Friday, 28 June 2013

Bizarre reasoning

Paul Seabright in the Times Literary Supplement on Alison Wolf's The XX Factor:

"The take-home message [apparent from various statistics] is clear: hold on to your virginity at least till after you leave school. In the twenty-first century, you may no longer owe it to your religion or your future husband to be sexually responsible, but you certainly owe it to your career."

But, he adds, "Nothing in the correlation justifies such a conclusion. ... A woman who concludes that being sexually choosier than she naturally wants to be will improve her chances of making the alpha track is making the same statistical error as a man who thinks that drinking more dry martinis will make him richer."

Hang on a minute. Having sex, by and large, increases your chances of having a baby. Having a baby before you leave school, by and large, hinders your pursuit of a successful career. No one is making a statistical errors by thinking along these lines.

Wonga not wronger

Robert Peston essentially says there is nothing wrong with Wonga, thereby maintaining his position as a sane voice within the BBC's business/economic reporting staff.

Anthony Hilton (consistently interesting) puts it like this: banks "lost touch with their customers, and had no real idea of what they wanted any more so they kept inventing things no one really needed and then had to go to extreme lengths to get them sold", while by contrast Wonga has "a clear unvarnished vision of who its customers [are], what they needed and how their demands could be met".

I was at a conference yesterday (more interesting than it sounds) which certainly bore out Hilton's comment about banks selling things no one needed - and going to great lengths to do so. On the other hand, something that people did want was clear pricing. This did not always help them: a free plain vanilla swap (in other words, fixing the rate on your loan) was often preferred, even if would have been better to have paid a premium in exchange for a better product (e.g. a cap).

Perhaps Hilton is being generous to say that banks didn't know what people wanted; perhaps they knew quite well that what customers wanted was to participate in their low-margin businesses, while banks wanted to move them to higher-margin areas.

But what seems to be right is that customers' desire for clear and transparent pricing allows businesses to charge lots of money, so long as it is clear how much will be charged and that it won't go up.

Lawyers often charge a lot of money, but their pricing is not that clear. I suspect that they could get away with charging even higher sums if they were fixed and predictable, rather than hourly-rate and obscure.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Tricky question

I don't know the answer to this one.

Fill in the blank

"I met a 27-year-old man who had just managed to re-enter the world of work ... I wondered: did he think that the fact he [had been] unemployed was his fault?

His reply was [         ]. "Yeah," he said. "I do. I think I should have applied for more. I should have picked myself up in the morning, got out, come to a place like this [a sort of job centre] – tried more. When you're feeling down, you start blaming the world for your mistakes – you feel the world owes you. And it doesn't. You owe the world: you have to motivate yourself, and get out there, and try."

How would you fill in the blank in the square brackets? 

Animals in the news

Great photos.

Things you only see in judgments

"Ms Canning had previously obtained degrees in political science and marketing from Haifa University and University of Westminster respectively before running a smoked salmon club for a smoked salmon company." Perhaps her marketing degree was a sandwich course.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Grimsville, Blaenau Gwent

"A century ago, 2,400 men worked at the Marine Colliery. The miners and their families had come to the valleys from hundreds of miles around - some had literally walked to the valleys, drawn by the prospect of employment", the BBC tells us. And now the mines have closed and there is no work. All very sad.

But now that the employment has gone elsewhere, why don't their descendants follow it? Why don't they walk on like their grandparents?

""Why don't you leave?" I ask some unemployed men in their 50s. "Because we are valley boys," comes the reply. "This is home." The green, green grass…

And where would they go? Often with few if any qualifications and no savings, the idea of leaving family and friends for somewhere unknown, without a place to live and no guarantee of employment, does look ill-advised.

What really is the problem here? There are no jobs where they live. Somewhere else in the UK they will get the same benefits (same income, same savings) but have a better chance of a job. So the qualifications, savings and lack of guaranteed employment are irrelevant. 

Perhaps their friends (who sound like a pretty depressed bunch) are so much fun that they can't face the prospect of only seeing them at weekends if they moved a few miles down the road to Newport or Cardiff. That seems unlikely. Lots of people have friends and family; lots of people move away from them for work and to build a better future for their children.

The real problem is "without a place to live". It is very hard to move within the social housing sector. The priority for housing people in, say, Newport or Cardiff will be homeless people, and not those who are intentionally homeless (see this), so giving up your council house and housing benefit in, say, Cwm, and going to Newport to look for work on the offchance would leave you much worse off. Why would you do that?

