Media & Culture

This shows that Britons are significantly more generous than their government

An ever so slightly puzzling piece over in The Guardian. Telling us that we Britons are hugely well off by any historical or global standard, something which is true, and therefore perhaps we have a moral duty to spread some of our good fortune to those less fortunate. Also quite possibly true. We ourselves suggest buying things made by poor people in poor countries, this being what will make them richer. But we certainly have no problem whatsoever with the idea that you, we or anyone else might wish to simply send money to alleviate poverty or other human suffering.

What puzzles is this though:

If, in your ideal world, rich people and corporations such as Amazon and Google would pay more tax, and you believe it’s the government’s job to redistribute resources, it is hard to feel enthusiastic when charities pick up the slack created by cuts. Church-run food banks may have been appropriate in 1816 or 1916, but not now.

The collapse of Kids Company showed such concerns to be valid: with her brown envelopes of cash, Camila Batmanghelidjh oversaw a shadow benefits system on a personality-driven model far preferred by rightwing ideologues to the boring old state.

Well, we'd rather take issue with the idea that Kid's Company was a creation of the rightwing. But that's by the by. A centre left captivated by the idea that throwing money at something was more important than checking what was being achieved quite possibly.

In 1970 the UN set a target of 0.7% of GDP that economically advanced countries should give in development assistance. Sweden, Norway and others beat the UK to it, but last year this commitment was enshrined in British law. Just 12% of individual British donations go to charities working abroad, but it is striking that the UK’s aid budget of around £11bn is close to the total amount donated by individuals each year.

For a person on the median full-time salary of £27,000, 0.7% of their untaxed income equates to £15.75 a month, a couple of pounds more than what the Charities Aid Foundation calls a “typical” gift. On average, then, and if we regard the aid budget as a form of state charity, British people are a bit less generous than their government.

No, that last line is simply not correct. The government takes some £11 billion a year from our pockets and spends it on whatever foreign japes it thinks makes sense. This is not generosity at all: spending other peoples' money on other people does not come under that title. We Britons then dig into our pockets for near another £11 billion a year to send to things that actually have some effect in relieving poverty and other human afflictions.

That is, we are significantly more "generous" than the government, but only if it isn't the government spending the money. Given what the government does spend that money on probably quite rightly so too. Why, we might even suggest cancelling that official budget, returning the cash to the citizenry, and see how much better the little platoons can spend it.

Sometimes we despair over this gender pay gap thing


So the Women and Equalities Committee has released its report on the gender pay gap:

The 19.2% gender pay gap that exists in the UK is much more than an equality issue. It represents a significant loss to UK productivity which must be addressed in the face of an ageing workforce, a skills crisis and the need for a more competitive economy. There is a clear case that tackling the underlying causes of the gender pay gap can increase productivity, address skills shortages and improve the performance of individual organisations.

It boggles that anyone could say that. Productivity is the measure of the value of output from an hour's work measured against the cost of employing someone for an hour. Thus the lower the pay on offer, holding output static, the higher the productivity is. The claim here is that women earn less than men but are as productive. The gender pay gap therefore increases UK productivity by the amount that women are paid less for their output than men are.

Fortunately the committee does get told the truth:

Professor The Baroness Wolf of Dulwich, from King’s College, London, told us there was little evidence that direct discrimination is a major factor in the gender pay gap today. However, she did acknowledge that discrimination had been an issue for older women in the past:

Among people under 40, in comparable jobs, with comparable time in the workplace, there is no evidence of continuing gender discrimination in pay. Among cohorts over 40, and especially those now over 50, we can still observe the impact of having started work in more ‘discriminatory’ times, but this is a carry-over.

Their major focus in this report was the pay gap for women over 40. That is part of the answer, this is the other part:

The Institute of Directors and Chris Giles suggested that, as younger, better educated women move through the system, we should see the gender pay gap fall. Mr Giles pointed to evidence that:

There is a generational shift … Women in their 20s closed the full-time pay gap in about 2004; in 2012, by the time they reached their 30s, it had disappeared. It has halved for women in their 40s since the data series began in 1997. In contrast, there has been no significant improvement for working women over 50.

