Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Two delicious exchanges in Parliament

Two delicious exchanges in Parliament yesterday:

Mr David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab): I was going to congratulate the Prime Minister on his first foray into the G8 and G20, but he has already congratulated himself....

The Prime Minister: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question and his probably justified rebuke, which was well put. However...

and in the next page

Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): The Prime Minister has had three international outings and he has acquitted himself very well; it would be churlish not to acknowledge that. Ahead of them, he wrote in the Financial Times on 17 June:

    "It is shocking that...women still do not have equal rights in the workplace. This is not just unfair; it makes no sense-because it deprives our economies of their full potential as workers and consumers."

Will he therefore agree, in this spirit of bipartisanship, that having the gender pay audits that have been suggested in both the public and private sectors would be a way of getting rid of that huge problem?

The Prime Minister: We have supported-and, indeed, before the election we put forward a case for-gender pay audits, particularly based on those companies where any unfairness is found. The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point, quoting from my FT article, which is that that is one of the structural reforms that we in the west in the developed world should be carrying out in order to increase our growth rates, and as the right hon. Gentleman is being so friendly, I shall have to take away his thoughts and think about them again.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Are Benefits necessarily benefits?

Sailed on Sun on my little Cat dinghy, with a friend from the sailing club and his 8-year old son. Great fun. Travelled by bicycle and train.

The Guardian has been trumpeting an (unpubished) study commissioned by the Fabian Society which purports to show that "George Osborne's budget cuts will hit Britain's poorest families six times harder than the richest."

But it seems that this "study" assumes that all expenditure "for the benefit" of "the poor" actually benefits them, and ignores the outcomes of policy shifts. So suppose at present that poor people are paid a £4bn pa subsidy which they spend on cigarettes, and which costs £1bn pa to administer. And instead at a cost of £500M 80% of them are persuaded to stop smoking. Then this study would say "the poor have lost £4.5bn". But actually everyone is better off - except the cigarette suppliers and the people who pocket the £1bn admin costs.

(BTW UK spending on cigarettes is about £15bn pa and NHS spend on anti-smoking is about £50M. People on benefits smoke a lot more than the rest of the population so these figures are probably roughly the right order of magnitude)

A correspondent called "DrJazz" points me to an ONS dataset which shows that the lowest decile by total income pay £371 pa in Tobacco duty, but they don't get the most in benefits ... the next decile gets the most in benefits and pay £391 in Tobacco duty - a little above average. The 5th decile gets £2920 in benefits and pays £433 pa in Tobacco duty.

I must say I hadn't realised that since (under the demented policies of GBrown) every decile contains "people on benefits". But FWIW the correlation between "Cash Benefits" and "Tobacco Duty" is 0.56 (not to mention the whole smuggled ciggys issue). Nor does it alter the basic point that not all expenditure on "the poor" helps them.

PS: It is also very striking that benefits are by no means targeted on "the poor". The bottom quintile households in terms of average income get less than the 2nd quintile and scarcely more than the 3rd (!!) (see ONS report for details - look at the graph at the top of p5)

So in principle (and we have to be very careful about "poverty traps") if we kept all the "benefits" to the bottom quintile the same and merely reduced the others pre rata so that overall we had the bottom quintile getting the majority of the cash and non-cash benefits we could save over 50% of the welfare bill, and not harm the poor at all.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Courage and a new finding

Last night to the celebration of a friend who has become a minister in the Coalition. Speeches from Liam Fox and Frederick Forsyth, very strong on support for "our troops" and discussion of the Military Covenant. The fundraising was for Tickets for Troops which does what it says on the can - arranges free tickets (donated) for troops and their families.

Met Johnson Beharry VC and had the privelege of shaking his hand.

In the afternoon I had been working with Bob May and colleagues on our paper - sadly for slightly complicated "political" reasons Bob may not appear as a co-author although his insights and redrafting have been invaluable. And I've just got a lovely result that illustrates and emphasises a key point of the work.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Hammersmith Town Hall Prayer Meeting

Prayer meeting last night at Hammersmith Town Hall, with people from over 20 churches in the borough turning up. First item, led by the wonderful Simon Downham, was to pray for those in authority, mentioning specifically the two MPs - Andy Slaughter (Lab) and Greg Hands (C) - and the Council Leader and Deputy Leader - both Conservatives - and who should be invited up but Andy Slaughter. So we all pray for him, and afterwards, since I have to leave early, I meet him on the way out and shake him by the hand.

