Tuesday 27 February 2018

Overkilll at OXFAM et al

Although he was speaking in another context the Chief Rabbi, in this morning's Radio 4 "Thought for the Day" made a point very pertinent to the sanctimonious indignation presently surrounding the flaws in the behaviour of some of the operatives in OXFAM and other aid agencies.

 His point was  that many if not most of the heroes of the Bible were flawed characters. Among others he cites Jacob, who deceived his father, and King David, who was an adulterer.

Yet the present indignation seems to expect every single one of those engaged in what has sadly developed into the "aid industry" to live a life of  Simon purity. Some 7 000 former supporters of OXFAM have expressed their indignation by cancelling their subscriptions.

I have been an OXFAM  donor for decades and have no intention whatsoever of cancelling my standing order.

I do worry, however, that this bad publicity may bounce OXFAM and other aid agencies into an over-reaction.  I contribute to finance humanitarian aid in tragic circumstances and, equally, to establish sustainable long-term development projects; not to finance  over-intrusive inspection regimes which are unwilling to take anything on trust. 

I was a teacher for 50 years from 1959 and know full well that all inspection regimes and oversight come a cost. During my own career I  estimate that 95% of my time and energy went into educating my pupils, and, I hope, occasionally inspiring some.   I get the impression that today’s teachers spend a good half of their time and energy proving to OFSTED that they’ve done what they are dedicated to doing: - teaching and inspiring the young..   I should not like the present embarrassment to similarly distract OXFAM and other aid agencies from  their  true purposes.

OXFAM has some 5 000 workers in the field world-wide and so the number of reported incidents affects only a small  percentage of them.  Yes, there must be safeguards, but an over-reaction will mean that not only will OXFAM's  true purpose be hampered by the loss of the donations of the 7000 , but also some of the usefulness of the subscriptions of those of us who remain loyal and committed to its  purposes if too much is diverted to ensuring that absolutely everyone involved in their operations is squeaky-clean.

Thursday 22 February 2018

Times tables - common knowledge?

As a teacher of economics I've always felt I've laboured under a double handicap.  Most people have been to school and most people from the age of five or so have and spend money, if not much, and  when they grow they  up have a budget, even if they don't call it that.

I consequence, since most people have been on the receiving end of eduction they think they know a lot, if not all there is to know, about it, and since all people operate at some level as agents in the economic system, they tend to believe they know a lot, if not all, all about that too..

So the opinions of we "experts" tend to to be regarded as having no more value than the  views of the general public. If an expert astronomer tell us that such and such a star is x light-years away we believe it without demure; if a heart surgeon tells us be need a bypass we take his or her world for it.

But if an economist says that if there is a recession and the government's income falls, the last thing it should do is cut its expenditure and thus either deepen the recession or delay recovery, the advice is spurned.  Instead Mrs Thatcher's simplistic analogies with the prudent household hold sway.  As  a result  the austerity imposed on the UK over the last eight years stamped on the modest recovery left behind by Labour and has significantly reduced the average incomes of most households (the top 1% have done OK) compared with what they would have been had that recovery continued.

Now to the question of what the young should learn, and, sadly, most people answer:  "What I was taught" even if they weren't all that successful in learning it.  So our government has decided to trial new tests for primary school children's competence in March of this year, and they are to become mandatory from 2020.

For one whose training as a teacher took place in the 1950s, when the centralised rules of the French about what should be learned and when in their schools were regarded with scorn, such an attempt to micro-manage the curriculum produces a sensation of shock-horror.

 Well, at least for once there is to be a trial.That's a minor advance.

Not that I ave any personal objection to learning tables.  They can be fun, and some children will find delight in the interesting patters that emerge, as well as pleasure from getting things right.  Others will find them a bore and some a turn-off.  Not that I have any objection to that, if it's important. I'd be inclined to encourage  pupils to learn some poetry by heart, and I wish that facility in at least one musical instrument had been on offer in my day.

But what is important varies from age to age and area to area.  My father's acid test of anyone who claimed to be educated was the ability to recite the names of the rivers of Yorkshire in clockwise order. Sadly I failed this miserably.*

What is "essential" in mathematics must surely take account of the massive advances in technology which have taken place in the last fifty years.  I just missed out on learning how to calculate square roots using an algorithm similar to long division.  If you want to have some fun (or refresh your memory if you're over 80) see here. But by the time I came along we had universal secondary eduction and secondary schools had books of Logarithms  and Other Tables so I learned how to use these along with the trigonometrical ratios for such calculations.  We were also taught how to use slide rules but I never rally caught on to that.

