Friday 29 November 2013


Boris Johnson  has given us an example of how to distort the truth with statistics which should enter the text books.  In his speech this week  to the right wing Centre for Policy Studies Johnson  doesn't actually lie: he presents absolute truth, but in such a way as to give a hugely twisted impression.

Johnson points out that 16% of "our species", as he calls us, have an IQ of less than 85 whereas only  2% have an IQ of more that 130.  Absolutely correct.

For those unfamiliar with the background, many natural phenomena display a Gaussian, or Normal, distribution, which , in graphical terms, produces a bell-shaped curve with the vast majority in the middle and few at each of the extremes.  This can be validated by actually measuring observable features such as, for example, human height.

Most educational psychologists presume that human intelligence is similarly distributed, but, since intelligence is hard to measure (and perhaps even harder to define) this is impossible to prove. However, intelligence test are constructed so as to produce a Gaussian distribution, with both a  median and modal  score of 100, and questions in IQ tests are deliberately chosen to produce this.  Questions which generate results which do not fit  this "normal" distribution are rejected.

Johnson's distortion is to appear to balance the 16% with an IQ below 85 against the 2% with IQs above 130, thus giving the impression that the "gifted"  2% have to carry the "subnormal " 16%.  But note that the 2% are 30 points above the norm  whilst the burdensome 16%, with IQs below 85, are only 15 points below the norm.

In actual fact, there will be precisely 2% of the population with IQs below 70 who will exactly balance the 2% with IQs above 130, and 16% with IQs above 115 to balance those below 85.

What ever the figures, who owes what to whom by no means follows.  IQ may affect propensity to pass exams, but it doesn't measure hard work, ambition, care, consideration, empathy, sense of adventure, willingness to take risks, or how good a partner, parent (or teacher or nurse) you're likely to be.  In the hackneyed phrase, "It takes all sorts to make the world," and in a modern democracy we all merit equal respect and consideration as citizens.

Wednesday 27 November 2013

Questions for Cable

Today Vince Cable, our very own Liberal Democrat economics guru and Secretary of State for Business, is to appear before a parliamentary committee to account for his handling of the privatisation of our Royal Mail. Here are some of the things he needs to explain.

  1. First and most obvious, why were the shares of this publicly owned asset, first nationalised by Oliver Cromwell I believe, flogged off to private owners at a 30% discount? They were priced at £3.30 and promptly rose to £5.50 when placed on the market,  thus robbing the public treasury of £2.2bn.  Dr Cable initially dismissed the price difference as "froth" but six weeks later it's still there, and rumour has it that the value of the Royal Mail's property has not been properly taken into account, so there's uncounted  potential for asset stripping.
  2. The floatation was supervised by the investment bank Lazards. Are they and the other banks involved going to be sued for the bad advice they've given, or asked to return some of the £12.7million they've been paid, or to be struck from the list of firms eligible to advise governments in future?
  3. Why were the  sovereign wealth funds of Kuwait, Singapore and Abu Dhabi offered shares when British retail buyers and pension funds could have taken the lot, which would at least have kept the bonanza in the family?
  4. Why was one of the merchant banks advising on the price also allocated a proportion of the shares?  Surely that defines "conflict of interest" just as much as being a Liberal Democrat and supporter of Bradford City defines optimism (as my friend John Cole would put it.)
But what we Liberal Democrats really want to know is why was a Liberal Democrat minister involved in flogging off a profit making public asset at all?  Privatisation for the sake of it has no part in our philosophy.  This privatisation  is widely unpopular with he public, there is no evidence that the private sector will run the business more effectively than the public sector, the sop of 10% of the shares offered to employees is derisory and most will soon be cashed in for short-term gain>

And there is every expectation that, now our postal delivery service it is in the hands of short-term profit-maximisers,  the prices will rise even further, the extent and quality of the service will be reduced and pay and working conditions will deteriorate.

Post Script (added 29th November, 2013)

Well, from reports in the papers the committee seems to have taken a very Panglossian view .  The bankers all feel they did a good job and Dr Cable said, ". . .this has been a very professional well managed and successful operation."

I wonder, if he were to sell his house, the estate agent valued it at £330 000, so he sold it for that, and the buyer sold it the following week to someone else for £550 000, he would think the estate agent had done a good job for him? 

Monday 25 November 2013

Corrupt communities

Unless he has evidence, Dominic Grieve, the Attorney-General,  was probably unwise to single out the Pakistani community in Britain for special mention in his accusations of "corruption in some minority communities."

