Killing the case for comprehensive schools

Interesting new research rather kills the case for comprehensive schools - by killing off the underlying assumption made about children, society and academic success.

That underlying assumption is that the children are a tabula rasa. A blank slate which is then written upon by their education, perhaps also their socio-economic status. Danny Dorling, for example, has been most insistent that anyone could become a Professor of Social Geography, himself being a prime example of the contention, anyone has. This is not so:

However, once we controlled for factors involved in pupil selection, there were no significant genetic differences between school types, and the variance in exam scores at age 16 explained by school type dropped from 7% to <1%. These results show that genetic and exam differences between school types are primarily due to the heritable characteristics involved in pupil admission.

Intelligence - and let's side step the discussion of what that actually is - is heritable. Note that this doesn't mean that there aren't poor bright children, nor rich dullards, no one who has actually been to a school of any type would try to dismiss the existence of both.  What it does mean though is that equal education for all is still not going to lead to equal outcomes. And different education for all isn't going to change, except perhaps at the margin, outcomes.

At which point the argument for comprehensive education disappears, based as it is upon that tabula rasa argument. 

We could hope that this will therefore change attitudes and policy towards the school system. We'd not hold our breath over that given that the entrenched positions just aren't being driven by the science:

Educational achievement, and its relationship with socioeconomic background, is one of the enduring issues in educational research. The influential Coleman Report1 concluded that schools themselves did little to affect a student’s academic outcomes over and above what the students themselves brought to them to school—‘the inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighbourhood and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront adult life at the end of school’ (p. 325). Over the intervening 50 years,

We've known this for half a century but it's not changed policy has it? 

Our own view on the subject is really very simple. We are, after all, liberals. Children are a parent's most precious possession, they're actually what we do this whole struggle of life for. And, as with anything else, in the absence of significant third party damage people get to do as they wish. So, the school system should be what parents desire. Not parents desire as filtered through the tyranny of the majority,  but what parents desire for their own children. Subject, perhaps, to gentle oversight to weed out the Wackford Squeers but no more than that.

That is, we support the one solution that absolutely no one at all in the debate seems interested in.

It's amazing how everything, just everything, argues for an increase in the NHS budget

As we all know the National Health Service is the modern religion of Britain. As with any other religion it depends upon certain untested assumptions, ones which never should be argued over or tested in polite society. That one about it being the Wonder of the World amuses given that near no one else has tried to copy it. And the reaction among foreigners to that Olympics show was mystification rather than anything else. Sure, the British have hospitals and so do Bjorn, Hans, Jose and Hank. And?

Part of this religious backing is that whatever happens it is always an argument for an increased budget for the NHS. As with other religions of course. Plagues are upon the land, sacrifice another virgin. Plagues are not upon the land, sacrifice a virgin, the Sun has risen, sacrifice a virgin. With the NHS that it's Monday is an argument to be used for a greater budget. As is, remarkably, the existence of new treatments which will reduce costs to the NHS an argument for an increased budget:

Drugs to vaccinate everyone over the age of 50 against Alzheimer’s could be available within 10 years, but would cost the NHS £9 billion, a new report has shown.

New analysis commissioned by Alzheimer’s Research UK found that drugs to halt, slow or reverse the disease could be available in as little as three years with major vaccine and screening programmes possible within a decade.

A vaccine is the mechanisation of the previously treatment regime of being able to do nothing but basic personal care. Mechanisation of a task, as we've been showing this past 250 years, is cheaper than not mechanising it. Being able to inject people against Alzheimer's is going to be vastly cheaper than caring for people with the disease for up to a decade. 

The cost to the NHS of doing this is therefore going to be negative, not positive. As when aspirin replaced the temple wash with a cool cloth as a treatment for headaches.

The existence of such new drugs is an argument in favour of cutting the NHS budget not increasing it. Not that we expect rational responses to religious phenomena of course.



Sure, why not make social media like Wikipedia?

The basic idea here we're not just fine with we support it entirely. The tactics to gain it we're less enamoured of. Sure, why shouldn't social media be run as Wikipedia is? Why should, in that basic and essential sense, it be something produced by capitalist organisations?

But there are also ways to create alternatives from the bottom up. Governments and regulators could foster the conditions in which alternative networks with more democratic foundations could flourish.

One way to do this is to increase transparency and public participation around rule-making for digital platforms. For an example of what this means, we can look to Wikipedia. It has its problems, but it is a remarkable example of how to make decisions as a community, rather than a company. The method by which articles on Wikipedia are produced is governed by a set of rules that have been determined collectively, over time. There are arguments, there is consensus, and there is everything in between – all of which is documented for anyone to see.

Compare this with Facebook’s decree that its news feed would prioritise personal stories over media content, without any apparent indication that it considered the impact on journalism. Or its equally clunky attempt to survey users about who should decide whether child-grooming content should be permitted on the platform.