Since I campaigned quite hard for Shaun Bailey and was very disappointed by Slaughter's election, this is quite humbling for me - a great example of "love your enemies" - and shows once again that, as we all know, God has a great sense of humour.

I'm a bit cross with David Blanchflower, who says he is "convinced that as a result of this reckless Budget the UK will suffer a double-dip recession". What, p<5%. Will he take a 19:1 bet that it won't. Hell no, he's just scaremongering, and won't engage seriously. A pity.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Royal Society 350th Anniversary Convocation

Last night to the Convocation of Fellows of the Royal Society to mark the 350th anniversary of its founding: a wonderful and inspiring event. Held at the Royal Festival Hall there was tight security because the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Princess Royal and Prince William were present.

At the start I was, to my astonishment, warmly accosted by Michael Atiyah and introduced to his wife. I also saw Bob May and Martin Rees though sadly not Andrew Huxley nor Paul Nurse who were also present.

The Queen is of course Patron, the Duke is now the longest serving Fellow, having been admitted in 1951, and William was admitted as a Royal Fellow. His citation referred to his "developing leadership role at a national and intentional level, his interest in science and technology, and his ability to stimulate interest in science and technology especially amongst young people" William gave a delightful short speech pointing out the importance of science in addressing key challenges for humanity, and noting that, whereas his father and grandfather became FRSs at 29, he is 28 "which shows what a geography degree can do."

Martin gave a short and masterly Presidential Address, emphasising the global importance of science both to solve problems and as a culture of global collaboration and understanding. He quoted George Porter who said science could be divided into "applied and not yet applied" and made the point forcefully that "the earth has existed for 45M centuries, but we have only just entered a century where the biosphere could be effectively destroyed by one species."

CNR Rao gave the response, praising the RS for its hugely important global role, and making the interesting point that, whereas there could never be global material equality, there could be an equality of access to information. He also emphasised the importance of the UKs scientific record, noting that "England had the largest ideas density in the world".

Before the addresses there was a short film which was good but contained two mistakes: referring to Merckel and "Head of State" and to Newton's Principia Mathematica - both really odd for the Royal Society.

Afterwards Martin took the Queen round the exhibition: I did not meet her though was about 3 feet away. Peter Williams took the Duke round, whom I did meet (for the 3rd or 4th time) he is remarkably sprightly and alert for 89. Met many other friends and acquaintances including Denis Noble, David Willets, Alan Baker, Bernard Silverman and Mike Powell.

Also met Allan Chapman a very interesting historian of science, who has been researching the history behind some of the supposed conflicts between science and religion, specifically the much mythologised Wilberforce/Huxley debate. Wilberforce was in fact an FRS with a degree in Mathematics and not at all an obscurantist, and the popular "account" of the discussion is completely untrue. We discussed my observation that the only clear examples I could think of where religious prejudice has held back science are the delays in accepting Mendel and Big Bang. Melvyn Bragg joined the group, and has asked me to send him Questions of Truth.

Altogether a fascinating and memorable evening, and as Martin said it is unlikely that many of us will be present for the 400th anniversary. Though the Queen and the Duke were present at the 300th, as were Denis Noble and Andrew Huxley (Andrew was already a Fellow, and Denis relates how Huxley and Hodgkin stood out in the Albert Hall as the only two people with black gowns in a sea of red, since they didn't have PhDs. Three years later they had a Nobel Prize) and there is reason to hope that Prince William - by then King William - may be present in 2060.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Portrait award, and budget

Last night to the BP Portrait Awards at the National Portrait Gallery. The winner was the remarkable Daphne Todd. Met her and several of the other award winners.

Interesting discussions over dinner about the nature of portraiture. To the art aficionado it may be a shame that portraits are "realistic" and may look very similar if displayed in a gallery together - but of course to the sitter they only really care about their own likeness.

