Saturday, 30 August 2014

Forget All-Women Shortlists, We Need All-Merit Shortlists

Labour MP Austin Mitchell has made a tit of himself recently with some ill-conceived remarks about women in Parliament. However, despite a lot of misjudged waffle he is right about one key thing - that all-women shortlists are un-democratic and pretty much always a bad idea.

On Newsnight feminist Labour MP Stella Creasy took Austin Mitchell to task for his views, reminding him that “Only 23% of MPs are women, barely more than one fifth” despite women making up just over half the population. So what? Less than 1% of garage mechanics are women, but that doesn’t mean women are being discriminated against in that profession, it probably means that very few women want to mess around with oily engines all day. Less than 13% of primary school teachers are men, but that’s also not evidence of discrimination, it is evidence of there being more women candidates for the role of primary school teacher.

Even if it is true that women are under-represented in Parliament, representatives are voted in democratically, which only goes to show that in a democracy more men get voted in than women. Perhaps voters have a greater preference for men MPs than women. Or perhaps not. Either way, you have to decide how much you value democracy, and to what extent you’ll let democracy run its course. Britain and America celebrated the first democratically elected president in Iraq after the removal of Saddam Hussein. When it turns out he was too sectarian they influenced his un-democratic removal. Some people championed democracy in Palestine - and then they got Hamas, and everyone knows what a disaster that has turned out to be.

More women in Parliament may well be desired - but the problem with artificially advancing one group is that you have to artificially disadvantage other groups in the process. Why should one group, be they men, white people, heterosexual people, or whoever, be discriminated against purely on grounds that they happen to belong to the wrong group on a particular issue? Promoting MPs just because they happen to belong to a group called ‘women’ is not only unfair on the other group called ‘men’ it rather deindividuates the individuals in question too. The process of demanding high calibre MPs while at the same time artificially increasing the probability of low calibre MPs by swerving merit-based selection is not something we should champion.

Don’t get me wrong, it may well still be the case that society still has too much of a bias against women, and that there is a serious redress needed – but that redress must come about by changing attitudes, increasing openness and opportunity, and extension of choice where it is lacking – not by affirmative actions that discriminate unjustly against the group(s) not in favour. Merit-based societies are the best way to go, precisely because they are unbound by group preferences. Imagine the absurdity of trying to artificially improve the education results of under-performing working class students by changing the meaning of grades instead of encouraging their academic prowess. From now on if you go to a private school you need A-level As to get into a top university, whereas if you go to a State school grade Cs will do. Just as such a system would undermine scholastic gradation, so too do all-women shortlists undermine the qualities perceived by a democratic body (the electorate) to be worthy of selection as an MP candidate.

As black student Clarence Thomas once pointed out, “As much as it stung to be told that I’d done well in the seminary despite my race, it was far worse to feel that I was now at Yale because of it.” MPs that are in Parliament because they are women have every reason to feel the same.

Finally, the other reason why all-women shortlists should be discouraged is because a democratic process like our voting system (it isn't exactly wholly democratic, but it's close) is the only power the citizens of the UK have against their elected MPs. Democratic accountability - and how I wish there were more - means feedback from political performances. Remove the ability of the electorate to vote in or vote out individuals based on their skills, merit, views and performance alone and you unleash discord through the gradual disempowerment of the voter. As we've seen in previous blog posts (here and here), diversity has to be considered with all its merits and demerits factored in.   

* Photo courtesy of

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Stop The Tyranny Or I'll Give You Something Nice

Robert Frank is generally considered to be one of the smartest economists in America. In an essay on consequentialism, however, he seemed to hit a stumbling block with this issue regarding why the British supported intervention in the Falklands rather than philanthropy:

"The British could have bought the Falklanders out—giving each family, say, a castle in Scotland and a generous pension for life—for far less than the cost of sending their forces to confront the Argentines. Instead they incurred considerable cost in treasure and lives. Yet few in the UK opposed the decision to fight for the desolate South Atlantic islands. " 

Two obvious things he's missing. In the first place, governments always severely underestimate the cost of wars - they go in hoping for a quick and inexpensive resolution - they act as though they hope they won't have to fight lengthy and costly wars. And in the second place, military mobilisation acts as a deterrent to aggression for dictators.

