a brief collection of the EPF’s lies on #uss

The sheer mendacity of the USS management, or rather, the Employers’ Pension Forum, has been breathtaking. The outrage ought to be greater. Dennis Leach of Warwick is doing a great job calling out the bullshit.

For example, the EPF’s Q&A document supposedly explaining changes to the scheme gave the increase in life expectancy since 1974 as 5.8 years a decade. The correct figure is between 1.3 and 2.3 depending on your assumptions.

When Leach blogged about it, they silently updated the document to memory-hole the claim.

The EPF claimed that “longevity” had dramatically increased since 2011. It hasn’t, and can anyone believe that a pension fund was unaware of an issue they’ve been whining about continuously since the 1990s?

They claimed that wages were rising at 4.4% annually in the sector. Chance, as they say, would be a fine thing. It was 2.7% over the last 20 years and actually negative since 2008.

At the same time, they claimed the economic crisis had a “detrimental impact on the value of USS’s assets”, but somehow this only happened after 2011, and as a result they need to sell all their equities. Well, maybe if you bought Greek government bonds that might be true. But USS achieved an 11% annual rate of return on its assets in the last five years. Some detriment! And these are presumably the investments the EPF wants to get rid of.

Having inflated wage growth when they wanted to inflate the cost of the scheme, they then lowballed it when they wanted to minimise the numbers of people who would lose their accrued benefits, as Oxford University’s pensions working group discovered. They had to be lying in at least one of those.

Inevitably the media is complicit. The Times managed to quote the figure of an £8bn deficit, itself dubious, as if it was £8bn recurring, every year.

I’m trying to get my head around the politics of this. There is a well-defined process by which changes to the USS are carried out. A Joint Negotiating Committee consisting of representatives from UUK and the UCU, plus a nice old boy from Scotland as chairman, works up a compromise proposal that is then submitted to the USS Trustee, and finally the Pensions Regulator.

But the new proposals didn’t come from the JNC, or indeed the USS management as such, and we know that several schools, notably Warwick, Oxford, and Cambridge, have disowned or at least severely criticised them. Instead they came from this EPF entity. Is this because the UUK side wanted to outsource its maximalist demand to someone else? Or is the EPF an actor in its own right?

Anyway, for day two, here’s a song.

#solidarity with the UCU: if you have a pension you want to read this

Why are a lot of professors going on strike? Or rather, on a marking boycott? The answer ought to worry anyone who is a member of a pension scheme, of any kind, in the UK.

To start with, we’ve got the USS, the pension fund for the universities as they were before 1992. All the other schools, the ex-polytechnics, are part of the Teachers’ Pension Scheme. Unfortunately you’ll just have to deal with the implicit snobbery. That said, the TPS has managed to look after its members better. We’ve also got UUK, Universities UK, the lobby for higher education in Britain, which is also acting as the representative of the management side. And of course we have the UCU, the biggest trade union in the sector, which represents the workers.

The USS has been one of the best pension funds in the UK for decades – don’t trust me, ask Dan Davies, who used to be its broker. Of course, people live longer, and gilt rates suck, and management doesn’t want to contribute more. In 2011, the final-salary fund was closed to new entrants, who instead joined a career-average version of the fund.

The distinction is especially important for academics. The typical career path is anything other than a linear progression through the ranks. Instead, many of them join late, spend years as underpaid graduate students, and with luck, rise as professors after their fifties. Like a trade, a long apprenticeship is required. The final salary system has the advantage that it respects the nature of the trade.

As with any system that requires a nice steady march through life, the career-average system values every pound contributed by a woman rather less, as she is more likely to join late or take a career break. The same goes for people who started as mature students, who are overwhelmingly working-class and more likely to be black than any other group of academics.

Since 2011, new entrants go into the career-average group. This happened because, like all pension schemes, USS needed more money. Now, though, USS wants to change the rules again.

If you were in before 2011, you’ve been told by the Employers’ Pensions Forum, roughly the UUK plus some USS people, that the money you put in isn’t there any more. More exactly, USS now says that the pension based on your final salary is only good up to a salary of £40,000, or perhaps £50,000. (They’ve since decided that it’s £50k, but I’ve kept this to reflect the vagueness around so much of these proposals.) If you have any entitlement beyond that, it gets revalued only by the consumer price index, the one that doesn’t include food, fuel, or housing. Your future contributions, which are of course very much welcome, will go into a new money-purchase fund. Employer contributions to same are of course going to be much less.

