About Charlie Whitaker

Charlie is an architect living and working in London. Increasingly, he is also a philosophy graduate of Birkbeck, University of London. When he is not doing his real work, he puzzles needlessly over news stories and current events.

Deference check

An argument that’s often put forward by people who support the institution of the British monarchy is that the monarch and his or her family are apolitical; that is, they can rise above party politics and lead through dint of example and charisma. An elected presidential figurehead, by contrast, would inevitably be drawn into party politics. Names would have to be put forward; manifestos drawn up. We are better off without any of that, monarchists argue. The monarch and her family are popular, well liked; a force for national unity.

The fact that the occupants of a royal limousine were recently mobbed – and, allegedly, to some degree physically assaulted – surely does severe damage to that argument. The relevant counterfactual is this: if last Thursday that car had contained a figurehead president, would he or she have been mobbed in the same way? I reckon many people will find themselves answering yes to that question. And if that’s what you believe, then I’d suggest you jettison any belief you might have had that a royal family is better at unifying the nation than an elected president would be. At least consider the possibility that a president wouldn’t do worse.

There are some other things to think about as well. The second-in-line to the British throne is getting married next spring. The government wasted no time in deciding that this event should be celebrated with full spectacle: the location is Westminster Abbey; an extra national holiday is planned for the day. It seems very unlikely that a nation would do any of this for a president, let alone his or her grandson: the thinking has to be that the royal wedding will be bread and circuses popular; a unifying event. But will it be? There’s some polling on this. Only one in four thinks that the government should spend any extra money on the royal wedding. Plenty of people think that the monarchy should modernise. The most interesting figure in the Independent’s recent piece on the popularity of the monarchy is that around about two thirds of the D and E socioeconomic groups now say that the monarchy should modernise. I don’t see much bread and circuses potential there, given that ‘modernising’ is code for shrinking the spectacle. And one illusion about the royal family – that it can command at least a minimum of deference wherever it goes – has been shattered. Those who want to maintain the illusion will probably make an effort to show that the paint can throwers were asocial hoodlums, and altogether unrepresentative. I’m not sure it’ll work.

On trying not to prove your critics right

Julian Assange says that the authoritarian regimes of the world define themselves through their attempts at concealment and conspiracy.

Some governments – we don’t know exactly which, but the group seems to include the governments of Australia, the UK, Sweden and Switzerland – are apparently set on confirming his theory. There’s some recent evidence from Switzerland here.

I have to say that if a government thinks that what the Wikileaks people have done is criminal (and by extension, that what Der Spiegel, The Guardian and the New York Times have done is criminal) then they should issue an arrest warrant and, if relevant, start extradition proceedings. They shouldn’t act like anonymous, shabby harassers. It doesn’t help the cause of state secrecy to muddle the Wikileaks releases up with what Julian Assange may or may not have done on his nights off, or with his filling out a bank account application incorrectly. It does nothing for anyone’s confidence in government if PayPal gets leant on so that donations to Wikileaks don’t make it to Wikileaks, or if Wikileaks’s various web servers are serially taken out as and when they come into use. All of that stuff erodes the legitimacy of government.

Perhaps governments are shit scared by Wikileaks. If so, then I’d direct them to this piece by Martin Kettle. I’d also suggest that they be as nice as possible to their employees; I’m thinking of the ones doing jobs like Specialist Bradley Manning did. This would be just a prudential measure: I don’t suggest that what Manning did was the right thing for anyone to do.

Graduate gilts

Iain Pears on the proposed changes to university funding in Britain:

Another thing to note is the extraordinary nature of the loans system being proposed, which is that students will be charged at 3 per cent plus inflation for a very long period of time once they hit a certain level of income. This is sheer profiteering disguised as fairness. Essentially, the government will be requiring individuals to issue 30-year index-linked bonds on their own balance sheets, rather than do it itself. A few sums shows what this might mean. For the government will raise the money to advance the loans on a flat rate basis. It will, in other words, borrow the money at about 2.5 per cent, and lend it out at 6.1 per cent, more if inflation increases. While it will enjoy the benefit of seeing its real debt eroded by inflation, the student will not be permitted the same escape route. If only half the total number of students take out a loan of £7000 every year, then that would amount to a transfer from the state’s balance sheet to those of individuals which stabilises over 30 years at about £110 billion. The government would pay a peak £2.75 billion a year in interest for this, and receive peak income of £6.75 billion back, as wage inflation will ensure within 12 years that most graduates earn over the £41,000 benchmark which triggers the maximum levy, and there seems to be no provision for this to be index-linked.