Somehow I don't think the warning: "Stop invading other countries and maltreating your citizens or else we'll pay for each one of them to have a Scottish castle and a generous pension for life" would have had much of a preventative effect on the likes of Adolf Hitler, Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein or the current vicious Islamic thugs slaughtering people in Iraq with the intention of establishing a caliphate.

* Photo courtesy of

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Foreign Footballers Are Like Foreign Foods – They Benefit Us At Home

England captain Steven Gerrard thinks reducing the number of foreign players in the Premier League will make the league better, and enhance the quality of our international team. Rio Ferdinand thinks the same. Greg Dyke is right on board with this, claiming that having a maximum of two non-European Union players will bolster home talent. I had a few choice words to say about it in this blog here.

Now it emerges this week that the Adam Smith Institute has unsurprisingly found what we suspected all along, that:

1) There is no link between native play time in the Premier League and performance of English national team

2) There is no link between amount of minutes played by Englishmen ten years ago and performance today

3) There is no strong link between foreign players and Premier League quality

I have a few more comments to make on this issue. If people involved in football understood more about economics they would know even without doing much research that diversity into the market improves the market. Anywhere you look, you find that competition improves goods and services, in terms of quality, prices, and choices available. A country that trades globally performs better than a country that only trades within its own borders. A university that invites students from all over the world does better than one that constrains entry to one country. The examples are endless. But here’s the key point in analogy to football – extending the quality through diversity doesn’t just improve the system overall, it improves the home grown participants too.

Let’s take food as an analogy that explains why it’s the same for football. A few decades ago in England there was almost no foreign cuisine. If you walked into the city centre your choices would be limited to British food; roast dinners, fish and chips, pies, fry-ups, bread, pastries and stewed meats and broths. In the modern day, take a walk into a busy city in the UK and you’ll find your dining options are much more plentiful. You could enjoy all those British options, but in addition your choices extend to a meal from places as diverse as China, India, Spain, Italy, France, America, Bangladesh, Australia, Japan, Greece, Mexico, Malaysia, Thailand, Turkey, and if you are in a very cosmopolitan city, African and the Caribbean too. 

If you are a provider of British cuisine you currently have to compete against all of the aforementioned nationalities. The couple who would have had a Sunday roast decades ago now could have a Mexican fajita or a Greek lamb moussaka for their Sunday lunch. The chaps who used to leave the pub and get fish & chips on the way home could now acquire any number of takeaways – pizza, Indian, Chinese, kebab or McDonald’s, to name but a few. A pub or restaurant that serves a mediocre Sunday roast, and a fish and chip shop that serves horrible fish and chips, will lose custom to their foreign counterparts, or to other providers of better English cuisine.

That’s why more foreign food is good for British food too. The importing of foreign cuisine puts intense pressure on the quality of British cuisine, and makes it better. The same goes for football players. 30 or 40 years ago UK players pretty much made up the entire league’s quota of players. If you were a good English player you had a fair chance of being picked for your club because your competition would have been only other players from the UK. Nowadays, a good quality English player has to compete with talented players from the rest of Europe and South America, all looking to earn their living playing in (usually) England, Spain or Italy.

Just as with cuisine, having foreign players in the English league improves both the quality of the league and the quality of the performers, including British players. In recent times, and just taking into account Englishmen, it takes players as good as the likes of Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney, Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, David Beckham, Ashley Cole, Gary Neville and Alan Shearer to make it in teams predominated by foreigners. Not only are they all world class players who did a lot to contribute to the successes of their clubs, their talent would have been enhanced by being in an environment in which they competing for places alongside world class foreign players. If they’d have been competing only against other UK players I’m certain that neither they, nor the clubs for whom they play(ed), would have had anything like the same talent or success.

