Search This Blog

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Citizens, Bureaucrats and Politicians: How Corruption Begins

The British newspapers have been full of stuff about the failings of Italy's politicians but very little about the failings of Italy's citizens. But you only get to where Italy has now got itself - in effect, Berlusconi is back - if there are very many stakeholders in corruption.

Maybe a quarter, maybe a third, of Italy's voting citizens vote for Corruption. It makes sense. If you allow politicians their Big Corruption - their bribes, their nepotism, their public works contracts, their perks of office - then they will allow you your Small Corruption - not paying your taxes, paying small bribes to make bureaucrats go away, being yourself the small bureaucrat who takes the bribe, and so on

In any case, there are so many laws in Italy and the compliance costs (queuing) so high that it is pretty much impossible to live within the law even if you want to. So you may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb - a philosophy which has served Signor Berlusconi very well, since the law's delays mean that you never get hung anyway.

You might say that the relationship between corrupt politicians and corrupt citizens is symbiotic. It's not the best of all possible worlds, but since it is very hard to exit from it, you may as well make the best of it, as do the Mafia and the Vatican.

That thought reminded me of an encounter with my local bureaucracy here in Brighton and Hove a dozen years ago. They were introducing Parking Zones and making a hash of it, drawing lines on maps without actually visiting the streets they were Zoning. I found myself living in a block of flats physically located in a street in one Zone but with a postcode - derived from it's side entrance - which left the building Unzoned . And the Unzoned street was double yellow lined.To cut short a dull story, I rang the Council with my tale of woe. The chap on the other end was already familiar with this kind of problem. And he was ready with Advice: Find someone living  in the Zone who doesn't have a car and ask them to apply for a Permit and hand it to you (for whatever price is agreed)! Problem Solved!

In other words, commit a criminal offence to solve your problem - and relieve us of any obligation to do something about our badly-designed Parking Zones.

At this point, I discovered something about myself: I am not very good at Corruption, even when officially encouraged. I waited for the Zones to be re-drawn and then got my legal Permit. Two years later.

 I didn't have the spunk of Tim Parks - the British writer who for some unaccountable reason lives in Italy - who tells a nice story about his First Time paying a bribe. It was paid to get a bureaucrat off his back and was modest enough to secure only temporary relief: he handed over the money and  watched as the bureaucrat moved his file from the top of a very tall pile - to the bottom. Maybe in the end he set up a Standing Order.

Italy only functions at all because it has a vast Black Economy and informal ways of settling disputes which allow citizens to avoid recourse to the police, lawyers and the judiciary. I guess its politicians rely on those things too. The legal alternatives do not impress: Amanda Knox and the Captain of the Costa Concordia come to mind.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Anatomy and Destiny

Nearly all babies are born sexed as male or female and can be identified as Boy or Girl on a Birth Certificate. Their birth sex is a very good predictor of subsequent bodily changes, liabilities and capacities through puberty to old age.  This predictability is independent of culture. There are no cultures in which human females develop prostate cancer and no cultures in which human  males get pregnant and give birth .

But is birth sex a good predictor - independent of cultures - of anything else? For thousands of years,  every known culture has answered Yes! to this question and for a few decades political correctness has answered No!

I  always felt that it would be very odd if males and females only differed in anatomy and blindingly obvious bodily facts linked to that. At the same time, I felt that it would be most unlikely that the differences would simply be the ones insisted on so strenuously by male-dominated cultures and usually to the advantage of males - though not always so: if males define themselves against females as natural fighters then, naturally, they are more likely to get killed. The military cemeteries of the First World War are very good testimony to where this belief about themselves landed them. It doesn't look like the work of male self-interest.

Leave that aside.

More likely, I felt, many or most natural differences between males and females would be things we did not think of first time round. They would be culture - independent tendencies which might show up in behaviour and might not, depending on how cultures responded to them. They might be relatively complex tendencies which cultures didn't fully grasp and so could neither repress or encourage consistently. In other words, they might or might not escape the whole business of cultural gendering which turns most males into Boys and Men and most females into Girls and Women.

