Wednesday, 29 February 2012

American politics and the gridlock to come

So ex-governor Mitt Romney has managed to squeeze out a primary victory against his more conservative (though scarcely more convincing) Republican opponent Rick Santorum. In the state of Michigan, where his father used to be a much-respected Governor. Where he's spent many millions trying to flatten his rivals. Big deal.

Romney will probably be his party's nominee, of course. But since the betting market currently gives President Obama a 61 per cent chance of being re-elected (partly on the basis of his just-about positive approval ratings and poll leads over Romney), a fat lot of good it will probably do him.

While all that bunfest has been going on, the real (and more historical long-range story) has been the retirement of moderate Republican senator Olympia Snowe (above) from Maine.

This pretty much seals the end of the centrist Republican Party in Congress. Once upon a time, and especially in the 1970s and 1980s, there were lots of them - particularly in the Senate. They stood for good governance, fiscal rectitude, the national interest. Conservative things, perhaps. Don't get the idea that Snowe was some sort of pinko. President Obama courted her for months in the hope she would vote for his healthcare bill. In the end, she didn't. But her ever-smaller bloc usually spoke out for solid, respectable, flexible points of view. Sometimes (avert your eyes, partisans) they voted through things which Democratic presidents or their left-leaning colleagues in the Congress asked them for. Conservative Democrats - another endangered species - often joined hands with them and sponsored joint bills. Now all that's gone. Only a single Republican (rather than Independent) member of the Senate could be called anything like a moderate - Susan Collins, also of Maine, who must now fear for her job too.

In its place is the 50/50 nation that the President once set out his stall against. The Senate might end up split evenly down the middle come November given that Snowe basically just gave the Democrats an extra seat. At the moment, more race analysts would call it a dead heat, though Democrats have more seats to defend in the squeezed middle. Democrats are also getting more and more hopeful that they'll be able to retake the House of Representatives. It's a really tough ask - they'll need about 25 gains - but they're poised to take some Republican seats, so the House might end up pretty evenly balanced too.

The founding fathers of the United States built a constitution that can only work if American politicians work together. If they're going to tear the country down the middle, and then fight over it with everything they've got, the USA is going precisely nowhere. And we'll all be the poorer for that.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Will work experience placements work?

So lots of companies are getting cold feet about the Government's flagship 'back to work' initiatives - the Work Programme, which places people in work whether they like it or not, and unpaid work experience, which is not supposed to involve any compulsion at all. Or that's supposed to be the case, though stories of semi-compulsion, threats and Burger King (above) announced it was pulling out of providing work experience as of today - not that it had taken anyone on yet anyway.

The work experience element of the plans was always unlikely to pinpoint and attack long-term joblessness. Proper work experience schemes are well worked-out with third sector partners, targeting poorer neighbourhoods and families without work. They provide training, mentoring and support: witness Marks and Spencer's sterling efforts. But the whole point of hastily-announced work placements, for low-cost, high-yield retailers such as Matalan, is that they'll get help during busy periods - and then leave those people on their sofas when things get slacker. 'Training' opportunities on these schemes are often lousy. Comparing them to a month in college, as the Prime Minister has and Ministers insist on reiterating, is an insult to everyone's intelligence.

Will it work, despite these flaws? Well, we'll have to wait and see on this particular scheme.

But two things are for sure and beyond dispute: rates of labour force participation among those who have and haven't been on these schemes are very similar a few months down the line. And without macro-economic growth and stimulus, the job market will continue to get worse for the next year or two, meaning that all these programmes are swimming against the tide. Experience in the USA and Canada leads us to one conclusion: these types of programme need the provision of proper training, and a buoyant labour market.

Conclusion? They will probably never meet their UK targets.

Which is a shame, because there are the seeds of some good ideas in here. You might, of course, say the same about Higher Education 'reform' in England, the creation of elected police commissioners, GP commissioning in the National Health Service and the expansion of apprenticeships - all good in principle. All being botched - at a time when, incredibly, the Department of Work and Pensions says it might or might not commission desperately-needed research. 'Possibly', they say.

