Wednesday, 27 May 2015

How To Be More Efficient At Tasks

A famous rule of thumb by Cyril Northcote Parkinson known as 'Parkinson's Law' says that: "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion". So if you have five hours to complete a fairly straightforward office task, the chances are you'll take longer, procrastinate more, and be more susceptible to distractions than if you only had ninety minutes in which to complete the same task. This is fairly obviously demonstrable in pretty much every office of every public sector organisation, where almost nobody makes the most efficient use of the time available to them. Of course, Parkinson's Law plays out in many areas of life too. If you have the whole day to write a 2,000 word essay or sort through your old clothes you are bound to take longer to do those tasks that if you only had an hour.

The main problem with the public sector is that the money being spent is not its own, it is taxpayers' money. Just as you're going to be less efficient with a superfluity of time, you're also going to be less efficient with money that's handed to you from the general public. When people's own money is not at stake they are less discerning about how it is spent - and time is money - so less efficient with their time too. Just as services like energy, water, steel, air travel, buses and railways can only become more efficient when rescued from the improficiencies of State control and given over to the price signals of the free market of supply and demand, with similar measure the services the State still provides can only become more bureaucratic and less efficient as they continue to expand their legislative protocols and their levels of middle management.

This is because a variation of Parkinson's Law applies to bureaucracies too - the more they expand and the more people there are involved in that expansion, the more they will make unnecessary, overly-complex and duplicated tasks for each other. Organisations are usually pyramid-like in their structure, with every departmental level in the public sector needing to operate in the best way to secure more public finances and, ultimately, justify their own roles in the organisation. In the private sector, however, there isn't the luxury of the reliable flow of taxpayers' money trickling down from central government - an organisation's efficacy rests on being an economically viable operation in the competitive market of supply and demand, where inefficiencies are far more rigorously weeded out, and where the dead wood of extraneous employees will be rendered expendable due to what the continuation of their roles will cost the shareholders whose profits and losses are conditioned by maximal efficiency.

* Incidentally, if you grabbed a round balloon and pressed on it at the top and bottom it would lose much of its height and gain lots in width. In the UK the State is doing something similar; it is getting shorter in the sense that comparably few of our goods and services are now public services (comparably - i.e. compared to, say, the 1950s), as the free market continues to gather more and more momentum and give greater exhibition to its efficiency; but it is getting wider in the sense that it continues to become more and more bureaucratic as well as smothering our liberty with more and more legislation and snooping into our daily lives.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Making Supermarkets Hand Over All Unsold Food Doesn't Seem Like The Answer To Me

It's Bank Holiday Monday, I was just about to cook some lunch before going out, and then right now this article just landed in my inbox - it's a campaign for David Cameron to make supermarkets hand over all unsold food to charities.

This is as a result of what's happening in France, where a group of French MPs have tabled a draft law to make it compulsory for supermarkets to hand over to charity all unsold food still fit for consumption.

It's a noble idea, surely? I mean, if there is one thing the State can be good for it is in gently nudging socially desirable preferences in the right direction, right? I can go along with that: I do actually want much more to be done for good causes, and a nudge that compels big supermarket corporations to do more for charities is no bad thing in principle, and full of good intentions.

However, in practice this is problematical, because when you legally compel businesses to behave a certain way over and above what they are in business for you then impose extra costs on them, such as extra labour and extra resources to collect, store and administer the goods - and those costs end up filtrating into other areas of society. Such enforcement will have spillover costs that are, at present, invisible to the government officials enforcing this.

Will the governments that enforce this law contribute towards all these extra costs, plus the additional costs of refrigeration for both the charities and the supermarkets? But perhaps even more disconcerting is the likelihood that with this potentially oppressive legislation the State then has the power to penalise shops who don't give their quota to charity, meaning threats of fines will affect supermarkets' buying habits (buying artificially low, keeping stocks at a minimum to avoid wastage, etc) which then has a knock on effect of lower prices, which hurts employees, manufactures, delivery drivers, and maybe even farmers too.

