Saturday, November 03, 2007

Pakistan in trouble

I've been saying for a while that Pakistan is among the most important foreign countries to Britain's interests. With a large Pakistani population here as immigrants and our troops in Afghanistan in danger from militants crossing the Pakistani border we are uniquely exposed to that country's problems. For that reason the dramatic news today that the government has declared a state of emergency, the chief justice has been dismissed, the head of their Supreme Court Bar Association arrested, Benazir Bhutto's return from a personal visit to Dubai cancelled and the media placed firmly under military control should be concerning us all.

I'll post more later today or tomorrow morning if I have any particular thoughts about how this might turn out or what it means in the medium to long term. At the moment it seems very uncertain how it will all play out.

Thoughtful blogging: how and why?

Sunny at Pickled Politics laments that the "elites" in academic, think tank, corporate research (I think that's what he means by analysts) and NGO circles don't get involved in blogging. As my day job is as a policy analyst for a pressure group and I blog both at the TaxPayers' Alliance website and here on more esoteric subjects I'm pretty well qualified to write on this subject.

I first have to take issue with his factual premise. On the right alone there are the Adam Smith Institute (probably the best developed), Civitas, the TaxPayers' Alliance and the Social Affairs Unit blogs. Others don't but, all in all, I'd say that over half of right-wing think tanks have blogs. My impression is that the left blogs somewhat less but there are still plenty of left-wing think tank blogs. That all these organisations are so keen to get involved in blogging suggests to me that the problem isn't, as Sunny suggests, some fear that bloggers will find them out. By putting their research out into the mainstream media they place it in the bloggers' firing line anyway.

So, most of these organisations do blog. What they don't do is interact with the blogosphere much. They can certainly work harder to make their blogs more involving with richer and more varied content. However, I suspect that the real difficulty has something to do with the rapid reaction/gossip focus in the blogosphere that Gracchi discusses. There are relatively few blogs demonstrating the depth of thought of, for an example you might not have heard of, The American Scene in the States. Our blogs are dominated by people expressing their immediate reaction to something they saw in the news. This doesn't take a lot of research, thinking or specialist knowledge to do well so the policy sphere loses its comparative advantage and becomes one more, often rather tame thanks to the need to avoid embarassing the institution, voice in the crowd.

This is not really something I'm inclined to get too worked up about. Blogs are written in people's spare time and the time and attention required for analytical work is a scarce resource. Getting too dissapointed that the product of amateurs writing with very limited time and largely for their own amusement isn't producing Dostoyevsky just seems unrealistic. In the States there is an interesting debate going on about whether Greg Mankiw, an economist with a serious academic reputation who does blog, can sustain that effort and whether he should.

First Dani Rodrik suggested that the best writers are the ones with the highest opportunity costs to their time blogging:

"So if economists with high opportunity costs of time start to get out, shall we have a lemons problem on our hands? Will eventually the only prolific bloggers remain the ones that are not worth reading?"

Blogging has very low entry costs but relatively low rewards relative to other ways someone with novel and interesting perspectives to share can express themselves. Iain Dale advised that the blogs further down his rankings needed to work on increasing their readership. If I write a report that gets covered in the Sun or makes the front-page of the Metro I reckon it will, in number of readers, achieve more than even the biggest blog can in months if not years. Look at the media coverage that the capital projects report got, if I'm interested in readership why should I bother blogging?

Perhaps we blog for irrational reasons, Nicholas Carr suggests some:

"But what's left out of all these economic equations is the ego-gratification that comes from being a popular blogger. Because blogging is such a personal pursuit, with strong and immediate ego-rewards, it can be irrationally seductive, particularly to highly competitive overachievers. The hazard - and this applies as well to disciplines beyond economics - is that extraordinarily talented individuals may end up, like lab mice drinking sugar water, spending more time blogging than they should, even though their comparative advantage is smaller in blogging than it is elsewhere. Distorted by noneconomic but nonetheless powerful rewards, the idea market would become less efficient than it should be, and we'd all suffer as a result. The real danger, in other words, may not be that the "lemons" - the "tolerable bloggers" - will take over as the mainstays of the blogosphere but that they won't."

Seth Finkelstein suggests some more reasons why people will over-blog in the comments:

"1) The lottery-like nature of the success argument.

