Saturday, December 15, 2007

Review after review after review

The number of reviews the Government has been announcing has been incredible. From Ben Brogan:

"Bloomberg news reported yesterday that Gordon Brown has ordered more than 30 reviews since he took over in June. In fact, it's a lot more - at least 49 by our count, and we may find others. That's two a week."

He posits a few explanations but I don't see dithering or some attempt to rescue a mess left to him by the Blair Government. Dithering implies that eventually these reviews will decide the issue. I doubt it. I think they'll be kicked into the long grass then released quietly on a busy news day. Equally, the Brown Government is full of old faces so the idea they're discovering a raft of problems left to them from Blair's time in charge seems implausible.

These reviews are a means to stall a decision for one of two reasons:

1) Media-grabbing policymaking without the hangover. There are a lot of policies from the Blair era that created trouble for his Government as they were clearly poorly thought out but were produced to support a particular media 'event': marching offenders to cashpoints, the NPfIT. Brown can get the same media buzz but without actually needing to do anything. The policies can be quietly forgotten without the risk of them coming back as a monstrosity like the world's largest and, perhaps, most out of control IT project. To this extent the flood of reviews is a good thing if it limits the number of poor policies seeing the light of day. I could be wrong but I suspect the review Balls announced of the junior school curriculum would definitely fit in this category.

2) To stall until the heat has died down and avoid Ministerial resignations. This was the case with the party funding and data protection reviews. It is a pretty shoddy practice. The question arising from the Abrahams affair isn't what new rules and funding should be in place and Brown's attempt to make that the 'real issue' in PMQs was obviously phoney. If people are breaking the current rules enforcement, and resignations or sackings, is needed rather than new rules.

This is part of the broad "I need to stay to set things right" defence which has largely destroyed what accountability there was in Government.

In trying to run public services from central Government politicians have set themselves an impossible task. Any one person sitting at the top of a huge, Byzantine organisation like the Health Service would have, at best, a very limited idea of what was going on. Add to that the fact that most Ministers are the last people you would pick to have a shot at that impossible task. After a life spent working in politics or the unions they are expected to walk straight in and work out how to manage these huge unwieldy organisations. They have to do that within the couple of years before they, almost inevitably, get moved to another department in the game of musical chairs that is the British system of government.

All this means that Ministers, and the organisations they are responsible for, regularly fail. They're failing particularly regularly at the moment thanks to the institutional stresses of a muddled and unstable programme of reform combined with stop-go financing on a vast scale.

Brown's slow destruction of the principle of accountability shouldn't surprise us. He needs to find some way of making the endless failures of politically managed public services less critical to his Government's fortunes. However, it isn't working - the Government's ratings on competence show that. Even if it does work in certain cases people will wise up to attempts to stall their judgement.

Hopefully politicians will eventually wake up and realise that the only way to stop having to take responsibility for failures you can't control is to stop trying to control the uncontrollable. Then they might end the monopolies, centralisation and political management that cripple public services.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Crozier vs. Garnier

During the research for a project I'm working on I found myself looking through GlaxoSmithKline's accounts. Remembering the debate over the Public Sector Rich List I got curious and wondered just how much JP Garnier - the reputedly well-paid boss of what is a huge company - gets paid. The figure is $5,413,000. That's a lot of money, not bad if you can get it. However, GSK are really massive and. I wondered how much more it was than the £1,256,000 that Crozier takes home in total remuneration and whether Garnier or Crozier make more per pound of their company's revenue.

I've done those calculations. They are entirely reliable with the proviso that the exchange rate is today's rather than last year's. Royal Mail revenue and operating profit figures are from their accounts:

(click to enlarge)

What that shows is that Royal Mail pay Crozier more compared to their profit and revenue than GSK pay Garnier. Adam Crozier is, at least compared to JP Garnier, well paid even relative to the scale of the company he is running. Even at the very top end the public sector now pays really well.

Given that public sector organisations don't depend on success in the market to attract customers or strong financial results to attract shareholders there is no reason to assume these salaries are likely to be justified.

Cross-posted from the TaxPayers' Alliance blog

The problem with ethanol

This is one of the most inspired political virals I've ever seen. Superb.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

I go entire days without feeling the urge to beat anyone with a stick

Gracchi takes issue with my post defending the advertising industry from the National Union of Teachers' attempt to lay just about every problem in the modern world at their door. He puts a lot of words in my mouth.