England has done poorly at international level (since 1966) not because we lacked good players, but because other teams had better players. As good as Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney, Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry and Ashley Cole were for their clubs week-in week-out, it’s just simply the case that due to a mixture of being outperformed, and perhaps lacking a bit of luck, other nations (like Spain, Brazil, France, Germany and Italy) had technically better players, and did better in the international competitions. Besides, apart from one or two disastrous campaigns, we haven’t been a million miles short of another trophy, as those who can remember Italia 90 and Euro 96 could testify. Plus, we only lost on penalties in several of the other tournaments (France 98, Portugal 04, Germany 06, Poland/Ukraine 2012). Apart from this World Cup just gone, we’ve had good enough players to excite the fans’ hopes and expectations, even if they’ve soon turned to disappointment. 

But one thing’s for sure, as the Adam Smith Institute’s research has shown us, reducing foreign players will not make all this better, and turn us into world-beaters like we were in 1966 – it will diminish the quality of the overall English League, and it will enable us to produce fewer high quality English players for our international team.

* Photo courtesty of

Thursday, 14 August 2014

The Men Who Made Us Spend - Or Did They?

I just got around to watching a three part BBC programme I've recorded called The Men Who Made Us Spend. The general contention was that our preferences for goods and services are less implicitly part of our mental constitution, and more the case of manipulations by capitalists, the media and society, turning us into their playthings.

While there clearly is self-serving media and corporation manipulation intended to filtrate into our psyche, the idea that we are malleable puppets able to have our preferences drastically altered to be manipulated at will is bunkum. Businesses exist to maximise profit, which means looking for ways to extract money from our bank account to theirs. Clearly the best way to achieve this is not to try to change our natural preferences to suit their aims, it is to conduct their aims in accordance with our natural preferences. In other words, highly marketable things, like chocolate, cakes, attractive TV presenters, trendy clothes, accessible novels, addictive video games, alcohol, and box-office hits at the cinema are easy to sell to us precisely 'because' on average we like them more than healthier, safer, more circumspect alternatives. Imagine if instead of supplying beer, wine and spirits, pubs tried to make us healthier by offering only selections of bottled water, fruit juices and teas and coffees. It would obviously be much costlier than catering for our natural pub preferences, and inimical to the success of the pub industry overall.

The primary reason free markets are so successful is not because they can change our preferences at will, it is because they can satisfy the preferences we most naturally have. Of course, those preferences change along with cultural and societal changes, and businesses are excellent at driving people's tastes in the direction they think will generate the most revenue, but they don't do this in a vacuum - they have to work with what's already in us at any one time.

Here's some practical advice that works for me, and I feel confident will work for you. The best way to avoid the susceptibility of corporate and media manipulation is to avoid the susceptibility of peer pressure and status mongering. If you can resist the gravitational pull of conformity and of being shaped to fit a populist mould you'll be impervious to the thrall of those bad influences.  

In my book The Ecstasy Of A New Morality I imagined a man on a desert island with no human contact, and I talked about how he might gradually develop an intrinsic moral system by interacting with other animals. I also expanded that to a similar desert island thought experiment that can also be applied to considering how much we humans are conditioned by how others view us. To see how extreme the social factor is, think of something like style and ownership. Imagine oneself to be on the island but yet fantastically rich, living in a huge mansion, with expensive furnishings, a fast car, fine artworks and a stunning garden. In this scenario any pleasure you had in your opulent situation could only be derived from its intrinsic pleasure – there would be no sense of pleasure from others’ reactions, because there is no one there to react. It is difficult to say just how much contentment a life of such solitary richness would bring, but I suspect with the loss of that all important component of status gravitas one's equity would lose a lot of its meaning and joy.