Lotteries have negative expected value. This is very obvious. But people don't make good expected-value calculations overall (the ones that do, don't play lotteries!). This is apparent in the common evangelism marketing represented by the part about "actively demonstrating one's skillset for an interested public". There are very few winners in that game. But an unlimited number of aspirants can be induced to buy a (losing) blog-ticket in hopes of becoming one of the lucky few.

2) The objects-in-mirror-are-smaller-than-they-appear

It's really easy to think that your blog is far more influential that it is. A niche celebrity will attract enough of an audience to seem impressive, even though objectively, it's likely not. But still, you can readily get the impression it's more effective than rationally justified.

3) Random reinforcement

The occasional high-attention hit is great for misleading the blogger that they matter."

I only mention all this to illustrate how uncertain it is that analytical thinkers should get actively involved in the blogosphere. Perhaps those who do so now are essentially acting irrationally. Neither Gracchi nor Sunny ask the simple question, why should someone with interesting and novel things to say use the blogosphere as a medium? What is in it for them?

I'd suggest a few answers:

1) Anonymity - some people can only write on a broad range of topics with the cloak of anonymity or risk endangering their careers.

2) A place for ideas that are interesting but not worth the greater effort of preparing them for publication in another medium with greater rewards but higher standards. The blogosphere provides a small but significant reward for the presentation of ideas that aren't yet ready, are of interest to too small a niche or are not sufficiently novel for the big time.

3) A testing ground for incomplete ideas and arguments. If you have ideas that you are unsure of then dicussion in the blogosphere can either confirm that they are interesting and stand up to scrutiny or can reveal where more thinking/research is needed.

1) is significant but pretty constant. I think 2) is the reason most think tanks blog now. 3) probably has the most potential to encourage intellectually significant blogging. What is interesting about 3) is that it relies very heavily on a network. Blogs are most valuable when you are interacting with other bloggers who can challenge you and provide social rewards for your most interesting efforts in exactly the same way that a phone is most valuable when there are plenty of other people to call.

That might explain why it is difficult to get an analytical blogosphere going. I reckon lots of smart people start blogging and don't find it rewarding because they don't get into a community whose praise and criticism can make it worthwhile. That community is what those of us who want to see a more thoughtful blogosphere should all try to build.

Friday, November 02, 2007


I have now been approved and am a member of Blogpower (check out the links on the right). I like the group and only certain practical considerations have prevented me joining sooner. There are two things I think it does better than any other online community I've seen:

1) It creates a space for a reasoned dialogue between people who disagree. Too many bloggers are terribly concerned for rules and netiquette but miss the more important need to be respectful and friendly; to build a sense of community that makes everyone confident to venture their opinions and good-natured when they disagree.

2) It exemplifies the incredible connections that can form on the Internet. The sheer diversity of Blogpower, the range of backgrounds and experiences brought together, is amazing. You never know where you're going to find your audience and normally our social circle is so restricted. The Internet can offer us a way out of those narrow bounds and I see so many examples of Blogpower doing so. Wonderful.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Libertarians and Monarchy

Devil's Kitchen and Peter Risdon are having a debate about the monarchy. First, can and should a libertarian be a monarchist? Second, should we adopt DK's particular plan for giving the monarchy 'hard' power within our constitution again?

I should qualify that I am not a libertarian so am writing about a doctrine not my own. While I still have relatively liberal views on many touchstone social issues, and always come up as a strict libertarian on the silly ideological tests, I am philosophically conservative. However, I still have a feel for libertarian thinking from my student days, I should be okay.

I find myself forced to write in abstention on this idea. Libertarians should be fundamentally unimpressed by the very question of how we choose our leaders.

Peter's notion that democracy is preferable because rights flow from the people is less than libertarian. People are the only ones who have rights in libertarian thinking but they have no rights over other people, whether they are alone or part of a group of a million. Libertarianism is at root sceptical of democracy and libertarians have often been at the front of opposition to its excesses. While I am not going to pretend that Ron Paul has the power to pronounce what libertarians should believe it is not a coincidence that he has been so hawkish on the constitution, itself a compromise with democracy. While, historically, limiting the power of the monarch has been essential to liberty that does not mean that, right now, monarchs contribute to the progress of illiberalism.

In the end, I don't see a libertarian answer to how we should be governed except "less". I think a Hayekian would prefer a decentralised democracy as it best brings in dispersed knowledge but Hayekians and libertarians are not, despite there being plenty of overlap, the same group.

So, I don't think there is a more or less libertarian form of government. Is DK's idea a good one anyway?

