Archive for February, 2013

Mistrust Wikipedia? You should..

February 20, 2013

Under the heading of  How Paul Krugman broke a Wikipedia page on economics, Salon has just published this story:

There’s a lockdown on the Wikipedia page for Austrian economics and wouldn’t you know it, one or way or another, it all seems to be Paul Krugman’s fault.

Broadly speaking, Austrian economics, for those who have not yet had the pleasure of being introduced, are characterized by an extreme distrust of state intervention in markets, a distaste for statistical modeling and a general confidence that markets, left to their own devices, will avoid booms and busts and nasty things like inflation. From a political perspective, Austrian economics tends to lurk to the right of even such conservative icons as Milton Friedman.

For more detail, you can go, of course, to the Wikipedia page for Austrian economics. But until at least Feb. 28, if you do so, you will find that the page “is currently protected from editing.” An “edit war” has been raging behind the scenes. Two factions were repeatedly deleting and replacing a section of text that had to do with a description of a critique of Austrian economics made by economist Paul Krugman.

The closer you look, the more the whole affair appears at first to be a demonstration of Sayre’s Law, which holds that “in any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.” One side, which seems from the Talk page chronicling the argument to  be just one very stubborn person, is objecting to the inclusion of Krugman’s critique on the grounds that what Krugman describes as Austrian economics doesn’t actually represent the reality of Austrian economics. In other words, it’s as if Krugman was saying “the problem with blue is that it is red.” Therefore, his views should not be included as an example of a valid critique. The other side is basically saying that Krugman is Nobel Prize-winning economist whose opinion is well worth including according to the standards of Wikipedia. So there. And back and forth the argument went, with lots of torturous discursions into the process weeds of Wikipedia editing policies, until it got too heated and provoked a lockdown.

On one level, it is amusing that Paul Krugman, a man whose Nobel award (technically, “the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred”) was lambasted by one Austrian school acolyte as “the worst decision in the history of the prize” and caused another to sigh “that those of us who believe in liberty are in for a long time in the intellectual wilderness,” is indirectly responsible for a Wikipedia Austrian meltdown. But there’s also a serious issue at stake.

The Krugman critique in question pointed out that many self-styled Austrians had declared that a dire, disastrous, Zimbabean/Weimar Germany outbreak of hyperinflation would be the inevitable consequence of the stimulus spending and other federal policies expanding access to credit in the wake of the financial crash. But that didn’t happen. One can argue that just because some people who are affiliated with the Austrian school made terrible economic predictions doesn’t mean that Austrian economics are wrong. Financial writer Tim Carney makes exactly such an argument at CNBC, going so far as to argue that Austrian economics actually predicted exactly what ended up happening since the financial crash. And sure, such reasoning seems to be at the heart of the Wikipedia dispute — Krugman, argues the leading dissident, is wrongly characterizing Austrian economics as guaranteeing high inflation after a big credit expansion.

Personally, I would have been quite surprised to see Austrian economists explain in 2009, that, as Carney puts it, it would have been “entirely in keeping with the Austrian approach to economics … [for] … a combination of a growing fiscal deficit and an accommodative monetary policy … [to help] prevent the housing slump and financial crisis from depressing prices generally.” I certainly can’t imagine any of the founding fathers of Austrian economics, such as Ludwig von Mises, saying such a thing.

For five years conservatives, including many Austrians, warned that stimulus spending and expanded credit would lead to disaster. But hyperinflation is nowhere to be seen, and the economy is slowly recovering. Paul Krugman was right. No wonder there’s trouble in Austrian-school-Wikipedia land.

I asked Krugman if he was paying attention to the Wiki-kerfuffle, and the dispute over whether his characterization of Austrian economics was correct. He declined to plunge in too deep, but did say this: “That is my experience with the Austrians: whenever you try to pin them down, they insist that you fail to understand their profound ideas. And they have indeed been predicting runaway inflation for years now; it’s interesting that they can neither explain why they were wrong nor admit that this poses a problem.”