I never lambasted parents at all and "morally flaccid" "liberal parents" are entirely his creation, not mine. Instead I argued that parents' will to resist their childrens' pestering is weak; very different to suggesting they are, in general, weak. I sought to explain why parents struggle to resist pester power. The explanation I settled on was not some deficit in parents, or any group of parents, but an intellectual climate that told them they shouldn't assert moral values.

Next, he accuses me of supporting parents assaulting their children. At this stage I was tempted to stop reading his post and blog. Apparently this is the natural conclusion of some deep-rooted love of authority that he has discovered in me. He even includes this ludicrous little section: "how can it be consistant to call hitting an adult with a stick assault and hitting a child with a stick discipline." I write a post that argues for parents "telling - for example - their nine year-old that dressing like Christina Aguilera isn't remotely appropriate" and he leaps from there to assault with a stick!

I'm not engaging in the corporal punishment argument. I don't think I'd support bringing it back. Those that do don't deserve his calumny though. He seems to have missed the difference between punishment and assault. Just as imprisonment isn't kidnapping corporal punishment isn't assault.

Before I move on I've just quickly got to deal with the idea that being inconsistent between adults and children is some kind of problem.

Children and adults are different and warrant different treatment. Very moderate people can see this. Those that believe in an age of consent, a minimum age for voting and for smoking and compulsory education among other things. They are all inconsistent impositions of adult authority upon children that are not visited upon adults and therefore fail Gracchi's test.

The argument that I'm really after 'authority' rather than morality is not only offensive when taken to the extreme he takes it but only remotely plausible if you entirely ignore the actual examples I used of immoral behaviour - which aren't just anything that the parent disagrees with. Let's return to the more moderate identification of the love of parental authority he claims to have discovered in my post.

"Lets start with the idea that the power of pestering represents the decline of morality- I think its worth distinguishing in this area two important concepts: morality and authority. The power of pestering represents the decline of the second of those concepts, but not the decline of the first. If for instance, as Chris Dillow argues, sympathy is the basis for secular morality (and Matt lest anyone need reminding is an avowed secularist- in that he does not decline his morality from theology) then acknowledging the power of the pester and relinquishing authority may be a moral response."

I'm not calling for a generalised imposition of parental authority on their children. Just in the cases where it is clearly needed. The consequences of pester power when it gets excessive weren't described in detail in my post as the NUT's case that I was rebutting was predicated upon them. Here are a couple of examples from the NUT study:

"Children are bombarded with "unrealistic and unachievable images" of what they should look like, leading to an increase in anorexia, bulimia and eating disorders.


The rise in childhood obesity and illnesses such as the early onset of type 2 diabetes"

If Gracchi is arguing that these are some kind of healthy expression that parents shouldn't be using their authority to quash then he's truly lost perspective. If he can see no reason beyond a blanket desire to enshrine parental authority behind my desire to prevent children becoming sexualised, obese or anorexic then I'm a little alarmed.

One can be entirely sympathetic with your children but see that overt sexualisation while they're young is awful. That their innocence is worth defending from the world. In fact, I'd suggest that to not see that what they want is not necessarily what is best for them - while they are a child, where paternalism is appropriate - is a failure to be truly sympathetic. It is just as unsympathetic to fail to see that they might have trouble controlling their weight and be grateful - either at the time or later - for parents being firm and saving them from obesity.

His final argument is that the ability of parents to control their children is undermined by advertising and other technological and social changes reducing inequalities of information between children and parents that are at the root of parental authority. This argument is more plausible but is what I set out to rebut in my last post. Contrary to Gracchi's assertion I don't actually think that declining parental authority is the problem. As such, children having more information than they used to isn't the problem either.

Instead, I think that parents need to use the authority they do have to prevent their children being exploited. All of the problems of 'pester power' that the NUT identified (Gracchi's analysis actually requires him to rebut them as well as myself) will evaporate if parents make clear that they will not allow their children to be exploited. This would, in the past, have been the most natural thing in the world. Unfortunately, any imposition by adults on their children is now conflated with tyranny by relativism, Gracchi provides a handy example of how that conflation proceeds.

Finally, I have to pull this paragraph out:

"Ultimately this reflects back on a much older process- the process by which the child converted from being unpaid labour on a peasant farm- to being a precious entity by which its parents are evaluated. In that change swinging through the centuries, we can see the roots of Matt's angst about declining authority."

