-away” is that those interviewed that were in some way responsible for the development and implementation of these alleged breaches of human rights appeared in no way apologetic. John Yoo displays no remorse for his justification that the threat posed by non-state actors such as international terrorist syndicates meant that the legal “rules of war” had to be rewritten (TTQ, 2005: ch1, 10:21). Alberto Gonzales’ legal opinion that this new form of war “renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners” (Ch2, 9:55) won him eventual promotion to Attorney General.

This is not a one sided debate in which all right minded people abhor torture and abuse of human rights and the government is simply evil and wrong and thinks these are fine. These are credible people, at the top of their legal, military and political careers, often representing or responsible for many thousands of staff or accountable, in theory, to millions of constituents, making straight-faced justifications for the selective suspension of people’s human rights at the time they arguably most need them to be respected, when they are in dealings, of any kind with, but most especially involving the curtailment of their liberties by, the state.

More shockingly, we are drawn to the realization that, with the learned advice of just a few such jurists and apologists, the political desire to appear tough, and a chain of command that brooks no dissent except at high personal cost, a very few people in the executive of what we commonly regard as the world’s strongest constitutional democracy can reinterpret the flimsy international law that supports the universal Human Rights regime so as to render those rights all but inapplicable to some individuals or groups of people.

This points us to one of the central dilemmas in the Human Rights discourse. States, as sovereign bodies, uniquely with the power to enforce their political decisions and court judgments within their territory, are explicitly the guarantors of all the rights enumerated in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, preamble). If states (even generally just, democratic, liberal ones) can disregard them with relative impunity for “operational reasons” or “reasons of state” how strong are those guarantees to uphold anyone’s rights? “First they came for the socialists…” as Pastor Martin Niemoller famously reminded us.

In Europe, perhaps, the European Convention on Human Rights offers us greater protection. If British Constitutionalist Vernon Bogdanor is correct (2009, 59), by acts of the parliaments of the signatories to the convention, every political decision, every legal judgment, is subject to it conforming to the convention. In effect, he argues, the European Convention on Human Rights has become our overarching basic constitutional document. Yet here too, talk of derogating from provisions of the convention when it suits, and even withdrawal from the convention, figures in much political debate, and whilst we may have made it more difficult, technically, to disregard Human Rights, ultimately, whilst the state is sovereign, it will have the final say. And as the US has shown us, at Abu Ghraib and GTMO, a constitution may not be much protection, even one derived from a declaration that self-evidently all people are equal, in their enjoyment of unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (USDI, 1776).

Bibliography

Bogdanor, V., 2009. The New British Constitution. Oxford: Hart Publishing

TTQ, 2005. The Torture Question. Frontline, 18/10/2005, Dir. Michael Kirk, PBS Broadcasting, 2005.

UDHR, 1948, Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The United Nations. New York. 1948 available online at http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/

USDI, 1776, United States Declaration of Independence.

Why Can’t Economists Be More Like Nutritionists?

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Last week we got the news, hot out of Cambridge, that nutritionists could no longer say that giving up or cutting down on well reared, fatty red meat, and dairy fats would do us any good.  Over the years they have extolled the benefits and alternately the dangers of red wine. Eggs were rehabilitated after several decades on the naughty step. I distinctly remember in the seventies that we were told that kippers and smoked fish, coffee (particularly black) and toast were carcinogenic. Carbs good, fats bad, oils bad, cooking anything, bad.

And each time there is a volte face on what is or isn't good for us, depending on how far the advice catches on, it has wide ranging ramifications for public health. Years may even be cut from millions of lives if we've been doing the wrong thing for a long time on scientific advice available at the time, liberties unnecessarily curbed by politicians. But you know, that's how a science works. It tries one thing, sees how it works, tries another, retraces its steps as something new is discovered and so on. Not scared of contradicting its previous theories where necessary. We learn about many of the most important in the most basic school science classes. We celebrate the names of those by whom breakthroughs were made. We do children's Christmas Lectures about them. They appear in pub quizes.

