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The Tories are lying quite openly – now there is a surprise. Part 2.

May 12, 2013

The Tories are lying quite openly – now there is a surprise.

For yet anotherexample their blatantly mendacious ways, see Nick Cohen’s piece Lies, damned lies and Iain Duncan Smith, in today’s edition of The Observer

Duncan Smith’s belief that the welfare state holds down the very people it is meant to serve is pleasing to Conservative ears. To maintain his supporters’ illusions, he has to lie. Last week, the UK Statistics Authority gave him a reprimand that broke from the genteel language of the civil service. The work and pensions secretary had claimed that his department’s cap on benefits was turning scroungers into strivers – even before it had come into force. “Already we have seen 8,000 people who would have been affected by the cap move into jobs.” How sweet those words must have sounded to Conservative ears. The government was forcing the feckless to stop sponging off hard-working taxpayers. (Taxpayers are always “hard working” in British politics, in case you haven’t noticed. We never try to get by doing the bare minimum.)

It seems that the Statistics Authority disagreed.

The figures did not show that, the statistics authority said. More to the point, they could not possibly have shown that. Duncan Smith’s claims were “unsupported” by the very statistics his department had collected.

It appears that  Andrew Dilnot, the chair of the statistics authority, is so concerned Duncan Smith’s habit of manipulating statistics to suit his own purposes that he thinking about sending his inspectors into the Department for Work and Pensions.

As journalists know, Duncan Smith’s modus operandi is well established. His “people” – all of them scroungers, not strivers, who sponge off the taxpayer from their Whitehall offices – brief reporters with unpublished figures. The Tory press uses them, and, as the Financial Times explained, when his spin doctors meet an honest journalist, who asks hard questions, they end the call and never ring back. By the time the true figures appear on the DWP website , and informed commentators can see the falsity, the spin, the old saying applies: “A lie is halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on.

I’d like to think that there will come day when Duncan Smith – and his kind – will be exposed for what they are, but, as they say, I’m not holding my breath.


Debt and what should be done about it.

April 23, 2013

For what i consider to be a few no very preposterous suggestions, read  Robert Kuttner‘s The Debt We Shouldn’t Pay which appears in the current issue of the New York Review of Books.

Public debt was not implicated in the collapse of 2008, nor is it retarding the recovery today. Enlarged government deficits were the consequence of the financial crash, not the cause.1 Indeed, there’s a strong case that government deficits are keeping a weak economy out of deeper recession. When Congress raised taxes in January at an annual rate of over $180 billion to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff, and then accepted a “sequester” of $85 billion in spending cuts in March, the combined fiscal contraction cut economic growth for 2013 about in half, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Moreover, some of the causes of public deficits, such as Medicare, reflect to a large extent inefficiency and inflation in health care rather than profligacy in public budgeting.

Here comes a point that’s now been lost sight of both in most countries tha are now been fed the austerity cure: 

It was private speculative debts—exotic mortgage bonds financed by short-term borrowing at very high costs—that produced the crisis of 2008. The burden of private debts continues to hobble the economy’s potential. In the decade prior to the collapse of 2008, private debts grew at more than triple the rate of increase of the public debt. In 22 percent of America’s homes with mortgages, the debt exceeds the value of the house. Young adults begin economic life saddled with student debt that recently reached a trillion dollars, limiting their purchasing power. Middle-class families use debt as a substitute for wages and salaries that have lagged behind the cost of living. This private debt overhang, far more than the obsessively debated question of public debt, retards the recovery.

We may think that debt – however incurred – has to be repaid: it a moral duty on us as individuals and as a society. Then again maybe there is a time when we have to think again.

In the case of a broad downturn,2 debt ceases to be purely a moral question, and becomes a pragmatic one: Will it help the overall economy for the law to demand that debts always be paid in full? Was it economically sensible to throw debtors into jail? Is it sensible now to force troubled corporations or banks to liquidate? To compel sales of millions of homes in a depressed market? To destroy the economic potential of entire nations so that they can service old debts that were incurred corruptly by previous governments or banks? Society properly discourages borrowers from taking on imprudent burdens, and the prospective loss of property or even liberty functions as a deterrent. But in a general collapse, debt forgiveness may become necessary if the economy is not to sink further.

