We need to get this right about what the Millennium Development Goals have achieved

It’s absolutely and gloriously true that these recent decades have seen the largest reduction in absolute poverty in the history of our species. But we need to work out why this is so, so that we can go and do more of that lovely stuff that reduces absolute poverty. And this isn’t the answer:

The millennium development goals (MDGs) have driven “the most successful anti-poverty movement in history” and brought more than a billion people out of extreme penury, but their achievements have been mixed and the world remains deeply riven by inequality, the UN’s final report on the goals has concluded.

This is not true. This is to confuse correlation with causality. The MDGs have been around for a time, yes, and they correlate with some of that reduction in poverty. But the actual decline in poverty, the one of those MGD’s that was achieved ahead of target, has not been driven by the MDGs. In fact, far from varied chuntering on at the UN being responsible for the reduction in poverty it’s been the ignoring of said chuntering that has.

The two things that have led to this vast, and highly welcome, reduction in poverty are the economic development of China and the Washington Consensus. Both, really, being governments getting out of the way and allowing the natural propensity to truck and barter to assert itself. We can in fact prove this in two ways.

The first being that the reduction in poverty hasn’t been happening where the UN has been dipping its greasy mitts, it’s been in those places that have been taking part in globalisation. Secondly, the reduction in poverty started before, predates, even the consideration of those MDGs let alone their adoption and anyone doing anything directly about them.

This matters because of course, given the success they are crowing about here, they want to make another set of goals. And the correct goal should be to do more of what worked last time, not whatever comes about as a result of the chuntering of the bureaucrats.

What did work last time is that the rich world finally started buying things made by poor people in poor countries. Thus we should do more of this: more globalisation in short. And given that the bureaucrats, the UN, and their targets had almost nothing to do with it all the best thing we should set them as targets is that they should shut up, go home, and let the rest of us get on with making our fellow humans richer.

As we have been and as we’ll all continue to do as long as no one interferes.

Five reasons to hate Sunday trading laws

  1. They’re inconsistent and arbitrary. If you’re a waiter, factory worker, nurse, construction worker, taxi driver, bus driver, security guard, journalist or even a retail worker at a small shop you can and often do work at any time on Sundays. The places that have to close at 6pm are ‘big’ shops. Bizarrely, ‘big’ is defined as being 281 square metres or bigger. That doesn’t make much sense and any argument that retail workers are ‘protected’ by Sunday trading laws would also imply that all those other workers are being exploited.
  2. Life isn’t nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday, any more. Not that it ever was, really. Sunday trading laws inconvenience people who haven’t had time to buy their groceries during the rest of the week, and force them to rely on expensive local shops instead of cheaper supermarkets with more choice. For example, I like to do my shopping at my local Lidl. If I spend Sunday afternoon in the park with my friends instead of doing my shopping, and I need to buy something for that evening’s dinner, I have to pay twice the price for a smaller range of inferior products at the Tesco Express down the road instead. That’s annoying. If I had a family to feed, it would be expensive.
  3. The high street – and probably even small shops – will be better off. When Sunday trading laws were suspended during the Olympics, sales outside of London increased by 6.2%. They only increased by 2.8% inside London, probably because people were warned off the crowds. That’s good for smaller retailers too – no self-respecting retailer wants to exist just because her competitors are banned from trading, and more people out shopping means more customers to go round for everyone. They don’t seem to have suffered during the Olympics suspension. If you’re worried about online retailers destroying the high street, this is one way to level the playing field.
  4. Workers will have more hours available. It’s easy to talk about ‘protecting’ workers by stopping them from working on Sundays. But what about the ones that want to work then? Employers often end up having to pay workers more to work on Sundays – if you don’t think Sundays are sacred and want to earn a little more cash, the end of Sunday trading restrictions is good news for you. (Back when I was a teenage McDonald’s crew member, Sunday hours were a godsend.)
  5. Lots of people actually like shopping. It’s very common to enjoy trips to the high street or the shopping centre with some friends. If you are interested in food, big grocery stores like Waitrose, Asda and Whole Foods can be interesting places to explore. Browsing clothes shops and buying new things can be really fun. I’ve seen lots of people sneer at this on Twitter, and no doubt it’s terribly gauche, but government shouldn’t be in the business of forcing snobs’ tastes on the rest of us. Some of us actually like consumerism.

Which aid is worthwhile?

In the second edition of “How to Win Every Argument” I introduce 12 new fallacies, one of which is the False Zero Sum Game.  This is the fallacy of supposing something to be in fixed supply when it is not.  Some suppose that if some countries are to grow richer, others must become poorer.  In fact wealth is not in fixed supply; it can be created.

Another fallacy I did not include is the inverse of this one, where people suppose an unlimited supply of something limited.  Given that countries will not allocate the whole of their GDP to foreign aid, a limited aid budget is available.  The question is “How can it be spent most effectively?”  One answer is that supplied by the Copenhagen Consensus established by Bjorn Lomborg.  Distinguished economists meet every 4 years to assess how to prioritize limited funds.  Its rigour has earned it a reputation for fairness.