Even Barclaycard would applaud such audacity, not least because there are measures to guarantee this income stream by imposing financial penalties on anyone who wishes to pay off their debts early – a unique and almost feudal arrangement, where individuals are going to be forced to remain in debt, effectively to provide the government with cash flow, for most of their working lives. I know of no other case of a government requiring its citizens to be in permanent debt. The argument that this is just like a mortgage is specious, as mortgages are not index-linked, there are a wide variety of different time periods available, individuals have a choice of which ones to take, and they are secured on hard assets which have traditionally risen in value over time. None of these conditions apply to student loans.

Even if you think it right for students to carry all or most of the cost of their degrees, you surely have to do extra work to demonstrate why a student should pay a graduate tax on top, in the form of an interest rate set three points higher than inflation. And once graduated, why shouldn’t the student loan recipient be allowed to refinance his or her new debt?

Why make things worse than they need to be, Nick?

Apologies for the continuation in blatantly political UK-centric blogging, but I couldn’t pass on this one:

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has defended planned cuts to housing benefit after Labour accused the government of “threatening people’s homes”. He said the changes, announced in the Spending Review, were “fair”. And it was not fair that people who went out to work got less help with accommodation than those who did not.

Nick Clegg does give the impression here that he doesn’t know that being without a job isn’t a condition of eligibility for housing benefit. You can work like a draft horse and still get housing benefit: the principal eligibility condition is low income. Details of this are widely available. I wonder if Nick could come to see a mild irony in that the only way to guarantee that people with jobs always get at least as much housing benefit as those without is either to pay everyone housing benefit, or to cut it completely for the unemployed (or both, of course). I don’t know, maybe it’d be worth it, if we could avoid a situation where upon getting a proper job (one that pays £145,492 p.a., say) a person suffers the appalling unfairness of having to see someone on a lesser income get more help with the rent.

As a side-note, yes, this does mean that we don’t just subsidise fields and hedgerows here in the UK, we also subsidise some of the roofed-over parts. Not only that, it’s been arranged so that those who benefit from this housing subsidy are all mixed in with everyone else. That’s because – historically – we’ve preferred this arrangement to townships and bussed-in labour.

See also this.

Frankly you are frightening people

The policy changes of the British government’s recent spending review are set out in a Treasury report. Attached as an appendix is a ‘distributional analysis’. You can get the whole thing here.

The Treasury has also published an equality impact assessment. It has to be said it looks like a pretty poor effort. Since 2006, it’s been a legal requirement for the government to assess its own measures in this way. As it happens, the coalition didn’t bother to carry out any sort of equality impact assessment for the post-election budget; as a consequence – and thanks to the efforts of Yvette Cooper and the Fawcett Society – we may now see a judicial review of the budget (although not of the spending review). The Fawcett Society’s assessment is that the government’s policies will directly affect women much more than they will directly affect men. They may well be right. This Guardian story has more details.

By contrast, there’s no law requiring the government to make a distributional analysis of what it does, so at first glance it looks as though they’re simply doing us a favour with that one. Perhaps the coalition saw it as having potential to persuade us that the cuts will be fair. If so, it hasn’t worked very well: you don’t need to do any sums to see that the Treasury analysis omits to include the impact of cuts to housing benefit, disability benefit(s), tax credits and council tax benefit. The IFS has been doing some of the hard work with numbers – taking account of all the things just mentioned that should have been in there to begin with – and you can see their preliminary findings here. In short, the government says that their spending review is progressive, but they’re wrong: it’s regressive.

My own small beer assessment, echoing Alex’s recent comment over at Crooked Timber, is this: the distributional analysis codifies long-standing conservative prejudices in a novel way. In what follows I’ll focus on paragraphs B.6 to B.28 of the report, which is a section that aims to show the distributional impact of changes to departmental spending. Paragraphs B.16 and B.17 say:

The modelling shows that all households benefit substantially from expenditure on public services. The mapping of the baseline consumption of public services (benefits in kind) … demonstrates that the consumption of services is skewed towards lower income households. This is explained by the following:

• demographic factors: lower income groups contain a higher proportion of children and pensioners, who are the most intensive users of welfare services;

• other factors affecting need, such as long standing illness, which is reported more in lower income groups;

• the targeting and means testing of certain services, such as social housing, social care and free school meals; and

• differential use of private alternatives, including private schools and health care.