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

Now what’s interesting here is that shows all too clearly the weakness of Wikipedia,  and it not just that interested parties can edit in or out the material that suits them, but, evn more importantly, it’s that there is no one with the editorial authority to say what can or cannot  be included in the final version of any of its  pages.

Cameron, the Duchess and the rest of us.

February 19, 2013


 Our busy Prime Minister, David Cameron has criticised Hilary Mantel, the Wolf Hall author, for describing the Duchess of Cambridge in a speech rprinted as an essay reprinted in the current issue of The London Review of Books, as ‘machine-made’ and ‘designed by committee’.

Mr Cameron was asked about the comments during a trade visit to India. “I think she writes great books, but I think what she’s said about Kate Middleton is completely misguided and completely wrong,” the Prime Minister said

Like Freddy Gray of The Spectator, I believe this

David Cameron should have read Hilary Mantel’s essay before criticising it.

And while we are on the subject, we might want to ask why it is never move to thinks that some of things his own ministers have been saying about people who will be less readily defended may be just a little “misguided” and on occasion “completely wrong”

Hidden agendas.

February 19, 2013

In the pages of The Guardian  today, George Monbiot describes in some detail how  two secerative organisations – the Donors’ Trust and the Donors’ Capital Fund – funded by billionaires, and which provide a cover for various vested interests,  have financed 102 organisations which either dismiss much of the current thinking on climate change or downplay the need to take action.

These groups, working through the media, mobilising gullible voters and lobbying politicians, helped to derail Obama’s cap and trade bill and the climate talks at Copenhagen.

The large number of recipients, he suggests is deliberate because it “ creates the impression that there are many independent voices challenging climate science”.

By these means the ultra-rich come to dominate the political conversation, without declaring themselves  Those they employ are clever and well-trained. They have money their opponents can only dream of. They are skilled at rechannelling the public anger which might otherwise have been directed at their funders: the people who have tanked the economy, who use the living planet as their dustbin, who won’t pay their taxes and who demand that the poor must pay for the mistakes of the rich. Anger, thanks to the work of these hired hands, is instead aimed at the victims or opponents of the billionaires: people on benefits, the trade unions, Greenpeace, the American Civil Liberties Union.

Although most of what he describes is happening in America, there are it would appear organisations in the UK which are similarly funded and which serve a similar purpose.

The Institute of Economic Affairs is a British group that, like all the others, calls itself a free-market thinktank. Scarcely a day goes by when its staff aren’t interviewed in the broadcast media, promoting the dreary old billionaires’ agenda: less tax for the rich, less help for the poor, less spending by the state, less regulation for business. In the first 13 days of February, its people were on the BBC 10 times.
This Institute, it appears, gets some of its funding from an organisation called American Friends of the IEA.

Moribot’s persuasively argues that we need to know what these organisations are and who exactly it is that’s behind them.

 The answer, as ever, is transparency. As the so-called thinktanks come to play an ever more important role in politics, we need to know who they are working for. Any group – whether the IEA or Friends of the Earth – that attempts to influence public life should declare all donations greater than £1,000. We’ve had a glimpse of who’s paying. Now we need to see the rest of the story.

Atos & NHS in partnership?

February 18, 2013

It is reported in today’s Guardian the NHS trusts  are being handed back some of the work that the Department of Work and Pensions must have originally thought theyit was not capable of doing in the first place.

Atos, the company contracted by the Department for Work and Pensions to carry out medical assessments of people claiming benefits, has subcontracted elements of the work back to a number of NHS trusts in England.

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A number of NHS trusts south of the border are now reported to have been contracted by the company to help carry out assessments for a new disability benefit, the personal independence payment (Pip), which is due to replace the disability living allowance from 2013. The government aims to cut spending on the benefit by 20% over the next three years.

University College London, King’s and York will deploy thousands of health professionals to carry out the assessments, according to the Financial Times.

It emerged last October that Atos Healthcare had appointed the Scottish healthcare provider NHS Lanarkshire’s occupational health arm, Salus, to help carry out assessments for Pip.

Lanarkshire NHS will receive £22m from Atos to carry out the work until July 2017. Atos won contracts worth more than £400m in August to test whether disabled claimants were eligible for the new benefit.