The Facebook executive team is clearly unaccustomed to managing democratic processes and genuine community collaboration. 

Note that Wikipedia didn't in fact need any changes from governments or regulators to foster anything. And they rather successfully saw off the challenges from more capitalist alternatives like Britannica or Encarta.

If people are unhappy with the gelt and pilf seeking ways of Facebook why not go off and do something else? Those annoyed with what they perceive as the right on attitudes of Twitter have made Something of variable interest to the rest of us to be sure but it exists.

Our point here is simply our basic and complete liberalism writ small for this sector of the economy. Great, consenting adults get on with it, why not? If enough people share your desires then you'll be able to create just those communities not infected with data sales that you desire. If the 2 billion current users of Facebook think the deal on offer to them is just fine then you won't. And the only way we'll find out which people prefer is to watch which they choose.

As long as you're not insisting upon any particular privilege for your method of doing it - that's the tactics part we disagree with - then good luck to all who sail in such adventures. We're not even being flippant, this is the only way we'll ever find out what it is that people do want.

We think Michael Sheen's doing just fine here

We tend not to pay much attention to what luvvies decide to worry about in their own time. They are, after all, hired to read out the words of others rather than think for themselves. However, we are right behind Michael Sheen in his concerns here. Not in what he's actually concerned about, but in the method he's decided to use to express said concern

Michael Sheen has decided to scale back his acting career to devote himself to campaigning against high-interest credit providers, like Wonga and BrightHouse, and working to find fairer alternative sources of credit.

He will begin his new undertaking on Tuesday in Glasgow, where he will launch the End High Cost Credit Alliance, a campaign group of politicians, charities and tech companies he has brought together, working to promote more affordable ways of borrowing money. His dedication to tackling problem debt has been inspired by witnessing difficulties faced by friends in the Welsh town of Port Talbot where he grew up, a region struggling with the decline of the local steel industry.

As indicated, we don't share the worry. But we do like the method:

....he decided to focus on promoting more ethical and cheaper alternative providers of instant credit.

These exist already, but lack the investment that companies like Wonga have, so aren’t advertising on daytime television and Facebook, and are not widely known. His campaign group’s manifesto promises: “We will back fair finance providers, equipping them with the resources to compete and win against high-cost credit providers.”

He's putting his money where his mouth is, always something to be applauded. But more than that, he's going out there to explore the market options of providing what people desire - that access to cash in times of trouble - in a more efficient and thus lower cost manner. Ain't that great? 

Changing the world in your desired direction through market competition. We approve, thoroughly.

A New Export Strategy? More like Déjà Vu

The Department for International Trade (DIT) began life in 1999 as 'British Trade International' and in 2003 became 'UK Trade & Investment' (UKTI). The two parent departments, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for Business and Anything Else had long squabbled over their mutual responsibilities but BIS got custody until Brexit moved international trade up the Downing Street agenda and UKTI became the DIT.

This week the DIT did not publish a UK export strategy, new or otherwise, but rather the terms of reference for some enquiries intended to lead, sometime this year, to something like that. The DIT has had a lot on its plate, so it is understandable that exports, one of Brexit's key raisons d'être, should have to wait nearly two years before starting to think about them...

These terms of reference are strikingly Whitehall centred. Both the Minister, Baroness Fairhead, and DIT civil servants are going to talk with other departments and then the Minister will 'engage closely with businesses and partners.' Apparently government will now 'allow businesses to benefit from growth opportunities, generating wealth and prosperity for the whole of the UK.' That word 'allow' tells its own tale.

In a similar vein, 'DIT has a range of products and services,' which include 'securing market access for British companies.' Yes, in some markets, trade barriers have to be knocked down at DIT level but the vast majority of exports are achieved by the companies themselves. The terms of reference acknowledge that government support might be improved but the conclusion of this section is that DIT services are fine. British businesses are aware of them.

I have tried to use the DIT digital advisory system and the results were ludicrous. Gin is now made in many parts of the UK, including East Anglia, so I claimed to be a gin manufacturer hoping to export. The system did not recognise gin as a commodity. It asked a whole series of questions to which no neophyte exporter could possibly have sensible answers and then recommended I contact various hasion and beauty retailers and an EU chain of shoe shops.

The DIT is asking businesses these seven questions:

  1. How should government differentiate its support for difference sizes of firm?
  2. How should government prioritise its support across different business sectors and overseas markets?
  3. How should government change its mix of products and services to help businesses achieve a sustained increase in exports?
  4. How should government work with regional and private sector export support to deliver a more joined-up offer for business?
  5. What should government do to increase capacity and capability in the private sector, particularly at a UK regional level?
  6. How should government charge for the services it offers?
  7. Do you have any other comments that you would like DIT to take into account?