He reminds the reader that debt relief and forgiveness has not been unknown, even in recent history. During the Great Depression and Roosevelt era

… the US government became serious about debt relief, with a series of policies that refinanced distressed home mortgages, reformed and recapitalized banks, extended relief to bankrupt consumers, financed a huge war debt at below-market interest rates, and wrote off some of the international debts of allies and enemies alike. (Britain, America’s closest ally, received near-total forgiveness of wartime Lend-Lease debt.)

Germany, today’s enforcer of Euro-austerity, was the beneficiary of one of history’s most magnanimous acts of debt amnesty in 1948. The Allies in the 1920s made the catastrophic error of helping to destroy Germany’s economy with reparations and debt collection policies. In the 1940s, after a brief flirtation with World War I–style reparations, the occupying powers agreed to behave differently: they wrote off 93 percent of the Nazi-era debt and postponed collection of other debts for nearly half a century. So Germany, whose debt-to-GDP ratio in 1939 was 675 percent, had a debt load of about 12 percent in the early 1950s—far less than that of the victorious Allies—helping to produce postwar Germany’s economic miracle. Almost every German can cite the Marshall Plan, but this larger act of macroeconomic mercy has disappeared from the political consciousness of Germany’s current austerity police.

Kuttner is wise enough to know the chances of countries such as Ireland having their debts relieved are remote.

The question of who gets debt relief reflects the distribution of political power—and power normally lies with large creditors such as banks.

 Just so.

A Fair Day’s Pay (for a fair day’s work.) in the USA

March 20, 2013

This seems very long ago and far away:

A Fair Day’s Pay for a Fair Day’s Work

Franklin D. Roosevelt

May 24, 1937

….  Our nation so richly endowed with natural resources and with a capable and industrious population should be able to devise ways and means of insuring to all our able-bodied working men and women a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.  A self-supporting and self-respecting democracy can plead no justification for the existence of child labor, no economic reason for chiseling workers’ wages or stretching workers’ hours.

 Enlightened business is learning that competition ought not to cause bad social consequences, which inevitably react upon the profits of business itself.  All but the hopelessly reactionary will agree that to conserve our primary resources of man power, government must have some control over maximum hours, minimum wages, the evil of child labor and the exploitation of unorganized labor………[link]

… In his recent  State of the Union  address, President Obama called on Congress to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 an hour and to link the future increases to inflation. He noted that  a family with two children that works full time and takes home the current minimum wage is still living  below the poverty line. He insisted that  “in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty.” Higher wages, the president said, “could mean the difference between groceries or the food bank; rent or eviction; scraping by or finally getting ahead.” And for businesses across the country, it would mean “customers with more money in their pockets,” which translates into the simple fact that “our economy is stronger when we reward an honest day’s work with honest wages.”

As if to prove that not a lot  has been learned in 66  years that has elapsed , Obama’s call for an these increases  has elicited a somewhat similar response from conservative Republicans as FDR’s did, with House Speaker John Boehner saying that an increase is “a job killer,” and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan calling it “inflationary” and “counter-productive.” Some Republican leaders, such as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, have even gone so far as to advocate doing away with minimum wage/maximum hours laws altogether, a move that would no doubt be applauded by Rush Limbaugh .

The National Federation of Independent Business, with a membership of 350,000, calls  the minimum wage as “more like maximum insanity.”

All the opposition ignore the fact that study after study have shown the raising the minimum wage has been good for both the economy and business overall.  This is because every raise increases the purchasing power of the American consumer. Conservatives are so wedded to their belief that the state should not interfere in the workplace in any way that they refuse see the benefits. Andrew S. Ross, in recent  article for the The San Francisco Chronicle,  pointed out that 19 states an the District of Columbia were all  already paying above the current $7.25 and that none appeared to be going out  of business.

 Business in San Francisco doesn’t appear to be suffering from the fact the city has the highest minimum wage – $10.55 – in the nation.

“You can’t continue to build an economy on the backs of low-paid workers,”said Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, who introduced the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013  earlier this month. Roughly half of Republicans — and 71 percent of Americans overall — support rise  $9 per hour, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center and USA Today. This suggests that maybe in 66 years  some lessons have been learned after all.

Finding the right room.

March 18, 2013

From John Naughton’s online diary

Quote of the Day

March 16th, 2013 [link]

“If you’re the most intelligent person in the room, you’re in the wrong room”

James Watson

Luckily, I spend a lot of my time in the right rooms.

It’s occurred to me that it’s just possible not to be the most intelligent person in the room and still be in the wrong room.