Even in social sciences, specifically as I have been studying them, poolitics and international relations, we are taught from the start about various schools of thought, their history and relevance, we have the opportunity directly to study the works of significant figures in historical political thought, and almost all our work involves trying to understand and explain different political subject areas from several of these perspectives.  When one type of system goes wrong, we debate better, replacement, systems from amongst alternative vision.  Again, many of these figures are in the public consciousness, though probably less so than natural scientists.  But still often in pub quizes.

But in economics? No such luck, especially in taught economics at anything, it would seem, up to and including undergraduate level. It hardly seems a comprehensive enough basis for practicing economics, understanding the shades of opinion in policy debates, not knowing the history of those policy debates. And let's not forget, just as with nutritional advice, economic policy has far reaching human welfare implications. People starve when their countries' economic plans go awry, the imbalanced distribution of wealth and properity around the world must tell us that something hasn't worked. And that something is the standard neo-classical models we are all taught without exception or much debate about alternative views.

Maybe it's unusual for an undergraduate student to have read much economics before university, and I know little about the GCSE and A level curricula. But the number of well known economists who have even had a name-check during my course, including simply having some kind of economic model named after them where we have learned about the model is miniscule, and they're generally all of one broad school of thought. So we know, say, about the Mundell-Fleming model or the Phillips curve, but know very little, if anything, about Bob, Marcus or Bill themselves.

I was shocked last year, in a third/final year module, for example, to hear that nobody else (willing to speak up in seminar at least) had heard of David Ricardo or even Comparative Advantage.  Adam Smith got a mention, once, in an early compulsory Micro module or something. But Say, Marx, Ricardo, Walras, Marshall, Bates have had no mention at all to say nothing about less orthodox economists like Boehm-Bawerk or Menger, Sraffa, Minsky. Even Hayek, I think, got only one mention in all of my modules.  Schumpeter got several mentions, but again, just for the words "creative destruction" not about studying the man and his ideas in any more detail than that.

Now, sure, one problem for ecnomics and economists is that there really isn't a laboratory setting in which different ideas can be tried under controlled conditions and then applied to the real world. All experimentation is done on real economies with real human reactions to the policy changes that themselves might change the parameters of the experiment by reacting other than expected.  There is a distinct lack of "discursive" economics of the form that Sraffa, Minsky or J K Glabraith preferred (even Keynes didn't think a concentration on mathematical modelling and predicting was useful). But really, with the seemingly intractable economic issues the world is beset with most of the time (and particularly after 2007/8's crash) you would have thought we would be taught how to debate the different possible ideological responses to those issues - the closest we have got is an essay specifically on monetary and fiscal policy as enacted after the crash in the UK, the only thing I would say has been a rigorous "academic essay" in the whole of the economics side of the course, probably.

There are, of course, signs of change. Student groups and lecturers have begun to get fed up of the monopoly neo-classicalism has on the curriculum, but the suggestions I have seen do not particularly, it seems, move away from an obsession with models over dialectic. In fact, I get the impression that some proposed curricular reforms want to see a more mathematically rigorous discipline which only partly addresses the problems with the current set up.

The current curriculum must be incredibly frustrating to teach as well. From what I can gather, most of my lecturers would probably self-identify as heterodox in some way, but are, effectively, prevented from teachig their ideas. The orthodoxy stifles real debate, making policy questions one-sided and leaving current undergraduates unprepared for a world of more open debate, schooled in models but not educated in economics.

A Crimean Diversion

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In a brief respite between coursework and dissertation deadlines, I feel the need to reflect a little on the Ukraine situation. Actually it's not such a big diversion as it directly relates to two of my modules this semester as well, on democracy, civil society and governance and on human rights. I feel about as close as it is possible to be to have considered the issue, read and heard people on both "sides", and actually not be able to hold an opinion either way. That's not to dismiss it as insignificant: in the back of my mind I always recall General Sir John Hackett's Third World War beginning in the recently independent Ukraine! I am genuinely conflicted. I have no idea what the "right" answer is.