We also discussed why Todd's amazing portait of her dead mother was on two blocks. I thought it might be something to do with “symbolism of the disjointing of body and soul” but others closer to the art world thought it would be “ran out of space”. I asked Todd who says "latter is closest!" But I would suggest that a realy experienced artist bumping into technical constraints is never entirely accidental. Also I have little doubt that even if it is purely fortuitous, the work will be analysed and "read" on the basis that this feature has profound symbolic value. Recalls CS Lewis's famous discussion of why he is innoculated against "higher criticism": that every single time he read an article discussing how one of his own works had been created he read ingenious and plausible statements that, as a matter of fact, were completely wrong.

Budget seems very good: debt peaking at well below the dangerous 90% of GDP threshold. Great that they are not cutting capital spending. Also very important that they don't cut R&D.

The Idea of Justice is simply brilliant. Full of gems.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Important to whom? A really bad atheistic argument

The great banker SG Warburg, was apparently in a meeting when his secretary broke in saying "It's the Prime Minister on the line. He says it's important". "Important to whom?" asked Warburg.

A collaborator has sent me a paper written by a competent scientist (NCB) for Freethought Today. It offers some standard atheistic tropes, and I was struck by the following:
We inhabit one small rocky planet in a galaxy composed of 100 billion stars (the Milky Way), and in a visible Universe of around 100 billion galaxies. That’s a mind-boggling total of about 1022 stars, or more than 20,000 stars for every second since the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago! The Earth is simply irrelevant at that scale.
This is such a terrible argument it is hard to know where to begin. In the first place, it is hardly news to mainstream Theists that the earth is very small compared to the Universe. Since Theists consider God to be infinite, the massive but finite number of stars postulated means that humanity is a bigger fraction of all that exists on NCB's view than on ours.

Secondly, on what basis is size or mass the correct measure of relevance? There are about 1013 human cells in the human body - and about 1014 bacteria. So by the same argument a single egg or sperm cell is "simply irrelevant". Well, not if it is fertilised!

What is beyond question is that the Earth is the only planet known to contain intelligent life at present. It is possible that intelligent life has arisen in some of the other solar systems - whether Pr(Intelligent Life|Star) is about 10-10 or about 10-50 is simply unknowable - and it is even possible that it has survived long enough for it to overlap with us in some sense (though if a civilisation is more than 100 light-years away the concept of overlapping is highly moot, given that a civilisation seems to last about 2-20 centuries). As I have argued elsewhere, species which reach a critical threshold of technology have to reach a critical threshold of cooperation if they are to survive and it is clear that the probability of their doing so is (in the absence of Divine Intervention) significantly less than 100%.

And even if there are other planets and species that face the same dilemma, our own biosphere is overwhelmingly important to us.

Whether theist or atheist, most can agree that the exctinction, or quasi-extinction, of humanity would be something of a disaster. So it is fruitful, and urgent, to try to understand what these thresholds are and how to reach them.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Un-spinning the BBCs fuss about Alastair Cambpell

BTW do you remember the fuss the BBC made about David Laws not appearing on Question Time with the appalling Alastair Cambpell? "when in government, Labour ministers had regularly appeared on Question Time when the opposition was represented either by a backbench MP or by an unelected panellist." said the Editor.

Well it turns out that the only examples he could offer of a Cabinet Minister appearing in such circumstances were:
  • 24/09/09: Harriet Harman and Lord Heseltine
  • 05/6/08: David Miliband and Lord Hurd
  • 13/12/07: Hazel Blears and Lord Patten
Spot the difference? All were highly distinguished former Cabinet Ministers, and only "un-elected" in the sense that (say) Tony Blair is "un-elected". Also former holders of comparable offices to the Labour speaker. There has never been a case of a Cabinet Minister appearing opposite someone who is neither a member of the Shadow Cabinet nor a former Cabinet Minister - or against someone who has never been elected - or against someone who holds no official position whatsoever in the party.