In addition, and politically incorrectly, I felt that the whole business of cultural gendering would sometimes be working with the grain of natural tendencies and sometimes against it. It ought to be possible to distinguish those different cases and to look at what happens when Culture has an easy ride and to compare that with cases where it doesn't.

For example, it would be cruel of Nature not to incline females to at least some enjoyment of pregnancy, childbirth, breast feeding and early nurturing of their babies. If Nature was even just a little bit kind to females, then Cultures would have an easier task erecting onto this natural basis elaborate ideologies of Motherhood. You may end up with clap-trap but clap-trap which at least initially went with the grain of natural tendencies.

In contrast, consider how it would also be cruel of Nature to incline females against enjoyment of sex. It is sometimes said that Nature makes females less interested in sex because that protected them against unwanted pregnancy. On that basis, whole ideologies of female Modesty can be - and have been - constructed.

But this claim makes the mistake of equating sex with vaginal intercourse, which is itself a fairly bold ideological move. If you don't make that move, you can say (for example) that females have no disinclination to seek sexual pleasure and that when Cultures try to argue otherwise, they are opposing the grain of a Natural tendency. When that happens, you can end up not only with ideological clap-trap but public beheadings. Maybe that is the consequence of a Culture barricading itself against recognition and acceptance of a powerful Natural tendency.

The spirit of Political Correctness is probably right since it raises the bar to admitting claims to Natural differences between the sexes. But it becomes an oppressive ideology to be resisted when it insists, on principle, that there are no differences to be discovered. Maybe there are differences and we have so far not been very good at discovering them or their implications.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

In Praise of Uniformity

Quite often  I stay in hotels, usually when I am working somewhere. I quite like hotels, even fairly basic ones like Ibis. 

But there is always that moment in the morning when, not yet fully awake, you step up to the shower and try to answer the question, How The Fuck Does This One Work?

The question is normally only answered after a rude awakening from scalding or freezing water and much frantic fiddling with non-obvious controls. If this was a plane, it would have crashed by now.

 All Showers Are Different except in two crucial respects: First, Fashion dictates that it should be completely unclear how they operate. As a result, red and blue dots and dashes are always painted on a scale invisible to the early morning naked eye. Second, Fashion dictates that no knobs, levers, handles, should be easily graspable - and that they should be ungraspable once the hand is wet.

Why can't  all hotel showers be the same? Why can't they be designed for ease of use by complete strangers? Why do hotels offer a Choice I can do without?

Product differentiation is not the same as choice. Sometimes products are differentiated out of laziness - the manufacturer cannot be bothered to sign up to standardisation schemes. Sometimes they are differentiated to prevent interchange of parts. Sometimes they are differentiated to give us a genuine choice. But I think the latter is actually quite rare. Maybe the labels differ but the product doesn't.

But once I have chosen my hotel (location, price, cleanliness, quietness - whatever) I actually want things to be more or less the same. And especially the showers.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Is The West Ready For Democracy?

The Czech Ambassador to the United States is worried because some Americans are confusing Czech and Chechen. In the aftermath of the Boston bombings that is cause for concern because a certain amount of street retribution will come the way of Chechens - or Czechs - or maybe just young men with olive skin and back-to-front baseball caps.

We already knew that many Americans are profoundly ignorant of world geography but only too happy to cheer when their government bombs far-away countries which those same Americans cannot locate on the map.

I don't think the "classical" theorists of democracy really foresaw this outcome to the "mass education" which they thought would create an educated citizenry, every one of them worthy of their right to vote.

Nor did they really foresee the continuation of  a kind of deference which means that the United Kingdom's - well, England's - political classte can still decide which issues voters are allowed to have opinions about and which are reserved to the judgement of their Betters.