My own understanding of what makes the British monarchy so great is that it provides a figurehead for our law and tradition who is above politics. The only guard to real, crushing tyranny in Britain, or any country with or without a constitution, is that British people would find it morally and aesthetically repulsive. Constitutional 'rules' only help if people rally around them. Otherwise a majority or a disproportionately powerful minority will just break the rules.

Unfortunately a liberty-loving population is hard to maintain. A host of things from state dependency to terrorism to foreign attack to economic stagnation threaten it. You need the population of your liberal state to be both capable of living without state support and want to. You need to be able to provide credible security. Producing a decent society where people respect each other's freedoms, person and property is about as hard a policy challenge as they come. Getting it right is really rare and the system is under huge strain in the UK for a host of reasons. The monarchy is a powerful symbol of tradition and law that people rally round and that is not contaminated by distrust of politics. In troubled times getting rid of that would be quite a risk.

That's why I dislike the Devil's proposal to have the monarch veto bills that threaten a constitution and be dethroned if the people, through a referendum, decide that they have failed in that duty. By making the monarch one more wielder of temporal power he also makes them part of the political process. There's no way someone whose decisions we will debate over and can dethrone if we don't like their constitutional judgement can remain above politics. We will lose our monarchy and gain a sort of deformed supreme court. That is not an idea I could support.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Public service oddities

Following on from my discussions of some curiosities I found in the NHS here are some more tales of public sector eccentricity.

NHS Trusts like to get creative

South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust has an online art gallery on its website. I'm not quite sure why. This is the most subversive picture I've found so far. I'm not sure whether this is your tax pound at work or whether it is funded in some other way.

If you'd like another example of NHS Trusts getting artsy look to the Princess Alexandra Hospital NHS Trust. They have a flash intro to their website. Inspired.

The Tote used to be owned by noone

The Tote has a statutory monopoly on pool betting on horses races since it was created by a 1928 Act of Parliament. When Labour went to privatise it they found that they had to nationalise it first. Until that happened, with royal assent in 2004, it had no owner.

The Tote was a living and breathing company with employees and profits but wasn't owned by the state, society, any individual or other organisation. It gave its profits to horse racing related charities but was really its own creature.

I see the light

This is the first time I'm working through winter having left the irregular student schedule behind. I finally get just how strange it is to be leaving work when it is already dark. Stepping out at six to seven in the evening and finding that it is night time is very strange and a little disconcerting.

I'm fortunate enough to work in a bright office with plenty of windows and it is still light when I walk in to work at eight. As such, I haven't had the experience, that I've heard some people describe, of going the entire day without seeing natural light.

I'm fortunate in another way. I'm not much of a mornings person but at the end of last week I bought this:

It's brilliant. Slowly lights up over half an hour and then wakes you up with a gentle sound at the end.

I bought it on Friday and it has now been 'road'-tested. First, how good is it at waking you up?

So far I've used it for three work days. For one I was very tired and it got me out of bed quickly and into work without too much grouchiness. Today I was a bit tired but basically fine and I got up easily. Yesterday I was very rested and I almost bounded to work. It really does make getting up in the morning much easier.

Second, are you sharper on waking up?

I had the alarm wake me up on Saturday morning to do an interview at 8am on slopping out in Scottish prisons with Talk 107. A relatively challenging radio interview if you want to do it well without sounding simple or unpleasant and risky when you've just woken up. It went really well. I didn't have any morning grogginess and was on top form.

It's pretty expensive but this is an unflashy but genuinely useful gadget. I'd highly recommend it.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

"... and scientists predict that by 2050 there will be 32.9 scare stories for every person in Britain"

This, by Johann Hari, is unpleasant tripe:

"Back in 2001, I wondered out loud – and in print – if it would take "an environmental 9/11" to finally break the corporate brake that is holding up all action on global warming in America. Since then, New Orleans has drowned, the South-east has dried up so severely the city of Atlanta is nearly out of water, and the skies over California have been turned red by the worst wildfires since records began.

More than a thousand people have died, and more than $70bn worth of property has been destroyed. Seeing Americans huddled together in refugee camps is something that no longer shocks us on the nightly news. Yet still the political debate in the US remains stuck far short of the drastic cuts in carbon emissions we need now if we are to stop this Weather of Mass Destruction.

The science is clear: these apocalyptic weather-events are unlikely to be freak one-offs. While it's hard to link any single hurricane or vast fire to global warming, Katrina and California's wildfires fit into the wider warming pattern of increasingly freaky weather predicted by climatologists as the world gets warmer."