The first thing to note is the use of the word ‘benefit’ and the phrase ‘benefits in kind’. They’re being offered up as substitutes for the more familiar ‘services’ or ‘public services’. Normally, in the context of welfare, ‘benefit’ means money. So what’s the coalition up to here? A fairly frequent theme in my parents’ house (it came up about once a term) was that people who paid to send their kids to private schools were doing everyone else a favour. Twice over, in fact. Once by continuing to subsidise public schooling through taxation, and again through lessening demand. Call this the ‘what dad said when the school fees came due’ principle. The coalition has taken the first half of this prejudice closer to bureaucratic reification by calling a universal non-monetary provision a ‘benefit’ and assigning it a monetary quantity. It used to be that the rhetoric of privatisation was about choice. This was when services that few would dream of attempting to do without (electricity, say) were being privatised. We’re probably beyond that now. In the Tory future, it seems, privatisation will be about private services – 16-18 schooling, say – that many people will have to do without, simply because they won’t be able to afford them. Those public services that remain will be tagged with a number prefixed with a pound sign, to emphasise just how generous, just how god damned progressive the government really is.

I disagree with this attitude, of course, just as I disagree with the notion that poorer people are better off than you might have thought because they get to consume more services. This is the second half of the ‘what dad said …’ principle. That it’s now official can be seen in the paragraph I’ve quoted, and also in that it’s supposed – at least I think so – to form the basis of our understanding of the graph in figure B.3 (p. 95) of the report. The graph shows a slope across quintiles that’s progressive rather than regressive. There are two problems here. The first problem is this. The government’s argument is that since the reduction in the total of non-monetary provisions received by poorer households will be smaller – as a proportion of what they received before – than the reduction in the total received by richer households, the spending review is progressive. However, when you consider any single non-monetary provision in itself, it may be far from obvious that it has redistribution as its aim. For example, health care. It seems that we don’t give people medical treatment because they’re poor, by way of compensating them for their lot in life; we treat them because they’re sick. This certainly seems true at the point of use – NHS doctors don’t hand out income questionnaires before admitting patients – and I suspect it’s also true at just about every level of NHS administration, up to and including ministerial level. If this is what we all believe, then we shouldn’t count such a provision into a quantified calculation that aims to show an overall progression or regression. We’ve already decided that it isn’t to be measured like that.

The second problem also has to do with incommensurability. Even if you believe that you can include a non-monetary provision into a distributional analysis, you still need to decide what the numbers are supposed to attach to. The report’s authors seem to have used numbers that reflect costs. But what have costs got to do with distributive justice? What we’re evaluating is who’ll get to have a better or worse time of it than they did previously, which is something that needn’t be connected to provider costs at all. Something along these lines clearly gets at the consciences of the report’s authors, since they say:

… there are a number of caveats to [our] methodology. It does not reflect the value people place on the services they consume nor how effective those services are at delivering desired outcomes (for example, low value programmes that are being stopped are measured at the same rate as high value programmes that are being kept)

You can do your own thought experiment on this one. Say you get sick, such that you need complicated and effortful hospital treatment. You get the treatment and it makes you healthy again. A lot of money has been spent on you, possibly. Do you feel grateful? Maybe so. But do you feel better off? Do you feel richer? If so, by how much? And would you rather have had the money? There’s an entanglement with counterfactuals here. It makes itself felt in the apparently absurd construction: ‘low value … measured at the same rate as … high value’.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the report reheats the old Tory favourite: aspiration. The idea is to get us to think of the lowest quintile / decile households as being rich in potential, and as such, not really in poverty. Am I excessively sarcastic? Well, Nick Clegg calls it ‘long-term fairness’, and I don’t see how I could beat that for taking the piss. Others, including the IFS, have commented already. I’m confident this’ll be coming up regularly over the next couple of years, since the coalition clearly thinks it’s a powerful concept that they’ve got hold of, and the criticisms just don’t wash. After all, just look how successful they are, being exemplars of the ‘jam tomorrow’ ethos.