Nor did they foresee that voters - and not just politicians - could be enthusiasts for Corruption as Usual. But at least a quarter of Italy's and Greece's voters knowingly and deliberately Vote for the Crook. They reckon that if they vote for Big Corruption they will continue to be allowed their own Little Corruption. As a result, the Greek government is bankrupt and stagnant debt-riddled farcical Italy's could still go that way.

Nor did the classic theorists of democracy reckon with voters' capacity to display the kind of  ostrich-like conservatism which we see both in conservative Britain and state-socialist France. Voters in these countries will sign up for Change in China, Change in Russia, Change in fact anywhere far enough away, and Regime Change anywhere where the faces are not very white and the bombs not very powerful. But change at home? Not a chance. That is why in Britain, for example, the Ministry of Education is nowadays always entrusted to a pantomime reactionary - Tony Blair gave the job to Work of God Ruth Kelly and David Cameron picked God, the Queen and School Uniform Michael Gove.

In China, the leadership probably reckons that if it can hold off Democracy long enough China will become the world' indisputable super-power. A billion strong population and ferocious growth rates will help. But so too will Democracy in the West, which prevents countries as different as those named above from focussing on the future. Of course, those countries will remain good at some things - in Britain, focussing on the past.

Saturday, 13 April 2013


Why do native English speakers have so much difficulty with apostrophes when writing in English? They clearly do, and you can write an easy newspaper column bewailing the fact (Michael Skapinker did so recently in the Financial Times but it has been done before and will no doubt be done again).

We are told  that Civilisation As We Know It Is in Decline, The Barbarians Are At The Gate, and so on through the usual suspect clich├ęs. But it is worth considering other possibilities.

One possibility is this. The rules which govern the use of apostrophes in written English are - for some unknown reason -  unadapted to being learnt. The List of Rules is quite short and believers in the List reckon that, really, the List is both easy to learn and apply. Maybe this is untrue.

Let me begin with the following story, though I forget all the details. There is a party trick (and psychological experiment) which consists in giving someone a simple list of simple numbers to add up, either with pen and paper or in their head. For certain combinations of numbers, the victim ( the experimental subject) will almost always add up wrong and arrive at a number which the joker (the experimenter) can predict in advance. The trick is curious because the numbers are not difficult numbers and the mistake made is always the same. It just seems that the particular combination of numbers touches a fault or triggers a glitch in the way we normally do addition.

There are other tricks which reveal things like our difficulty in repeating things backwards or repeating them normally but at the same time inserting arbitrary words or numbers into the strings with which we have started.

All these quirky facts point towards the idea (the theory) that some things come more naturally to us than others and that some things are more learnable than others. Tonal music comes easily to humans; atonal music doesn't. See if you can hum it while I play it!

Sometimes what linguists call prescriptive grammar is meant to be difficult. The idea really is to trip people up or to trip up people. In this way, you can create or reinforce a distinction between insiders (who have studied this particular glass bead game intensively) and outsiders (who have not). Both spoken and written languages are targets for prescriptivists seeking to create social distinctions.

I always remember being told by a privately-educated woman that at school they were taught the sentence I've got a lot of nice things. This was a mnemonic for all the expressions which well-spoken girls were supposed to avoid:

I've should always be I have
I've got should always be I have
a lot should be many
nice should never be nice but instead delightful, pleasant, fine, fun but probably not cute 
things could be possessions but really should be more specific and not generic (which is what things is)

And so a girl who opened a conversation with I have many delightful possessions at home would immediately make clear where she was coming from (the Home Counties probably).