Firstly, and I think a fair few strident "western" commentators need to appreciate this too for a bit of humility when pontificating what people half a world away should do, I and most of the people I know have no experience of being a geopolitical pawn (welll we do, we just don't usually recognise it as such!).  That means people in the UK and the USA primarily: we simply have not in living memory been invaded, annexed, carved up and redistributed, our people force-marched 3,000 miles as collective punishment, been starved in one of the biggest instances of democide in history.  

I mean, let's face it, sixty years ago or whatever it was, moving the Crimea to Ukraine would have been something akin to moving Grimsby back to Lincolnshire instead of Humberside, an administrative thing, done for who knows what reasons of course, but nonetheless. Maybe they thought the Ukrainians were always too independent minded so the territory called Ukraine should have more Russians in it. Mere gerrymandering on a grand scale? Who knows. You can be sure they then didn't envisage these Soviet Republics ever being anything other than part of the Soviet Union, so these were administrative internal issues. On the other hand, you would think that experience of the Holodomor and then of internal exile would make the Tatars totally against siding with Russia, so whose country is Crimea anyway? Should the (minroity) returning Tatars have some prior say, or should it be the ethnic Russians who were presumably also more or less forcibly moved into the Crimea in the fifties, as "current occupiers"?

It's bad enough having one "master" in the form of a state, but having several fight over you, swap you for something else, demand that one day you are loyal to one regime and the next to another, perhaps accompanied by enforced changes in language, legal system, religious freedoms and so on must be truly awful. I of course don't understand why they cannot simply go it alone - with a population of around 2 million Crimea is not dissimilar in size to sovereign Slovenia and Latvia, somewhat bigger than eight other independent European nation states.

Anyway, all of that is by way of saying I really cannot imagine, living in a country that has not ostensibly "changed hands" for the best part of a millennium, what all that historical baggage, much within living memory remember, does to communities.  But what of the political dimension, what is it that one side, Europe and the US are getting all moral high ground about?

Okay, so I paid only a passing interest in the street battles in Kiev, celebrated a little when the Yanukovych government fell (all governments falling are a cause for celebration, for there is the briefest opportunity that people might reject government entirely!). I mean, from the outside, it looks like Ukraine has had a series of pretty gangster governments. Yushchenko and the bizarre poisoning incident, Timoshenko the oligarch turned politician (rarely a good combination IMO). For better or worse the current legally, however dubiously, elected gangster-in-charge happens to be Yanukovych. And he has been forced from office by a mob. Amazingly a mob demanding closer ties to the European Union: Brussels can't see that strength of feeling in their favour very often!

The new government is, naturally, dominated by western-oriented Ukrainians so even the flimsy nationwide democratic consent to the Yanukovych government can no longer be counted upon. I'm not clear when we started supporting coups d'etat, but it seems to me that people pointing out that's exactly what we're doing have a good case.

On the other hand there is the unseemly haste with which all this is happening. One would expect a neighbouring country, especially one with crucial assets in the territory concerned, to have a position on the legitimacy or otherwise of a change in government next door, but is there anything to suggest that even if Ukraine were about to be more politically divided on ethnic lines anyone was in such imminent danger as to demand (let alone justify) immediate deployment and de facto annexation of the Crimea by Russia? You know, Scotland's been planning a vote on independence for what, three centuries, Crimea's could surely have waited a few months and allowing time for legal challenges and so on? I don't trust Putin at the best of times, and the swiftness of his intervention stinks of planning and takeover not protection.

I hear people comparing it to Kosovo. But I'm not sure the comparison works, or at least I hope it doesn't. In Kosovo, a rebel government had been going for some time, it had already turned bloody, and the remarkable aspect of the NATO intervention was bombing Serbia to make them give up their grip on Kosovo. So if Putin is not suggesting that large scale bloodshed on ethnic lines was imminent, from which the Crimean people needed immediate protection, is he really saying that he's prepared to bomb Kiev in order to defend the rights of self-determination of Crimea? An independent Crimea, by the way, that would be slightly larger in population than the current "independent" Kosovo.