West Point trolleyology

I blogged about the doctrine of double effect at the beginning of last year. It comes up just about any time there’s mention of the morality of warfare, and here it is in a piece by David Edmonds, writing for Prospect, on the popularity of trolley problems. Edmonds reports that West Point cadets engage in tutored discussions on ethics (this is actually something I’d heard about before). Double effect and trolley problems come up in these discussions. The cadets interviewed by Edmonds are unanimous in saying that it’s wrong to push the fat man off the bridge but OK to switch the trolley onto the spur. This – the cadets say – is because pushing the fat man intends the death of the fat man, whereas switching the trolley involves no intention to kill the lone person tied to the track of the spur. Likewise – according to the cadets – it’s wrong to intentionally target civilians (like Al Qaeda does) but OK to carry out a bombing in which civilians might be killed as – yes – collateral damage.

I’m not going to attempt to dissect double effect again. It does, though, disturb me that trolley problems seem to have carved out some sort of justificatory pattern in the minds of West Point cadets. Double effect considerations might explain why certain people give certain answers to certain trolley problems (apparently most people think it’s OK to switch the trolley onto the spur). Trolley problems as a set of thought experiments might help to explain why we make the ethical decisions that we do in fact make. However, I don’t see that worked out answers to trolley problems are therefore adequate guides to action. If you’re a military person tasked with dropping bombs on targets of opportunity, the plane you’re piloting (or directing) is not a trolley and there isn’t anyone tied to the track; there is no track. Trolley problems are highly stipulated; real life usually presents additional options. Likewise with many double effect characterisations. We’re not required to operate as though the use of JDAMs were an institution, such that the only moral problem concerns targetting. This is part of what I was trying to get at before.

Update: More – much more – on trolley problems here and here.

Promotion to prison


If you can work and if you’re offered a job and you don’t take it, you cannot continue to claim benefits. It will be extremely tough.

This statement has a partner. David could have gone on to say:

If you’re able to hire, and if you define a role for someone and you don’t offer minimally decent wages and conditions, you cannot expect to prosper through recruitment. It will be extremely tough.

State benefits aren’t just a signal to workers, they also send a message to employers: treat your people at least as well as this, or they’ll tend to prefer living on benefits. It shouldn’t always be the case that you’re better off working: in fact, one way to guarantee that work makes a person better off involves putting slackers in jail. It’s been tried.* For those who don’t want that sort of country (or something closer to it than we currently are) discussion of benefits can’t just be about the unemployed. More balance in the rhetoric please, Tories, or we’ll assume you don’t understand this.

* If you think that coming up with an actual example involves confirming Godwin’s Law, well, you’d be wrong. Apparently the Swiss had an arbeitsscheu policy of their own up until the early 1980s.

This is not about me, it’s about them. We are a team.

The BBC’s Today Programme interviewed Philip Green last Friday. Green, who whose foreign-domiciled spouse owns the Arcadia group of clothing retailers of which Green is the boss, has been appointed by the UK coalition government to advise on a review of government spending. It’s been reported that Green’s familial company ownership arrangements reduce his tax obligations under UK law; naturally, the Today Programme invited him to comment on this. Green then made use of an article in the Mail on Sunday to respond:

For whatever people may think, this is not about me, it’s about them. We are a team. I might be the strategist but I can’t do this on my own. There will always be people who will criticise. Since the announcement was made on Friday, I have received my fair share of backbiting. I was asked on to Radio 4’s Today programme to speak about our new role but such was the lack of focus, the interviewer seemed more interested in my friendship with Naomi Campbell. Perhaps when I finish this job, my next could be to review the strategy and costs of the BBC.

Apart from being appalling in itself, this sort of apparently casual threat making has consequences. One of those consequences is that if Green goes on to talk about ‘efficiency savings’ in any area of government spending, we’ll have to consider that it might be nothing more than bullying tit-for-tat. Maybe a decision on a particular saving will have been been carefully thought through. Or maybe it’ll just have been that a civil servant said something that offended Green. Thwack. In other words, the guy has disqualified himself from his own, uh, team.

Also, while on the topic of the coalition’s jaw-dropping, bullet-in-the-foot public appointments, what’s with the ‘social mobility tsar’? Which direction of social mobility are we talking about here?


Rent-seeking, again

A bit more on rent-seeking, to see if I can draw out what I’ve been trying to get at. There’s the claim that any person who petitions government is acting, at least in part, out of self-interest. A tendency to rent-seek, it’s said, may simply be a fact about people generally; hence everyone who approaches government should be regarded as a would be rent-seeker. (Rob made this position clearer in comments on the last post on this.) A person holding this view may go on to say that if there’s a normative evaluation to be carried out, that evaluation should take into account not the petitioner’s motive but the petitioner’s situation.