All we public policy experts can do is sigh and hang out heads.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

What is the role of time in economics?

So I've been blogging away again, over on another site - about time and economics, this time. I've been a bit polemical, actually, but do have a look to see what you think.

My basis argument is that modern orthodox economics doesn't take account of institutions, of learning, of the structures of relationship between state and society, or between citizens and the government if you want me to be less jargonised. I think that's right - one-short neo-classical economics just says 'here's a price, here's a demand, there's where the lines meet, that's revealed demand and supply, that's the price'.

But things are much more complicated than that.

Okay, okay, so I know that lots of elements of economic policy - for instance inflation targeting - specifically take account of public views via (for instance) opinion polling about views of future price and wage rises. It's an approach that's caught on around the world, with the Federal Reserve in the US now mulling over adopting a specific target (by the way, I think that would be a mistake).

But even here, I would say that the technique's popularity has more to do with what Pierre Rosanvallon (above) has termed 'counter-' or 'anti-democracy' - a phenomenon that is linked to the tendency of markets, bond-holders, voters and banks to lose faith in governments and their promises. Independent scrutiny, in the shape of central banks in this case (though Ombudsmen and women, insurance agencies and independent scrutineers of all types are other good examples) are thus set up to 'watch the watchmen'. Inflation targeting itself doesn't deal very well with shocks and crises - partly because its view of 'the past' is a very near-term and cramped one. It's adoption is often a strategy and a matter of convenience, not necessarily a dawn of intellectual conviction.

So we need a new economics that takes account of how the world really is - the fact that most bondholders live in the country bearing the debts (outside of disaster areas such as Greece, of course). The fact that politics will always play a key role in the quasi-markets that are created to live and breathe under those semi-independent agencies of pre-commitment and monitoring. Take a look at the latest news about the debacle in English Higher Education - where the Governemnt is threatening universities with unspecific 'action' over widening participation, without the powers (or even a proposed Bill) to do so. There's an example of 'you wouldn't start from here' - or charge basically a £9,000 flat fee everywhere.

Where will the new economics come from? Stay tuned. I'm thinking about that one.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The topsy-turvy world of English universities policy

I've concluded that university policy in England is in a mess so many times that it feels pointless to say any more. Suffice to say, none of it will work properly, and it will be reconstructed in the next Parliament whoever wins (or doesn't win) the next General Election. UK universities as a whole are extraordinarily successful in all sorts of ways, but for years this has been instead of government, rather than because of it.

I would call for a Royal Commission to start from a 'clean sheet of paper', but that sounds too rational and too meticulous for an age of crazy quick fixes that everyone knows will fail in the end (e.g. the Greek 'bailout' that will almost certainly be followed by another, and another...) In the meantime, private efforts, recommendations and commissions, speaking some truth to power, will have to suffice.

The imbroglio over the appointment of Les Ebdon (above) as head of the beefed-up Office for Fair Access is another instance of just this botched 'reform'. Professor Ebdon is a vigorous and effective campaigner for both wider access to Higher Education, and for 'his' part of the sector (he's served for some years as head of the Million+ group of universities, representing many former polytechnics). Conservative MPs didn't like the idea of appointing someone to this role who actually meant what they said - and would actually use his powers, as he said, to force universities to open their doors to students from a more varied set of backgrounds. So they tried to block him. Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat Secretary of State responsible, insisted on Ebdon's appointment - but, in a classic coalition stitch-up, had to agree to the Conservative goal of allowing richer students to pay back their loans more quickly.

There was the fig leaf, of course, that some evidence suggests that all graduates - whatever their background - will try advance payments. But few were fooled that we were witnessing a 'tit for tat' exercise where access was traded for quicker payment - for those who can afford to avoid interest payments. The truth is that we are wasting our talents if we narrow our focus to attainment, rather than potential, at 18+... and that everyone, even conservatives, knows that thought must be given to background and past support when considering achievements at that age.