Questioning how much we humans do without the motivation of securing prestige, approval, popularity and positivity from others leads us to some pretty candid conclusions about what is rewarding for reward's sake and what is rewarding for the responses of others. The extent to which we can resist the pull of outside thralls is roughly commensurate with the extent to which our spending will be built on self-determination.

* Photo courtesy of

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Time Is Money, But Money Is Also Time

With an upcoming wedding and honeymoon, I recently bought some extra annual leave from my place of work. I valued the extra time more than the money, so I acted rationally. It would, therefore, be foolish to look at the money I’d spent on the extra annual leave and claim I’d wasted my money, just as it would be foolish to stop a shopper after they’d left the checkout at Tesco and claimed they’d wasted the £75 they’d just spent on shopping. In both cases – mine and the Tesco shopper – we valued the thing(s) being purchased more than the money spent on those purchases. Simple enough, right?

Alas, Emily Gosden, in this Daily Telegraph article about how households are apparently 'wasting £120m' a year using tumble-dryers in summer, seems to not understand this basic principle of a voluntary beneficial allocation of resources:

“The declining popularity of the traditional washing line is costing British families at least £120m a year, as tumble dryers are routinely used throughout warm summer months. More than half of all households who own a tumble dryer use it at least once a week during the summer, according to the Energy Saving Trust. The organisation, a charitable foundation which offers advice on cutting energy bills, said that a typical household could save £18 from their annual electricity bills “by line drying clothes instead of tumble drying” during June, July and August. “

Here’s what Emily Gosden is missing. Just like the case with me and my extra annual leave, what British householders are losing in money by tumble-drying they are more than making up for in gained time in not having to go outside to put their clothes on the washing line and then bring them in after (as well as factoring in the lack of guarantee that the period of time in which the clothes are out there will remain dry). Unlike money, time is a precious resource that cannot be retrieved – so those using tumble dryers are those for whom the time saved more than pays for the £18 per year lost (which, let’s face it, at 5p per day, is hardly much).

The Energy Saving Trust wants to offer us advice by telling us that “A typical household could save £18 from their annual electricity bills by line drying clothes instead of tumble drying during June, July and August “, but this is an absurd one-sided perspective that fails to account for the gains distilled from that £18 annual cost. Those for whom the extra time gives value over the cost will use the tumble dryer more than the washing line. Those for whom the financial saving gives value over the extra time spent putting the washing on a line, getting it in, and sometimes multiplying this task due to inclement weather, will use the tumble dryer less than the washing line. Each will be acting rationally according to their preference. What isn’t rational is to tell us that as a nation we, collectively, are wasting £120m using our tumble dryers.

Finally, take each household’s £18 and translate that to minimum wage hours and it’s less than 3 hours. Let’s be super generous and skew the figures drastically in the Energy Saving Trust’s favour and suppose that each household’s weekly total washing line activity is just half an hour. Let’s then multiply that by the number of weeks in just the warmer months of the year (May-September). That amounts to:

22 weeks x 30 minutes = 660 minutes (11 hours)

Given that even at such a conservative estimate, using the tumble dryer from May to September saves 8 more hours than the 3 the £18 saves (or £32.48 more cash if you want to translate it into monetary savings), it’s clear that tumble dryer users understand the rational allocation of their time and money better than both Emily Gosden and the spokesperson for the Energy Saving Trust. It’s not surprising, of course – for too often we have to remind interfering busybodies that most of us know how to run our lives better than they do.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

The Guardian Goes Off The Rails Again

The Guardian really does have some disingenuous half-wits writing for it. Here we have Patrick Collinson ranting about rail price hikes and complaining that:

“In reality, fare increases aren't really paying for infrastructure but are instead covering the gradual withdrawal of government subsidies, which have fallen by 9% in real terms since 2010-11.”