So perfectly reasonable government policies aimed at avoiding homelessness have the effect of punishing anyone in the Ebbw Valley who tried to repeat his grandfather's attempt to find work. The government is subsidising these people to sit there, uselessly and not feeling to happy about it. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

There is no money

The famous note from the outgoing last Government.


"I was ... dining at an Oxford college. When I said to my neighbour, one of the country’s most senior civil servants, that I wanted to write a book about why liberals should be more skeptical about large-scale immigration, he frowned and said, ‘I disagree. When I was at the Treasury I argued for the most open door possible to immigration … I think it’s my job to maximise global welfare not national welfare.’"

What is your reaction to that anecdote?

Friday, 21 June 2013

What can consenting adults get up to?

I have little interest in reading Michael Sandel's What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limit of Markets, principally because I read Deirdre McCloskey's review and also because of this cringe-worthy luvvie-liberal-love-in story. But his arguments are interesting data points in the sociology of morals, as he is using right-wing arguments to make a left-wing point.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Fascinating and surprising account of talking to people in North Korea

Link is here.

English politicians meet aliens, Indian ones have striking names

In Bangalore, there is a Queen Elizabeth on the town council.

Meanwhile, in Tamil Nadu, "the opposition DMK is run by an 89-year-old playwright and four-times chief minister, M. Karunanidhi, and his son, Stalin".

But Meghalaya trumps them. As well as Frankenstein Momin, Billykid Sangma and Jhim Carter Sangma, they have an Adolf Lu Hitler. The "Lu" makes all the difference.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Espionage leaks - in a children's book

Not Edward Snowden this time, but rather Usborne's "The KnowHow Book of Spycraft". I loved it when I was a child but I did not know that, as the great Waterstones blog tells us, "Far more influential than the average children’s book, it was even submitted as evidence at the high court trial of Soviet spy Oleg Gordievsky, who testified it gave away the KGB’s tradecraft". 

Costs and benefits of government surveillance

WW, the Economist blogger, says that the threat from terrorism is so slight that the surveillance measures taken by the US Government, as revealed by Edward Snowden, are clearly disproportionate. He might be right - he makes a powerful case - but there's a fair bit more to the question than he supposes. However, he also says that we can't properly carry out a costs-benefit analysis, and on this point (courtesy of Nate Silver), I suggest we can be a bit more optimistic.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Take me to your (council) leader

There is something about local councillors that aliens seem to find appealing You may remember the Winchester alien and now Whitby has one too.

George Soros is not the only man whose name comes from Esperanto

If only because he had a brother, Paul Soros. Paul Soros had quite a life. And who knew that the Soroses (Sorosi? I can't do plurals in Esperanto) were related by marriage to Lord Longford?

Monday, 17 June 2013

Wanting to buy makes you happier than owning

That's what the studies tell us. I'm sure it's true of houses anyway. It would be a nightmare to own one of those houses in the New York Times (think of the commute) or this (think of the repointing), but there is a quiet and innocent pleasure to be had in imagining it.

The utility of doubt

Malcolm Gladwell gives us an engaging and sympathetic canter through the life and work of A. O. Hirschman here.

The doubts of Hirschman are clearly more appealing than the certainties of modern economists, based on more maths and less experience, but there are limits to this approach as economics.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Colour film of London in 1927

They had the same buildings, the same parks, even the same bus routes - but more suits, ties and hats.

Poor Germans

"Over the next ten years [the German] workforce will shrink by some 6.5m, the equivalent of all the workers in Bavaria" says the Economist. That's a lot of people (roughly as many people as the entire Dutch 25 to 54 year old population, says the CIA, and well in excess of the entire population of Ireland or Scotland) and ten years is not a long time.

Do easy cases make bad law?

Before I get to the old saying 'hard cases make bad law', I must start with the apocryphal story of the indulgent jury or magistrate who, not wanting to ruin the life of a poor young defendant who has made a silly mistake, returns the verdict "Not guilty" - and then adds sternly "but don't do it again".

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Potential exception to the New York Times paywall?

I understand why newspapers limit free access to their articles. Not only that, but I think they are right to do so. 

However, perhaps the New York Times could make an exception for its 'What You Get for ...' feature. This is a series it runs in which it shows a few different properties in the US for sale at about the same price. The latest one, here, is three houses with asking prices of about $899,000. It is a great series: it is good to be reminded of the large number of charming old (and occasionally new) houses there are in America; it is often fun to see how people decorate them; and it occasionally amusing to see how horrible some are, both outside and in. I'm addicted anyway. 

But surely it is really an advertising feature? - and doesn't that mean that there is a good reason to exclude it from the paywall, namely to allow more people to see the adverts?