Just because

I have just noticed that if you leave a comment on the New York Review of Books‘s blog and it goes into moderation, they return the following message:

Hold on, this is waiting to be approved by The New York Review of Books.

Put like that, it almost seems an honour.

Jobs through Your Local Budget are 400% of GDP!

Is there anyone who didn’t predict that the Big Society would descend into shameless grantsmanship, chancerism, and possibly illegal party financing? Go read; the list of projects is unimprovable, The Thick of It meets Siobhan Sharpe meets the Alan Partridge pitch scene. Much of the money ended up with Tories or ex-Tories and some of that seems to have been donated back into the Tory campaign funds.

Some of this is pukka taxpayer’s money out of Cabinet Office funds, and the civil servants involved seem to have been put under the gun to hand it out. Accounting responsibility is utterly central to the structure of the civil service, however, seeing as the minister is Francis Maude and the permanent secretary and therefore accounting officer is Bob Kerslake you can probably whistle.

Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild, meanwhile, is suing the Henry Jackson Society, the rather late UK branch of organised neo-conservatism, over some event she asked them to put on and went out rattling the tin for. Now there are a lot of unpaid bills, and missing money.

In the States, meanwhile, Krugman notices that top Murdoch executives’ employees look to them for revenge, as if they were gangsters or something. Ahem.

Hoare was furious with him one time when Hoare brought in a story about a famous actress only to find that Coulson, first, refused to publish it; second, took the famous actress on holiday; third, was clearly being rewarded in her bed; fourth, and worst of all, told the famous actress how Hoare had managed to get the story in the first place, with the result that the source was exposed and lost forever.

When Hoare discovered all this, he told Coulson direct and to his face that he was a “complete cunt”. Coulson replied with a line which became a regular catchphrase as he worked his way upwards: “I’ll make it up to you, mate.”

And although Brad DeLong’s Koka-Dancing Good-Time Snake-Handlin’ Thinkotheque offers grants, not one conservative bothered to apply. What links all this?

Well, perhaps, we could have a look at this parliamentary debate and specifically Esther McVey’s contributions.

While Labour was in office, it gradually wore away the financial strength of this country, eroding its savings and savings culture, and then it crashed the economy. Gas bills doubled, council tax doubled and fuel duty went up 12 times. The only things that grew under Labour were debt and overspending.

Apparently there was some huge pool of savings on deposit in 1997 that got spent by government. I remember a £28bn budget deficit. Funny! Also, I thought energy prices were all about the market now.

Let us not get away from how this started under Labour. What each and every one of us does is important. I have heard nothing from Opposition Members about the news that, because of our welfare-to-work programme, 30 million people are in jobs today. We know that under Labour, the number of households with nobody working doubled—[Interruption.]

There are 60-odd million people in the UK.

If one thing came out of the disastrous years that made our country more vulnerable because of the disastrous finances of the Labour Government it was the fact that not only are this Government doing more to get people into work—I will say it again, although I heard no positive sounds from the Labour Benches before: there are 30 million people in work—and that businesses have helped to support people and have taken them on, but that the community has come together to support one another

There are still 60-odd million people in the UK.

In the UK, it is right to say that more people are visiting food banks, as we would expect. [Hon. Members: “ Give way!”] No. Times are tough and we all have to pay back the £1.5 trillion of personal debt, which spiralled under Labour. We are all trying to live within our means, change the gear, and ensure we are paying back all the debt that we saw under Labour.

It is important to look at what is happening around the world. The UK has a population of 63 million and 60,000 people are visiting food banks according to the Trussell Trust. In Germany, however, with a population of 82 million, there are 1.5 million users of food banks. Canada has population of 35 million, and there are 830,000 monthly users of the Trussell Trust.

Who knew that the government was trying to reduce its deficit in order to pay down personal debt? What could that possibly even mean? Also, does the Trussell Trust operate in Canada?

We must put everything in context and look at what happened, whether that is the overspending and not being able to balance the books from 2002, or the financial crash of 2007. [Interruption.] We must look at how much we have done to balance and rebalance the economy, and get it on a stable footing.

Balance it! And then rebalance it! It sounds like something in the circus. You wonder what she actually thinks a chart of the public sector budget looks like over the last few years.

Let us be honest. One thing the Opposition do not understand is that disposable income is different from income. What have we done to support people with disposable income?