However, my friend John Cole, for 15 years a member of Bradofrd City Council, has writen to Mr Grieve pointing out that there is ample reason for concern about the possibility of corrupt  practices in British elections.

John writes:

"I would strongly recommend (assuming you have not already done so) that you get  hold of a copy of "Purity of Elections in the UK:  Causes for Concern".  This is a report by Stuart Wilks-Heeg of Liverpool University on behalf of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust.  Publication = 2008, ISBN = 0-9548902-3-x.  

This is a carefully researched academic report  which I think gives substance  to the comments you made earlier this week and which you are now being pressurised to retract."

John goes on to point out that the main source of corruption in elections is via postal voting, now available to anyone on a whim, and cites not only himself but senior officials of Bradford Council  as being strongly in favour of  greatly reducing the the eligibility for a postal vote. (  It used to be given only if you were too ill to attend the polling station or would be absent from home, either in the forces, on business, or, I think, away on holiday, on the date of the election.)

 At the time of the publication of the Wilks-Heeg report John tried to raise the matter privately within City Hall. His attempts were squashed: certain party leaders were wary of giving offencet.  The pressure  now being placed to squash further consideration of Mr Grieve's remarks are not healthy for our democracy: we should be ruthless in ferreting out corruption wherever it happens.

If a thorough enquiry results in our returning to the rule that, wherever possible, voting should be "in person, in private," so much the better.

Friday 22 November 2013

Liberal Democrats alive and kicking in Kirklees

There was a great by-election result for Liberal Democrats yesterday in my home patch of Kirklees (named after one of the places where Robin Hood's arrow allegedly landed and he is buried, though the site is actually over the border in Calderdale)

  • Christine Mary Iredale, Liberal Democrat – 1591
  • Stephan Georg Jungnitz, Labour Party - 901
  • Gregory Lloyd Broome, UK Independence Party (Ukip) - 450
  • Daniel Edward Greenwood, Green Party - 210
  • Clinton Noel Simpson, Conservative - 189
Christine lost the seat to Labour last year and admittedly we had an advantage this time round  in that that Labour man who defeated her  resigned rather prematurely.

Interesting that the Ukip vote was almost half that if Labour, and pleasing that the Green beat the Tories into fifth place.  David Cameron needs to look to his credentials and his promise to be "the greenest government ever."

Talking of promises, Tory Minister Tristram Hunt smugly made great play on the BBC's "Question Time" last night of the fact that the Tories wouldn't touch all those freebies we pensioners because because "David Cameron had promised they wouldn't."

One of the first audience contributors pointed out that Cameron has also promised "no top down re-organisation of the NHS."

Wednesday 20 November 2013

Mutuals mess-up, but corporate capitalism...

I'm keen member of the retail Co-op (I actually go to the meetings), pay for  my broadband and telephone line via  the Phone Co-op and have  an account at the Co-op Bank.  So I'm naturally distressed by the amount of negative publicity being generated by the collapse of our (yes our) bank and allegations of incompetence and wickedness directed at its former chairman Paul Flowers. (Journalists,  even on the BBC,  please note that  in British English its the Rev'd Paul Flowers, the Rev'd P Flowers, or Mr Flowers: the Rev'd Flowers is American English).

The Labour Party tries to claim a monopoly of the co-operative principle,  but it has strong  roots in Liberalism as well: profit sharing in Theodore Taylor's mills in Batley, just down the road from me; our many attempts, against trade union resistance,  to introduce employee representation on boards; Jo Grimond's enthusiasm for Mondragon.

The Co-op Bank's  present problems, largely if not mainly caused by the take-over of another mutual, the Britannia Building Society, give ammunition to  supporters of traditional (exploitative) capitalism to mock the mutual ideal: OK for the Women's Institute perhaps, but not suitable for serious business.

But hang on a moment.  The Co-op Bank has not, so far at any rate, needed taxpayers' money to shore it up. And its directors have retired with only ignominy, unmitigated by  fat bonuses. All very different from the collapse of capitalist RBS and Lloyds TSB.

Monday 18 November 2013

Big business globalises whilst politicians nationalise

A couple of weeks ago I attended a lecture by Hugo Radice, writer and  recently retired lecturer on international political economy at Leeds University.  The lecture discussed the nature and soundness of  the present economic recovery in the UK and examined who will be the most likely major beneficiaries if it continues: not the majority of us, I'm afraid.