And oh, as I was writing this last night, news comes in of some alleged phone conversation with Timoschenko apparently quite casually talking about nuking ethnic Russians.  Maybe Putin has a cause for swift intervention after all.  Either way, I cannot bring myself to think well of either side in this, and it seems to me that from the western point of view, rarely has there been as good a reason to keep one's own counsel as when the greenhouse windows are in full view of the incoming stones.

There’ll be singing in the Vale tonight no doubt!

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The Vale of White Horse District Council has recently been told, through the “Strategic Housing Market Assessment for Oxfordshire” process, that its estimate of what land it needs to make available in the planning system for housing up until 2031, agreed only a year ago in their Local Plan, was over 50% out, short of what is actually needed.  They have had to find sites for 7,300 additional new homes over this period, 4,000 of which additional number must be started in the next four years to make up for years of underproviding. So far, as they say, so good: it pobably should be even more.

And whilst the communities selected for imminent inundation or a few welcome extra homes, depending on your perspective, may well be getting ready to do battle on every site, it’s worth while sparing a thought for the poor beneficiaries of this sleight of a planner’s hand.  

Oxfordshire Community Land Trust, of which I am co-chair, has a small plot in this district, on which we are hoping to get six very modest units.  If we get six, they will be one and two bedroom properties, and we will have paid about £35,000 per plot.  When we spoke with local housing associations they felt that that was at the higher end of what they would pay but not unreasonable.  

On that basis, merely by designating these 21 new sites around the district as available for housing (a total of 8,500 or so, presumably in case they don’t get all of them through), the "system" has written a cheque to the collected landowners for around £300 million in instantaneously increased land values.

But wait, there’s another site, in Chipping Norton, on the old village hospital site, with permission for 14 units, going for £2m.  Now sure, some of those units are going to go into the old hospital buildings, but such renovations can be just as expensive as new builds.  But even allowing for that, perhaps the land itself is only worth half of that, and at that price, the landowners in the Vale now given the green light to seek developers will be more like £600m potentially better off tonight.

Just for comparison, the public investment required to build the proposed western relief flood channel around Oxford and protect thousands of existing homes from flooding, is £120+ million.  That value, of course, will end up sooner or later too in the pockets of those whose properties have benefitted from your, and my, generosity with our taxes.

Do you really believe this is how it's supposed to work?

In the background, beneath all the wailing and gnashing of teeth of objectors, if you listen carefully, I'm sure you will hear a few corks popping around the Vale tonight!

Drugs: asking the wrong questions of the wrong people?

Concluding my recent essay on drugs control and the limits of legitimate state intervention, I quoted from Rutgers University philosophy professor and legalization advocate Douglas Husak that the “best reason not to criminalize drug use is that no argument in favour of criminalizing drug use is any good”.

Having read more of his work since, particularly a book featuring a scholarly debate between Husak and anti-legalizer Arizona State University's Peter de Marneffe [Husak & de Marneffe, The Legalization of Drugs (for and against), Cambridge University Press, 2005], I wanted to return to this idea, because Husak advocates a different approach from most legalizers I have come across that is neatly summarised, but not perhaps obvious from that quote.  

Husak contends that those of us who want to see the end of punishment for using drugs have made our own task very much harder by accepting that is it we as advocates for change that must present strong justification for that change.  On the contrary, he suggests, those who believe punishment is a just way to deal with drug use should be the ones to justify the status quo.  Punishment is the harshest thing a state can do to its citizens and the wielding of such a serious power should always have seriously strong justifications.

Partly this is “tactical".  Arguing for change tends to shift the argument in the direction of prediction.  If someone claims that legalizing drugs would result in the instant death of the last breeding pair of unicorns followed by a new great flood of angels’  tears that will wipe out decadent civilisation before you can say “snort that” you just can’t prove that it won’t.  However unlikely the argument, you can’t refute it, so are always at a tactical disadvantage.