Several hon. Members rose—

I bet they did. I’m only surprised Esther McVey’s intern hadn’t provided talking points on what the coalition has done for people with disposable income. I imagine it wouldn’t be too difficult. The sting here is that the debate is about food banks and it’s not just the Labour MPs speaking; it’s the Tories. Story after hellish story of humiliation and despair pours in, and McVey responds in much the same way.

It’s a mixture, as above, of unbelievable lightness – the welfare to work programme is responsible for 30 million jobs, half the UK population – and hyper-extreme partisanship – Labour is making it all up, teh debt is really 400% of GDP, and if there are food banks which there aren’t then they’re Labour’s secret foodbanks. On the one hand, the chancer, on the other, the thug. Welcome to the emerging low-trust society, or did I say that before?

non-Thursday music post

So George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic played the Forum on about the sweatiest night of the year and I went. This isn’t my video – who wants to stand still and point a camera? – but it gives a strong flavour.

They give value; having hit the stage about 2145 they were still playing at 1am. They might have cut a couple of ironic stadium-rawk workouts – yes I know, who says a funk band can’t play rock, but it’s probably the least interesting bit of the show and it’s long. Also it might be cool to bring your granddaughters on tour as backing singers but it’s not professional. But there was really no point splitting hairs. This was legendary stuff and the crowd was on good form, even the old jazz weirdo in front of me in a panama hat looking like he came from commentating on the Test match. Perhaps he did.

I also saw Theo Parrish’s live project at the Forum lately (someone’s booker is on a tear, right?) Here’s some more borrowed video:

The standout here was his team of dancers, not really best shown here due to it not being that kind of song. Also, the crowd was seriously up for it (perhaps we’d all read this interview?). Unfortunately the band struck me as underrehearsed and the sound was pretty poor all night; it felt very much like a warm-up for their slot at Lovebox a couple of days later.

Wild speculation on a highly controversial subject

I started planning this post asking why Palestinian rockets seemed to be steadily increasing in range, but not improving in accuracy. Although nobody publishes circular-error probable figures for these things, various indicators suggested that they were still essentially random weapons. For example, there were no or few reports of them hitting valuable infrastructure or politically symbolic targets. We’ve covered this in the past here and here.

However, things have changed with the continued disruption of Ben-Gurion International Airport, and this post will now discuss to what extent this is a big strategic change, how we would know, and what that implies. As of this morning, although some airlines resumed operating, flights were being cancelled again, aircraft were going-around, and others holding for extended periods of time. As the FR24 coverage shows, very few flights are moving, although the official NOTAM information to pilots (uses a POST, search for LLBG) doesn’t mention it.

So, rockets. Why do they fire them? Unlike artillery, a rocket’s propulsion is applied in the rocket itself, so there is no need to make a barrel that is long enough for the propellant’s energy to be transferred to the projectile, of thick enough steel to contain it, and stiff enough to be pointed accurately, while being mounted in such a way as to be pointed in any direction and to stay that way despite the recoil. That sounds difficult and it is. Rockets don’t need any of that stuff, being as William Congreve said, “the soule of artillery without the body”. So we have a light, hence mobile, cheap, hence common, and simple, hence available way to hurl explosive at one’s enemies no matter how high the wall they put up around you. Because everything is less constrained, absent an active guidance system, they trade off accuracy for this.

You could imagine that this is the physical expression of a sort of generalised venting of rage – randomly tossing ineffective bangs over the wall. But you’d be wrong both in the sense that it trivialises the rocketry’s effect on Israelis, and that it denies Palestinians’ agency and competence.

It’s too easy to point to the fact that they very, very rarely kill anyone and argue that in fact they are a bit puny and the Israelis should just man up and show some stiff upper lip rather than calling in artillery on the nearest school for the disabled. I have myself given in to the temptation before. The point isn’t destruction so much as suppression, the effect created by the fact of being under fire. And what they want to suppress is essentially the Israeli economy.

Remember that GDP is a flow concept – loaves out of a bakery, cars off a production line – not a stock concept like Scrooge McDuck’s treasure. Israeli GDP in 2013 was $286.8bn at purchasing power parity. We can usefully think of this as $32.6 million GDP per hour. While an air warning RED is in force, it is a good guess that economic activity is basically zero. Not quite, of course, the electricity is on, the phone network is up, and the government sector is more than busy. But as a rule, if you’re in an air raid shelter you’re not at work or doing much else than worrying. The Iron Dome close-in weapons system is a major commitment of complicated technology, a diversion of social resources, so the cost of air defence has to be offset against that. And the warning system, which MIT’s Ted Postol credits with protecting the population much more than Iron Dome, does so at the cost of putting more people under warning for longer.