So policy really does now seem to be in a looking-glass land, where those realities matter less than a good old-fashioned inter-party carve-up. As the education commentator Mike Baker has pointed out, you really couldn't make it up - as I've said elsewhere. Consider a good that, when you come to pay for it, bears no relation whatsoever to how 'good' or 'bad' it was. You'll pay exactly the same per month whether you go for a £6,000 or a £9,000 degree. Sure, you'll pay for longer in the latter case, but since earnings will continue to crawl upwards, since inflation will continue, and since they'll be cancelled in the end - perhaps when the scheme collapses or is 'reformed' - you might as well gamble on the latter scenario. So there's absolutely no incentive whatsoever to keep prices down - especially as unmet demand is so high. To meet this case, the government have been dangling some of 'its' (in reality, the taxpayer's) places in front of universities who lower their fees. They do this by raising their fee waivers for students from lower-income backgrounds - and cutting the very bursaries that would help and encourage such students in the first place.

You couldn't make it up. Indeed. But you wouldn't want to, either.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

The mounting danger to peace and prosperity

So will Israel attack Iran? It's become a live issue, given the Iranians' increased (but overestimated) push on the nuclear front. It's pretty clear that the debate in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem is now centred around a potential attack on Iran's nuclear ambitions before they can come to a head. They've not decided on it, by any means, and they've been mulling it over for years, but it's now high up on the agenda.

It's a nightmare scenario. Oil prices will rise - as they have been already. The Americans may get drawn in, especially if Israeli forces attack during a US Presidential election. In that case, Iran will use 'swarm' tactics on American and allied shipping in the Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz (above) to prevent shipping getting in and out - leading to some grisly and bloody battles that will put immense political and moral pressure on the West to find a negotiated way out.

And it's unlikely to stop Iran, in the end. Israel did prevent Saddam Hussain getting the bomb in 1980 with an airborne strike similar to that undoubtedly on the drawing board right now - and conducted a similar attack on Syria in 2007. But the Iranian regime has been very careful to scatter its plants and knowledge, and to hide much of it underground - if we're to believe security sources, which one might not after the debacle about Iraq's non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction. All the same, Israel and its sometime backers risk lining up the Iranian civil population behind their government, losing the moral high ground and destroying the potential to make only a very few low-payload bombs that will be hard to deliver for some time. It's a hard call, sure. I'm glad I'm not making it. But on balance the waiting game just seems better.

The alternative? The end of all hopes for global economic recovery for some years to come, for one thing. An oil price spike that will force up interest rates and cause an economic winter that we've barely tasted as yet.

So President Obama's playing for time. I don't blame him.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Credit agencies? Give me old-fashioned governments any day

Governments get a bad press these days. Politicians are dishonest, the line goes. The parties that run them in democracies are unrepresentative of the single issue campaigns that really move people, critics argue. The bureaucracy is apparently unresponsive in a 'consumer' age that basically assumes that choice and a margin of unused capacity to choose from are all that matter in public services - and the eternal restlessness of mobile phone-touching, constantly-wired citizens be damned.

Well, there's a truth to all that. But - as all truly boring people say - it's only part of the truth.

In fact, there are much more mendacious, self-serving, unrepresentive and unresponsive agencies abroad in the world.

Noted the recent outbreak of fretting about credit agencies' downgrading of soverign nations' and big companies' credit worthiness? Well, you might not have noticed just how paper-thin the intellectual rationale for any of that 'work' really is - and how misguided the fetishisation of credit agencies really can be.

Credit rating agencies usually report, for a fee, to private-sector clients and rely on those clients' accountants and published reports to rate their trustworthiness. They said Greece (above) was solvent. They said that US mortgage debt was rock-solid. They have a history of sending out mixed messages and firing off premature emails. Their reports are full of technical errors, massively overstating the US budget deficit, for instance. Above all, they safeguard rich people's risk taking (bond holders and pension funds) and destabilise the workaday economy everyone else relies on - as European Union Commissioners have pointed out. I could go on. One day I will. Be warned.