It may even be the case that in not enforcing a supermarket food-donation system that will only increase the supply of free food we avoid creating an unhelpful dependency food welfare, rather like how in not giving money to beggars we do more good for them in the long run.

All that said, it is easy to see why such a campaign is growing in popularity (over 100,000 signatures at the time of writing) - tonnes of perfectly edible food is literally being thrown out on a weekly basis across the country, and this needs to change. I once heard a manager of a supermarket say that the main reason they didn't give thrown out food to the homeless is that they were afraid of being sued in the event of someone getting ill. Would a government that passed this food-donation law allow an 'eat at your own risk' mandate to stand for those consuming the leftover food? I seriously doubt it. It's all very well politicians having these noble ideas, but so often they aren't thought through properly, and I suspect here is another fine example of that.

There definitely is a square hole problem of food shortage in this country, and a square peg solution of lots of thrown away food in supermarkets available to be consumed, but I'm not sure this proposed government law is the solution. What we need is more innovation in getting people to give generously, more awareness raised, and more government-led investment that can help the poorest and vulnerable in society get back on their feet and find work.  

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

On The 'Gay Cake' Ruling

We read this week that a judge has ruled that a Christian-run bakery discriminated against a gay customer by refusing to make a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan. I’m uncomfortable with this particular legislation. Some people have been claiming that such a ruling is a victory for anti-discrimination proponents. The irony seems lost on them – that there is still discrimination going on – it’s just that in this case the discrimination is against the Christian couple running the cake shop.

The Christian couple’s view on homosexuality isn't one I personally share, but within reason I defend their right to choose to run their business according to their own religious beliefs and values, and in this case the State should do like-wise.

Disapproving customers are free to walk away and shop elsewhere. They are even free to share their disapproval on social media and encourage others to join them in shopping elsewhere. Such responses are powerful in business, because they put pressure on socially undesirable behaviour, and they penalise socially undesirable business owners with lost custom, diminished profits, and in extreme cases, bankruptcy.

Any law that makes it illegal to run a business according to your religious beliefs is a law that infringes on the liberties of the business owners in a way that is, in my view, socially undesirable. Saying that, however, doesn’t mean I think all anti-discrimination laws are undesirable - far from it. They just need to be applied more prudently.

As always, society involves tension between a) accommodating people's right to hold views and beliefs, and b) protecting others from unwanted discrimination. It is socially desirable for a racist café owner who wants to put a 'No Blacks' sign on his door to have black people's rights to not be discriminated against preferred over his right to display his repugnant views. But at the other end of the spectrum it is also socially desirable for another café owner to be allowed to discriminate against under 65s by offering a pensioner discount on Wednesdays and Thursdays. In this case the opposite applies - we prefer the café owner's right to introduce pensioner discounts over any societal claims that under 65s are being discriminated against.

The question the cake shop case elicits is where on that spectrum do religious views sit? Personally I think people's religious views should not be legislated against in business as to do so would be to encroach on their freedoms in ways that people in society ought to repudiate. It's quite clear to me that if the choice is between a) forcing a businessperson to make/sell a good they do not wish to, or b) compelling a dissatisfied customer to use another business, it's a no-brainer that society should prefer the latter.

Perhaps a different case will highlight this with even greater rigor. Imagine a t-shirt printing stall run by a Muslim. Along comes a bunch of EDL louts on a stag party wishing to have this Muslim gentleman print ten t-shirts depicting Mohammed drunk on lager. Would you really want to live in a society that forces the t-shirt printer to make these t-shirts for the stag party? I could spend all day thinking of similar examples, and they would all contain the same wisdom: that a society that forces people to act against their religious beliefs for the good of not offending their customers is a pretty dodgy society, and one in which most of us shouldn't want to live.

A quick comment on protected characteristics
You will see from the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s protected charcteristics page that it is forbidden to discriminate against anyone based on their race, sexuality, religion, sex, gender state, disability, age, marriage or civil partnership, or pregnancy and maternity.

The problem with this protected characteristics page is that it fails to compare like for like. A good protected characteristics list would be one based on criteria beyond the individual’s control. So for example, I can’t control my skin colour, and my skin colour has no bearing on whether I can do a job or not, so it’s understandable that discrimination on grounds of skin colour is both socially undesirable and illegal. For that reason, it would be right and proper to bring before the law a café owner who put up a sign saying “No Blacks”.

Religion, on the other hand, is a different matter. Religious belief is not something beyond our control. We choose our religious views (even if they’ve been thrust upon us from childhood), and therefore what we believe says something about what kind of person we are. If I had to choose between two people to hire, and there was nothing to choose between them apart from one was a scientologist and one wasn’t, I’d happily discriminate against the scientologist, because in my hiring criteria a candidate's failure to see that scientology is a racket could be a black mark against their potential.

For that reason it's easy to favour a law that prohibits discrimination on skin colour but at the same time repudiate a law that disallows religious discrimination. It's also worth pointing out for the record that the Christian couple running the bakery weren't actually refusing to serve someone on the pretext of their being gay - they were simply refusing to make a product that expressed something they found to be contrary to their own beliefs. A law that effectively wants to commandeer their bodies and cake-making facilities is to me far more repugnant than the offence these Christian bakers are supposed to have committed.

All that said, this is only a short blog post in which I couldn't possibly give the subject the full range of considerations it warrants.

One final point - the market does a very good job of weeding out socially undesirable discrimination
Suppose there are two countries - one with a large majority black population and a minority white population, and one with a large majority white population and a minority black population. What would be the effects of discrimination against blacks in each country? Real history will tell us the answer, because those two situations describe two real countries; the first being South Africa and the second being America.

Under South African apartheid the minority whites were prejudiced against the majority blacks, which comes at an economic cost because it restricts your business and your labour. Suppose racist Jim opened up a shop in South Africa in the 1960s but won't serve any of the majority blacks - he obviously shoots himself in the foot because his restricts his trade options to a minority few and excludes the majority of potential customers.

Now suppose racist Tom opened up a shop in America in the 1960s but won't serve any of the minority blacks - his discrimination hurts him, but not as much as it hurts Jim, because Tom is restricting his trade by less than Jim, as whites make up the majority in America in the 1960s.

In short, in a free market it pays not to unfairly discriminate, because whether on large scale or a small one you're going to limit your potential custom. The more socially undesirable your discrimination, or the more people your discrimination negatively impacts, the worse it will be for you. It is no coincidence that the time at which humans started to trade was also the time that we started to become more civilised and improved our methods of co-existence. To be able to trade in any age, and in particular, the modern age, you need to be able to think of others; firstly, by coming up with something (goods, services, entertainment) that others want; and secondly, by being honest, ethical, friendly, and developing a good reputation for your business. Far from being a vortex of selfish, uncaring and unethical behaviour, free markets necessitate qualities that make trade conducive, with your success dependent (in most cases) on your being a reputable person who welcomes all and treats everyone well.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Cameron's Counter-Extremism Plan Is Not A Good One

In the papers today we read about David Cameron's new plans for counter-extremism:

"The Prime minister will announce a counter-terrorism bill including plans to restrict harmful actions of those seeking to radicalise young people. The policies include disruption orders to prevent extremists airing their views in public or radicalising young people, new powers to close premises such as mosques where extremists are seeking to build influence, and extra immigration restrictions for those thought to be preaching extremist views."

No no no, this is a terrible idea. While I'm all for coming down hard on Islamic extremism, this legislation will unleash an unwanted genie from the bottle - not just because it encroaches on people's free speech, but primarily because it involves backward reasoning that will probably make the problem it is trying to solve even worse.

Here's why. Generally speaking, you’re likely to reduce speeding by introducing speed cameras; you’re likely to reduce street crime by introducing CCTV; and you’re likely to reduce the chances of being burgled by getting a burglar alarm. What you are not likely to reduce by legislating against Islamic radicalisation is Islamic radicalisation - you are only likely to take it into even more secretive, private and harder to detect places.

The most dangerous Muslim fundamentalists are obsessed with the total and unchallengeable absoluteness of Islam - they are not going to let something comparably trivial like British legislation curb their ambitions - they will only be more likely to attempt to propagate their dangerous and fanatical influence from the subtle underbelly of society, underneath the radar of the authorities.

It's not that the idea of restricting pernicious radicalisation and dangerous extremism is an unworthy one, it's simply that it will make things worse - it will make many more young Muslims feel averse to the British establishment and increase their chances of being ripe for extremism, and it will remove many fundamentalist activities from where they can be observably checked.

The law is an effective deterrent only by preventing easily preventable activities. Islamic fundamentalism is not an easily preventable activity because its exponents consider it to be more valid than human laws. The best way to reduce the damaging effects of radical Islamic fundamentalism is not to prevent extremists from airing their views in public or repudiate the 'passive tolerance' we've come to enjoy - it is to leave untouched the liberty of free expression, and lock up those who end up committing criminal activities in the name of religious extremism.

Even that doesn't wholly get to the crux of the issue though - which is that words like 'extremism' and 'radicalisation' are nigh-on impossible to legislate against in any sense of hoping for pre-emption, because they are not objectively measurable states - they are subjective and part of a broad spectrum of viewpoint and behaviour. That simple truth gives us another reason why it's much better to afford people the freedom to believe and express whatever they want, and enforce the law when their freedom of belief and expression turns into a criminal activity that harms individuals in the society in which they live.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

A Few Post-Election Thoughts

After returning from holiday I was as surprised as everyone else to see the Tories had won a majority against all expectations. Surprised, but very glad, because had Ed Miliband ended up as Prime Minister it would have been the most ill-judged and unjust outcome in recent political memory. Thankfully the public were even less persuaded by the direction he had taken Labour than pretty much every pollster and social commentator had accounted for.

Make no mistake about it, I very much doubt Labour's heavy loss was to do with Miliband's character (outside of the policies he seems like an okay guy), nor his ridiculous 8ft 6in slab of limestone stunt, nor his shameful and pathetic attempt to buy Muslim votes with his 'Islamophobia' promise. No, the party's disastrous result was pretty much entirely based on his abject failure of a social experiment to take the Labour party back to the old Labour of the socialist-economic left which hasn't won an election since 1974, and has long since been thoroughly and comprehensively discredited intellectually. This suggests that even a large section of the politically uninformed demographic are not so credulous as to fall for the kind of guff that Ed Miliband was trying to sell them.

Be reminded that the only time Labour has got anywhere in the general election since the notoriously inept days of the early seventies has been through Tony Blair's rebranded Thatcherite New Labour, from which Ed Miliband had thoroughly departed (in favour of his father's Marxist views) and to which his brother David had fervently gravitated. For reasons I explain here, I doubt this is the end of the Labour party, but it probably will take another rebranded Blair-esque shift before they can ever hope to get close to seeing any power again. It was telling that even in his resignation speech Ed Miliband was still championing the policies while lamenting the public's failure to connect with them. No Ed, it really was the policies that cost your party so much - and that you still can't see it even after such a palpable rejection of them is indicative of the extent of the delusion that underpinned your campaign.

When the results were in, it was good to see that brains were victorious over the metro-left's hideously anachronistic, meretricious, self-righteous envy that abhors success, innovation and wealth creation. Given the ineptitudes of the opposition parties, I'm glad that David Cameron and his Cabinet get to finish off the second half of the job they started, even though they are far from perfect themselves.

Lastly, if David Cameron keeps his promise of an EU referendum it will be a great chance to finally unyoke ourselves from the stuffy, bureaucratic socialist busybodies in Brussels and Strasbourg - an opportunity I'm pretty sure that the British people will, sadly, refuse to take when it is offered to them.

Regarding the other parties, here are a few other thoughts I had when assessing the election results.

* The next Labour party that will stand any chance of wining an election may well be one that even Ed Miliband wouldn't vote for.

* Although Nick Clegg seems to me to be not that likeable and a pretty disingenuous opportunist, it's a shame the Liberal Democrats (who are actually pretty far from being liberal) got so slaughtered as a result of going into government to help get our economy back on track. I'd like their next leader to be Norman Lamb - one of the best MPs around in my view.

UKIP are pretty much a one man show, and their members couldn't imagine anything but a declension if they'd have accepted Nigel Farage's resignation.

* It is a really disturbing and worrying fact that over 1 million people in the UK actually voted for the Green party - a party whose economic policies are worse than those of all the other parties put together. Weirdly the vast majority of people who voted Green are surely smarter individuals than the party's own representatives, and unlikely to support much of the tosh they put out, which makes their votes seem like lazy thinking.
Well done to the SNP for a well fought campaign. Now the sooner you expedite the independence of Scotland, the better.

* As for Plaid Cymru, all I can do is echo what everyone outside of Wales thinkszzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!


Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Why It's OK Not To Vote

I'm always bemused when I hear people say "You are morally compelled to vote: people died for your right to vote, and it is outrageous if you choose not to use it". They also say things like "You've no right to moan about the politicians in power if you abstain from voting". They are popular opinions, but like many popular opinions I think they are wrong.

On the first one - even if we ignore the fact that the odds are astronomically stacked against your vote making any difference whatsoever, the majority of people who died for our liberties and freedoms didn't die for our right to vote, they died for our right to the privilege of choice and autonomy, of which both voting and abstention are constituent parts.

And on the second one - not only do your freedom of choice and autonomy give you every right to praise or bemoan to your heart's content, the fundamental truth here is that if you have no political parties you would support then the ability to vote means little when the variety of options on offer fundamentally depart from what you want to be on offer. For the people to whom that applies I see no reason to expect them to be any less vocal - one may even expect them to be the most vociferous critics of all.

Here's an illustration to show what I mean. Suppose a friend of yours has been sentenced to death in a State that allows it, and yet you are against capital punishment. Someone asks you to vote on how your friend is put to death: electric chair, lethal injection, hanging, a bullet to the head, or being starved to death slowly.

Given that I am opposed to the death penalty I want to campaign against my friend being put to death at all. If you tell me I'm morally impelled to vote on how my friend dies, I'd certainly say that the lethal injection option is a less bad option than being starved to death slowly, but my vote is only an adjunct to what I feel is a bigger issue about the inhumanity of capital punishment.

Similarly, in politics my vote for the Conservatives, UKIP, the Lib Dems, Labour, or whoever would only be an adjunct to what I feel is a bigger issue - that I'm a Christian libertarian that isn't being represented by any of the parties for whom I can vote. Thus, my vote would only be a vote for the least bad party - but when you combine that with the fact that that vote is almost certainly going to make no difference to the outcome, then not voting becomes a perfectly rational thing to do.

You're probably very accustomed to how the party political system has manifested itself over the last century or so, and you're so used to the kind of choices you're being asked to make that perhaps you don't know what it's like for those of us for whom the choices in front of us are so many miles away from what we'd support. A fact you may know is that dinosaurs were actually alive on earth for over twice the length of time than the time between their extinction and now. By a similar measure, the ideal party I'd like to see in government is probably about twice as far from the Conservative Party (the most electable party by a country mile) as the Conservative Party is from, say, a far left party like the Green Party. If you can understand where I'm coming from there, you should have no trouble understanding why, as things stand, I just don't see voting in the same way that you do.