Not mentioned in the lecture but was raised in discussion afterwards was that, whilst politicians are increasingly lowering their vision to the boundaries of their nation states, big business is increasingly thinking globally and stitching up the global market rules in its own interests. UKIP and EDF in Britain, AfD in Germany, FN in France et al are all banging their nationalist drums,  mainstream parties are increasingly occupied in accommodating them, and the encroachment of national sovereignty by international  business goes unchallenged, and even unnoticed

As a result our democracies grow weaker whilst  business goes from strength to strength. A recent article by George Monbiot describes how investor-state dispute settlements written into international trade agreements enable business to sue supposedly sovereign governments if the businesses feel their rights to make profits have been infringed.  Argentina has been forced to pay over $1bn to international utility companies for freezing the people's energy and water bills (so watch out, Ed Miliband).  The tobacco firm Philip Morris is suing the Australian government for the alleged loss of profit arising from their decision to allow cigarettes to be sold only in plain packets.

The courts which make these decisions meet in secret and there is no right of appeal.

So while here in the Britain  UKIP and the Tories splutter about ceding sovereignty to Brussels, where decisions are made openly and subject to democratic accountability, our democratic rights are being ceded to big business without a murmur.

Someone, not least Liberal Democrats in government, should be making a big fuss.  Come on Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills,  our very own Vince Cable -  lets hear it for the people.

Wednesday 13 November 2013

End this High Speed Folly

Two of my  friends who are railway buffs are enthusiastic supporters of HS2 (the plan to build a high speed railway form London to Birmingham, and, eventually, to Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds).  One ruefully admits that the project is unlikely ever to be achieved  because "Britain is no longer capable of implementing long term ventures such as this."  The other challenges my argument that the money could be better spent on other transport projects, by pointing out that the sort of money required is only available for grandiose projects, and not for titsy-bitsy improvements to the existing infrastructure.  He could be right, but, if so, that is a damning indictment of the quality of the vision of our leaders.

The initial justification for HS2 was that it would cut the journey time from London to Birmingham by 40 minutes.  When that was laughingly  ridiculed the justification shifted to the need for extra capacity.  (There are lots of other ways of gaining extra capacity: not least longer trains.  The necessary extension of a few platforms would cost only a tiny fraction of HS2.)  Then we were threatened that, if the existing rail network were to be improved, that could involve weekend closures on some services for up to 14 years.  It is good to know that the powers that be have such concern for our access to weekend leisure activities.

 It is argued  also that, by improving connections with London, the project will generate growth and prosperity in the Midlands and North.  It is just as likely to drain enterprise and resources from the North to the South by turning the entire nation into a vast suburb of London. In any case, we are a small island and, with the advent of new communication facilities such as Skype and whatever other  new tricks the IT people are going to invent in the next 30 years, the need for businessmen or anybody else to go whizzing up and  down it is highly questionable.

Already the projected cost has risen by £10bn and the projected benefits recalculated and reduced. In addition, the man placed in charge of  the HS2 project  is a Sir David Higgins, the same David Higgins who was chief executive of the 2012 Olympics Delivery Authority, a project which was originally estimated to cost £2.4bn and eventually came in at £8.77bn, a whopping  increase of 265%?  If Higgins's cost-management skills do not improve then we can expect HS2 to cost well over £100bn rather than the present estimate of £42bn.

I think I've read somewhere that the government has already squandered over £400m on consultancy fees.  If the scheme goes ahead then further billions, yes billions, will be spent on lawyers, planners, contract negotiations, land purchases and compensation.  Not much of that will "trickle down" into local economies.

To avert this waste we need to "bend up every spirit to its full height" to get this swanky project abandoned in favour of  shovel-ready improvements  to the existing network, which, as well as dragging the rest of the infrastructure into the 21st Century,  will generate local employment now when it is wanted, and not in some distant dream future.

Monday 11 November 2013

Government ineptitude drives young to self blame

A young man helped finance his time at university by working as a part-time shelf-stacker in our local co-op.  Nothing exceptional in that.  But he graduated over two years ago and is till part-time shelf stacking.  When I asked him the other week how his search for a "proper" career was progressing I found his reply painful:

"Nothing," he said.  "I must try harder."