Let’s get this clear: USS members already paid for this stuff. They paid in the money, in exchange for a percentage of their final salary. USS and UUK propose to stick to the money, without going through any of the pain that society usually expects of people who refuse to pay their bills. If this goes through, as far as I can see, any fund can do something similar and just take your money.

USS can’t or won’t say if the cap is £40k or £50k. They can’t or won’t say who will run this new money purchase fund, or if you can choose who manages it. They can’t or won’t say what the level of the deficit in the fund is, just that it’s very terrible and the crisis demands action now. They can’twon’t – surely a useful new word – say how they valued it without being able to say what the number is.

They can’twon’t say what happens to members who paid more money into the fund as additional voluntary contributions (AVCs) or added years. What has happened to the money? They can’twon’t say how it happened that “longevity” managed to take them by surprise between 2011 and 2014. Do they get the newspapers? They can’twon’t say why it would be so great to sell the investments that did well, and buy more of the ones that were shit. Actually I know that one: it’s the rules. Dennis Leach at Warwick has a fine blog making the point.

One thing they canwill: bullying and bullshitting. A whole string of schools immediately threatened to sue individual strikers and to refuse to pay anyone who took part in the marking boycott, no matter what else they did. They were probably using helpful free union-busting advice from Pinsent Masons.

However, scratch a bully and you’ll find a coward. After this protest by York University, we get this climbdown.

And the universities do not seem to be adequately represented by UUK. Here is Warwick‘s response. Here’s Oxford’s. Here’s Cambridge’s. None of them seem convinced or happy.

In fact, the impression I get is that UUK are freelancing, or setting out a deliberately extreme negotiating position. So the UCU has every right to show them some teeth. Which makes it even more of a pity that you need to go to Mike Otsuka’s facebook page for anything like useful information, or responsive news. Treat this as an open thread on the strike.

And here’s a song.

A serious suggestion.

Perhaps they could have an empty chair? Or what about a serious suggestion? As Chris Brooke was saying in the other place, couldn’t we borrow a Commonwealth judge? In fact we could do better than that. Either Canada or Australia could offer someone who has experience of leading an inquiry like this one. Murray Sinclair? Mick Dodson? Marcia Langton?

Thiel-ing out at Google

Does anyone know what Larry Page means by this?

Even more than technology, he puts this down to policy changes needed to make land more readily available for construction. Rather than exceeding $1m, there’s no reason why the median home in Palo Alto, in the heart of Silicon Valley, shouldn’t cost $50,000, he says.

World class wanktanking

Nick Hillman of the Higher Education Policy Institute has recently been yukking it up in the papers in favour of Oxbridge getting to put its prices up more (I shorten).

That Hillman is a former Tory SPAD and failed Tory candidate is no surprise but I am really quite impressed that he lists as one of his publications a pamphlet for the Institute of Government on how to be a SPAD. Maybe he could start a thinktank on Better SPADs, or even better thinktanks.

stuffing envelopes and getting stuffed

Mark Pack has a very good post up on how the Lib Dems’ distinctive approach to campaigning evolved, and what that meant for the party. Essentially, since the 1980s, the party was reshaped entirely around one particular technique: direct mail.

I didn’t know that the LDs’ identification of target seats isn’t, or isn’t just, based on their psephology or demography, but rather on how many leaflets the local party has dropped relative to their target. More leaflets mean more resources, and specifically, more resources to help you generate more leaflets and deliver them. In a functional sense, the organisation within the party headed by Chris “Wandering Hans” Rennard was a direct mail agency, designing, printing, and delivering bulk leaflets, selecting the targets, and vetting their content.

This essentially, although Pack won’t say as much, hollowed out the party’s incredibly complicated structures for internal democracy and paved the way for the jump into coalition with the Tories. Eventually it took over the press office and the staffers supporting MPs. Nothing that mattered, as far as I can see, was left under the control of the federal executive or the conference or the regional federations or God knows what, and as activists, we sure as hell weren’t consulted or even informed. There were leaflets to get out!

In a wider sense, you get the impression that the real role of the Lib Dems has been to publicise an incredibly cynical version of politics. You set the message and dump the leaflets out. Interestingly, direct mail played a really big role in the growth of movement conservatism in the States through the 1970s, with people like Richard Viguerie.