Atos is receiving £238m for work in Scotland, north-east and north-west England, according to the Department for Work and Pensions.

At the time, the company described its subcontracting of work to NHS Lanarkshire as a “partnership”, adding: “It means that consultations will take place where people feel most comfortable – in the heart of their local community – and they will be conducted by health practitioners that have first-class expertise in dealing with the needs of disabled people.”

Atos said the supply chain model in Scotland was likely to be similar to those soon to be announced in England.

A DWP spokesperson said: “We are taking a new approach working with regional providers for a service which best meets local needs. It was open to NHS organisations to bid for a place on the health and disability assessment framework but none did so.

“We believe that it is right for Atos to partner with the NHS to offer Pip claimants familiar surroundings and experienced health professionals. The partnership proposed here demonstrated best value for money for the department and its claimants.

I wonder how this so-called “partnership” work when the a person deemed to be worthy of a benefit by the NHS is returned for re-evaluation Atos. Does the the NHS partner stick with the original evaluation, or does Atos have the right insist that the patient be reevaluated?  Ane where is the patient in all of this?

Is conservatism the result of the genes?

February 17, 2013

 Sometimes we try to explain why it is that fear seems to be more a feature of how conservatives seem to think of everything than it is of  liberal or left-wing thinking. They fear big government. If science makes a breakthrough of some sort or other, conservatives inevitably fear that or its being disruptive. If in education changes are made that disrupt a narrow channel, conservatives feel that the whole system is crumbling. They are generally resistant new ideas and so on because, it seems, of fear. Well, it may be that explanation this may, in part, have been found by those conducted a study for the American Journal of Political Science. Some of the conclusions they arrived at were reopoted on in the Saturday edition of Salon.

A new study in the American Journal of Political Science looked at the relationship between fear and political ideology, and it found that people who experience higher levels of fear tend to be more politically conservative than those who are less predisposed to feeling afraid. While the researchers emphasized that their findings in no way suggest that every conservative is more fearful than every liberal, the study did identify a relationship between a fearful disposition and increased support for anti-immigrant and other segregationist policies.

One of the study’s co-authors warns that we should not get carried away with the idea that all conservative people are fearful.

It’s not that conservative people are more fearful; it’s that fearful people are more conservative,” Rose McDermott, professor of Political Science at Brown University and co-author of the study, said in a press release.

The study does not, it has to be emphasized, suggest that it’s all in the genes.

As the study’s co-author Peter Hatemi, associate professor of Political Science, Microbiology and Biochemistry at PennState, told Chris Mooney at Mother Jones: “Nothing is all genes or all environment.” But together, these things make us who we are.

There is no reason for us to believe that if we are biologically predisposed to go in a certain direction, we must continue in that direction. Biology does not have the final say on which party you support or how one votes election day.  Education, in its broadest sense, plays a huge role in the way we develop and evolve.

As we experience more of the world and gain exposure to different cultures, people who are different than ourselves can become, well, less scary, researchers say.

So rather than creating an immutable link between biology and ideology to forever bind us to a single party, the study actually suggests that people can change overtime, overcome their natural predispositions and maybe even come around to new political ideas.

The problem is that it is the natural predispositions that are nurtured.

Displacement of the poor…..

February 14, 2013

The forced displacement of according to an identifiable policy is, I’m reliably informed,  an example of “population transfer”. Is this an example of “population transfer”?

A council is planning the largest single displacement of poor people from London in the wake of the coalition government’s controversial welfare reforms, singling out more than 700 families to be moved up to 200 miles away.

Camden council said that it would shortly be contacting 761 households, comprising 2,816 adults and children, because the coalition’s benefit cap – which limits total welfare payments to £500 a week for families – will mean that they will be unable to afford their current accommodation or any other home in the south-east.

The Labour-controlled council warns that the majority of these families have three children and, once the cap is imposed this summer, will need to find on average an additional £90 a week for rent to remain in their homes – which means “sadly the only long-term solution for some households will be to move”…..