So, you can see why they would go for range first. During this wave of conflict, the percentage of Israeli territory under warning has been as high as 75%, or $24.6m of foregone GDP per hour. A tiny commitment of additional materials per rocket provides a much bigger effect. Also, range requires “bigger” but not “better”, at least until the structural integrity constraints of the rocket are reached. A rocket is a container of propellant, so increasing its volume doesn’t require a proportionately greater quantity of materials. Another important reason to go bigger first is that it makes it possible to launch from anywhere in the Gaza Strip.

Increasing its accuracy, though, requires the rocket maker to incorporate new skills from the civilian labour market. Electronics would be an obvious one, but let’s not run before we can walk. “Accuracy” is a more macho way of saying “quality control”. There’s even a classic book about this in the context of US nuclear missiles, and the far-reaching effects it had on the politics of the workplace.

We’ve been talking about suppression, and this may sound like the opposite of accuracy. But if you want to suppress the economy, it’s obvious that some bits of it are much more important than others, which requires accuracy. Also, as the rockets have to get past the Iron Dome system, it’s important both that the ones that do get past aren’t wasted, and that they can be concentrated in order to flood one particular radar or fire unit’s sector.

In the Gazan context, the question might be “how much of the work needs a real craftsman, and how much can be done by an underemployed 19-year old who may also be the one to fire it?”, followed by “which of those two is more likely to vote Hamas?” Siege is a fundamentally economic form of warfare; the Israelis are besieging Gaza, and the Gazans are trying to impose a counter-siege (John Kerry wasn’t entirely wrong). As always, it requires the political mobilisation of the skilled on both sides.

The Israelis reckon that the production is organised in craft workshops, about 70 of them, with about 250 employees, i.e about four employees per business. If you assume that each shop is run by a craftsman, this is quite a skill-dense process. That said, this 2009 Der Spiegel piece by a reporter who actually witnessed rocket manufacturing seems to suggest a more informal process, more closely linked to the launch team, although it also identifies that an apprenticeship career path exists or existed. Now that’s interesting!

So, is this airport disruption going to go on? Well, here’s some actual data from that fount of truth, the IDF Official Spokesperson’s twitter feed:

You can argue whether the Spokes’ is trying to play up how effective Iron Dome is, trying to play up how bad the rocketing is, or what, but focus on the blue bits. They’re important. Those represent the Israelis’ count of rockets that didn’t go off properly, dropped short, blew up, went off somewhere weird etc. That’s a direct observation of Palestinian industrial quality control, and it seems to have improved quite a bit since last time. Which fits entirely with them pitching onto the airfield at Ben-Gurion.

If you were a optimist you might say “Yay! Here comes mutual deterrence, and with it, peace! It’s the war to end wars…hmm, could be a good slogan that?” You could even point to the fact that Israel and Hezbollah aren’t fighting much since Hezbollah got the range of the Haifa container terminal and the Israeli air force showed they were just as thug as ever. But I suspect you’d be wrong.

Here’s the point on the Israeli side. Palestinian rocket range and the vote for the Israeli extreme-right are strongly correlated; each ward to come under threat reports an increase of between 2 and 6 percentage points in the extreme-right vote (being the 95% confidence intervals). Here’s the point on the Palestinian side, in the Onion‘s inimitable style.

“When I think about it, I guess I’d go so far as to say that I don’t completely enjoy how this is being done entirely without my consent. And I’m not crazy about the fact that Hamas is actually okay with me dying as long as it fuels both resentment toward Israel and support for the party. If I’m being honest, I don’t like that part at all. But then, sometimes I put myself in Hamas’ shoes, and I guess I sort of appreciate where they’re coming from, so it’s tough. Of course, my kids hate it—they’ve actually told me that a couple of times. Oh, well, I guess I’ll give it a couple more weeks and see how I feel about it then.”

At press time, sources confirmed an inbound missile was about to solidify thousands of Palestinians’ opinions on the tactic..

But as I say, the fact of better quality control is itself evidence of successful mobilisation into parts of society other parties don’t reach. The ideological content required to mobilise the people needed, on both sides, is only weakly associated with the technology that requires the mobilisation, but once it is used, it will have its own political consequences.

Who do we trust? Len McCluskey, Jerry Heywood, and SCIENCE!

It seems to be TYR Service! day, so I followed up on a discussion elsewhere about social trust in the UK by analysing Ipsos MORI’s polling series on trust by profession.