There is really only one answer to the first five: government should only do what only government can do. It is incapable of providing digital exporting advice and linkages, so it should stop trying to do so. In the last 18 years, DIT and its predecessors have made extravagant claims for their ambitions and achievements but, overall, those claims have not been substantiated by export performance.

That said, the DIT rightly has its supporters. Trade missions can work well and anything that links British potential exporters personally with relevant foreign importers can be valuable. The word 'personally' is crucial also for UK based on-the-ground export advisors, many of whom are excellent. My quarrel is not with those in the field but with HQ where there is so little realism. How many DIT HQ staff have themselves actually ever exported?

Where governments are involved, the DIT clearly must be too. That means big contracts and big exporters. On the other hand, there is little that the UK part of the DIT can do for small and medium-sized exporters that the British Chambers of Commerce could not do better (and cheaper).

Overseas posts do not get so much as a mention in the new terms of reference and yet they are the most important part of this whole puzzle. Exports are determined by what foreigners will agree to buy, not what British firms are prepared to sell. Good oveseas posts are ace at making these introductions but many are not. The heads of those posts are FCO staffers, some of whom consider trade a little vulgar.

Starting again with a new export strategy could prove far more successful than carrying on as before but the Minister will have to be imaginative and bold. Let's hope she will be.


The horrors of overpopulation and urbanisation

Over in The Guardian John Vidal tells us of the horrors of continued population growth and urbanisation. As ever with John Vidal on matters environmental the horrors are ill-informed. The mistake being that usual one of not noting that the problem being complained of is already solved.

If population growth continues unabated, if urbanisation continues at recent rates then yes, we would end up with 100 million people conurbations. But the one precludes the other, rather an important point to note really:

Under the researchers’ extreme scenario – where countries are unable to control fertility rates and urbanisation continues apace – within 35 years more than 100 cities will have populations larger than 5.5 million people. By 2100, say the authors, the world’s population centers will have shifted to Asia and Africa, with only 14 of the 101 largest cities in Europe or the Americas.

The point to note being that urbansiation in and of itself controls fertility. This is a rather well known fact. Out in that idiocy of rural life there's not a great deal to do of an evening except bed but more importantly children rapidly become an economic asset. Humans tend to increase the number of economic assets they have access to. In urban settings children are costs for many more years. Humans tend to reduce the number of economic costs they are subject to.

Urban fertility rates are lower, substantially so, than rural. More than this, death rates of children, of all in fact, are higher in the foetid slums being predicted than they are out in the country. London, as one example, had negative population growth absent continued immigration from the countryside for many centuries.

It's simply not possible for us to have rural fertility and survival rates, therefore population growth, in these growing urban centres. And the worse the cities are are then the less possible this is. 

An impossible future is a strange thing to be worrying us all with, isn't it? But then John Vidal on matters's a matter of great amusement to find that The Guardian, on the same day, makes this very point in another article:

 Despite appearances, cities are not the cause of rising human numbers. In fact, they are the solution. People in cities almost everywhere tend to have fewer children than their compatriots in rural areas. The average woman in Kenya has 4.3 children, whereas those living in the capital, Nairobi, have just 2.7. In India the average is 2.4 children, but in Delhi it’s just 1.6 and in Mumbai 1.4. That’s lower than London, where the average is 1.72.

Ah, yes, John Vidal....

Prices don't lie, even about art

Something that all too often needs reiterating - prices are information. Not only are they not just random numbers assigned that we can change at will, they're information we should be using to guide our decisions. So it is, yea even with respect to art and artists:

The head of a leading arts organisation has warned that London’s status as a world-class creative city is at risk because artists are being forced out of the capital.

Anna Harding, the chief executive of Space studios, which provides premises for nearly 800 artists including three Turner prize winners, blamed rising property prices and shrinking studios for dramatically squeezing the time and space available for creative activity. Artists now face a choice between working full time to pay the rent and fitting in a few hours in their studios at weekends, or giving up entirely, she said.

It's entirely possible that London's status as a leading creative city is important to some. But the evidence we've got here is not important enough, or not important to enough people. For consider what this price information is actually telling us.

That the property currently - or in the past perhaps - being used as artist studios now has greater value being used to do something else. That's why rents are higher in those alternative uses. Or, the same information, rents are higher than artistry can pay.

OK, shrug, that's just the universe telling us that we'll all be richer if those properties are turned over to such alternative uses. Note that this information isn't saying that we should or should not support the arts, that landlords should or should not preferentially treat such studios. It's entirely neutral information. Art doesn't pay enough to cover the costs of the inputs into it. 

Arts and culture contribute about £11.8bn to the UK economy, according to the Arts Council,

Super. But we've that evidence that art doesn't cover the costs of the inputs into it. We might have turnover therefore but we've actually got value subtraction. Not enough people value the output enough to cover the costs of doing it.