We come to this sorry pass when we have to seriously consider whether what we are seeing within our borders is “population transfer”, “development-induced displacement” or, my own preference, “disaster-induced displacement”.

Another view of Michael Gove’s reforms

February 13, 2013

Seumas Milne, writing about education secretary Michael Gove,  in today’s issue of The Guardian , argues the education secretary’s attempts to reform education may well be the work of a destructive ideologue. When on very bright columnist atttacks a man who, when he was a Times columnist Michael Gove, was thought of as one of Britain’s leading writers and thinkers – admittedly Gove’s  expertise was terrorism and foreign affairs – then one’s ears prick up.

,…. Gove is considered a Conservative success, despite his multiple failures. The education secretary is an ideologue in a government whose Tory base chafes at the constraints of coalition, a neoconservative who believes the Iraq war was a “proper British foreign policy success” and a Thatcherite traditionalist itching to give for-profit companies the right to take over state schools.

Which is why Gove is lionised by the Tory right and Conservative press as a true believer, prepared to transform English education in their own image. While Gove is courteous, a praetorian guard of apparatchiks does his dirty work, seeing off educationalists’ resistance to their permanent counter-revolution and running web campaigns against recalcitrant critics.

Milne has notes that setbacks, such as his being compelled to drop his twin plans to replace GCSEs with an English baccalaureate and introduce a single exam board for each subject, can be portrayed as a “tactical setback” by The Times and can be glossed over as his having  “lost a skirmish, but….still winning the war“.

They’re mainly right. Gove has had to drop his baccalaureate scheme but he’s forging ahead with plans to ditch modules and controlled assessment in favour of more traditional exams and 1950s-theme park rote learning. And his new draft national curriculum is a Daily Mail dream.

Milne rightly says that there is no evidence any of the so-called reforms that Gove’s proposing is going to make actual improvements in education itself.

…..Gove and his supporters are convinced that marketisation and privatisation are the route to transforming English schools for the better, though it must help that a whole “educational services industry” is also gagging to benefit.

In the long run, as Miline persuasively sees it,  the education secretary is morphing into being the right man to lead the Tories when his time comes.

But most of all, championing traditional teaching and the breakup of the country’s education system offer a powerful boost for Gove’s career. When David Cameron is finally unseated, the battle for the Tory succession could yet come to a fight between the incompetent Gove and Johnson . It’s a chilling prospect.

A “solidly old-fashioned” syllabus?

February 12, 2013

In the comment is free section today’s Education Guardian, a number of subject experts have taken a critical look at education secretary Michael Gove’s national curriculum plans.

 Sometimes their findings and conclusions run contrary to expectations. I had rather expected that most experts on the teaching of English would be in all in favour of extending the number of contemporary writers that are set. They would be more relevant and be more easily understood by students of all levels, or so the well-rehearsed argument in their favour would have it.    

 However, Dr Margaret Reynolds, Queen Mary, University of London, does not seem to want too much truck with the relevancy argument. She confounds that expectation by proposing what she calls a “solidly old-fashioned” set of texts may in the long run be better than what comes out of the “current fashion for setting so-called “contemporary texts”.

 At university level, my colleagues are, for the most part, happy with the way students spell and, for all the scaremongering in the press about apostrophes, are not distressed by their grammar and punctuation. What bothers us most is that students going on to higher education don’t have enough background. They don’t know the Greek myths. They are terrible on the folk tales of any land. They have not read the Bible or other sacred texts. Ask them about fairy stories, and the best they can produce is a Disney version. How can they begin to read Angela Carter or Carol Ann Duffy?

 There is a current fashion for setting so-called “contemporary texts” – that is works published recently – because they are deemed more “relevant” to the lives of the young people taking the exam. I love the writings of Susan Hill and Sebastian Faulkes as much as the next woman. But even those luminaries – I hazard – would like their readers to have read Jane Eyre and To the Lighthouse.

So let’s be brave in our schools with language, and yes – solidly old-fashioned with literature.

A few minutes consideration is enough to make you realise although there is much merit in what she as to say, her what she recomments may be more useful to young people who will study literature at at third-level than it is to those whose studies will end at second level.