That really is the answer. There most certainly used to be discrimination against women in career choice, working options after childbirth, education and so on. We've made the changes to society that take care of those: all we're doing now is waiting to see those changes pass through society along with the age cohorts. We're done.

Oddly enough it's a Guardian column that manages to get this right. There is still, even after all that education, change in social attitudes and so on, a pay gap. But it's not caused by employers at all:

Take a glance at the British Social Attitudes survey, and it might seem as if the British public still supports the traditional family model. But look more closely, and it’s clear that change is coming. When asked whether they agree with the statement: “A man’s job is to earn money; a woman’s job is to look after the home and family”, only 4% of men and women aged 18 to 25 agreed. There was little difference between the genders. Attitudes toward parental leave reveal a similar change. Asked whether paid leave should be divided between the mother and father, 44% of those aged 18 to 25, and 26% of those aged 26 to 35, agreed that it should, compared with just 13% of over-65s. Yes, baby boomers, your kids turned out all right. But we can’t start celebrating just yet.

The current ability to share parental leave comes from an analysis we published here: we know who picked it up, ran with it in policy circles and thus it became law. So we feel rather proprietorial about this point. Currently some majority of the population have those gendered opinions on who should be running the household and who should be providing for it. Our own opinion is that this isn't unusual in a mammalian species but we're perfectly happy with the idea that those attitudes will change at some time. It might well be this coming millennial generation that changes. Currently mothers earn about 10% less than non-mothers for each child they have. Fathers seem to earn (after adjusting for age and all that) some 6-8% more than non-fathers. American research shows that there is no pay gap for those with equal and equivalent familial duties. Primary carers of either sex earn less than primary providers of either sex.

If this is a problem then so be it, declare it to be a problem. But the solution is not in law nor is it with employers. It's with the attitudes toward family life of the population. And as the good little liberals we are we're entirely happy that people get to live their lives as they wish, make the decisions they wish to make. And if those decisions change then so be it.

As we have been saying for a decade now, and when we started saying it it was a very lonely thing to be saying, there are differences in the gross pay of men and women in the UK. The cause is not discrimination by the State, employers or the society at large, but discrimination by those who have children and how they wish to raise them. We might call it a caring pay gap, a motherhood pay gap, a child pay gap, but it is no longer a gender pay gap. We don't regard this as a problem that needs solving, you might. But given that this is the cause the only solution is however people decide to raise their children, something that's really rather up to them we feel.

So we don't need the BBC any more then?


We're being told that the BBC is really on a roll with their drama productions:

Whether it is down to Tom Hiddleston’s clean-cut good looks, John Le Carre’s scintillating plot, or the cinematic qualities afforded by its blockbuster £20 million budget, the show is a bona fide hit, to the delight of executives at Broadcasting House, the BBC’s central London headquarters.

Following hot on the heels of War and Peace, another lavishly-funded Sunday night epic, the corporation is currently enjoying a purple patch in drama, which insiders credit to a decision by Lord Hall of Birkenhead, the director-general, to raid tens of millions of pounds from the budgets of other departments, funnelling licence fee cash into the genre.

Super, isn't it lovely that the taxpayer is getting something for their scalping? However, not that this is what they think they're saying, even the BBC agrees that this is no longer necessary:

Lord Hall describes it as a “flight to quality”, and says that the corporation cannot hope to match the spending of an organisation such as Netflix, which plans to spend $5 billion (£3.5 billion) on original commissions this year.

“We can’t win against a Netflix or an Amazon, because their budgets are just so much bigger,” he says.

The argument in favour of the, or even a, BBC is that it provides something the market unadorned cannot or will not. Might be the scale, might be the type, but something that competition will just not produce. And here we have the BBC stating that not only can that market produce those goods, they produce them better than the BBC does.

At which point there is no argument for the BBC to be doing these things, is there? Or, perhaps, any things?