You know what? I'd deal governments - with all their flaws and frustrations - any day of the week than break bread with these guys.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Consider the implications of bringing down The Sun

It's proving pretty difficult for many people - on the Right as well as the Left - to be all that sympathetic to The Sun, the soaraway British tabloid (above) that is showing alarming signs of thudding to the ground like a dead albatross. The ongoing phone hacking allegations, and (still more dangerous) Operation Elveden into illegal payments to police and army officers, as well as civil servants are threatening to bring the once all-powerful paper to its knees.

Is there a little bit of you that feels that heavy-handed policemen have turned up hammering on doors in the middle of the night? Well, The Sun itself has always liked a dawn raid, and it must gall the paper's many, many victims to hear the paper's own journalists complaining about their treatment at the hands of the boys in blue. News International has meted out much nastier roughings-up in the past. Do you think 'good, Rupert Murdoch should pay for some of his dirty work'? Well, consider that much of the current civil war within his organisation is designed to save News Corp, the group's real American powerhouse, from destruction by lopping off a gangrenous limb.

But hold on. While illegality must of course be investigated and if necessary prosecuted, and of course it's hard to feel the milk of human kindness run like Niagara given the paper's past, there are some serious issues here.

The many-headed hydra of the press had to fight many battles to be as free as it is today - and as objetionable, aggressive and downright nasty. Giving newspapers that are going down in flames anyway yet another push might just speed up the conflagration - and make us all the poorer in the end. Do we really want no press at all? For without News International, it's unlikely that any daily apart from The Mirror, The Daily Mail and The Guardian will be players in any sort of mass market within a decade. Close relations with specific policemen have helped to bring many miscarriages of justice to light - practices that by no means end at Wapping's door, and which will see policemen feeling many, many collars yet - should they chose to pull on the scarlet thread they have hold of.

Consider the UK without many print newspapers at all. Does this pass the public interest test that the Director of Public Prosecutions must think about when he decides to prosecute? Many fearful secrets probably lie hidden in the murky deeps of 1990s and 2000s telephone and email logs. Pulling them all out into the light might end with just that catastrophe.

I'm not sure about this one. But it is a thought, and a possible future, that should stay many hands before they come crashing down on News International.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Perestroika Britain

The worst and most depressing thing about two decades of our public sector 'reforms' in the UK is that many of them have made Britain feel like a country enveloped in Perestroika - for younger readers, that was a Soviet reform programme of the 1980s launched by First Secretary and then President Mikhail Gorbachev (above).

It failed. Lack of political reform, and (to be honest) sheer lack of will and ability to truly break away from quasi-markets and fake 'voucher' payments doomed it to failure. In the meantime, the peoples of the USSR and its successor states endured a decade of catastrophically falling living standards as the old planned economy fell apart - but nothing evolved to stand in its place.

The UK today, of course, faces nothing like such a disaster. Growth will resume - eventually. The worse one could say is that a decade of stagnant living standards and high unemployment lies ahead, while the public sector faces a severe spending squeeze. Big deal. Want a real crisis? Move to Greece.

But anyway. The reason British services feel a bit like late Soviet industries is that politicians (especially politicians in a Coalition) want to have it all. They want to have the cake of equality, 'order', direction and control from the centre - and then they want to eat it with 'local initiative', 'innovation from below', 'a market of public sector consumers', blah blah blah blah blah.

Witness the National Health Service 'reforms'. The present Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, wants to 'set the doctors free', making General Practitioners the main commissioning group, mobilising most of the cash. But to do so, he's had to create six new layers of bureaucracy - and lots more bureaucrats. There'll be local coalitions. A central Commissioning Board for 'specialist' services. They'll be Monitor, a 'consumer' representation body. There'll be local senates. Strategic Health Boards. No-one everybody except the Secretary of State himself wants to rip it up and start again. Conclusion? A right old mess. The Health Secretary will eventually be moved, and the whole system will be exploded and put back together in the next Parliament.