But it is primarily “strategic”.  Putting the onus on prohibitionists to defend the status quo steers the debate in a direction that throws together some unlikely bedfellows and awkward arguments: liberal paternalists arguing for the same outcome as racist and moral crusaders; confusion over just what they intend to punish and under what circumstances; inconsistency in their treatment of illicit drugs, licit drugs and other potentially harmful activities; even the invocation of moral and religious arguments.  And as Husak reviews all these arguments, he finds them ultimately “not nearly good enough - to justify prohibition" and therefore that “the absence of a good reason establishes that decriminalization is the just and sensible position for the state to adopt toward recreational drug users."

Of course this is not the end of Husak’s arguments.  There are positive reasons not to criminalize drugs and he goes on briefly to enumerate some of them, but I thought the idea of making prohibitionists justify their stance an interesting take.  It’s not quite the same as the perhaps more frequent question “by what right do you assume the power to punish people for drugs use” to which the answer inevitably is “the state” or “democratic mandate”.  Those of us wanting to see a change in the way society handles drugs should put the onus back onto prohibitionists as often as possible.  Their arguments do not stand the scrutiny.

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Drug Control, the Harm Principle and Limits to Legitimate State Intervention

[Another of my coursework essays, from last semester.  My own choice of title.  Very enjoyable working on it again, but yet again, probably a title that could have justified double the word limit!]

Legal prohibitions, broadly defined as &...

Continue reading at Jock's OXFr33? Blog …

Oxford Cops on Drugs

This is a good illustration of why I would like to see anyone in any kind of public office do a course in economics before they are allowed to inflict their ideas on society.  There is so much wrong with this it’s hard to know where to start.  But it is illustrative of our shambles of a drugs control regime in this country and many others around the world that some enlightened countries are beginning to challenge.

Possibly the most egregious error is in this section:

[Police Sergeant Blackmore of “Operation Bilbo” (sic)] said: “About 99 per cent of our burglars are Class A drug addicts...“That is the pure reason they burgle houses – to get money for their drug fix. So if we can reduce their supply they won’t burgle houses.”

Can they not understand that if someone is already struggling to maintain a habit (a habit moreover that was fine for nineteenth century women and royals just not when the hoi polloi discovered it) and has resorted to acquisitive crime, reducing the supply will increase the price and desperate people (and habitual heroin users are desperate and in considerable pain when they can’t get a fix) will need to acquire more resources, not fewer, to afford the higher price?  This stated reason for this crackdown is economic lunacy.

Economics 101, in fact the very first week of an economics course, would show them that in general we assume that reducing supply will increase the equilibrium price.  As addicts, the demand is very inelastic (it’s difficult to stop and all the possible alternatives are just as unavailable), and so they find ways of paying the new price rather than reducing consumption.  And if it is true that 99% of all burglaries are to maintain a habit, this just goes to show where most of the externalities of drugs use land - with the victim of totally unnecessary crimes.

Ever since the useless system of prohibition was begun in the UK and around the world the price of drugs has fallen, but it is still many times higher than what heroin or cocaine would fetch in a legalised and free market (even if, as I don’t advocate, government decided to sell it at some centrally fixed price and taxed it).  So the real answer to your burglary problem, for both the addict and the victim of burglary or mugging, is to increase the supply to those dependent on it (which will likely be most crack and heroin users).

The article also makes great play of how many people have been jailed, and how much drugs money has been confiscated:

And it has now hit the target of locking up 41 Class A drug dealers for a combined total of 100 years...And since last April police had seized nearly £42,000 in drug money.

How much will it cost to keep these people in prison for a hundred years between them (even if it’s only 30 or whatever for good behaviour)?  The government (pdf) tells us that it averages £25,722 per annum per prisoner.  So they’ve collected sufficient in proceeds of crime confiscation to cover fewer than two prison-years and the rest of the £2.5 million they’ve now committed to spending on these people is paid for by us, whether we agree with the policy or not; whether we are already victims of their crimes or not.  With around 50,000 households in Oxford, that’s £50 each household - probably less than each burglary actually nets the addict.

If these people want to damage themselves, we should let them.  Humboldt and Mill’s “harm principle” should apply.  If they want to get off the habit, we are much more likely to see them come forward for treatment and help if in doing so they are not exposing themselves to criminal sanction and social opprobrium.  If we cannot legalise (and we should) then Portugal’s ten year successful experiment is surely the way to go rather than this economically illiterate, demeaning and punitive system we currently have.