All  this bears on apostrophe rules. My guess is that they are more or less unlearnable because:

(1) they include rules relating to demonstrating possession (John's book) alongside rules which relate to abbreviation or elision in speech (John's booking the tickets). It is maybe unfortunate that the same written tic ( ' ) is used for these two rather different purposes, making it more difficult to deploy the tic correctly, since two different kinds of case have constantly to be canvassed: compare John's booking the tickets with John's booking the tickets proved a disaster.
(2) the rules get mixed up with rules for plural formation: Is The Diary of Mrs Jones to be rendered as Mrs Jones' Diary or as Mrs Jones's Diary? And do you  Keep up with the Jones's, Keep Up With the Joness' , Keep Up with the Joneses' Keep Up with the Jones? Keep up with the Joneses?.... )

So the list of apostrophe rules actually operates over a complicated matrix of possibilities:

Possession + Singular
Elision + Singular
Possession + Plural
Elision + Plural

Running all the necessary  tests together clearly causes us a problem. As a result, I suggest that apostrophe rules are best regarded as something for Party Tricks. In everyday life, they can quite easily be ignored as in todays Blog post or avoided as in this Blog post.

Added 25 July 2018: This material is now incorporated into my book Prose Improvements (degree zero 2017), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones, and other booksellers

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Come, Kim Jong-Un, Drop One on Slough ...

I have been driving along the coast east and west of Brighton this week. You wouldn't think that this is one of the richer parts of one of the richest countries in the world. So much cheap ("Jerry Built" it was once called), nasty, dilapidated housing, not fit for humans now. Unplanned, unsuitable and unloved. Maybe lots of money is spent on Do It Yourself - but only for interior titivating of houses which should be demolished.

Drive up to London through Croydon, Streatham and Brixton and you will see the same semi-urban building squalor.

Nowhere for the dustbins, nowhere for the cars, cheap and nasty windows, Bend Yourself Double rooms in roofs, broken masonry, old aerials, litter ....

Only bombing could make us start again. That's why German towns are so much more solid. They all had to be rebuilt after the British carpet bombed them flat - and, remarkably, they were re-built well. Solid walls, sensible proportions (medium rise flats, green spaces ...). Always somewhere for the dustbins....

House prices and rents are proportionately lower in Germany, so people have disposable income to spend on maintaining the buildings they live in. Unlike Britain, Germany is not a country run for the benefit of landlords and property developers.

When you see new housing going up in Germany - or the Czech Republic to take another example - what you most often see are medium-rise apartment blocks with fairly generous green areas around. You don't see "Boutique developments" or "Exclusive collections" - or the rabbit hutches which accompany these property developer descriptions. You see sensible homes at sensible prices.

Most people enter their adult lives hoping to find secure and reasonably well-paid employment and somewhere decent and affordable to live. British politicians respond to this by shaking their heads and telling you that these are things you can't have. Why not settle for Trident submarine replacement instead? After all, in North Korea people starve so that Kim Jong-Un can play with his missiles.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Benefits! Benefits! Read All Abaht It!

What is called The Benefits Culture is essentially the creation of political parties and the Treasury.

The Treasury hates ring-fenced money and National Insurance schemes are just that. If people are paying in to a scheme to insure themselves against unemployment or sickness, then there has to be a published schedule which shows how payments in are linked to benefits out. That's just the kind of thing the Treasury hates because it creates a pool of money it can't divert at the will of politicians.

So the Treasury favours systems in which the level of Benefits is set at will and funded from general taxation. In other words, it is always seeking to abolish the distinction between Insurance schemes and a social safety net designed to assist those whose needs, for one reason or another, are not addressed by Insurance schemes.

In our deference culture, Politicians want to be seen as Benefactors. They don't like the idea of Insurance schemes either. It gives the person in the street too much of a sense of entitlement and not enough of a sense of gratitude. So politicians have cast themselves as Benefit-factors. Here, take this, my man! So they tend to think of all Benefits as acts of generosity.

Gordon Brown provides a paradigm of the politician seeking gratitude and deference. He looks on the so-called "Winter Fuel Payment" as one of his great achievements. But what is it? An arbitrary cash handout funded from general taxation and delivered no-questions-asked into the bank account of anyone and everyone over 60 - and a fortnight before Christmas! That's not a Benefit, that's a Bribe.