The NHS- a lesson learned.

February 11, 2013

On the 22nd of March 2009, not long before he was unceremoniously dumped by The Observer, a paper for which he wrote a compelling management column for some 16 years, Simon Caulkin, with a considerable prescience wrote the following:

MRSA, Baby P, now Stafford  hospital. The Health Commission’s finding last week that pursuing targets to the detriment of patient care may have caused the deaths of 400 people at Stafford between 2005 and 2008 simply confirms what we already know. Put abstractly, targets distort judgment, disenfranchise professionals and wreck morale. Put concretely, in services where lives are at stake – as in the NHS or child protection – targets kill.

There is no need for an inquiry into the conduct of managers of Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, as promised by Alan Johnson, the health secretary, because contrary to official pronouncements, it is exceptional only in the degree and gravity of its consequences. How much more evidence do we need?

>>>>> 

Target-driven organisations are institutionally witless because they face the wrong way: towards ministers and target-setters, not customers or citizens. Accusing them of neglecting customers to focus on targets… is like berating cats for eating small birds. ……………

And why, in Calukin’s opinion, was this all wrong?

If people experience services run on these lines as fragmented, bureaucratic and impersonal, that’s not surprising, since that’s what they are set up to be. Paul Hodgkin, the Sheffield GP who created NHS feedback website Patient Opinion (www.patientopinion.org.uk) notes that the health service has been engineered to deliver abstract meta-goals such as four-hour waiting times in A&E and halving MRSA – which it does, sort of – but not individual care, which is what people actually experience. Consequently, even when targets are met, citizens detect no improvement. Hence the desperate and depressing ministerial calls for, in effect, new targets to make NHS staff show compassion and teachers teach interesting lessons.

The evidence that Caulkin thought we did not need came with the release of Robert Francis QC’s final report last week. It contained so much of what Caulkin had indicated it might that in today’s edition of  The Guardian we have Labour’s shadow health secretary, Andy Burnham more or less parroting what Caulkin was saying four years ago.

I draw three central lessons from Francis, starting with NHS culture. Over the past 20 years, there has been a drive to import a commercial mentality into the NHS, which has given rise to a new managerialism and a focus on finance and targets. This approach may be well suited to retail, but there are limits to how far it can be applied to healthcare. On the plus side, it has helped to reduce waiting times and make hospitals more efficient. But in places the response was a tendency to focus on numbers, not people.

Francis is right to say targets, properly constructed and implemented, have a place. But he is also right to warn of an over-reliance on targets. This is a lesson Labour is learning. If we don’t, the NHS won’t be able to rise to the complex challenge of caring for older people – the second lesson from Francis.

He is right to ask us to rethink from first principles the way older people are treated. Stories of older people lost in acute hospitals – disorientated and dehydrated – have become commonplace. I have thought carefully about why this is happening.

The World Health Organisation defines health as “a complete state of physical, mental and social wellbeing, not the absence of disease or infirmity”. But for 65 years England has tried to meet one person’s needs through three separate systems: physical, through the mainstream NHS; mental, through separate buildings on the fringes of the NHS; and social, through a council-run, means-tested system…..

 Burnham’s party may have been slow on the uptake, but it looks as it may have someone within its ranks someone who realises the full implications of what’s happening.

Actively Seeking Employment ?????

February 11, 2013

The reduction or withdrawal of benefits as a penalty for not “actively seeking employment” from claimants by Jobcentre Plus is widespread and sometimes done on what must appear to them to the whim of an uncaring, self-serving bureaucracy.

In one case I have heard of, a person who had accepted a full-time place on a retraining course (therefore actively seeking work through training, one would think) was told that benefits would be withdrawn if the daily job-search was abandoned while waiting for the course to begin, or during the training period.

In another I have read of, a man who was given a job, which would begin a fortnight after the offer was made, had benefits withdrawn for not seeking work in the intervening 14 days.

Do people at the receiving end of such treatment understand why they  are being treated in this way? I doubt it. All of which makes me glad that I do not have to be subjected to such treatment any longer.