Box-ticking, bean-counting, target-meeting in the NHSdoctors

March 4, 2013

Here, in a  comment is free  column for today’s edition of The Guardian north London GP and Urgent Care Centre doctor,  Dr Fred Kavalier , gives readers some insights into how the flawed management of which Simon Caulkin wrote on Friday is viewed by someone who has seen it close up.

In today’s box-ticking, bean-counting, target-meeting NHS, doctors and nurses are forced to concentrate on things that can be measured and quantified. In the process, we are forgetting many of the things that really matter – the things that are difficult to count and measure.

From 1 April, when all NHS services will be up for grabs by the private sector, it’s going to get much worse. For all its failings, some of which were highlighted by the recent Francis report into deaths at Mid Staffordshire hospital, the NHS has always had the care of patients as its core activity. GPs and hospitals were all singing from the same NHS hymnsheet.

In the new privatised NHS, many of the players will be singing from hymn sheets written in corporate boardrooms. Every single activity will need to be specified in a commercial contract. If some vital aspect of a service is left out it will not get done, or it will appear as an “extra” when the bill comes in…..

All of  which goes to show that the NHS has been in wrong hands for some considerable time now.

A Hill of Little Shoes by Coope Boyes and Simpson

July 10, 2010

Recently, the marvellous vocal trio, Coope, Boyes and Simpson, released their latest album As If, on which they have included their version of the Pete Atkin and Clive James song, A Hill of Little Shoes,  a moving account of what it feels like to consider that one has grown up at a time when the children of the holocaust never got a chance to.

This song, which was written in the last decade of the twentieth century and which I first heard on the Pete Atkin album Winter Spring  gives lie to the to those who suggest that a song written in the popular idiom is generally at a loss do full justice to serious subject matter of this kind.

This YouTube ( “with”, I was reminded by an interested party,  “the last verse edited off for some reason”), gives the listener a good idea of what can be achieved when the composers are in the business of being serious about what they write, as James and Atkin are  and have always been.

BA and the unions – the bigger picture.

May 18, 2010

Writing in, today’s edition of The Guardian, Michael White has some pertinent observations to make about yesterday’s High Court ruling which prevented BA cabin crew from taking strike action.

A clever-dick lawyer on the airwaves today was solemnly warning trade unionists that they must be more careful in the way they comply with labour laws governing strikes – as “part of the price they pay for some of the privileges they have”.

M’learned friend was talking in the context of the latest court ruling that blocked the proposed 20 days of strike action by the Unite union’s BA cabin crew – the 5,000 members of the Daily Mail-reading Bassa section who are fighting an uphill battle to preserve their pay and conditions.

What a load of pompous self-serving nonsense! I hope BA didn’t pay him for this stuff. He’ll be persuading chief executive Willie Walsh to let him try to injunct that Icelandic volcano next. After all, it’s been disrupting BA flights too.

What happened in Mr Justice McCombe’s court yesterday – now subject to an attempted appeal today – was as foolish and wrong as the union says it was: a “landmark attack” on its right to take industrial action.

In his judgment –and in mine – the injunction was wrong because:

…..what it does is throw into stark relief the increasing difficulty facing unions seeking to use their legal rights to withhold their labour. In a free society, that’s wrong and I am disappointed – rather than surprised – that the civil liberties lobby does not display alarm today. As I type the issue is not on the front of Liberty’s website.

White is not necessarily on the side of those who are proposing to take strike action, but he recognises that that this is not really the issue.

Do I think the strike is a smart thing to do by staff whose terms and conditions are better than those of many rival airlines at a time when the industry is in deep trouble around the world for a host of reasons, not all of them volcanic? No. But that’s not the point. In Willie Walsh they face a tough manager who says he does not want to break BA’s unions but makes a good stab at sounding as if he does – as Dan Milmo explains in today’s Guardian.


Grievance needs to have an outlet – however irritating and inconvenient to customers – or it will develop into more damaging trends. Among other things this government was elected to show more sensitivity to civil liberties than the last lot.

Ending complicity in rendition, torture, bugging and the denial of bed and breakfast to gay couples are all part of that agenda, the part that most exercises the imagination of middle-class campaigners. But trade union rights matter too.

I do not believe that this government will be willing to show any great sensitivity to union rights, but I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt – for the time being, at least.

I have done the state some service, and they know’t.

May 14, 2010

In Wednesday’s edition The Guardian, Madeleine Bunting writes that she considers   Gordon Brown a politician for a bygone age .