Look over at universities - my patch, admittedly, but a total car crash that continues to this day. There's now going to be no White Paper. No Bill. No Act. One gains the impression that this is because Ministers have created such a spider's web of chaos that they can't or daren't face rearranging it again. So we're left a little in the dark as to where we're going to go. But here again, we have a new quasi-market that 'allows' universities to set fees up to £9,000 - an arbitrary limit, of course, but there you go. Then Ministers decided that they wanted more places at 'elite' institutions and cheaper ones, so they took the numbers cap off of those Higher Education Institutions. Now, of course, that means that some of the best teaching institutions in the country will now form a 'squeezed middle', and will run for cover or have their numbers reduced while research-heavy universities will have every incentive to flood themselves with undergraduates they don't really want. What a triumph. And there's now to be a beefed-up 'Access Tsar', with suitably Russian overtoners of course, who'll toughen up access agreements with universities as to how many students from poorer backgrounds and state schools they take. It's already causing squeals of pain on the Right, and it's by no means clear how this will work and what consequences it will have. Summary? Keystone Cops-style confusion. Liable to start again soon.

Command and control can often work - look at the previous administration's huge success with cancer treatement and waiting lists in the National Health Service. The 'market' (whatever that means) can work - witness the efficiency gains running up to privatisations in the 1980s, whether they were of British Airways or British Telecom. No-one would, I wager, want to go back to the terrible telephones and connection times of the 1970s.

But these approaches? They have all the hallmarks of 'have your cake and eat it' wishful thinking. And they combine some of the worst functions of bureacuracy - game playing, long lead times, confusion, 'soft' decision-making, breakpoints and threshold effects - with some of the inequality, unfairness, remorseless speed and destructiveness of the 'market', a make-believe concept at the best of times.

One part planned; one part marketed; all parts confused. It's Perestroika Britain.

What, then, explains all the enthusiasm within Whitehall? Well, that's for another day...

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

National Health Service productivity has been rising

Productivity. It's hard to measure. It depends on measuring inputs and outputs and then comparising the two. If outputs rise more slowly than inputs, then productivity is falling. Stay awake at the back there.

But what are the inputs in public services? Cash? That's not a very good measure when what you're putting in keeps moving between different accounting heads within a massive behemoth like, say, the National Health Service. Numbers of staff? Also not very logical - is a doctor worth two or a nurse, or less than one of a nurse? I'm not sure, and I'll willing to gamble that no-one else is either. And what about the outputs? Patients treated? For what ailments? Waiting list times? What will the cut-off times be and the units of measurement? Days? Weeks?

It's all a bit of a conundrum, really.

The issue which makes all this important - rather than of interest to dry-as-dust academics like me - is that 'falling NHS productivity' has been used to justify present Health Secretary Andrew Lansley's (above) current dog's dinner of a reform package - a turd so difficult to polish that Conservative Cabinet Ministers and Downing Street insiders wish, over and over again, that it would just go away.

The idea that the NHS has 'wasted billions' has been elevated recently to something of a mythic truth - an unchallenged shibolleth that has helped to bring Labour, social democracy and socialised medicine itself into disrepute.

But news arrived yesterday of the uncertain intellectual and statistical foundations of the idea. Published in The Lancet (subscription may be required), of all august places, the latest modelling shows that if we tweak thinks a bit, and put a bit more emphasis on morbidity and mortality (surely what we all worry about most), rather than on admissions and consultations, productivity has been rising - and pretty strongly - since the early 2000s. Top Department of Health officials have reportedly been surprised. If they knew their history and their economics, they wouldn't have been.

Now I'm not enough of an expert to know quite who's right. But even under the old figures, real terms money increases going in had been rising by 5.9 per cent a year, while 'outputs' had been rising by 5.5 per cent a year. That's even assuming that the NHS is a 'I want to see a specialist doctor' service rather than a 'I want to live and not be in pain' service. So productivity had been falling rather gently, if at all - every extra pound bought over 'ninety pence' of extra doctor visits to your ward.