Having fiddled with various ways of filtering the data in an attempt to get a readable line chart, I decided to look at net trust – i.e. trust minus distrust – and concentrate on the change in each series, and to compare the average of the first 10 years (1983-1993) to the last 10 years in order to avoid either chasing outliers or throwing away too much data. Then, I remembered the First Canonical Principle of Data Visualisation: if your chart is not a horizontal, sorted bar chart, it probably should be.

The upshot is a bit of a surprise, although the strong increase in net trust (well over a 2 standard deviation result) for civil servants and trade unions stuck out literally whatever analysis I tried. Viva el blob, indeed. (The spreadsheet is here.)

Screenshot from 2014-07-21 14:24:29

And I really, really wasn’t expecting an increase in average trust, although I’m not sure that’s a sociologically meaningful measurement here, especially as “ordinary people” lost 9.83 percentage points of net trust, a 1.3 standard deviation result. The clergy has taken a real beating, for obvious reasons, while scientists did really well (another surprise). TV did poorly. Nothing whatsoever happened with regard to the police.

Business, which I was asked about, is a difficult one; the result here is that its net trust went up, but by so little (0.39 standard deviations) it might well not have changed at all. However, a lot depends on where you stick the pin in the donkey. The rating for 1983 was very low, -40, no surprise, rose from there to -25 in 1993, declined again and hit -37 in 2002. Not surprisingly, it hit -41 in 2009. Perhaps more surprisingly, it also hit -39 in 2005 and -25 in 2006. It’s now at -23, which could be considered a record high. However, it could also be described as fluctuating around an average of -31 since forever; fitting a linear regression through it gives you an R2 of 0.04, aka nobbut bugger all. Essentially all the change is accounted for by 1983, and as we have seen, it reverses to that level whenever there’s a recession and sometimes just for a laugh.

And if you ask specifically about bankers, well…that said, what have those pollsters been up to?

Viva Blob!

It looks like the experiment is over.

The job of Head of the Home Civil Service is being re-integrated with Cabinet Secretary and No.10 Downing Street PS. There’s also going to be a “CEO” who will perhaps be recruited from the private sector, although no names that aren’t civil servants have been put forward. But this job doesn’t have any permanent secretaries reporting to it, so it will be pretty harmless, as is the “strategy unit” run by a Johnson relative.

The original reshuffle was quite radical, aiming at de-emphasising the core civil service, importing the psuedo-private sector property guy Kerslake, and that hardy cliché, “delivery”. It looks like Heywood won.

It’s been a good week for the Blob, which is nothing but a good thing.


The main response to the nomination of Lord Hill for European commissioner was widely described as incomprehension. This was literally true; nobody understood who he was. But they didn’t fail to understand because Hill is so obscure, but rather because they were ignorant.

Martin Schulz, for example, made a fool of himself as follows:

“I cannot imagine Hill, whose views – in as far as he’s got any – are radically anti-European, getting a majority in the European Parliament,” the parliament president had said….”Today friends told me that Mr Hill is a rather pro-European person by UK standards. I’m very pleased with that,” the German Social Democrat said.

If you asked me I’d have said that as a minister, he was a significant gatekeeper for lobbyists, the 4th highest on that metric among UK-wide ministers. This was especially telling as his network degree was relatively low – people could probably access him fairly easily and get escalated to somebody important.

The explanation for Hill’s lobby-ability turns out, per FT, to be that he is a professional lobbyist himself, having represented Bell Pottinger or rather its clients before founding his own lobbying firm, Quiller, which he later sold to Huntsworth for a lot of money. Now I didn’t know that, but at least I correctly diagnosed the problem.

Also, David Cameron’s appointments process is still unimprovably awful:

Two former financial journalists, Patience Wheatcroft and Sarah Hogg, were also considered by Mr Cameron but were deemed not to have the political skills needed to work in Brussels.

Spam, and the art of negative marketing

I remember reader Ajay wondering how those godawful “Aberdeen Steak House” things around the West End have a business. I can’t find the discussion now, but I recall I told him that their ideal customer was someone for whom paying over the odds for a really bad dinner was an important part of their night out. That’s how they knew they were having a good time, I speculated.

Now here’s a Microsoft Research paper that explains this more elegantly. It examines why 419 spammers are so obvious and their production values are so crappy. Basically, the problem is false positives – it’s very important to the spammer to target suckers and to avoid wasting effort on non-suckers, and because the pool of potential marks is big relative to the pool of suckers, anything that improves the targeting is a disproportionate boost to the spammer’s payoff.