Consistent with this is the view that any legislator may be party to a rent-seeking transaction. The way it goes is, a person petitions government, looking for some special benefit; the self-interested legislator replies (he’s only human): sure, but what are you going to do for me?

I think what’s missing here is an acknowledgement that some forms of petition are desirable and some aren’t. It’s not OK to offer a bribe; it’s not OK for a legislator to take a bribe. Naturally, we may have laws that forbid bribery.

Conversely, it’s not only OK to vote, it’s considered desirable; it’s also considered desirable for legislators to campaign for votes, to write manifestos, etc. Some countries even have laws that mandate voting.

Our designs for our institutions can only anticipate certain cases; any framework of laws will have a normative underpinning. We may think that it’s wrong for a legislator to accept favours from big business after he or she retires as a legislator, even though no law forbids it. We may also think that it’s wrong for an organisation to invent a new incentive along those lines. Conversely, we encourage people who want to go into politics to first acquire an education, experience in business, etc., even if no law requires it. We also like it when voters are well informed. There’s a gradient of desirability, from immoral graft to virtuous example-setting.

If you bundle up all of these activities into something called ‘rent-seeking’ – choosing from then on to look at the situation of petitioners to the exclusion of the character of their petition – you close the door on something important. There may be a difference between a defence contractor petitioner and a homeless person petitioner that isn’t to do with their relative advantages. Not all vote getting is vote grubbing. To approach government and ask for something isn’t to rent-seek.

You misuser, you

In my recent post on the WSJ’s review of Mokyr’s book about the industrial revolution, I said that I’d never come across the definition of ‘rent-seeking’ as “the use of political power to redistribute … wealth”. Of course, right now I’m seeing that definition everywhere. Josef Joffe, in his review of (the late) Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land, says:

… the more the state distributes and regulates, the more it tempts its citizens to outflank the market and manipulate public power for private gain.

And there it is again, more or less. Government: a force for bad.

Let’s consider some minimal state which is constituted only of its own citizens (as citizens) and which has authority to enforce only that which has been agreed on by citizens. Now let’s consider two statements:

(1) The citizens have grouped together to enact legislation to achieve what each of them considers to be a mutually advantageous settlement.

(2) The citizens have ‘outflanked the market and manipulated public power for private gain’.

You don’t have to widen the scopes of the constituent terms much to get to a point where these two statements are as good as indistinguishable. That is, to say one is to say the other. (I’d argue (1) is more precise, but not to the extent that it matters.)

Joffe says that the consequence of ‘outflanking’ is that even a good-intentioned government will go wrong. He adds:

The founding fathers grasped this hard truth, and hence they hemmed in government. Even the most moderate of social democrats tend to ignore this insight, and so does Tony Judt.

The problem is that beyond the platitude that power corrupts, no insight is available. Instead, Joffe’s rhetoric suggests, implicitly, that there might be some perfect end state where ‘the playing field is level’ and government … well, we’ll just not need to worry about that particular runaway monster any more. We’ll have ‘reined it in’ once and for all; it can no longer “weaken society” or “render … trust moot”. This is a hope, not an insight. And unless you are a bit more precise about what you mean by your terms – and Joffe isn’t – you’ll find that your call for an end to ‘manipulation of public power for private gain’ is a call for an end to government. Most people recognise, I think, that the inequality of power entailed by government (by definition, the government is always more powerful than any of its citizens, however grouped) is both motivated and justified by the existence of naturally arising inequalities. The spread of these is broad enough to include cases I think even Joffe would have to acknowledge, if pushed. Government is our response; the beast from the depths is the fact that circumstance and personal attributes vary, and hence some are already disadvantaged. There are and will be special interests from here on out. To acknowledge such an interest is not to automatically produce a state-corrupting ‘client’: good government is possible.

Update: It’s OK, everyone, I think I’ve discovered the source of the trouble:

The [author’s] extended methodological digression on the function of orthodox economic theory in application to the private economy is designed to provide some assistance in discussing the analogous role of theory as extended to the public economy, to the demand for and the supply of public as opposed to private goods. At base, the economist must begin from the same set of conditional hypotheses. He deals with the same individuals as decision-making units in both public and private choice, and, initially at least, he should proceed on the assumption that their fundamental laws of behavior are the same under the two sets of institutions.

– Buchanan, J., The Demand and Supply of Public Goods, 1968. (My emphasis.)

That sounds very scientific and cautious and all, but if you stop to think about it I think you’ll agree that it’s not.