You know what? Between 2001 and 2010 - between Tony Blair's commitment to raise British health spending to the European average and the moment when his party was booted out of office - the NHS got better and better and better. It attracted record levels of satisfaction; it basically abolished waiting lists. Understanding and embracing this fact totally destroys the case for the 'big bang' reform the NHS is now being subjected to.

Don't let anyone tell you any different, will you?

Thursday, 9 February 2012

The Coalition and the politics of risk

Risk. It's everywhere. You experience it. I experience it - every time we cross the road, drive someone, get on a 'plane, drink alcohol, eat fatty foods. You name it - we're calculating risks and benefits all the time.

It has a theory, too. Ulrich Beck (above), for instance, has always argued that its management and strategies for coping with it were inherent in modernity. We think we're going to live a long time; we have economic gains to protect; we are usually insulated from day-to-day chaos and contingency. So we want to manage it and shelter ourselves from its worst dangers.

And it's a concept that's central to understanding the politics of the UK's Coalition government. Everything it does is designed to separate out risk: to make it more individual, more personal, more episodic. To stop us as citizens pooling so much of it. And - I would argue - that's making our society more dangerous, more lop-sided, and ultimately less happy.

Consider some of these politics. I know they're grisly, but don't look away - it's important you look at the sickly state of British public policy.

Vastly increased university tuition fees. Well, if this agenda ever get sorted out, and Ministers are still mired in the total Horlicks the government has made of the entire scene, it'll thrust risk onto young people under the age of 18. Seeing as they're unlikely to bear that risk for another decade or two, it'll also expose the taxpayer to a lot of uncertainty too - as well as making it more likely that some Higher Education Institutions will fail.

More independence throughout the National Health Service. From some theoretical perspectives, this isn't a priori that bad an idea. France and Sweden, to name but two, have health care systems with a multiplicity of providers 'competing' for business. No-one says those are neo-liberal states governed by crazed ideologues. But putting all commissioning in General Practitioners' hands? Really quickly? Setting up six layers of bureaucracy to monitor all this? Allowing this commissioning to govern specialisms such as physiotherapy and speech and language therapy? There'll be many more 'postcode lotteries'; many more mistakes; much more organisational faffing about. Expect the press to have a field day. Expect the NHS to look silly.

Reduced rail subsidies. Now, I know that this will hit people on middling and higher incomes - people who take the train. But once again a de-merging of risk is involved. 'Consumer pays' is all very well, but increasing congestion, pollution and decreased labour mobility aren't exactly fantastic outcomes, either.

One could go on. And on. Kicking the Dilnot Commission's proposals to put a cap on elderly care spending in England? Increasing personal exposure to massive and unforeseen expenditure. More Free Schools and Academies, 'freed' from the National Curriculum? Increasing the risk of religious division, extermism and poor teaching.

The real irony? This'll have negative political consequences in the end - five, ten, fifteen years down the road. Sooner or later schools, hospitals, universities, rail companies, insurance schemes, private pensions, toll roads... One or more of them will fail. Who will take the blame? Teachers, lecturers, doctors, actuaries, engineers or Ministers?
I'd put my money on Ministers if I were you.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Westward look, the land is bright

The most painful part of Europe's austerity crisis? The fact that it need not be this way.

Look across the Atlantic, to a US where the economic data is getting better every day. American job growth is accelerating. Unemployment is coming down. Companies are hiring, and expecting to hire.

Why are Americans beginning to enjoy the fruits of job growth, while parts of the European Union are being plunged into a new economic Ice Age? Er, because their government has gone on spending while others have been pulling in their horns. their government is gridlocked. No-one could agree what the cuts should be, or where they should fall, in 2011. They're coming anyway, but only in 2013 - when the recovery will (hopefully) be well entrenched. That gave the American economy a crucial bit of leeway. It's a breathing space that employers are using to get their hands on good workers while they're still plentiful. It's a virtuous circle that may see the US back on its feet far sooner than most had predicted.