In which we doff our cap to Chris Snowdon of the IEA


Applause here for Chris Snowdon, one of those fighting the good fight over at the IEA.

The chairman of the Charity Commission has been accused of actively helping a leading critic of charities who inspired a controversial new law curbing their activities.

Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that William Shawcross urged a trustee on his commission to meet Christopher Snowdon, head of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), a free-market thinktank that receives funding from big tobacco and has taken money from at least two oil company giants in the past. Snowdon is the author of a 2012 discussion paper, Sock Puppets: How the Government Lobbies Itself and Why, which argued that government grants should not be used by charities to lobby politicians, as this meant that “government funds the lobbying of itself”.

IEA research was used by the government to justify a new “anti-advocacy clause” that will be inserted into all government grants for charities, prohibiting the money from being spent on lobbying.

The whole piece really needs to be read as it's a just staggering piece of nonsense. For example, that one of the people involved might not be fully signed up to the idea that climate change is an immediate and catastrophic problem is dragged in to prove to all right thinking people that any and every of his other views must be wrong.

On a more basic level of course this is exactly what think tanks should be doing and what we all do do to the best of our ability. Identify what we think is a problem in the current state of things and propose a solution. As an example, a decade ago here we started pointing out that we don't in fact have low wage poverty in the UK. We have tax poverty: the taxes charged to those on low incomes are too high and this is what creates that poverty that people so bitterly complain about. A decade later it is government policy (and it appeared in three of the four manifestos of parties which won over 5% of the vote last general election) to raise the personal allowance to levels where those we might regard as being in poverty no longer pay income tax. not the entire solution but a good start.

So too here with Chris Snowdon and the sock puppets. As he's identified there really are groups out there who live on taxpayer money and whose only activity is to lobby government for changes in the law. This shouldn't happen and the law is changing to make sure that it doesn't.


And there's a delicious irony in what those sock puppets are now complaining about. They are complaining that Chris and the IEA informed government and thus changed policy. The very thing that they insist they should be allowed to do but obviously not Chris and the IEA be allowed to do. That's the sort of argument that really should be met with a staccato burst of ripe Anglo Saxonisms.

Understanding why the press is generally pro-Brexit


That the British press is generally pro-Brexit is true. But as so often The Guardian manages to take the wrong lesson from this observation:

In 1975, the last time the UK went to the polls over the issue of EU membership, the yes vote won by a very comfortable margin – 67.2% to 32.8%. On that occasion, however, the entire national press was vociferously in support of staying in. The Daily Express, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, Times, Guardian, Sun, Mirror and Financial Times all spoke with one voice: it must be “yes”.

Those committed to keeping Britain in the EU can only dream of such a day this time. While most of the papers are yet to formally declare their position, Europhiles can confidently count on a much smaller number of supportive front pages on newsstands on 23 June.

The mistake is to think that newspapers (or other media outlets) lead or form public opinion. That's not what they do at all: they follow it. It is not true that the highly paid staff of the Daily Mail believe that everything either causes or cures cancer, nor that everything including cancer affects house prices. It's that they believe that's what their readership think and or are interested in.

So it is with more political things such as British membership or not of the European Union. Newspaper editors simply are not pondering the subject and then thinking about what they should persuade their readership of. Instead, they're trying very hard to work out what it is that their readership already believes and then pander to those beliefs. As the above notes, they got it largely right in 1975. The majority of the country was pro-EU and so was the majority of Fleet Street. Similarly The Sun does not consider the relevant manifestos before plumping for Labour or Tory. Instead, it tries to work out what the readership of that paper is likely to vote for.

So it is now: the papers can see that there's rather more opposition to the EU than there used to be and are thus trying to get out in front of their own market.

Please do note that we are not calling this one way or the other: nor, despite the well known views of some of us are here here advising either way. This is simply an observation about how the media works. They attempt, as best they can, to reflect the beliefs they think their market already holds. Thus some majority of them being pro-Brexit means, and this is all it means, that those running those newspapers think that some substantial portion of the population is pro-Brexit.