Even though the cost of sending out spam is minimal, this is only the first step in the process – once a mark responds, the attacker starts to incur costs. Non-suckers who respond will get wise at some point, leaving the attacker with a loss. Because suckers are rare, it’s hard to find a way to predict who might be a sucker. So the optimal strategy is to broadcast as widely as possible, but to tailor the message. The reason why they look like only a real sucker wouldn’t spot them is that they’re specifically designed to be easy to spot, so as to put off the non-suckers. An upshot of this is that the people who get their kicks by stringing 419 spammers along may actually be doing useful work.

I suspect this phenomenon – essentially the opposite of advertising, a sort of negative marketing – is much more common than we may think, and that it explains much else beyond terrible restaurants. Boris Johnson comes to mind, as do quite a few other politicians. In a low-turnout context, it ought to work, especially if you can put off the non-suckers from voting at all.

Big Sportsday 2.0: Yorkshire

So yer big french pushbike sportsday. Having run away from the London ‘Lympics, you may be surprised to learn I was back in Yorkshire for it. The explanation is simple – it went through the village I grew up in twice, a unique distinction. As our old neighbour’s slogan goes, so good it’s coming twice. And despite being a Huge Event, as an entirely temporary and nomadic project, it’s hard to use it as a pretext to knock down a council estate.

My biggest impression was a sort of weird carnival of mobility. Bicycles, motor vehicles, and aircraft appeared in a very brief period of historical time, very close together and a surprisingly long while after the emergence of steam power. The cliché example would be that the French newspaper that sponsored the first Tour was called L’Auto and then retitled itself as L’Équipe. The link with the growing mass media ought to be obvious. The experience on the days literally smelled of diesel, with the waves of publicity vehicles, motorbike cops from all over the country, gendarmes, incredibly low-flying media helicopters, Garde Republicaine troopers from the French president’s security detachment, and such. It’s surprising how many big engines, indeed helo turboshaft engines, are needed to keep up with some guys on bikes.

Unlike football, say, the geographical scale of the Tour is far more than you can appreciate directly as a spectator. They hammer by and then they’re gone. Much of the driving about by all sorts of officials in big cars and distributors of samples seems to be an effort to take your mind off this. But this is part of the point. It was originally designed as an Edwardian nation-building project, something that would get people to take part in the imagined community known as France. It’s still very much like that. In fact, the pain in the arse of closing roads in a motorised society even helps. Putting it on requires a really big social mobilisation to organise it all; you know it does when your neighbour’s on the committee. In many ways, the actual race is an excuse for the participation.

And this was about the first project I can remember that was organised on a Yorkshire-wide basis. The participation was very real, not least because all the people like me who had obviously headed back up north. We literally danced in the streets of Addingham, or at least the Swan pub car park, which has front doors onto it. That’s good enough for me. This sort of mobilisation, of course, tends to obscure or postpone important conflicts and divisions, which is probably why I was openly cheering Chris Froome’s epic dash through Sheffield in the shirt of Team…Sky. Oy.

That said, folk yelled “South Yorkshire Mass Murderer” at their contribution to the route escort, roidy-looking guys in Iraq-merc shirts and BMW 4x4s doing nothing of obvious use, so don’t think we’re going soft. The police festival was something else – West Yorkshire looking astonished at people smiling, and trying to ride their motorbikes as if for a royal funeral, the national escort group showing off a little, and the French cops (I counted three varieties of French cops) doing their hell on wheels act.

Let’s hold that thought, though – the first Yorkshire-wide project in years. There seems to be a push on. Here’s York Council leader James Alexander calling for “devolution”. George Osborne, of all people, thinks the trans-Pennine railway needs money and Labour-leaning trainhead Paul Salveson comments. Wakefield council leader Peter Box wants independence for Yorkshire, although I think he’s trolling. The physical reality of this is that Box is the chairman of the West Yorkshire combined authority, which is a bit like the West Riding in that it integrates Leeds, Bradford, Wakey, and Kirklees councils. Box is the chair presumably because Wakefield is the historic capital. There’s even a movement. Even Clegg has been offering warm words, although fuck him. Labour people are making the running across these efforts, although in another sense the party likes the idea of a bigger Northern structure.

I’ve blogged before that devolution seemed to work very well for Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, and London in the sense that they were the only regions not to see falling real median incomes. That sounds good, although London was a case of standing outside when it rained money. The Vale of York ‘kippers sound worse. Also, Uncle Jimmy would have been on this like the proverbial tramp on chips.