Put all that together with last night's triple victory for the social and economic conservative Rick Santorum in the Republican primaries, and the sound of gleeful hand-rubbing in the White House grows ever louder. President Obama's poll ratings are still slowly improving; his lead over the still-presumed Republican candidate is yawning ever wider. Republicans are spooked. How, they ask themselves, can President Obama be re-elected when he was so unpopular in mid-term?

Who would have thought it? The answer is this: a Keynesian President and his stand-off with spending fundamentalists is teaching the ultra neo-liberal Europeans how to do things. It's happened before of course - under FDR's New Dea in the 1930s (above). But it's a shock to our expectations and prejudices nonetheless. Perhaps for just that reason alone, it's an entirely welcome breath of fresh air.

As Churchill put it: westward look, the land is bright.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The Mystery of Mr Edward Miliband

Why isn't Ed Miliband (above) more popular? His polling numbers are absolutely dire, even among Labour voters. Though not quite at Iain Duncan Smith levels of laughable unpopularity, he's running William Hague and Neil Kinnock close - at their worst troughs, not their best peaks. Despite the risk of a double-dip recession in the UK, the Labour Party is (at best) only neck-and-neck with a Conservative Party that expected to be bitterly unpopular by now.

In 1980-81, hobbled by political infighting, an out-of-date new leader and a looming split, Labour led by leagues in the polls. At the moment just leading would be an achievement.

And all this despite having what appear to be quite acute antennae and rather good political judgement.

Remember the conference speech that called for a more moral capitalism? Right-wing newspapers hated it. Now the Prime Minister talks the same language. Remember the attacks on 'profiteering' train companies? Now the Transport Secretary threatens to veto Network Rail bonuses. Remember everyone running for cover when Ed called for Rebecca Brooks of News International to be sacked and the BSkyB takeover to be postponed? Just a few days later, the Government was singing from his hymn sheet. Now he's calling for the NHS 'reforms' to be halted, in order to pay for the 6,000 nurses he says a more expensive and a more 'competitive' service will have to give up in order to pay for the absurd complexity of a National Health Service that will cease to exist in all but name. Polls suggest that the public back him in overwhelming numbers.

So he usually calls it right - politically at least, and leaving aside the question of whether he actually is right or not. Why isn't he popular? Can it really be the nasal vocal presentation and the come-from-nowhere youth of the man? Focus group evidence has always suggested so. But perhaps his party's recent - shall we say - more complex (read: hard to understand) policies on the deficit have also contributed.

Reader, I have to confess that I don't know. If you do, tell me.

It could be important. Remember: Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher were light years behind Harold Wilson and James Callaghan in terms of their own personal popularity. They became Prime Minister. The mystery of Ed could run and run.

Friday, 3 February 2012

University numbers: don't say we didn't tell you so

So the outcome of the great fees debacle of 2010 had been a marked fall in the number of applicants to English universities in 2012 - something unprecedented, certainly on this scale, for the past thirty years. Messrs Willetts and Cable (above) have presided over a marked retreat for organised education in this country, and they have managed to turn many thousands of would-be students off the idea. Without saving all that much money for the taxpayer, if any, by the way, but that's another story.

Look beyond the raw numbers and a rather different story does emerge. Demographic factors play a huge role here, as the number of 18 and 19-year olds is going to shrink markedly between now and 2019. All the more reason, you would have thought, to make sure that universities have a relatively stable income stream, but there you are. And the number of applicationos from poorer postcodes has fallen rather less than those from more pricey neighbourhoods - perhaps reflecting just how good and how persistent you have to be to press ahead with Higher Education designs from the former background. What's a few extra thousand pounds on top of our society's constant dissuasion anyway? Some universities have managed to do quite well - even putting on numbers across a sector as diverse as Durham and Oxford Brookes.

Still, the biggest decline is among mature attendees - exactly that group the Coalition promised to help when it extended Student Loan Company finance to older would-be students. What a pity. That was just about the only progressive part of the package - now undermined by the ham-fisted and poorly thought-through way the policy was implemented and presented. As well as funded.