Standing has not been the cause of most football stadium disasters


The main—close to the entire—case for the English & Welsh government's ban on standing terraces in football stadia in the top two tiers is that standing is unsafe, pointing particularly to disasters where many lost their lives. Previously, I pointed out that standing in seated areas (which is an accepted part of the current system) has its own risks. Here I want to point out that many of the worst footballing disasters have not been associated with standing at all. Of course, the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster was associated with fans in standing pens, but though the Taylor Report into the disaster recommended all-seater stadia as a solution, it did not actually blame standing for the tragedy itself. Instead, the report points at poor organisation as the main problem, both in ticketing and crowd management.

The immediate cause of the gross overcrowding and hence the disaster was the failure, when gate C was opened, to cut off access to the central pens which were already overfull.

They were already overfull because no safe maximum capacities had been laid down, no attempt was made to control entry to individual pens numerically and there was no effective visual monitoring of crowd density.

When the influx from gate C entered pen 3, the layout of the barriers there afforded less protection than it should and a barrier collapsed. Again, the lack of vigilant monitoring caused a sluggish reaction and response when the crush occurred. The small size and number of gates to the track retarded rescue efforts. So, in the initial stages, did lack of leadership.

In their excellent 2007 report on the topic (pdf), the Football Supporters' Federation takes this further, pointing out that in the biggest disasters since Hillsborough—in Harare in 2000, Johannesburg in 2000 and Accra in 2001—all occurred in all-seater stadia. The same is true of most disasters preceding Hillsborough, including the infamous incident at Heysel.

Since their paper is now almost nine years old, I did a quick review of all of the other recent stadium disasters I could find, and most of them were unrelated to standing or happened in all-seater stadia as well.

All seater:


There are other examples which are harder to categorise, but which rarely or never look like failures of standing. In most of the tragedies I've deemed unrelated to standing, the crush came when people exited, or when police tried to control crowds by firing indiscriminate tear gas, causing a riot. Others are down to fake tickets and over-attendance. But it's clear that standing has played only an incidental role in most disasters—the case against standing per se is weak.

Safe standing vs unsafe standing


In a video interview in 2014, West Ham chairman David Gold said:

I am a great supporter of safe standing, it is interesting that for many years we have had unsafe standing, we do have that, I don’t think there is a ground in the country that are all seater stadium that don’t have their fans in some area of the ground standing.

Right now in most football grounds, many of the most enthusiastic fans will stand throughout the match, notwithstanding the all-seater nature of Premier League and Championship stadia. There are regular squabbles with security stewards but staff mostly turn a blind eye. As Gold points out, this is dangerous, as supporters will regularly fall over the seats in front of them into the next row.

It also causes steady, attritional damage, especially when particularly exuberant away supporters visit—as with a recent cup tie that brought Manchester United to Derby:

United will be asked to compensate Derby County after a significant number of seats were damaged in the away end when the teams met in the FA Cup fourth-round at the end of last month, resulting in a 3-1 win for Louis van Gaal’s team.

Derby have already informed United about what their groundstaff found on the morning after the match and intend to charge them for the relevant repairs, claiming that more than 300 seats were broken or pulled off whole.

Each match can cost thousands—peanuts in Premier League money but still a cost worth considering, especially when there's an alternative. Safe standing alternatives such as rail seats do not have breakages that require replacements every week; the seat is tucked away, clipped off or much harder to break.

Of course this isn't the main reason to favour a relaxation of the rules, allowing clubs in the top two tiers to emulate Germany, Sweden, Austria and the lower tiers, where standing has been safely allowed. Fans cite the more intense atmosphere that standing allows for (just look at the Yellow Wall above).

But perhaps more important is simply allowing for higher attendances. The recent Kop walkout over ticket prices was just the latest example of the rising fervour against the ticket prices Premier League clubs charge. Terraces can fit in as many as 1.8x times as many spectators—safely. Not only could greater total supply bring down ticket prices overall, but more variation in the 'products' that clubs can offer fans means they can price discriminate. Well-heeled neutrals and tourists can pay hundreds to sit; core fans can be offered cheaper season tickets.