Practical reason in Lewis, Sen and the economy

Finished re-reading Abolition of Man and now back to Amartya Sen's brilliant The Idea of Justice.

Both of them are very strong on the idea of "practical reason". Sen is rightly very critical of views of justice which focus primarily on the characteristics of just institutions without giving thought to what actually happens, or would happen, to people. He criticises this approach on two grounds:
  1. There can be serious differences between competing principles of justice that survive critical scrutiny and have claims to impartiality.
  2. Outcomes matter more than institutions.
he has a delicious "parable" of three children and a flute. Ann, Bob and Carla all want it: Ann is the only one who can play the flute, Bob is poorest and has not toys, and Carla made the flute.

Much nonsense is being talked about the "brutish" cuts to be proposed (allegedly) in the forthcoming budget. With the staggeringly bloated UK Public sector cuts are much easier than the relatively well-run Canadian and Swedish precedents. Not only are public sector average earnings significantly higher than in the private sector, public sector pension schemes represent a further enhancement of about 30%. I really must read David Willetts' brilliantly titled book: "The Pinch: How the Baby-Boomers Stole their Children's Future, and Why they should Give it Back" but piling on unsustainable debt for our children and grandchildren is manifestly unjust.

It is of course true that sufficiently massive and indiscriminate cuts might derail the recovery, but we are looking at getting rid of the 8% structural deficit over the lifetime of the parliament (essentially 4 years) and Labour was already proposing to halve it, so additional cuts of 1% of GDP each year are well within the realms of possibility.

The focus needs to be on cutting the structural deficit and if this requires current expenditure in the short term this is not a problem. With Ian Duncan Smith, Steve Webb, David Freud and Frank Field the government has the best team ever addressing this issue, and there is every indication that they will come up with radical and effective proposals.

Some economists suggest that releasing people from the Public Sector will not help the Private Sector because there are already plenty of unemployed people. Sadly it's far from clear that most of the unemployed are really employable at present. Wages in both the Private and Public sectors are rising by over 4%, and average public sector earnings are considerably higher than in the private sector (esp after considering pension costs). Cuts that reduced public sector jobs but increased private/voluntary sector jobs would, other things being equally, be beneficial. I'd strongly support a effective reduction in public sector wages - by a wage freeze and by making people pay an economic cost for their pensions - even though my son (an NHS doctor) would be hit - to rebalance the economy.

It is also suggested that "we can borrow very cheaply now" so there is no need for cuts - but I think this prices in a serious deficit reduction program. If the markets believed we were not serious about cutting the deficit then I suspect interest rates would rise sharply. Look at Spain.

We shall see how things develop, but it is very encouraging that, according to the FT, things have been settled quickly with a really grown-up and collegiate approach. None of the pathetic and dysfunctional psycho-drama that we used to have from Brown - who BTW is shamelessly drawing his MP's pay whilst doing no parliamentary work and supposedly writing his book. There are unconfirmed allegations that he is on psychiatric sick-leave and if this is true it is fair enough but given the way in which this story was rubbished (although with something close to a non-denial denial) when he was in office it is a bit much if it turns out that he was on heavy psychiatric medication after all. I guess the facts will emerge in due course on this as well.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Old and the New: WCIT Royal Charter and the Abolition of Man

Last night to Evensong at St Paul's Cathedral and then a banquet at the Guildhall to celebrate the awarding of a Royal Charter to the WCIT. It was White Tie but I decided to wear the WCIT Liveryman bow-tie, and just about got away with it although I was the only one to be so rash.

Giles Fraser preached quite a good sermon, comparing the impact of the internet with that of Gutenberg and Tyndale, and pointing out that although the then Bishop of London had refused to back Tyndale, a City Merchant did. Steve Shirley and I remenisced about the first Colloquium on the Ethical and Spiritual Implications of the Internet, that I organsied and she and Richard Chartres spoke at, in the House of Lords in 1997 - and which led to her endowing the Oxford Internet Institute. Back then it was far from obvious that there were ethical and spiritual implications of the internet!