In an article published a year ago, Matt Ridley described how Lomborg handed the UN Open Working Group slips of paper representing worthwhile projects and had them place them in order of priority.  They were startled, coming from a mindset that “everything is important.”  Lomborg then had 60 economists calculate the cost-effectiveness of different targets, and list their likely benefits:

1.  Every dollar spent on reducing malnutrition yields $59 in benefits.  Better fed, children’s learning improves and they become more productive members of society.

2.  A dollar spent combating malaria and tuberculosis brings $35 in gains.  These diseases cause sickness that reduces the ability to do productive work.

3.  A dollar spent fighting HIV brings $11 in returns, and so on.

By contrast, each dollar spent on programmes to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius brings only 2 cents in benefits.

In his article Ridley lists his own top priorities, adding boosting preprimary education, which he suggests might return $30 per dollar spent.  He suggests that universal access to sexual and reproductive health would save mothers’ lives and lower birthrates, yielding perhaps $150 per dollar spent on it.  Finally Ridley suggests that expanding free trade could deliver “phenomenal improvements to the welfare of the poor in surprisingly quick time.”  “A successful Doha Round of the WTO could deliver annual benefits of $3 trillion for the developing world by 2020, rising to $100 trillion by the end of the century.”

It is a rewarding discipline to compare the effectiveness of different projects, and to explore which ones would do most good with the limited funds.  It has the potential to make aid more effective at achieving worthwhile goals.

Some people just don’t understand what capitalism is

Another one of those delightful whingefests over at The Guardian. The mobile phone means that, what with texts and emails and the like, we are all on call all the time. This is not though, the fault of the tech, but of capitalism:

The problem is not tech: it’s capitalism. Admitting the real source of the problem creates an opportunity to address it. Capitalism has adroitly managed to evade responsibility and neatly slip its leash, but we should be able to exercise greater critical thinking than that and bring it to heel. Capitalism and tech are deeply intertwined, of course, but let’s not confuse the two.

Yes indeed, let’s not confuse the two. So, what actually is capitalism? No, it’s not just a compendium of all that Guardianistas hate. It’s not even a solid description of our own current society. What it actually is is a description of who owns the productive assets in a society: the capitalists or some other group of people? And do the capitalists own all said productive assets? Nope: so we’re not even in a fully capitalist society.

It’s capitalism that took advantage of this opportunity to work it, turning it into something that could be used to control employees and keep them constantly within arm’s reach. The person who refuses to be constantly available or who exercises discretion in terms of the kind of work performed after hours won’t last long at a company and certainly won’t advance in terms of salary and rank.

There are decidedly non-capitalist organisations in our society. All of government for example. The NHS, John Lewis, the Co Op, the remaining Building Societies and so on. All lawyers (they’re partnerships, not capitalist organisations) and on and on. It wouldn’t be out of order top insist that some 50% of our society is not currently capitalist.

At which point we need to ask: well, are those non-capitalist parts of the society subject to the same texts and out of hours emails? It would seem that they are: therefore it’s not capitalism causing all of this, is it?

Unless, of course, one is writing for The Guardian where capitalism is simply the moniker for everything and anything one wants to whinge about.

There might even be real problems with capitalism, could well be real problems with tech: but let’s not confuse the two, eh?

Regulating away Britain’s best teachers

The latest report from The Sutton Trust (pdf) looks at a topic it last visited in 2003: how the backgrounds of state school teachers compare to those of independent school teachers. Its finding is that there is still a significant difference between the proportion of teachers at state and independent schools that have studied at the UK’s best universities. Independent school teachers were also found to be the most likely to have a degree in the main subject that they teach.

Here is the percentage of all teachers who attended a Russel Group University, by post-A level qualification:

 

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Most people would expect this result. But what is more surprising, yet garners less attention, is that the heavily-regulated environment of state education hinders its flexibility to hire the same, or better, quality of teachers as independent schools.

There is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that the lack of formal requirements for teachers entering the independent sector actually encourages, rather than discourages, applications from graduates of some of the UK’s leading universities, because top applicants wish to enter the teaching sector immediately, rather than pursuing further qualifications.

State schools in England, Wales and Scotland are required to be registered with the NCTL and their General Teaching Councils, respectively. Private schools are free of this requirement and can hire applicants with specialist subject knowledge that want to teach soon after they leave their field of expertise.

In independent schools, teachers are not required to have Qualified Teacher Status, which, according to Elliott Lockhart’s 2010 survey “has led some to portray teachers in the independent sector as unregulated, unaccountable and lacking the necessary professional preparation that would make them fit to teach.”

As we know from the report and our general experience of the private education market, this is far from the case and actually strengthens the choice of employees that independent schools benefit from. For Scotland, this is particularly concerning as we are about to enact a law (see a recent Telegraph article about it here) making independent schools subject to the same requirements as state schools. So we would practically have no schools not subject to these restrictions.

Right now Scottish independent schools, like is the case in all of the UK’s constituent parts, take advantage of teachers registered outside of Scotland and this legislation would prevent that. On top of this, the Scottish government also doesn’t engage with Teach First; a programme that is injecting fresh talent into schools in England and Wales and is one of the reasons, judging by the teacher background metric, that state schools have been catching up with independent schools in the last 12 years.

Scottish politicians should reject the Education (Scotland) Bill as private schools are the perfect testing ground for trying out what works and doesn’t work. Subjecting them to the same rules as state schools will impede progress and diminish their autonomy – they’re independent for a reason.