But either way, after a long hiatus, it may be that safe standing in stadia is an idea whose time has come again.

Perhaps James Daley could be encouraged to learn some economics?


This rather surprises us even if, perhaps, it shouldn't. That a man can reach a senior management position, reach middle age in fact, without having the first clue about how products are priced by those who sell them. James Daley, used to be of Which?, is railing about credit cards fees being charged.

But the likes of Ryanair and Easyjet are still charging 2pc. While British Airways charges a fixed fee of £5 a ticket – which can amount to a double digit percentage on cheaper shorthaul flights. The reason that companies have been getting away with this is that no one is enforcing it. Strictly speaking, it falls to the under-resourced Trading Standards. But consumers are also in their rights to challenge companies in the courts. I’m seriously considering doing just that. I’ve spent several thousand pounds on flights over the past few years – and I’d like to challenge the airlines to justify the excessive credit card charges that they’re passing onto their customers.

This is all about credit card fees that airlines and others are charging us to purchase things over their websites. And Daley has entirely missed the underlying point here. Companies do not charge us on a cost plus basis. Nor should they: we would not like a world in which they did. Suppliers of whatever it is charge us the maximum they think they can get away with: the greatest price consistent with profit maximisation. And that's how it should be too.

If we had a static economy this would not be true: but thankfully we do not and we would not want one either. The point being one that Adam Smith noted, we actually want people to make excessive profits. For, as he noted, capitalists are both greedy and observant. They'd like to be making more than the average level of profit: and they will note when someone comes up with a plan to do so. They will then invest in that area producing that excess profit and the resultant competition will bring that profit down to average again.

And yes, we want this to happen in a non-static economy: because that's the thing that advances it by stopping it from being static. Some new technology comes along, and a new technology can be anything from a smartphone to the idea of unbundling the package that used to be air travel into the seat, the meal, the drink, the luggage and yes, even the paying by credit card and then charging for each separately, and if it works then people will copy it. Ryanair started, Easyjet followed and we're at the point now where almost all short haul carriage uses this model. Because profits are higher through using it and given the amount more we all fly so is consumer surplus. We're all better off as a result of this new technology.

This system is dependent not upon regulation of prices, not upon set margins for certain actions, but upon being able to gouge the customer for as much as said customer thinks whatever it is is worth. For it is the excess profits from doing exactly that which foster the competition that makes this new idea, new technology, near universal.

When people have alternatives, whining about the fee for one method or another of doing something is simply economically illiterate.

And yet these people are able to influence the legislation we all live under? Sheesh.

What a hopelessly mixed up policy the BBC is proposing


The BBC, Britain’s state-protected broadcaster, gets its funding from a tax of £145.50 on every household that possesses a TV capable of showing live broadcasts. That means live broadcasts from any broadcaster, so even if you never watch any BBC channels, you still have to pay. The exception is people over 75, who get their TV viewing for nothing because past governments ruled that television was an important source of companionship for the over-75s, many of whom live alone. This week it has been suggested that since the BBC is short of money, the over-75s should be asked to pay the licence fee voluntarily, even though they do not have to.

What a hopelessly mixed up policy this is. Firstly, Britain should not even have a state-sponsored broadcaster. It might have made sense in the 1930s when broadcast technology was new, and required fabulously expensive national infrastructure, but no longer. Increasingly, the BBC looks like a dinosaur among a growing number of independent and international broadcasters. But it has a near-monopoly grip over Britain’s media sector, of the sort that Rupert Murdoch can only dream of. Plainly, it should lose that protection and operate as a commercial broadcaster, using whatever mix of subscription and advertising it deems fit.

Not only should we not have a state broadcaster, nor should it be financed by what is in fact a poll tax on households. Nearly everyone has a TV, so the licence fee is more of a universal tax to support a state service, rather than a subscription for a broadcast package of your choice. And the same tax is paid by all households, rich or poor (apart from those comprising 75-year-olds, of course). So that is hardly a fair system either.