I'm honestly baffled at the idea that my arguments were all masking an esoteric call to defend some lost pool of child labour.

The police pay deal

PolicewestminsterIf this were simply another case of public sector workers complaining about a poor deal from the Government because they weren't going to get another inflation-busting pay increase the TaxPayers' Alliance wouldn't be particularly sympathetic. Public sector workers have had a pretty good deal over the last decade and most have very little to complain about. Taxpayers have to foot the bill and are hard pressed as it is.

However, the debate currently going on over the police deal isn’t really about the money. The police themselves will tell you - if you push them on the subject - that they're pretty reasonably paid. Their deal is tough but in the harder economic conditions we're facing at the moment a lot of people are having to tighten their belt. This dispute isn't about pay restraint but about the way the Government went about securing pay restraint.

Essentially, the police pay deal is negotiated each year but often isn't negotiated in time. When that happens the pay is backdated so that the torturously slow process doesn't leave officers out of pocket. This year was particularly difficult and, in the end, went to arbitration. That means an external body taking over and, after both sides have made their case, deciding on what the final deal will be. The body in question is ACAS and their decision is binding upon the police - they have to accept it - but not legally binding on the government. The arbitration is not legally binding on the government but is clearly, in some sense, morally binding if the arbitration is not completely meaningless. The arbitration did not go the Government's way and they've responded by refusing to pay the backdated pay which means that the police will only get their rise for nine instead of twelve months this year. They understandably see this as a huge breach of confidence.

The way to avoid disputes like this isn’t to throw ever higher salaries at public sector workers. A deal that was financially identical but reached in a less dubious manner would not have gotten the police nearly so wound up. Instead we need to address the real problem which is that ministers without the management experience to run an organisation on the scale of the police service – Jacqui Smith was a teacher – made a complete mess of the negotiating process.

The police are quite reasonably paid but they see other public workers striking, the government backing down and those workers getting more generous deals. The classic example was the Warwick Agreement where they backed down on essential reforms to public sector pensions. At the same time their morale is sapped by targets that prevent them getting on with their job. Just today it was discovered that the police now spend barely one hour in seven on the beat deterring crime - "incident-related paperwork" is keeping them busy. The present crisis is a result of these problems and the mishandling of the negotiations. It is right that the Government should try to control public sector pay but it will take good management, which centralised politics cannot provide, to do this without compromising services.

Cross-posted from the TaxPayers' Alliance blog.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Don't blame advertising

Yesterday the National Union of Teachers launched a study attacking advertising and its supposed effects on young people. The union has utterly missed the point. Let's look at one example:

"There is a disturbing trend for pre-teenage girls to wear sexually provocative clothes and make-up."

Adverts selling sexually provocative clothes and make-up to children would, if they truly outraged the parents, be a terrible idea. Companies go to considerable lengths to build a positive public image and spend large amounts of time and money on corporate social responsibility and other such measures. The outraged parents have every ability to prevent their children shopping in those stores so the market would be small - restricted to those children sufficiently smarter than their parents that they can fool them - and not worth the public relations disaster.

Parents are only pestered because their will to resist their children is obviously weak - because they have no credibility that they will resist the pestering.

Parental will is weak because of relativism. Though they want the best for their children they feel guilty about placing any stricture upon their behaviour. They have spent a lifetime being told that to be judgemental is the worst kind of sin. In the adult sphere they are expected not to tolerate every moral choice but to go way beyond that bar and treat them as equal.

As a result they don't feel at all credible themselves when confronting their children and telling - for example - their nine year-old that dressing like Christina Aguilera isn't remotely appropriate. The language of 'appropriate' and 'inappropriate' feels archaic. When facing a pestering child parents who have lost the very idea of right and wrong have no answer to their claims that standing out will be inconvenient. They will choose the path of least resistance. As so many have chosen that path of least resistance being the exceptional parent becomes ever more difficult.

Increased commercialism isn't the important trend at work in the sexualisation of children or childhood obesity. Advertising is a product of the society around it and ours has a very hard time really condemning the sexualisation of children and treats those without the willpower to control their weight as victims. Laws to curb advertising are a lazy response to a serious issue and completely miss the point. They are an attempt to find a policy lever to address a problem created by cultural and intellectual change.