If you get elected, you say whatever the opposite of the local council says on any issue, but most of all, you turn around correspondence as fast as possible. The role of activists is unpaid direct mail. The role of MPs or councillors is as a sort of service function processing public whining in an expeditious fashion. The role of the party is to get in a position where it can buy electoral reform off another party, in order that it can stay in that position forever.

And if you want to be an MP, you better do whatever it takes to please Lord Rennard, because he’s got all the leaflets. In that sense, Pack’s closing remark is on the money:

electoral politics in Britain has followed where the third party led

Culture-bound syndromes

Swinging off something I discussed in another place, the Wikipedia list of culture-bound syndromes is fascinatingly odd, although several of them seem to reduce to depression and several more to sexism. I wonder if different Wikipedias have different ones?

But what interests me is this: what with globalisation an’ all, will these get smoothed out by the invisible hand like so many obscure languages, until we’re all crazy according to world-class best practice and international standards?

Or will we get something different? Weird jarring mashups from the grab-bag of available symptoms are a possibility. Try a combination of ufufuyane, tanning addiction, and scrupulosity, or perhaps boufée délirante, smilorexia, and puppy pregnancy syndrome.

That’s if nothing entirely novel emerges.

Perhaps it already has and “Troll (Internet)” should be in the list. Perhaps I should put it there.

Moazzam Begg, always in the paper, rarely reported.

Am I right in thinking that Moazzam Begg’s political role is getting more complicated, more important, and more impressive? Here’s a story. It kicks off with:

British jihadi fighters desperate to return home from Syria and Iraq are being issued with death threats by the leadership of Islamic State (Isis), the Observer has learned.

A source with extensive contacts among Syrian rebel groups said senior Isis figures were threatening Britons who were attempting to travel home. He said: “There are Britons who upon wanting to leave have been threatened with death, either directly or indirectly.”

The source is apparently the Observer‘s home affairs editor’s source, rather than a foreign correspondent’s source, so you might well wonder what kind of anonymous source is based in London, has contacts in Syrian rebel groups, and is very, very keen to get the message out that ISIS might kill international volunteers, specifically British ones, who want to leave.

Begg now appears in the story. It’s impossible to know whether there is any logical link between the source and Begg, or whether the Observer writer juxtaposed them to make it look like they support each other, an old hack’s trick. But if you want to reach potential jihadi volunteers with the message that they can’t trust ISIS, an ex-Guantanamo detainee would be a more convincing representative than almost anyone else. He would be a classic “surprising validator”.

Reading down, it seems he certainly knows that some wannabe jihadis have been held against their will in Syria, but any association with the “source” is either the Observer‘s gloss on it, or else that of someone who briefed them.

Begg seems to be moving from a campaign for the release of Guantanamo prisoners, to a campaign both for forgiveness towards volunteers in Syria and to prevent them going in the first place. Both are necessary. But I really wonder about the complex politics emerging around him.

He is the face of the dissident campaign demanding an end to the extralegal punishment that defines the War on Terror. He is also something like a spokesman for people who would like to leave the jihadi movement. These two are mutually consistent. But he is also increasingly a voice for de-radicalisation and prevention as a strategy.

This makes sense as an alternative policy proposal, but it also involves him in the underreported bureaucratic fight between the community-policing (in every sense) people sponsored by DCLG since Hazel Blears’ time, and the traditional intelligence services. One side is focused on prevention, policing by the community (of people who are described as a community), and works with the police and social services. The other is focused on technical surveillance and agent-running. With less money about, the two have been fighting like cats in a sack since 2010.

Mark Townsend’s piece seems to be using quotes from him to further a briefing campaign against ISIS recruiting, and also to back the DCLG-Contest-Prevent people in government versus the hard security lobby.

Then, I also wonder about the mission to Syria that landed him back in jail in 2013. When he set out on that mission, we were still supporting Syrian rebels and especially the FSA, rather than flying close air support for the FSA and the regime at the same time. More than a few testimonies from returned British jihadis mention that they believed the Syrian adventure had some sort of official Western blessing.

So, we have Begg, ex-prisoner and cause célébre. We have Begg, peace activist. We have Begg, de-radicaliser. We have Begg, continuing Islamic aid worker. We have Begg, still a target of police surveillance. Do we have any other roles? I imagine they make sense as a wider whole to the man himself.