But if we are determined to keep this unfair license system and we really think it essential that people over 75 should be able to watch television without having to worry about the cost, there are better ways of doing it. One would be simply to raise the state pension by the equivalent £145.50 a year. At least then, the money would go to poorer households, because richer ones pay tax on their pension income. Again, the sate pension is an unfair and poor-value system (and it is also a Ponzi scheme, relying on current contributors to pay current pensioners), but this uplift would be better than what we have now.

There was a time when pensioners were, almost by definition, poor. That was the thinking behind making it universal at age 65 (for men, and 60 for women) when it was introduced in 1911. At that time, most people were in some form of manual labour, and by age 65 there was a fair chance that you were so exhausted by a lifetime of it that you could no longer do much useful work, and therefore could not support yourself. Today, however, pensioners are on average richer than the working population.

So it is certainly unfair to make the younger population pay to subsidise the TV viewing of everyone over 75, many of whom will be far richer than they. The Queen, and Rupert Murdoch, are both over 75: but why should a single mother in depressed Middlesborough pay higher taxes, or a higher licence fee, so they can get free television?

This is the kind of absurdity you get when things like broadcasting and pensions are run politically. Now we are trying to make the over-75s feel guilty for the absurdities that the political process has created. They should not fall for it.

Funny this, Facebook is just like all other media


Apparently not all is perfect in this new media garden. Facebook does not turn us all into enlightened seekers after truth, Instead, it allows us to reinforce our own prejudices:

Facebook reinforces the beliefs of users because they tend to seek out news and views that tally with their own opinions, according to a new study. The social networking site creates an "echo chamber" in which a network of like-minded people share controversial theories, biased views and selective news, academics found. This means that any bias held is simply repeated back to them unchallenged and accepted as fact.

Quite amazing, eh?

The research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, analysed Facebook data about the topics people discussed on the social network in 2010 and 2014. It concluded: "Users tend to aggregate in communities of interest, which causes reinforcement and fosters confirmation bias, segregation and polarisation.

"This comes at the expense of the quality of information and leads to proliferation of biased narratives fomented by unsubstantiated rumours, mistrust, and paranoia."

Sounds just like the opinion pages of The Guardian. Or the comments section of the Daily Mail. The reason being that it is exactly like those two things. Because one of the lesser known but hugely important things we know about the media is that it does not shape our views so much as chase our pre-existing ones. Editors do not say "We must convince the readers that coffee cures cancer", they instead ask whether they want to advertise things to those who might be interested in reading an article about whether coffee does indeed cure cancer.

Similarly, amazing though it may seem, there are groups in this country interested in reading Owen Jones' misunderstandings of economics, Polly's insistence that the only way is Labour, the strange neuroses that drive Mail columnists and so on down (or up, as you wish) the list.

The importance of this in the wider sense is that calls for "unbiased" media simply don't make sense. Because it presupposes that the creators are trying to create a bias that benefits them, the creators. Not in the slightest: creators are angling to identify an extant view in the population that they can then pander to.

You knew this quote was coming, didn't you?

Sir Humphrey: The only way to understand the Press is to remember that they pander to their readers' prejudices.

Jim Hacker: Don't tell me about the Press. I know *exactly* who reads the papers. The Daily Mirror is read by the people who think they run the country. The Guardian is read by people who think they *ought* to run the country. The Times is read by the people who actually *do* run the country. The Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country. The Financial Times is read by people who *own* the country. The Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by *another* country. The Daily Telegraph is read by the people who think it is.

Sir Humphrey: Prime Minister, what about the people who read The Sun?

Bernard Woolley: Sun readers don't care *who* runs the country - as long as she's got big tits.

Pander might even be too weak: chase the prejudices might be more accurate.

Sure there's media bias: but it's not bias emanating from the media, it's the population being reflected in it.

Which does rather lead to an interesting point we can make. The general complaint about media bias is that the free market media has a right wing bias. Something which, if true, says that England at least is a rather right wing place. Because if the largest market in the country weren't rather right wing then that wouldn't be the bias the media had.