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John Stuart Mill and "No Platform"

By some arcane constitutional nonsense, if a student union general meeting here is inquorate, whilst it may discuss things its votes may only be indicative, and it is adjourned and reconvened a “week hence” at which reconvened meeting however many people as are present constitute a quorum and can ratify or overturn the decisions made at the inquorate meeting itself.  I suspect this was implemented in order to avoid the recurrence of the embarrassing spectacle, from a few years ago, that even the union’s own constitution took several years to pass for want of a quorate general meeting (free pizza notwithstanding).

Anyway, all this enabled me to go along to the reconvened meeting of Brookes Union’s AGM on Friday.  My main purpose was to try and get overturned the vote against my own motion from last week condemning the practice of holding exams during my middle-aged na-na nap in the early evening, and at Wheatley to boot, which, at half seven on a December evening will, no doubt feel like a night out in Pripyat.  But it gave me an opportunity also to try to overturn the support from last week (to which I had not been able to go owing to a clashing Students Union meeting!) for the union to adopt a “No Platform” policy, ostensibly aimed at “racists” and “fascists” (and who isn’t a fascist to some group, like the Workers’ Institute Marxist-Leninist Mao Zedong Thought collective).

I won’t bore with the details of the motion, or indeed the brief debate, but I wanted to get to a part of my argument I don’t think anyone who responded in the meeting grasped.  Who loses from a “No Platform” policy?  In Mill’s language, who is harmed by “No Platform”?

When issues around the freedom of thought, expression and speech arise, we often think of one or both of two people: Voltaire with his (misattributed) "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” dictum and John Stuart Mill, 19th century Utilitarian Liberal Political Philosopher, the first part of whose seminal “On Liberty” is often cited as a paean of praise for free speech.  And it is true, I admit that I am an unabashed absolutist in free speech, mainly because of Mill.

Voltaire’s supposed idea (the phrase comes from Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s own summary of Voltaire’s thought rather than his actual words) defends the right of the speaker to be able to express his or her opinion unimpeded, however disturbing or erroneous others think that opinion may be.  And that is usually, I think, how people see issues of “free speech” - whether the speaker is being denied a fundamental and “negative” liberty.  If that were all “free speech” was about, then some of the rejoinders to me may have been valid: that of course banned speakers, if there ever were any, were not having their rights denied just because we decide not to let them speak here, for they can exercise their right elsewhere just as easily.  Us not inviting them is not silencing them: they are merely joining the approximately seven billion other people in the world we have chosen not to invite.

But Mill’s concern, and mine, is that it is the hearer, or potential hearer, or frustrated non-hearer perhaps more accurately, who is deprived by this sort of “no platform” policy.  Indeed that society as a whole is deprived.  Even were it necessary to protect young children from what their guardians think are erroneous opinions until an age they feel they can “make up their own minds” it becomes presumptuous to treat similarly well educated adults, which, in the context of a Higher Education Institution well inside the top half of any league tables, I will assume we consider ourselves to be.

These erroneous opinions do not go away simply by ignoring them, or by passing a “no platform” policy, as if by magic, as with any legislative ban on things we don’t like.  They have to be argued away.  In the words of the one line of the motion I could wholeheartedly support error, in this case racism, “should be confronted wherever it is found.”  This job is an important one.  It is only through debate and contact that people can be persuaded out of erroneous opinion.  

And each little victory adds to the credibility and security of the truth.  Indeed Mill says that if we refuse such a challenge, if we silence or ignore an erroneous opinion rather than confront it, we may begin to forget just how vile it is and risk dulling our arguments against it.  Just as many people urge us never to forget on Remembrance Day, lest we forget the horrors of war and are doomed to repeat them, so every time we wage war against error and win we bolster the truth.  Even if we wage that war and occasionally lose, if we learn from our defeats we will be better equipped to win next time.