So our Tory party and their supporters in the overwhelmingly right-wing press have not only succeed in blaming Britain's Labour party for a world-wide economic crisis causes by Tory policies of financial deregulation, but have now managed to convince the principal sufferers from the crisis that their plight is their own fault.

It seems to me that the age of 15 to 30 is the most exciting period of a person's life in what we had come to assume were normal circumstances: growing independent of one's parents, gaining qualifications,  finding a suitable career, changing it if it turned out not to be suitable, finding a partner (and, sadly, these days, changing that if  not entirely suited), setting up home, starting a family, progressing in one's career.  Those wonderful years when the world is your oyster and everything seems  possible .

There is much talk of austerity and it is true that some of the poorest in our society  are suffering real inconvenience, even  hardship.  But the principal sufferers are those from whom their rightful experience of these golden years has been stolen.

Contrast the predicament of today's youth with the easy-going generosity of state and economy experienced by earlier generations, and aptly described by Professor Danny Dorling.

Friday 8 November 2013

A Wage for Living.

In an article last week Polly Toynbee listed some of the items which the living wage is designed to support:

  • a man should have a pair of shoes and a pair of trainers
  • a child should have four outings a year (eg to a zoo, farm or Christmas pantomime)
  • for each child parents should be able to afford a £50  birthday present plus £50 for a party.
The male footwear allowance seems a bit on the stingy side, and the children's birthday allocation wildly lavish.

However, to bring the latter into perceptive I apply my "divide by 40" rule.  This is based on the fact that when I began teaching in the late 1950s we new recruits were paid just under £500 a year.  Today they are paid around £20 000 a year, or 40 times as much.  In other words today's pound in my mental calculation of the true value of things, is equivalent to the old sixpence (that's 6d, not the modern pence.  There were 20 shillings  in a £ and therefore 40 sixpences).

On that scale a birthday present worth just over a 1950s pound doesn't seem to way out.  Similarly my current pre 09h30 bus fare to Bradford, £2.90, is reasonably near to the 1/3d or so that it used to be, although  the Guardian, now at £1.40 (= about 8d) is almost three times the 3d it was in my college days, when I started reading it.

It is argued that the national minimum wage, now £6.31 an hour, is insufficient for families to achieve the socially acceptable standard of living and a "living wage," now deemed to be £7.65 an hour (more in London) is needed.  Employers are to be urged to pay this living wage and Labour leader  Ed Miliband has suggested  that employers who do this should be given a temporary tax break as a carrot

Although I'm sure that any increase in wages will be a help to those at the bottom of the pile, mostly, I believe, women in such jobs as cleaners, it would not be sufficient to maintain  that socially acceptable lifestyle if the employees were on a zero hours contract or working part-time when they really want a full-time job.  Weekly or annualised rates for the living wage, £298 and £15, 496 respectively outside London,  are more meaningful.

Ed Miliband's suggestion of a temporary  tax-break has caught the headlines.  If this is administratively feasible (and doubts have been raised:  will it, for example, go to employers who already pay the living wage, or just those who up their ante in order to get the allowance,  and do we have enough civil servants to do the checking when we don't seem to be able to employ enough in HMRC to collect the taxes already owed?) it may be a good temporary nudge, since once wages have been raised they are difficult to lower again.

However, although negative income tax (now called working tax credit)  was the Liberal policy from the 60s and 70s to top up low incomes, I have reservations about the state's subsidising employers, thus lowering their costs and increasing their profits.  What is really needed is Keynesian pump priming to stimulate the economy to provide all the jobs that are needed at decent wages.

Wednesday 6 November 2013

The wisdom of Russell Brand

I do not want to equate myself with the (perhaps apocryphal) high court judge who asked "Who are the Beatles?"  but I admit that I knew nothing about Russell Brand until I caught his splendid besting of Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight.  I find Paxman's interviewing technique bullying:  aggressive rudeness to politicians, secure in the knowledge that they dare not lose their rag and answer back in kind.  It was good to see Brand, who clearly felt he had nothing to lose, indeed, as it turns out,  much  to gain, by giving Paxman a taste of his own medicine.

Here are two extract from a lengthy article by Brand in today's Guardian:

When I was poor and I complained about inequality people said I was bitter, now I'm rich and complain      about inequality they say I'm a hypocrite.  I'm beginning to think they just don't want inequality on the agenda. . .

Most of the people who criticised me have a vested interest in the maintenance of the system.  They say the system works. What they mean is "the system works for me."

I hope these extraces tempt you to read the entire article: