Friday, January 3, 2014

When I grow up...

Wouldn't it be funny/scary if kids wanted to be one of the following professions:

"When I grow up, I want to be..."

1. Chairman of the Federal Reserve

2. Vice President (don't aim too high!)

3. Comptroller of the Currency

4. A systems administrator

5. District level education superintendent

6. A quality assurance manager

Thursday, January 2, 2014

An Open Letter to Mary Creagh MP

My friend Richard has penned a hilarious letter regarding MP Mary Creagh's comments on Thomas the Tank Engine's apparent sexism (after the break).


Dear Mary Creagh MP,

I was very interested to come across your comments relating to the apparent connection between a lack of female train drivers and the beloved children’s programme, Thomas the Tank Engine. I did however wince for you as I read them. The problem is that the account you are responsible for circulating is not accurate. In the original books, there were many female characters including: Annie and Clarabel, Isabel the auto coach, Daisy the engine, Caroline the car, Nancy the refreshment lady and Mrs Kyndley. Turning to the television series, which I imagine is more popular amongst this generation of children than the original books, great strides have been made to include more female characters, such as engines Emily, Elizabeth, Kelly, Lady, Mavis and notable resident, Lady Hatt. The many female characters in Thomas the Tank Engine points towards a lack of research (or thought) on your part before you made your remarks. To familiarise yourself with the current range of characters, please see here.

The link you attempt to create between a lack of female drivers and a television show in the first place is rather curious. I strongly doubt that there are fewer female train drivers due to the relative numbers of train sets received historically. It might just be possible that not many women actually want to become a train driver. The counterfactual of what you say is this: if Tara the Tank Engine was the main character, suddenly, we would observe an increase in female applicants for train driver positions. Experience shows that this would not be the case. In Bob the Builder, Wendy is a prominent character, yet there has not been a sharp increase in female builders.

I would suggest that more research needs to be done to better understand child preferences in career choices. Field research and surveys would be helpful with this. I recognise that this would involve more work. So, if you must insist on your easier, fantastic line of reasoning, you could extend it further and argue that Thomas the Tank Engine is a bigamist by pulling Annie and the same time. Hence, some children later grow up to become bigamists.

Your concern does prompt an interesting question though: given the “seriousness” of the issue why didn’t your party make more progress when they were in power for 13 years? It appears that your party failed in this regard. Also, I hadn't realised that it is now Labour policy to put blame onto children’s characters for your shortcomings. Should this be the case, you could apportion blame to other beloved children’s characters. For example, you could blame the lack of women in our postal services on Postman Pat; the lack of female firefighters on Fireman Sam; the lack of female time travelers on Doctor Who, or, the lack of female evil geniuses on DC and Marvel comics. Ed Balls seems to like making references to Rainbow, perhaps a policy can be formed around that.

In any event, I am amazed given the current problems in our transport system: rises in rail fares, large number of cancellations, weather related issues, issues of over-capacity, to name a few, that you would choose to focus on a children’s Television show. I had hoped that in your role as Shadow Transport Secretary that you would focus more on some of the problems I refer to above. It is also highly doubtful that there are a significant number of people in Wakefield who are concerned that Thomas the Tank Engine doesn’t have enough female trains.

In sum, there are plenty of female characters in Thomas the Tank Engine. You are wrong on that count. The link you attempt to create between a children's TV show and a lack of female train drivers is also mistaken -- experience shows that the counterfactual of what you say does not play out. Should you fail to “clarify” your comments, I fear that the small blue engine will lurk behind you like Banquo’s ghost. Ah, Macbeth -- you could blame him should Scotland vote to go independent this year.

On behalf of the residents of the Island of Sodor

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Critiquing Pat Buchanan

Happy New Year! To start the year afresh, I critique Pat Buchanan's article, "Inequality - Crisis or Scam?" I generally respect Buchanan's journalistic integrity, but it appears here that he has failed in his research. His argument, that inequality is no big deal, rests upon faulty assumptions and bad reasoning.

Buchanan sets up a straw man, claiming that his opponents want perfect equality of the kind existing in Mao's China. To say that high inequality is associated with ills such as crime, social stratification, and poor health does not occur to Buchanan. The fact that a poor kid attending state school does not have the same opportunities as a wealthy, privately-educated child is okay, it appears. We should not try to mitigate inequality - no, no, no! Freedom is inequality, in Buchanan's world.

This is a poorly constructed argument in itself, but the bad logic persists. Buchanan reminds us that "The top 1 percent of U.S. earners pay nearly 40 percent of U.S. income taxes." This is hardly surprising. Greater inequality means that the rich pay more tax. Imagine a nation with 100 people, only one of whom, Mr. Biggs, earns any money. Despite the high inequality, who pays 100% of income tax? Why, Mr. Biggs of course - the one percenter! How unfair it is that Mr. Biggs pays all the tax, Buchanan might say. Yet level-headed readers would quickly see that this is ridiculous.

Of course, Buchanan is correct in insisting that we focus on inequality after taxes and transfers. Yet even after accounting for this, the United States is the fourth worst OECD country, behind Chile, Mexico, and Turkey. Also, the government programs that Buchanan mentions are less-than-advertised. For instance, Pell Grants only pay for up to $5,550 of a college education, in a country where average college expenses (2010-11 figures) are $18,133. So the after-transfers angle is crooked.

The 1% may also not be productive, as Buchanan assumes. Many are bankers who use derivatives and arbitrage trading to get rich without growing the economy ('rent-seeking'). Doctors and lawyers restrict entry into their professions through the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association. Entrepreneurs might be productive, but their behaviour can violate anti-trust, manipulate patents, and rely on publicly-funded research like the internet and pentium chips. Indeed, most of the 1%'s wealth derives from capital gains, which are taxed at a far lower rate than income. Is this really productive, or is it leeching off others' productivity?

Buchanan then conflates two issues: poverty and inequality. Yes, both are bad, and poverty is worse. Does that mean that inequality does not matter? No. There is extensive research into inequality's pernicious effects, even in industrialised economies. One of the big problems is that wages are not growing with productivity. Buchanan needs to address this research in order to make a compelling case.

There are other problems with his article. Buchanan uses research from the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank, to state that the total cost in 2012 of government programs for low-income people was $927 billion. Even if this were true, it is trivial: during a recession, unemployment benefits increase dramatically. The relevant number is throughout the business cycle. His other assertion, that the poor are better off now because they have cellphones, is true - but so what? Even poor Indian fishermen have cellphones. Technology makes the poor better off, but it may not lift them out of poverty. And regardless, the relevant issue is inequality, not poverty per se.

So Pat Buchanan has a weak thesis, which I have butchered to death with a battering ram. We can have low inequality and a thriving economy and political system - just look at Scandinavian countries. The trouble is that many readers agree with Buchanan, without considering the economics behind his piece. That is the danger. Public discourse cannot advance if it relies on bad debate. For a better overview of these issues, I suggest a recent Journal of Economic Perspectives issue. Pat Buchanan should leave economics to the economists.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The next innovation: robots

2013 was a disappointing year in tech. The internet, cellphones, operating systems - you name it - have flatlined. Big Data is a red herring. However, with advances in artificial intelligence and mechanics, there is one area that looks promising: robots.

The Iron Rule of Innovation is simple: if the military is doing it, then it will be adopted by the private sector. This is true of the internet, airplanes, pentium chips, etc. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the U.S. military's research wing, has been investing heavily in robotics. DARPA already unveiled its Atlas search-and-rescue robot, which can navigate difficult environments and drive vehicles. Consumer and industry applications follow naturally. One can foresee such technology being used to mine difficult-to-reach minerals, for example.

Google foresees this, and acquired eight robot companies since year's beginning, including SCHAFT, which recently won the DARPA Robotics Challenge competition. It is also creating its own robots, most famously the self-driving car. When a big corporation invests in robotics, people take notice.

Robotics can also enhance public services like healthcare. For example, Dr. Ivar Mendez has talked about how robot medics will be commonplace in every home - perhaps within the next 50 years. Such medics can immediately diagnose disease, and relay information back to hospitals and EMTs.

Daily life will change. We might wake up to robot maids making us a hot breakfast, and putting away the dishes. Then, we will drive to work in our self-driving car. We won't have jobs in manual labour, since those will be replaced by robot workers. After work, we head to the grocery store, where everything is automated. When we're back home, a robotic massage therapist can help us relax, and we'll be off to bed.

Of course, these predictions might be entirely fantastical, but early indications look promising. In the next few decades, Isaac Asimov's robot world may evolve from the pages of his fiction into reality. Several jobs will be replaced, like maids, factory workers, and even doctors. Right now, it is perhaps prudent to do as Google does, and anticipate such a future.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Curious Case of the Bourgevara: How Disconnected the Left Have Become

By Richard Ridyard

(To Harriet Harman) “You did indeed fight for women but you fought most effectively for middle class women like yourself. Because exactly the way female liberation has worked, and I whole heartedly support it, is disproportionally in favour of rich, well connected women like you.” Those are the words of historian David Starkey on a lively edition of Question Time. That edition was revealing, with David Starkey touching upon a rarely articulated problem with the modern left. I speak primarily from a U.K. perspective, but it is plausible that this problem is at play elsewhere.

The problem lies with a growing group of liberals who lead privileged lifestyles whilst holding narrow-minded and misguided views that have infiltrated the left, and, in particular the Labour party. Anecdotally, on the edition of Question Time mentioned above, David Starkey went around the panel describing their respective backgrounds. It turned out that the only members of the panel who came from nothing were both on the right. This is a disturbing trend which, at the moment, has no end in sight.

One label that describes this phenomenon is bourgevara. It denotes the joining of two traditionally incompatible characteristics. Gone are the generation of champagne socialists - this new breed of liberals are set to do far more damage to the left. This is because it is the bourgevara who are talking the loudest - the liberal media have even followed their narrative. Tag lines are repeatedly espoused that are devoid of any real substance such as “capitalism is bad” and “bankers are evil”. The bourgevara are something of a contradiction since they support the very conglomerates they claim to condemn. The bourgevara are therefore quite easy to spot, but difficult to connect with, and it is this lack of connection that poses a serious problem to the left. The rise of the bourgevara has run parallel to a deep seated disenchantment with British politics. Coincidence? I think not.

While the bourgevara have the microphone, influencing the left’s agenda, attention is diverted from the section of society that arguably needs it most - the working class - the very people the left are alleged to help. The neglected modern working class have become aware of this. The criticism that politics is a “cosy club” used to be exclusively aimed at the right. However, that particular criticism can now be leveled at the left. The bourgevara have introduced an uncomfortable feeling that the left has become, in the words of David Starkey, “...cosy, inbred, liberal, pat on the back it’s alright.” In an insightful blog post titled, ‘what is wrong with today’s left?’, Cornelius Christian makes a similar observation: “Today’s progressives are indubitably apathetic, especially with regards to...the modern working class.” As a result, the modern working class appear disillusioned with a party they once held dear.

Allied with this, at present there is a strong sense that many on the left merely say things they think the voting public want to hear, yet behind closed doors things are very different. There were warning signs of this. Back in April 2010, in the run-up to the general election, Gordon Brown, when talking to voters in Rochdale was challenged by sixty-five-year-old Gillian Duffy, a lifelong Labour supporter, on issues such as immigration and crime. After their conversation they shook hands and Gordon Brown said it was nice to have met her. Back in the car, unbeknown to Gordon Brown, the microphone was still pinned to his jacket. He went on to complain about the encounter, describing Mrs Duffy as a “bigoted woman”.

Then there was the expenses scandal that came to light in 2009, which involved members from all parties. This helped spark the disconnect between the voting public and politics in general, as the expenses scandal eroded much public confidence in British politicians. Once the scandal had passed, Labour had the opportunity to set an example, to hold themselves to a higher standard than their colleagues on the right. This could have raised the benchmark and helped restore public confidence. Unfortunately, they flunked that challenge. Just recently, reports have surfaced that document a rise in MP expenses to nearly £100m for 2012-13 which is higher than before the 2009 scandal, with some Labour MPs among the highest claimants. All of this adds to the public’s disquiet on politics. Yes, this is a party wide problem, but, when the left should be seizing the opportunity; to set out policies that go to the heart of the problems many workers are facing, it is the bourgevara who are continuing to dominate the agenda.

Due to the line taken by the coalition government, an opportunity presented itself to the Labour party to put forward something different; a message strongly aligned with the party’s roots and core voters. Labour seem to have flunked this challenge as well. So far, contrived sound bites have failed to translate into the kind of policy recommendations hoped for. One sound bite in particular has become the leitmotif of the Labour party: “out of touch”. In a recent column David Mitchell reflects on the much talked about appearance of Labour MP Rachel Reeves on BBC 2‘s Newsnight. After the programme, Newsnight editor Ian Katz described Reeves as “boring”. David Mitchell observes that,
“...she did manage to say the government was ‘out of touch’, which should please everyone in Ed Miliband's team. They seem firmly of the opinion that saying ‘out of touch’ is all TV’s good for. Or radio, for that matter - or lecterns, microphones and dispatch boxes. Just say ‘out of touch’ as often and as loudly as you can and you’ll win the next general election - that’s their view. It’s like that Dick and Dom game, Bogies, but with higher stakes and a much more banal thing to shout.”

The irony is that the bourgevara-led Labour party is “out of touch”, and appear to be in a state of denial. Diverting attention away from themselves is the flavour of the day - everyday. What Labour has done is to oppose almost everything the coalition government has offered. It’s not just the general public who are finding Labour’s direction unconvincing. Even the trade unions have grown impatient. For example, GMB union is to cut the affiliation funds it gives Labour from £1.2m to £150,000 in the wake of a row over reforms, it has announced.

“Until the modern working class are convinced they will be represented, they will remain disconnected with the cosy club the bourgevara have made left politics become.”

Now, I am not saying one has to want to go back to the dark ages and in no way enjoy the fruits of capitalism - an argument that Louise Mensch seemed to put forward on an edition of Have I Got News For You when she claimed that protestors at Occupy London could not be taken seriously because they were buying coffee from Starbucks. However, a balance has to be struck and the feeling of a liberal cosy club must disappear. One of the things that the bourgevara lack is sincerity. This brings us back to a point made earlier about members of the left only saying what they think the modern working class want to hear. Yet, they haven’t judged that particularly well either. As Cornelius Christian states in another blog post,

“The masses do not care about the intricate and unjust institutions of state and corporate power; most of us prioritize comfort and security for ourselves and our loved ones. Until we leftists learn to accept that, we will never move forward in our endless struggle, but will forever be borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

As Niall Ferguson points out, “Defeat can be habit-forming”. The Labour party were out of power for 18 years between 1979 and 1997 where internal fighting destroyed any chance of success. If the Labour party want to gain power a repeat has to be avoided, although make no mistake, the bourgevara will put up a fight. The microphone must be reclaimed from the bourgevara quickly so that the Labour party can return to the traditional values they once held. Only then do they stand a chance at reconnecting with voters. Until the modern working class are convinced they will be represented, they will remain disconnected with the cosy club the bourgevara have made left politics become.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Newsies, an underrated classic

WARNING: this review contains SPOILERS

I first watched Newsies when I was 12, enjoying the catchy songs and electric dance routines. Viewing it thirteen years later, this musical about the 1899 Newsboys Strike is particularly relevant. Like the 19th Century newsboys, we too contend with corrupt politicians, rising inequality, and newspapers that do not report the news. Ostensibly a jovial musical, Newsies is in fact a radical critique of contemporary society, particularly the power of the press.

The plot is straightforward enough, and even formulaic. New York World publisher Joseph Pulitzer (played by Robert Duvall) seeks more profits, and raises the price newsboys pay for his papers by ten cents - effectively slashing wages. This angers the boys, who organise under the charismatic Cowboy (Christian Bale), refusing to sell papers until Pulitzer concedes to their demands. There are some wonderful songs along the way, like "Seize the Day" and "The World Will Know." As history tells us, the newsboys ultimately win.

Newsies attacks the notion that a capitalist press is an effective restraint on power. This is alluded to in Act 1, when Cowboy tells his coworker David that newspapers lie to sell copies. Yet what the papers leave out is more important than their prevarications - after a violent confrontation between the newsboys and police, no newspaper covers the incident, fearing that doing so will encourage more worker agitation. There are indeed consequences for honest reporting: New York Post journalist Byran Denton (Bill Pullman) is 'reassigned' after covering the Newsboys Strike. To get the word out, the newsies resort to publishing their own newspaper, fighting against the monsters of power.

There are ignoble dealings between newspapermen and politicians throughout the movie. Pulitzer demands that the New York mayor use force against the newsboys, dangling re-election funds before the mayor's eyes. The mayor later attends a card game with news magnates, while the New York police brutally club newsies in front of a music hall. When Pulitzer finally decides to negotiate with the strikers, he chastises their leaders for not being rational and self-interested:
PULITZER: Anyone who doesn't act in their own self-interest is a fool. 
DAVID: You talk about self-interest, but since the strike, your circulation's been down 70%. Every day you're losing thousands of dollars just to beat us out of one lousy tenth of a cent. Why? 
JACK (COWBOY): You see, it ain't about the money, Dave. If Joe [Pulitzer] gives in to nobodies like us, it means we got the power. And he can't do that, no matter what it costs. Am I right, Joe?

In light of Occupy Wall Street, the film is especially poignant. Michael Bloomberg is a modern-day Pulitzer who used the NYPD to brutally suppress the occupation, and vilified protesters in his media outlets. In some ways, we are back to the 19th Century, and working-class unification against the rich and powerful is equally important.

For parents, Newsies is a good way to open discussion about economic injustice, and why we should be skeptical about the news. It is rare that socially conscious messages are wrapped up in whimsical lyrics and energetic choreography. In the movie, Pulitzer says that "The power of the press is the greatest power of them all. I tell this city how to think. I tell this city how to vote. I shape its future." If that is not a chilling incitement to reform our economic and political system, I do not know what is.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Summers in the City

Ezra Klein has penned a laughable piece defending Larry Summers' potential appointment as Federal Reserve Chairman. Dean Baker has already repudiated Klein's claim that Summers manages crises well.

Yet I hate how this has become a Summers v. Yellen battle. Yes, Larry Summers is brilliant, but are there not other qualified candidates? The Obama administration recently expanded the search, so perhaps another name should be floated around: Joseph Stiglitz.

Stiglitz is a Nobel Prize winning public intellectual with government experience, so he has the pedigree. He is also a defender of the public interest, unlike Larry Summers; just read The Price of Inequality, a well-researched and forceful book. This makes Stiglitz credibly incorruptible, more so than Yellen or Summers. Stiglitz is unlikely to be captured by industry.

And that is also the reason his name will never be vetted. Stiglitz speaks his mind, and he cares about the public - something the Democrats' banker friends are afraid of. Stiglitz realises that the Federal Reserve is beholden to Wall Street, and he would fix it. Such people will not achieve power.