Even if you can't swallow all that - and I'd be at a loss to understand why ever not - then at the very least you should respect my right and decision not to vote, just as I respect your right and decision to vote or not vote as you see fit.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Miliband's Islamophobia: A Shameful & Dangerous Act of Political Opportunism

In what is a squalid and somewhat pathetic attempt to win votes off Muslims in this tight election, Ed Miliband's credibility and integrity has sunk to even further depths as he promises to outlaw Islamophobia:

"We are going to make Islamophobia an aggravated crime. We are going to make sure it is marked on people's records with the police to make sure they root out Islamophobia as a hate crime."

Everything….and I mean absolutely everything is wrong with this idea. I'll pick just my top four reasons why.

1) It's a dystopian example of thought crime; the very epitome of an Orwellian nightmare. Phobia literally means a fear of something. If you have claustrophobia you are afraid of confined spaces. If you have arachnophobia you have a fear of spiders. If you have a fear of Islam you have a fear of its growing socio-political influence in society, and of the way people anxiously pander to it, and of the extent to which its extremities stultify minds, and of the spectre of increased radicalisation that leads to hate speech and sometimes murder and terrorism (all very understandable fears, I'm sure we'd all agree). Of course we should be wholly tolerant and kind towards moderate Muslims, but far from wanting to criminalise this anti-extremist phobia, we should actively encourage it, and come down even harder on those Muslim leaders radicalising young people.

2) It's a contemptible infringement of our civil liberties and our freedom of speech. To outlaw the ability to criticise, mock, ridicule, campaign against and intellectually challenge Islam is to rob us of vital tools for enquiry and progression, and will at the same time create an even greater culture of trepidation whereby people are forever afraid to speak openly for fear of being criminalised.

3) It's ambiguous to the point of being useless. How the heck is this ridiculous legislation even going to be properly enforced anyway? The boundary line between what constitutes the Miliband version of Islamophobia is blurry. Am I an Islamophobe if I write a blog saying that I don't think the Qur'an is anything other than an inept man-made creation? Will I be outside the orbit of the Islamophobia law if I demonstrate outside a Mosque known to be radicalising young Muslims, or if I tell the police about a Muslim grooming operating above a local kebab shop (that's hypothetical by the way - I know of no such place in my city)? In terms of the law, Islamophobia is so ambiguous it is nigh-on impossible that it could be enforced with any consistency or in a way that doesn't stifle our free expression and genuine concerns about the darker elements of Islam. This leads me nicely onto point 4 - perhaps the most frightening prospect of them all.

4) It empowers the very people we actually want to disempower. Even aside from the very serious problem of making people reluctant to speak out against radical Islamist preaching in mosques, extremism in schools and hate speech in public places, the law will only help the despicable child-sex gangs that groom, entrap, rape and exploit young British girls. The majority of these offenders are Muslims of Pakistani origin (recall infamous cases in Doncaster, Rotherham, Manchester, Blackpool, Oldham, Derby, Newcastle, Rochdale, Bradford and Oxford as horrible cases in point). The reason so many of these young girls were subjected to the perverted exploits of the organised Muslim gangs for so long is because numerous agencies and authorities (including the police) were cravenly fearful of being labelled racist or prejudiced if they enforced the law against these perpetrators.

The truth is, this proposed law is highly irresponsible and gravely hazardous, as it comes with the danger of creating a greater freedom for already dangerous Muslims and potentially dangerous Muslims, and also the danger of creating a culture of trepidation and spinelessness for most other UK citizens.

When looking up the number of places (mentioned above) in which Muslim gangs have been responsible for child-sex grooming, I also happened to find this interesting piece of information from the Henry Jackson Society - "British Muslims could have the decisive vote in a quarter of constituencies, analysis shows. In 159 of the 632 seats, the number of Muslims is greater than the margin of victory in 2010. And this is true among almost half the 193 marginal seats."

So as well as the highly irresponsible and gravely dangerous nature of the law, this information about how important the Muslim vote could be gives clear exhibition to how Miliband's agenda-driven, Muslim-pandering proposition is a most shameful example of how this aspiring Prime Minister will put his own party political aspirations ahead of what's good for the country (namely some of society's most vulnerable people) by prostrating himself towards Mecca to further his own political gains.