DK points out that patterns of both rainfall and hurricanes have been pretty good over the last few years. Rainfall was poor last year but that was an exception rather than fitting some rule while hurricanes are actually at a historic low.

All this is highly persuasive and clearly Hari is playing at The Day After Tomorrow inspired doom-mongering in the Al Gore style rather than actually attempting to tell an honest story about American political discourse. However, the sheer strength of the data supporting DK's position worries me. It is setting up a very low base.

So far the pattern of hurricanes has been this:

If the frequency of hurricanes has nothing to do with climate change then, as far as I and other lay observers are concerned, it is a pretty random pattern. God may not play dice but as we don't know the factors driving hurricanes let us assume they're random. It isn't an assumption I'd recommend doing anything serious with but it will work for the purposes of this post. That makes it entirely possible that over the next few years the pattern will be:

The number of hurricanes could go up more, it could go up less, it could continue to fall. However, looking at the graph like that it is pretty clear that there is no reason to blame global warming. It would still look like a pretty random process.

However, I don't think that will stop some people claiming it as evidence for global warming. I think they'll present the pattern (not necessarily graphically) as:

They'll probably do this by saying something like: "the number of hurricanes has doubled in the last three years". Worse, someone - probably Dr. Someone - will do this:

The light-grey line is a projection and it pretty quickly leaves the historical range. An economist will be found to turn this into a prediction that the associated costs will be some astronomical portion of world product. A new scare story will have been born. Some lonely voices will point out that the trend described is misleading but they won't be able to make much of a difference.

Maybe I'm being too cynical but when a man can get a Nobel Prize for his documentary the same weak it is judged, in court, to have fatal flaws something has probably gone very wrong with the debate itself. What particularly angers me is that it might well be Johann Hari himself deploying the new 'increase in the number of hurricanes' as part of his rhetorical case. If he can get away with falsehoods now what is to stop him getting away with mere misleading statements in future?

What is even more infuriating is that I can see this coming but there's nothing that can be done about it. All we can do is hope that there are still bloggers around to point out the deceit and that someone is listening to them.

Monday, October 29, 2007


It's been frustrating me for ages that with my template bullets weren't showing up. It just looked like I was quoting someone else. Fortunately, Blogger's Help function absolutely rocks and it answered my question in no time at all. Now I have bullets and only feel slightly foolish for leaving it this long. Huzzah!

The NHS keeping busy

I've wondered a few times whether it would be a serious service to the British political debate if someone were to plot out the different NHS institutions and how they interact with each other. It's a real jungle out there.

Take a look at the institution for five minutes and you quickly realise how utterly absurd it is to hope that such an unwieldy and byzantine structure, both centralised and out of control, can deliver a modern healthcare system. The politicians in charge don't have a clue and, for all the excellent people in the health service, the professionals get ground down by the system. All we can do is advocate real reform and, until that happens, enjoy the sheer strangeness of it all. Here are some things about the NHS that have been amusing me recently.

The Chief Executive of Christie Hospital NHS Foundation Trust has a podcast

Inspiring. I haven't watched through the archive yet. I'm not sure whether I should be pleased that they're trying new things or horrified that they're spending their time producing these little promo videos which I'm almost sure no one will be watching.

Chesterfield Royal Hospital NHS Foundation Trust are using Mr. Eugenides as a model for their promotional material

He looks scared.

This may not seem notable but all the other pictures in hospital accounts are so posed its nice to see this one so poorly composed. A document that looks professional generally reflects well on the organisation producing it. Unfortunately, many public bodies take that principle a little far and have clearly put more time and money into their annual reports than is sensible. The Public Accounts Committee is, naturally, the role model they should be looking to emulate.

Quango titles are special

Here are some favourites of mine, all from the Department of Health, which is only surpassed by the Home Office for number of quangos:

  • United Kingdom Xenotransplantation Interim Regulatory Authority. Despite its title suggesting it is a stop-gap solution this body has been in place since at least 1998.
  • National Radiological Protection Board. Lead-lined presumably. This was phased out in 2005 so either its been merged with some other organisation with much moving of desks or we're all in serious radiological danger.
  • Advisory Committee on Borderline Substances. This sounds too silly for words.
  • Advisory Committee on Hepatitis. Filling the role that used to be filled by the sober best friend before society went to the dogs.
  • Advisory Committee on Clinical Excellence Awards. Hard to parody.

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.