There is another concern politicians have. They can't see themselves persuading voters that a decent Pension is going to cost them a lot of money all through their working lives. Building an adequate pension pot is a costly business and gets more costly as life expectancy rises. So politicians prefer to fudge the Pension Problem, looking to general taxation to fund payments which should be funded from long-term Savings schemes.

The end result is the present mess where taxpayers quite rightly have concerns about the level of unfunded Benefits commitments which have to be covered from general taxation.

The only way to row back from this situation is to re-discover Insurance schemes, compulsory and life-long.

Every child should get a National Insurance number at birth which initially entitles the child to free access to a National Health Service. At least part of the cost of that access should be met not from general taxation but by parental contributions directly into their child's Insurance account. Far from receiving Benefits for having children, people should expect to bear at least some of the costs in a way which is transparent and Health Insurance is a good place to start.

At sixteen, every young person should then be enrolled into an Employment Insurance scheme to provide protection against Unemployment. They should be expected to make some nominal contribution even when they are still in full time education. Then if they are unemployed on leaving University, they will already have some Entitlement to Unemployment Benefit.

Then, perhaps a little later, at 21 say, everyone should be enrolled in a compulsory National Pension Scheme which could offer variable levels of Benefit calibrated against variable levels of contribution. But there would be an unavoidable minimum which everyone would have to pay.

All three schemes would require top-flight  fund managers and really competent actuaries.

As for the Social Safety Net, the idea should be to offer assistance to those struck by misfortune, including disability, not to subside fecklessness or low wages or baby farming. A high minimum wage and a high threshold before income tax kicks in are the best ways of shrinking the cost of the safety net.

And we should take a lead from China. There should be a Three Child Rule. Want to have more than three children? Well, go ahead. But you're on your own if you do.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

I Am Afraid I Don't Remember. . .

Yesterday they took me in for questioning:

"Have you ever met Lord X?"
"Are you sure?"
"Well, in my lifetime I've only ever met a few members of the House of Lords. I can tick them off on my fingers ..." And being the sort of person who likes to show off a bit, I did just that. Lord X's name didn't get a ticking.

Then they Googled in front of me.

It took seconds to find the photo which shows me standing beside Lord X. Just him and me. I recognised the steps behind us immediately, even before they told me to read the accompanying text. 31 October 1989. Seems I had organised a three day conference on Discipline in Schools. And invited Lord X to speak. I had no doubt set up the photo too.

I have absolutely no memory of this event or meeting Lord X. It is unnerving. I am afraid that now I will invent a false memory of having met Lord X, just to cover up my embarassment.

In the past, when I read newspaper reports of politicians claiming Not To Remember events, I was scornful. Of course, they remembered! Lying scoundrels! Now I am not so sure.Maybe they do forget. They lead much busier and more stressful lives than I do.

Trying to find an excuse for forgetting Lord X I hit upon the thought that my marriage had either just begun to disintegrate or was about to do so. That the conference may have been very dull would not (to my mind) be sufficient explanation. Nor is it likely that I committed some terrible faux pas with Lord X. I tend to remember my faux pas (well, I think I do ...).

The implication of this absence in my memory must be that there are other holes too. Maybe bigger and more important ones. Most of the time, nothing reminds us of those holes. Occasionally, someone writes and claims to know you, but even when they give a date and a context, it doesn't jog anything. Nowadays, as my example illustrates, Google can hold in memory what we have forgotten.

I was always good at remembering facts and figures and so I was good in Quizzes, except for characters in novels and films whose names I always forget. My own life has always been a bit more problematic and I've known that for years. I don't remember my Birthdays. And I can remember struggling even when much younger - say in my forties - over things like past girlfriends. Did I sleep with her? There was one in particular who caused me much anxiety. Clearly, we had seen each other on several or even many occasions. I could remember her name and her circumstances. But I couldn't remember having sex with her. But surely we did, I kept thinking. Was it so disastrous? But then I would have remembered that (just as I remember my faux pas). To this day, if asked, I would have to reply "I am Afraid I Don't Remember" even though I can imagine my scornful self scorning such a pitiful answer.