Sunday, October 28, 2007

Big numbers

Some numbers are so stupidly large it's hard to get your head around them. I don't mean obvious ones like how large the universe is. I mean everyday, politically important facts. An interesting challenge is how you make the figures meaningful. A classic example is to put an amount of spending, waste or taxation in £ per household.

Sometimes you can be more adventurous. As of the 30th of September 2006 our little nation employed 554,000 civil servants. That's a staggering number. How can you make it meaningful?

All you can do is look for the right comparison. That means that there is nearly a civil servant for every hundred people in the UK. That our army of civil servants is now larger than the army that Napoleon used to invade Russia (at that point the largest army ever assembled in European history). Herodotus estimated that the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza required 100,000 workers for 20 years. Blair could have had civil servants build him two in his years as Prime Minister with plenty of time to spare. When you put it like that you start to realise how ludicrously large the bureaucracy is.
"Sure it's hard work, but the pension's still great."

When this doesn't work statistics can be quite hard to absorb. Mike Denham has looked into evidence recently submitted to parliament on immigration trends. The numbers are incredible. Talk of a need for integration might even be missing the point. If these predictions come to pass what we're going to have to do would seem more analogous to the building of a new nation, similar to the process the United States went through.

I'm still not entirely sure I've got my head around the numbers. That shows how useful the little mental tricks like the ones I've demonstrated above are.


Vino S said...

Yes, big numbers are hard to get ones head around. But I don't think, given the role of the state in modern society, that 554,000 civil servants is that much in a workforce of 20m.

Re your immigration point, all estimates on this subject are projections and so subject to change - depending on the economic conditions in the UK and in the country people are emigrating from. As an aside, I always think that it is strange how right-wingers who normally urge the poor to 'get on their bike' and look for work seem to take exception when people from abroad do the same. I think it is highly inconsistent to be in favour of free movement for capital and yet deny the same rights to labour.

Matthew Sinclair said...


554,000 civil servants is a particularly ludicrously high number when you consider how the Civil Service is set up. As a quasi-academic policy advice body. Hundreds of thousands of them not wanting to manage can, I think, contribute to an understanding of why the state is such a drag on our economy.

Of course all population predictions are subject to change, however, a large part of Mike's post is about what has already happened and the estimates of the future could, as easily, be an underestimate.

On the "on your bike" point. Right-wingers can be sceptical of the impacts of immigration but for genuine "on your bike" cases usually separate that from the immigrant.

It isn't at all inconsistent to be in favour of free movement of capital but want to control immigration. Capital and labour are very different things. You can see that in the end of your sentence "deny the same rights to labour". Capital doesn't have rights, you're talking about a very different thing.

I don't know if this is the thread to get into a full blown debate on immigration though so I'll refrain from starting one.

Dave Cole said...

How many of the people employed building the great pyramid were administrators?

Matthew Sinclair said...

If you follow the Wikipedia link there appears to be some dispute over the organisational arrangement. I would guess if it turns out they weren't slaves then there would need to be more administrators for the pre-computer payroll.

Mountjoy said...

Is it surprising that there is £101billion of Government waste? (source: TPA, 2007)

shariq said...

Hi Matt. I think there's a really interesting debate to be had on the impact of free movement of capital on societies.

I'd highly recommend False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism by John Gray. It may sound slightly polemic but even the economist gave it a good review :p

If you want, I'll lend it to you when I've finished with it.

Btw, did you ever come across John Gray while at LSE? He's one of these reclusive types whose not really into self-promotion. Yet I think that right now he's a far more important thinker than say Dawkins.

p.s you need to get a feedburner page so you can get rss feeds on the yahoo mail reader.

Dave Cole said...

Shariq - John Gray was my tutor for a couple of years at LSE. He was described to me as the person at LSE most likely to make a great contribution to political philosophy on the level of Rawls or suchlike.

The state is much bigger than it has been in the past. That doesn't mean that it is necessarily inefficient, anymore than a small state is necessarily efficient.

Dave Cole said...

Matt said: "554,000 civil servants is a particularly ludicrously high number when you consider how the Civil Service is set up. As a quasi-academic policy advice body. Hundreds of thousands of them not wanting to manage can, I think, contribute to an understanding of why the state is such a drag on our economy."

Does the figure of 554,000 include people who work on reception at JobCentrePlus? While their role is valuable, they're not really a quasi-academic policy advice body. What civil servants are included, grade-wise, in the figure? I'd actually really like to know.

Matthew Sinclair said...

I think the biggest distortion in that is the inclusion of prison officers. I agree that they're mostly not a "quasi-academic policy advice body". My point is that the Civil Service is set up like one.

Reform and the IPPR have both done good work on this. The Civil Service is set up to run as a quasi-academic policy advice body but is expected to manage services etc. That's why you have the bizarre situation where they're aren't publicly accountable but the ministers who are can't hire and fire them.

Vino S said...

Dave's point is a good one. I suspect that grade-wise most of the civil service are not acting as a policy advice body. They are actually performing the service - by manning job centres, taking phone calls etc.

Matthew Sinclair said...


I'm afraid all I can offer on this at present is my response to Dave. I'd love to give more detail but the Civil Service have redesigned their website and the link to the civil service statistics has crashed. I'll have a proper look for them this evening and we can work out the breakdown.