What we do about that is up to us, but we really should be using that information the price system is giving us, for that's rather the point of having the price system in the first place.

Russian people and the Russian state are not the same thing at all

Dame Margaret, Lady Hodge, has always been quite remarkable in her ability not to quite understand the subject under discussion. She's not failing us now:

The monstrous attempted murders in Salisbury, allegedly authorised by the Russian state, were shocking. Expelling diplomats, limiting attendance at the World Cup, and orchestrating international condemnation through the UN and Nato are good symbolic gestures. But they will not stop Russian state-inspired terrorism taking place in the UK.

Wouldn’t it be far more effective to clamp down on Russian use of Britain as a safe haven for illegal wealth? Britain has become the jurisdiction of choice for kleptocrats, crooks and money launderers – including Russians – because of our weak regulatory framework, shrouded in secrecy and very lightly policed.

The important point being that the interests of the Russian people in Britain and those of the Russian state are, here at least, diametrically opposed. The UK is indeed a safe haven of legality and property rights. Which is why people from places with less than perfect records on either shift assets or themselves to our sceptered isle.  

That they do so, that they can do so, thus limits the depredations those less civilly free states can make into the fortunes or freedoms of their own citizens. Not just because money outside their borders is more difficult to snatch, but because the mere possibility of more moving limits ambition.

Cracking down upon the ability of Russians to move to, or send money to, the UK increases the power of that Russian state over Russians. That's really not what Dame Margaret is intending so why is Lady Hodge doing so? Ah, yes, that ability to understand the subject under discussion.

Failing to understand the NHS's problem

Another of these attempts to diagnose what is wrong with the NHS and then fix it. Failing, as usual, because it's looking at the wrong thing. For example, let's do this:

We suggest the following principles should apply to sourcing new revenue for the NHS and care system. A new tax base for the gig economy needs to be created. The older population should pay a fairer share of the costs. Lifestyles costly to the NHS and care system should exact a premium. And tax-reduction schemes should be tackled.

Our suggestions adhere to these principles. The UK-derived sales revenue for Amazon, Google, eBay and Apple was some £29.4bn in 2016-17 (according to our analysis of their published data). Yet very little tax is paid. A 10% revenue tax on UK sales would yield £2.4bn minimally. Revenue in these companies has achieved double-digit annual growth, and the tax take would rise in parallel.

Three hundred thousand retired people receiving a pension are higher rate taxpayers; they are relatively well-off. Yet they also receive winter fuel allowance and other state benefits. If they did not receive basic state pension or winter fuel allowance, £1.95bn a year would be generated annually, which would also be index linked.

A turnover tax like that is akin to a VAT. It's the consumers, us, who pay it, not those companies nor their shareholders. And seriously? People who have paid in for 40 years for their pension won't get it just because they're rich b*stards?

But much more than that they're looking at how to increase the revenue available, not at the important thing:

Moreover, in themselves they will not reduce by much the unrelenting increase in demand that the health and care system will face over the next two decades. The approximate annual cost of that demand increase is in the region of a 3-4% annual real-terms increase in funding. 

It's not just the next two decades though, is it? The NHS has near always had a higher inflation rate than the rest of the economy. Meaning that, unhindered, it will eventually become the entire economy. That's the serious problem that needs solving. Whatever we do in this short term, the NHS simply must become more efficient. That means more internal markets and less central planning as that's how efficiency is improved.

Sure, the NHS isn't perfect and certainly we can make it better. But increasing the fire hose of money isn't the way to do it, improving the NHS itself is.

If Singapore is market socialism then hurrah for market socialism

Matt Bruenig is an American and also one of those rarities, a thinking man of the political left. That doesn't mean he's right, far from it, but perhaps that he does manage to ask interesting questions.

For example, he's been asking well, how capitalist is Singapore? There are a number of state owned firms, much of the land is owned by government and so on. Is this not therefore more a case of market socialism? 

We've said a number of times that we're really not all that worried about socialism as against capitalism. We've no preference at all between John Lewis and Debenham's for example. As long as everything is taking place inside a free market then we're just fine. Including that free market in the form and ownership of the participating organisations. We have preferences of course, but the existence of a workers' co-op produces no fear.

Scott Sumner provides part of the answer:

If I'm right that Singapore is functionally capitalist, then this sort of "market socialism" is not likely to lead to any of the other goals that socialists may have in mind. Thus, for instance, Singapore has a rather unequal distribution of income. Companies are run for the benefit of shareholders, not workers. Singapore may not be a libertarian ideal, but it even further from being a socialist ideal.

We'd really only argue with the use of "capitalist" there. We insist that free markets make places richer - and the people in them. Singapore has the world's third highest GDP per capita by PPP. If that's what people mean by market socialism then great, let's at least talk about having it. That talk being us shouting very loudly indeed that it's the market part of the system which is working.