England's universities will survive. Up to a fifth of students applying weren't getting in anywhere anyway, because of the Government's arbitrary and ill-fitting limit on total numbers. Take ten per cent of applicants away, and you still have ten per cent not getting in. So our universities will still be full - it's just that some of them, for instance Goldsmiths in London, have just lost many thousands of their students and many millions of pounds of revenue.

One can only say again, with a weary sigh: what a pity.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Why the social sciences are valuable to the humanities

I've been reflecting today on the value of the social sciences to the humanities. I'm currently revising an article about consumerism, representation and the citizen in the National Health Service from the 1950s to the 1970s. And many of the revisions the journal has asked for involve programming, specifying and sharpening my terms of reference. It's all very well having great material from the archives: but what does it mean? What cases does it speak to? How might these revelations be useful in the overall field - or even in terms of contemporary policy? The reader should be told.

They're right. No-one would try to write about nations and states today without including work by the great Palestinian scholar Edward Said, or by the that intellectual powerhouse Benedict Anderson (above), whose Imagined Communities told us so much about the 'invention of tradition', about national myths as new stories told about ourselves, and about the trappings of nationhood invented in the late nineteenth century. I couldn't have written my latest book without the concepts latent in (and, er, borrowed from) complexity theory, chaos theory or concepts of 'governance' and 'overload' - let alone the idea of the public sphere, critical to another of my books.

This on the day when it becomes clear that the arts and humanities overall have taken a kicking in student numbers under our new loan-and-payback Higher Education system. Why, after all, take apparently empirical subjects when all the talk is of 'skills', 'earnings', monetary 'value' and 'efficiency'? Well, I suppose the answer is that all this holds the other way around: that without new revelations hewn from the archives, without 'what actually happened' in Ranke's famous formulation, there's not much raw material to work with either.

So why do we do it? Why do we lapse too far into the empirical, the piecemeal, the archaic, the local, the merely chronological? Because it's interesting; because we get fascinated by the scraps we find in archives across Britain and the world; because we're so close to the 'action' (if we can count it as 'action'!); and because we want to showcase all our hard work.

Still, without all the wider ideas we breathe all the time, we'd be floating, adrift in a sea of 'facts' without interpretation and without reference points. I must remember this the next time I tell students that they are being 'too theoretical'. Perhaps they're right, and I'm wrong...

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

School league tables and 'gameplaying'

The news that most vocational subjects have been removed from league tables of school performance at 15+ and 16+ has been a long time coming. Recommended by Alison Wolf's report on vocational education last year, and long trailed by Michael Gove's Department for Education (above), the argument against them staying there has always been that schools were 'gaming' the system by entering less academic children for subjects where they would maximise their GCSE-equivalent 'score'.

This rather misses the point that almost all numbers-based performance exercises have revealed since they started to proliferate in the 1970s. That's why successful businesses (Microsoft, for instance) don't use them. That's why the creaking and much-criticised Research Excellence Framework for universities, as well as NHS 'monitoring' exercises, often produce such perverse results.

The problem isn't with vocational qualifications. The problem is with the tables themselves - which is not to say that getting rid of them altogether would help us build any sort of idyll, as the ongoing crisis in many Welsh schools is demonstrating. The Welsh Assembly got rid of league tables in 2001. The decision has been accompanied by, shall we say, mixed results.

The point is a rather more general one than that. Set up a competitive system in which schools are judged one against the other, a maze of numbers that are often quite difficult to understand, and then (as the Government has just done) strip them of their contextual and 'value added' background, and any institution in the world will try to make itself look better by every 'legitimate' means at its disposal.

It's a little bit like the phenomena of tax evasion and avoidance. However hard the Revenue tries, they are always racing to patch up the tax system. They are spread thin, across an entire web of rules; but individuals with an interest in gaming that particular system have a much more specific, and much more urgent, incentive to punch a hole in their defences. So every year or two tax experts open yet another great bit gaping hole in the tax system's logic.

This particular push-me and pull-you is over. Today the cycle will begin all over again.

So will any messing with the league tables end 'gameplaying'? History and economics say: a great big 'no'.