Well whoopedoo, what about that – the taxpayers are paying less in subsidies, with the fares actually being paid for by…..wait for it……the people who actually use the trains. Surely not!! Contrary to Patrick Collinson’s wishes, most of us humans have evolved to understand that privatisation is not the bogey that the old socialists used to make it out to be, but the most efficient, right and proper state of affairs for the majority of industry. Why should the council maintenance man pay to subsidise the broker’s commuting? When you multiply those types of example nationwide you see how preposterous it is. Next we have this absurd swipe at profits:

“Passengers are also paying for the vast profits made by the rolling stock companies formed at privatisation. Just one, Angel Trains, made £372m in 2013 by its measure of underlying profitability.”

That’s the kind of squalid statement that sets out to paint a railway company as being greedy, unsympathetic fiends – when, in fact, a bit of digging shows the crassness attached to the claim. Sure, £372m is a big profit, but what does that actually amount to per customer? I can’t find any precise figures for Angel Trains rail users per year, but I did find out one or two things which will help. Angel Trains has 4,500 vehicles, which even at an outrageously meagre estimate of 10,000 passengers per vehicle per year works out at 45 million passengers. Divide the £372m profit by 45 million passengers and it works out at just over £8 per year “underlying profit” made on each person. Half the amount of passengers and it’s still only a profit of £16 per year per person – hardly the sort of profit that can be said to be ‘vast’ and worthy of public opprobrium.

But on top of that, I noticed that Angel Trains have invested over £3.4 billion in new rolling stock and refurbishment programmes since 1994, as well as donating over £135,000 to numerous charities since 2008.

I know being on the economic left entails the default position that success in business should be sneered at with socialist agitprop, but they really ought to be a little bit more responsible when it comes to the companies they are smearing with their conspiracy theorist anti-privatisation propaganda.

EDIT TO ADD: As is usually the case, the measure of success is in the evidence. Here's evidence that the number of rail passengers has doubled in the times of privatisation, following years of decline under the State:

Monday, 4 August 2014

Is Real Happiness Better Than A Superior Simulated Happiness?

In addition to my Blog on happiness a few weeks ago - here is an interesting auxiliary thought I had: what would we choose when the offer on the table is real happiness or a higher level of simulated happiness induced through some kind of man-machine matrix? In other words, to what extent do we want the actual reality when an illusory, but happier, reality is offered to us instead?

Suppose you are faced with this dilemma for real.

Option 1) You can have your mind permanently plugged into a computer simulated machine that will increase your life's happiness by 30%.

Option 2) You can opt for carrying on your life as it would have been.

In fact, we can even substitute happiness for whole life experience (WLE). Option 1 certainly increases your WLE by a significant margin, but in doing so it robs you of the real life lived and replaces it with an enhanced simulacrum of that life.

Whether you'd choose Option 1 or Option 2 depends on whether you most value the literal way that your actual sensory experiences impinge upon your mind's engagement with reality, or whether that superior simulated engagement with reality could be chosen as a replacement for the actual lived experience. Perhaps this simulated reality takes you to a level of life experience unlike anything you'd experience if you picked the real life alternative. But if you're like me, you probably place a premium on actually having done the things that give your life fulfilment.

Even if the simulacrum could enhance my life quality by 30%, my instincts lead me towards choosing the inferior but real actual life lived. I want my relationship with my wife and kids, my holiday to New York, my visit to Mount Kilimanjaro, the books I write, the meals I eat, the friends I engage with, and the family I enjoy spending time with to be things I've actually done, not simulated illusions of those experience topped up with an extra 30% of qualitative improvement.

The strange thing about this is that we spend most of our actual life doing everything we can to enhance our engagement with reality and make it the best life possible - yet when offered the very thing we strive for through a simulated reality, most of us probably would reject it and instead opt for the actual. I suppose this has parallels with induced experiences through alcohol or drugs - sometimes the mind-altering experiences create a reality more interesting and exciting than everyday perceptions, but we know they are ersatz experiences compared with the lucidity of the un-altered state of mind.