I can see every reason to run the best possible propaganda campaign to stop people signing up with ISIS. (I’m not quite as cynical as John Dolan, whose piece is pretty good even if he thinks Luton is in Yorkshire.) But this is complicated, risky, and ambiguous stuff and wants more scrutiny than it gets.

Begg has grown into a bigger and more interesting political role than just that of wannabe jihadi or Rumsfeld victim, the Islamic adventurer the lads wish they were, but at the same time, the wise old head and voice of reason, a figure of the debatable lands. If he doesn’t get killed, I wouldn’t be totally surprised to see him as an enduring national figure of some sort. But where is he going with it, and how far does he control it?

China changes government. Exclusive in the Observer.

The Observer is a strange newspaper. Here’s a bit from its business page today:

Disturbed by the lack of similar action in Brussels and in Frankfurt – home of the European Central Bank – investors fear that the eurozone is sliding ever closer to recession. They are also worried about a sharp slowdown in China, following moves by the ruling People’s party to tackle escalating state sector debts.

China is ruled by the People’s Party, rather than the Communist Party of China? How did that happen? Shouldn’t this seismic world-historical event be on the front page?

The worrying bit here is that the Observer‘s shtick is a sort of cold war liberal style. It throws a ton of reporters at international news and takes it very seriously, although it always adopts a very pronounced westernist tone, if that’s a word. It has the good bits of this – lots of foreign coverage – and the bad ones – far too close to our spooks and the diplomats it likes.

The second worrying bit is that the best thing about the paper is usually the business section, which is tightly reported, critical, and readable. Back when it was a whole pull-out broadsheet in its own right, I often thought that I’d happily pay for the business section on its own.

But here we are with the business section of the paper that prides itself on big-letter International news, and it doesn’t know which political party is in charge of China. There must be more stuff in there that’s as wrong as that, just I don’t know what it is.

I expect this sort of shit from opinionators like Andrew “that book was a while ago now” Rawnsley, but I hope for better from the business pages. Here’s Rawnsley.

I’m a tad suspicious of big, round numbers. Complex problems rarely resolve into anything so neat as a figure ending in a zero. The merit of big, round numbers in politics is this. They make people sit up and pay attention…

The Lib Dems’ promise to spend £1bn more than the Conservatives is turned into peanuts and Labour’s pledge of an extra £2.5bn is chump change compared with the £30bn that Mr Stevens says will be necessary if the next government, whoever forms it, wants to avoid a crisis.

Rawnsley ought to be more suspicious of big numbers. The £30bn is over the six years from here to 2020. As far as I know the others are changes to its annual, but recurring, budget. So the Labour offer is 6×2.5bn, about half the Stevens report, not the whole wad, but not “chump change” either. It might be rather more or rather less depending on how Labour and Stevens respectively deal with inflation.

It’s not hard. Is the number in real terms, or cash terms? Is it annual, or over several years? How many years? Is that a total, or an average? What is it as a percentage of the budget? What is it as a percentage of GDP? If it’s a growth rate, is it comparing years or months or what, and which ones?

I would love it if a national newspaper would commit to stating all numbers in money as real terms, annualised, and all numbers in budget proposals as percentages of GDP. Newspapers have style guides for words. They should have them for numbers. And their sub-editors should enforce them.

But if they don’t check if they got the ruling party of China right, what hope is there of that?

#rugbyleague tries streaming on the web. it doesn’t go well

Oh Rugby League, must it always be so? The answer is always yes. The FFR XIII, the French governing body, had the great idea of streaming their match with Wales today on the web, presumably because TV wasn’t interested and there are plenty of weirdos who would get up for the England/Samoa and Australia/New Zealand who would also watch the French game.

But tell me, having made the momentous decision, did they do a good job? Did they ask people who knew how to do a good job? You know the answer.

It ended up on Dailymotion, in really terrible quality, with no score, but not before they’d also knocked over their own WordPress site by putting the embedded video on the front page and handing out the link, so the thundering herd hit whatever VPS they bought for their website first rather than Dailymotion’s CDN infrastructure. Not surprisingly the database got its knickers in a twist. Why involve a database when what you really need is a cache?

So a good idea that our amateurish execution turned into a humiliating fiasco. Where have we heard that one before?