So where else should that debate be held, but in the halls of higher learning, full of truth seekers and brimming with skilled orators?  Does that somehow rule out Brookes?  I hope not!  Better in that sort of milieu than on the streets, from behind barricades, with weapons.

There certainly is a sense also in which Mill wants for the holder of erroneous opinion to have that debate too.  How is one converted from erroneous opinion except by hearing the truth?  I doubt, for instance, though I know little of the actual facts of the case, that Tommy Robinson would have seen the truth about the EDL that he founded, if he were “no platformed” so that he was only ever preaching to his own choir and not being challenged and debated.  No, his message, unchallenged, would find its intended audience unhindered, with the potential to grow and gain even more traction before being confronted by reason.  Indeed, for many fringe groups, “no platform” is itself a sort of a perverse affirmation sometimes expressed by Gandhi's “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win."

But it is, fundamentally, the rest of us who have the “positive liberty" to be allowed to hear and to challenge error.  It is, obviously, Brookes Union’s prerogative as a private members’ club, to decide who it wants at its, and its societies’ events.  But to start deciding on behalf of an entire “scholastic community” of adults, in higher education, what they should not be permitted to hear seems to me a significant change in their responsibilities and their relationship with the broader membership - from representative to censor - that ought to be dealt with via the constitution of the union rather than by a policy motion which, whatever meeting one counts, probably garnered a few tens of people at most willing to debate it or vote on it.

The opportunity to confront and correct error is an honour.  To do so well ought to be a "graduate attribute" for "citizens living lives of consequence”.  To know that someone at least, someone you may know perhaps, is doing so, somewhere near here, sometime soon, ought to be greater comfort for those made uncomfortable by any particular erroneous opinion than hiding that opinion away and pretending our help to defeat it is not needed.  To deny us that honour is to doubt the wider student body, the union’s members, capable of doing so.

There!  That got that off my chest!

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"Spare Room Subsidy": how I changed my mind

I do believe that nobody, especially perhaps people who barely afford their own "compact and bijou" residence, should subsidise "spare" rooms for others through the tax system.  I believe this whether it's property rented from private landlords, where it is already outlawed, or social landlords (who arguably ought to be better at planning their estates to take account of demographic change).

I also believe there are places, as Oxford at least was a dozen years ago when I was a councillor, in which such a policy ought to help relieve overcrowding as the main problem rather than under occupancy which appears to be a bigger issue elsewhere.

And further, all Housing Benefit ultimately benefits landlords at the expense of *everyone* else, not just those renting.  The effect of Housing Benefit is to place a floor on housing costs and everyone's costs are increased by that, whether in the size of mortgage they have to take on to buy or the rent they hand over to their landlord.

So I have been half-heartedly in favour, generally speaking, of anything, including this so called "bedroom tax", that might reduce the dependence on and upward redistribution effects of Housing Benefit.  But I've changed my mind.  It's not that I am suddenly converted to the idea of paying surplus housing costs for other people.  But that, as in the back of my mind I knew all along, that this policy was attacking the wrong people and the wrong problem.  In an era of "little boxes…all made of ticky tacky" in a nation that has seen much economic growth over the past few generations, we all deserve some extra space.  No other developed nation has seen its average house sizes fall as we have in Britain as their countries became richer.

But when I have seen some of the victims of this policy, I see people who are already shunted around by the state and its partners in social housing provision, being penalised for relatively small amounts of money that pale into insignificance compared with the overall effect of land use policy and tax policy that maintains land values for those who have got some land of value and penalises everyone else, not just those caught in the bedroom tax.  It has exposed a lack of planning and investment on the part of social housing providers.  This may or may not be primarily related to government spending policies but is also affected by the land cost conundrum - it's difficult to justify "tear downs" with the land proportion of any property so high.

Instead of the paltry few hundred million the "bedroom tax" might save, whilst penalising people with no other options, a sensible government would have done something to alleviate the multi-billion land cost burden faced by every last one of us, except those with homes to spare.  That they haven't shows that they care more about the Daily Express house-price hawks than the costs of living facing real people every day.  They are no better than the last lot, which isn't saying much.

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