Banquet was a joyful occasion, with first class music (of its kind) from the Band of the Royal Corps of Signals. Nice speech from the Lord Mayor stressing the importance of the City and how other Livery Companies rather envy and admire our Panels system. The remarkable and highly adaptive blend of the Old and the New.

Re-reading The Abolition of Man in preparation for writing the paper with Bob Pollack: wonderful stuff. Also making further progress (another couple of small breakthroughs) for my paper with Martin Nowak and Bob May.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

MJoys first walk

Back from Harvard/Cambridge with two excellent business meetings on Monday and another lovely chance to be with ED and MJoy - so called hereinafter to differentiate her from Grandson M.

ED and MJoy and I went for a walk in her pram for the first time, down by the river. They managed to acquire quite an old fashioned pram in a yard sale and MJoy loves it - happily snoozing.

Our paper for USQR has been accepted - which is great. All we have to do now is write it! Will give a good reason to get up to speed with public goods game and reciprocity literature - to which my collaborators at PED have been major contributors.

Jet lag not too bad but have lots of work to do on (work) paper and interesting new data to analyse. And Daughter is in middle of A-Levels, so tested her on Irish History - at her request and from her notes of course, I learned a lot.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

New Grand-daughter, and piece with Bob Pollack

In Cambridge, Mass for a meeting on Fri and then met my new granddaughter (M) : just an amazing experience. Elder Daughter and her husband are just wonderful with her, and C has been over for a couple of days helping.

I brought over a CD of the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues and playeg her No 5, dancing with her the whole. E.D. sang lots of Dido and Aeneas. Today we all went to church - M for the very first time and her first outing from the house except going to the doctor. Later on I played her a bit of the Mass in B Minor and have bought her some Brendel playing Mozart concertos.

Have been very honoured to be asked by Robert Pollack to co-author a piece with him for the Union Seminary Quarterly Review - which has previously published pieces by Bonhoeffer, Neibuhr, Tillich and Buber. So far we have a 430 word abstract, it will have to become a 20-60 pager by 15 Aug. May not be accepted, but Bob was invited to submit an abstract so I have high hopes that it will be acccepted.

Interesting e-correspondence with David Blachflower over cutting the deficit - which I may be able to blog about later.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Some initial thoughts on deficit reduction

I think we can spend less in the Public Sector and achieve more for society. But it is vital that the cuts are sufficiently ambitious and distinguish between real investment and waste. So for example:
  1. Raise retirement ages by 3months/year for the next 10 years, both for state and public sector pensions (a huge medium-term saving).
  2. Cut public sector pay. The best way to do this would be to reduce differentials above the median, so that the lowest paid didn’t loose out. A 1% per annum cut in cash terms would get it down by 15-20% over the lifetime of the parliament. This could be done by phasing in more realistic contributions to the unaffordable cost of public sector pensions.
  3. Cut value-destroying “back office” functions ruthlessly: eg MOD Procurement and anything to do with Political Correctness.
  4. Require anyone in reciept of state benefits to do voluntary work or National Citizens Service. Good for their health, self-esteem and employability, and would release an “army” of 2-5M people to do socially useful jobs that cannot be done by the state.
  5. Scrap all state handouts for higher rate taxpayers and halve them for other taxpayers.
  6. Double overall investment in R&D and elite universities. The best way to do this is probably to allow any Russel Group university to charge what it likes in Tuition Fees (with bursaries available to impoverished students) and to match or double-match any donations or R&D contracts they receive.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Reith Lecture and Ambassadors' Ball

Finally catching up with Martin Rees's first Reith Lecture. As usual Martin is incisive and illuminating. Well worth listening. Interesting point that there is not yet a Chief Scientific Adviser at the Treasury.

On Weds went to the Kids for Kids Ambassadors' Ball. This was very much what it said on the can: there must have been 20-30 ambassadors there - two current ones and one recently retired on our table alone. Raised a lot of money for this excellent cause, and there was also a very enouraging speech from the Ambassador of the Sudan, strongly supporting the work of Kids for Kids.

Managed a suprisingly good race this morning, despite the heat: got a PB. Sadly had to rush back to work and although I made a fair amount of progress I couldn't help feeling it was a great pity not to be sailing.