Unlike Blair, Brown will not now slip off to lucrative jobs with financial institutions. It is a measure of the man that we believe his comments that he would work in the charitable sector if he does, indeed, leave politics. His commitment to public service has never been narcissistic, but driven by his intense Presbyterian sense of duty. His has been an old-fashioned faith much misunderstood and much despised in an age of narcissism.

This is all for the history books now, but it is important that Labour understands its own history because that is part of how it will explain its future. A media have hounded a principled, if flawed, public servant. Now he’s gone perhaps they can begin to consider whether any human being can match up to their grossly inflated expectations.

Indeed, there is much in what Bunting  says. I may be wrong, but I suspect that part that when history comes to judge him, it will be more willing to forgive him his mistakes than we are at the moment. Many of the things he was mistaken about – that banking would sensibly regulate itself, for instance – we were mistaken, to a greater of lesser degree, too. That’s to some extent is why we are unforgiving.

Peter Porter (1929-2010)

May 14, 2010


© Image by Richard H Smith

Clive James pays tribute to his friend the poet Peter Porter (1929-2010) in an obituary that appears in the current Times Literary Supplement

David Cameron’s gaffe – more serious than Brown’s?

April 29, 2010

Before the dust settles on the Brown’s gaffe  and it’s effect on the outcome of the election, I would like to consider whether David Cameron’s claim that he knew people who died because they could  get access to cancer drugs? This is an article [link] which deals with that claim in detail: 

He made the claim in the first TV debate last Thursday. Specifically, what he said was:  “I have a man in my constituency called Clive Stone who had kidney cancer who came to see me with seven others. Tragically, two of them have died because they couldn’t get the drug Sutent that they wanted, that was on the market, that people knew was a good drug. That’s a scandal in our country today.” 

Sutent (sunitinib) is a kidney cancer drug that was appraised by the National Institute for health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) in February 2009. NICE concluded that for some patient groups, but not others, sunitinib appears to offer benefits compared with existing treatments in terms of overall survival, progression-free survival and tumour response. For people with a poor prognosis and those unsuitable for the standard treatment (immunotherapy) there was limited evidence and no conclusions about the clinical effectiveness of sunitinib as a first-line treatment in these groups could be made.

NICE approved sunitinib for use on the NHS for those patients in whom it showed a benefit. The fact that the seven patients who visited Cameron were not getting it indicates that they belonged to other groups for whom there was limited evidence of benefit. They may indeed have wanted the drug, but it is stretching a point to say that two of them had died because they didn’t get it. If NICE is right, indeed, there is no basis in evidence for making such a claim. 

However, let us assume for the sake of analysis that the benefits had applied to them. Would Cameron’s remarks then have been justified?  

Professor David Spiegelhalter has made an interesting analysis of this question on the website Understanding Uncertainty. He points out that that survival benefits of drugs are expressed as a hazard ratio. If a drug has a hazard ratio of 0.8, then a patient taking it has 80 per cent of the chance of dying in the following month as he would if he were not taking it. 

Furthermore, the hazard ratio can be used to work out the chances of an individual getting a drug outliving one not getting it. This is the result of a simple calculation. If the hazard ratio is expressed as h, then the probability of anybody getting the drug outliving anybody not getting it is 1/(1+h). (The proof is on the Understanding Uncertainty website.) 

So how does this apply to sunitinib? Median survival time on the drug (for those it is appropriate for) is 37 months, without it 27 months. From this, making some assumptions, Professor Spiegelhalter works out a hazard ratio of 0.73 (27 divided by 37). From this it can be calculated that the chances of anybody getting the drug outliving anybody not getting it is 58 per cent (1/1.73). 

This means that even a drug that on average provides a reasonable survival advantage cannot be guaranteed to do so for every patient.  

Cameron’s claims were therefore wrong in two ways. First, for the particular patients he identified, there was little evidence of possible benefit. And second, even if there had been, you cannot say that any given patient will benefit even from a drug known to be effective. While Cameron can be forgiven for not knowing the second reason, the first ought to have been clear enough.  

His sympathies were properly engaged; but to call it “a scandal in our country” was certainly overstating the case.

It is hard to see how wrongly suggesting that two people he knew died as a result of their being denied can be simply “overstating the case”. What did the relatives of the two dead men think? I imagine that being told by a well-informed and well-briefed person that their relatives should not have died cannot have been comforting.

What about those who are still living? Is it likely that they are now living in more hope than they should reasonably entertain? I would say that it is likely that they are.

Is the Cameron going the take back or qualify what he said? Do pigs fly?