Nowadays even the cheapest calculator produces the answers to most arithmetical, trigonometrical and statistical operations  at the press of a button.

This does not mean that some numerical dexterity should not be learned, but the amount should be decided  by the practitioners who know what they're talking about, and not some minister or civil servant educated in what can reasonably be called the technological dark ages.

Much the same applies to many arts subjects.  Why learn  "the Kings of England in order categorical" or the capitals of the EU 28 (with luck) off by heart when you can look them up on Google?.

The purpose of education is to open minds to appreciate what a wonderful place the world  is, to excite children about at least some aspects of it, and to enable  each to experience and contribute to it to their full potential..  This is more likely to be achieved by encouraging teachers to communicate their own enthusiasms rather than by imposing dry edicts from above.

*  Earlier this week I wrote to the Guardian about this and my letter has provoked responses to show that my father was not alone.  One correspondent remembered having been taught the mnemonic SUNWAD: the following day another pointed out that this omitted the Calder, and a third came up with the delightful "Sheffield United never win at Chelsea" which gives you Swale, Ure, Nidd, Wharfe, Aire and Calder, though it leaves out the Don

Tuesday 13 February 2018

Much Ado about OXFAM

I am rather surprised that the unfortunate activities of a group of OXFAM Aid workers  in Haiti has been headline news for the past four days and, it seems, still counting.  In case you've missed it, the group made use of prostitutes, and in a property rented by OXFAM, while they were there to provide aid and assistance after the earthquake in 2010.  The furore has revealed that there may have been similar unsavoury incidents by other aid workers, not just OXFAM,  in other situations.

Full disclosure: I have been a financial supporter of OXFAM via a regular Standing Order, for decades, along with Christian Aid, the World Development Movement, Fair T raid and other similar causes, and  have been an aid worker for two years with VSO in Malawi..   I did not, however, use any prostitutes.
As far as I know I never actually met any, and wouldn't have known where to find them. But  then, I've led a sheltered life

It would be nice to think that all aid workers were Simon Pure and filled with saintly virtue, and I expect a few are, but most are fallible humans, as are most clergy, nuns who look after orphans, "Brothers" who teach in schools,other teachers, entertainment stars,  press reporters and. . . .  er. . .  politicians.

In an incident regarding sex outside the norm reported in the Bible Jesus invited  "him who is without stain" to "cast the first stone."

What is surprising to me is that it is not just the right-wing press who are having a field day over these unfortunate incidents, but also the BBC and, alas, the Guardian.  I wonder if they, along with the Daily Express and Daily Mail, are confident that all their staff behave impeccably and with due concern for moral virtue, especially when overseas. (Or at home, for that matter).

It may be just coincidence, but it is odd that this incident, now seven years old, should hit the headlines just at the same time as Jacob Rees-Mogg, now favourite to be the next Tory leader, presents a petition demanding cuts to the UK's Aid Budget.

Mr Rees-Mogg make much of his religion which causes him to oppose, among other things, abortion and same sex marriage.  As indicated above, the Bible is fairly relaxed about prostitution.  I'm sure it says something somewhere about abortion but I'm not sure where.  It is certainly very relaxed about same sex relationships (eg David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi)

It also has a lot to say about caring for the sojourner (economic migrants, refugees, asylum seekers?)  "feeding the hungry" and "clothing  the naked."  As with the Brexit negotiations, I think Mr Rees-Mogg should consider the whole package rather than pick and choose.

One of the few things for which I admire David Cameron is his unrelenting stance in support of Overseas Aid.  As he said recently:  

it is not only a moral obligation that the better-off countries have to tackle poverty in our world when we still have over a billion people living on less than a dollar a day, but it's also in our interests that we build a more prosperous world.

 It is clear that the Tory hard right and the prurient press will milk the OXFAM scandal  for all it's worth.

Both the government and aid lobby should stand up for decent values and not allow OXFAM to be "fined" for its undoubted and unfortunate shortcomings, nor use the incident to fuel the campaign for a cut in the Aid Budget.

The Tories surely do not want to confirm the image Mrs May detected as  the "nasty party": nor does the nation as a whole wish our reputation, currently good in this area. to be further tarnished as selfish and inward-looking has-beens

Tuesday 6 February 2018

Gravity eqation in internatioanl trade.


" Gravity Equation "  is a bit of economic jargon that I've only just come across. It's the name given to a finding by an economist called Thomas Chaney of the US National Bureau of Economic Research

Chaney's finding is that international trade between economies is directly proportional to the the size of the economies and inversely proportional to the distance between them.

I'll repeat that.

 International trade between economies is directly proportional to the the size of the economies and inversely proportional to the distance between them.

 In other words, if it really needs spelling out, economies trade most with their nearest and biggest neighbours. 

Just to prove I'm not kidding, here's the abstract of the findings.

 Thomas Chaney

NBER Working Paper No. 19285
Issued in August 2013
NBER Program(s):International Trade and Investment
The gravity equation in international trade is one of the most robust empirical finding in economics: bilateral trade between two countries is proportional to size, measured by GDP, and inversely proportional to the geographic distance between them. While the role of size is well understood, the role of distance remains a mystery. I propose the first explanation for the gravity equation in international trade, based on the emergence of a stable network of input-output linkages between firms. Over time, a firm acquires more suppliers and customers, which tend to be further away. I show that if, as observed empirically, (i) the distribution of firm sizes is well approximated by Zipf's law and (ii) larger firms export over longer distances on average, then aggregate trade is inversely proportional to distance. Data on firm level, sectoral, and aggregate trade support further predictions of the model


The implications for the claims of the Brexiteers are so obvious that they don't need spelling out, but just in case:

China is a big economy but a long way away from the UK:

So are the  US, India, Brazil and Argentina.

Korea is not quite so big but still a long way away.

There's a great big economy on our doorstep.  It's called the EU.

Chaney's finding could just be the reason why nearly half the UK's current international trade is with this same EU

Of course Chaney could be wrong, but as Oxford professor  Simon Wren Lewis points out:

 Gravity equations do not come from theory but from the data: countries are much more likely, even today, to trade with near neighbours than far away countries after allowing for other factors.

This finding makes a nonsense of the Brexiteers' claim that  the trade we currently have with our nearest neighbours in the EU, frictionless as it is popularly described, can be replaced, even increased, by amazing deals with far-away places once we are freed from the restrictions of the EU

It's also worth pointing out that  the alleged EU restrictions don't seem to have inhibited Germany, whose current trade with China is five times that of the UK.  It's also worth noting that Mrs Merkel has visited China nine times, compared with  Mrs May's two (though, of course, Mrs Merkel has been in the top job  longer - this blog tries to be fair.)

Mrs May's announcement yesterday that in no way will the UK remain a member of the EU customs union flies in the face of reality and makes a rod for our own back.

It is also incompatible with the aim of a "soft" border in Northern Ireland.

The call must be for our MPs, nearly all of whom understand the above and are as appalled as I am,  to find their  courage and put a stop to this nonsense.

Friday 2 February 2018

The Brexit Bonus - an alternative fact.

Boris Johnson hit the headlines twice last month, and each time appeared to get egg on his face.  First he claimed that the famous £350m per week on the side of a bus  which Brexit  would release for the NHS was in fact an underestimate: the true figure was nearer £438.

This claim was rapidly ridiculed by almost every knowledgeable authority.

Next Johnson let it be known that he would appeal to the  Cabinet to allocate an extra £100m for the NHS right away.  This time he was shot down by the Prime Minister and  almost all his cabinet colleagues: he was the Foreign Secretary, not the Health Minister; such a proposal was not up to him; and when the time came the cabinet would decide on how the Brexit Bonus was divided between health, education and other priorities.

On the face of it, not a good month for Mr Johnson.  However, he is no fool and I suspect that he is secretly pleased with the outcome. What he has achieved is to  further entrench in the public's mind that membership  of the EU costs us money, and that once we've left we shall be able to decide for ourselves how to use this Brexit bonus.


Because in the view of most informed opinion, there will be no Brexit bonus: rather the reverse.

An article by two economists, Levell and Stoye of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, also published in January, points out that, although the UK will no longer have to pay our net contribution of £8bn per year to the EU (which works out at £153m per week, not £350m - try it on your calculator) the loss of government revenue from the reduction in trade which will result from our leaving the single market will involve a "hit to the public fineness [of] about £15bn per year - that is, double any gain from leaving.

Of course, they could be wrong, they are only "experts" after all, and Britain has "had enough of experts."  (a view on which you might like to ponder next time you go the the dentist.)

Since Levell and Stowe published their paper BuzzFeed has leaked the findings of three scenarios ordered by the government (sic, ordered by the government!) all of which forecast  a reduction in the UK's growth and therefore taxable revenues after Brexit.  Of course they might have got it wrong as well.

Or you might like to read the views of the House of Lords, especially the Cross Bench peers (those not pushing a party line).

Only in the fantasies of the  the Brexiteers and their trade deals with soar-away global Britain, of which we have as yet no details, is there any possibility of a bonus.

The odds are on a Brexit deficit,  a country economically poorer, with diminished services and international reputation as a beacon of mature democracy and civilised society in tatters