All entries for January 2006

January 09, 2006

Cameron on Tuition Fees

From BBC News:

The Conservative Party has announced a U-turn on student finance and proposes to keep student tuition fees. Previously it had promised to scrap all fees, including top-ups being introduced from this autumn in England. On Monday party leader David Cameron told sixth formers that if universities were to be well funded, the money had to come from somewhere. In another change Mr Cameron also said he believed there should be no limit on student numbers..At the last election, the Conservatives said they would scrap all tuition fees while retaining Labour's reintroduced grants for poorer students. Instead they had said they would have bigger student loans at a commercial interest rate, rather than the effective zero rate that applies now.

Provided he adopts Labour’s plans to allow deferred payment of tuition fees, this sounds fair. Large loans reduce the need for less wealthy students to work while at university, which limit the amount of time that can be spent on academic work. The deferred fees arrest the decline in the quality of UK universities relative to those abroad. These are the key problems highlighted by LSE’s Nicholas Barr an avid proponent of variable income-contingent fees. In a report for the House of Commons Education and Skills Committee he states,

There is agreement, first, about two core problems:

Students are poor because the system of support does not give them enough to live on. Two results follow: students have to turn to expensive overdraft and credit-card debt and/or to extensive part-time work; and the parsimony of support is an impediment to access for people contemplating university.

Universities are poor, creating worries about quality. The UK would have to spend an extra £3.5 billion per year to reach the EU average.

It’s understandable that the prospect of hefty debt following university may put people off; particularly the poor, for whom further education is most needed. However, if people are forward looking enough to think about the debt they’ll leave with, should they not also consider the higher earning potential yielded by a marketable degree? Rather than being a justification for subsidies, an aversion to taking on debt is reason for parents and teachers to engage students in serious, practical discussions when these decisions must be made.


January 07, 2006

Ignoring Arguments & Conservative Policy

Conjectures & Refutations recently linked to a piece describing how people on opposite sides of an issue can talk past each other; each appearing to misrepresent and ignore the key arguments of the other. It outlines a subconscious tendency to do a disservice to arguments which are likely to cause cognitive dissonance. Here’s a quote

What you see here is..[someone] tapping into his understanding in order to formulate a rebuttal. But that rebuttal probably won't be very good, because he has not allowed himself to be fully aware of that understanding [that comes from not subconsciously disregarding the argument]. The "understanding" is locked up in a mental cage so it can't hurt him.

There are many warning signs that this is taking place. One you may recognize is "Yes-butting", where the person replies, "Yes, but" to every challenging statement they hear, then makes a fairly lame rebuttal.

Antiprocess [term used to describe the rejection of troubling info] doesn't help Bob get any closer to truth, but his mind has already assessed the information in advance and perceived a threat. Thus, the last thing it wants is understanding, even if that means turning away from truth. That's because at a level below Bob's awareness, his mind has decided that there is a threat to his mental equilibrium.

Read it in full here.

The article explains why the public may dismiss Conservative party statements containing loaded statements like ‘tax cuts’, ‘private sector’, ‘efficiency gains’, ‘business competitiveness’, etc.* Cameron’s choice to focus on social issues and to co-opt positive themes of family, society and wealth inequality is thus a sound strategic choice. Perhaps with better use of language, he could illustrate how less interventionist policies could help achieve the left’s goals of better opportunity for the less well off to a better extent than the traditional left.

A strategic choice or not, I suspect Cameron has as much faith in his ability to engineer 'better' social structures and public services as Brown & Blair. That miguided confidence doesn't bode well for proponents of liberalism. That he has even allow the party be associated with a scheme of compulsary social service (see here) says something. This view was aired by David Green of Civitas in a Telegraph article earlier in the week.

Mr Cameron was elected without anyone being quite sure what he stood for. Now quite a few of the blanks have been filled in. Yesterday, he ruled out social health insurance. Oliver Letwin, his head of policy, has said he would be "utterly astonished" if education vouchers were accepted, and has called for welfare policy to be based on egalitarian redistribution. It is beginning to look as if the policy commissions will not be open investigations of policy options at all. The "right answers" have already been decided for health, education and social security, which account for about 55 per cent of public spending.

On Sunday, Mr Cameron declared the police to be the "last great unreformed public service". They are no such thing. Health and education remain public-sector monopolies, frayed at the edges by talk of consumer choice but firmly under state direction.

Rapid, radical upheaval of existing structures is unpractical but it’s unfortunate to see options closed off so early. I'm no longer sure what I should be looking forward to under a Cameron leadership.

*This isn’t to say those who don’t agree with traditional Conservative policies are in any way foolish. The process works in the reverse too.


January 05, 2006

What is your dangerous idea?

What is your dangerous idea?

That’s the question edge.org has posed to leading scientists, journalists and cultural figures for 2006. Last year’s question was “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?" which I commented on here. With 119 entries, there’s plenty to look through. Here’s a clip from Oliver Morton of Nature magazine who disagrees with those who think Earth itself is at threat from climate change.

many people in the various green movements feel compelled to add on the notion that the planet itself is in crisis, or doomed; that all life on earth is threatened. And in a world where that rhetoric is common, the idea that this eschatological approach to the environment is baseless is a dangerous one. Since the 1970s the environmental movement has based much of its appeal on personifying the planet and making it seem like a single entity, then seeking to place it in some ways "in our care". It is a very powerful notion, and one which benefits from the hugely influential iconographic backing of the first pictures of the earth from space; it has inspired much of the good that the environmental movement has done. The idea that the planet is not in peril could thus come to undermine the movement's power. This is one of the reasons people react against the idea so strongly. One respected and respectable climate scientist reacted to Andy Revkin's recent use of the phrase "In fact, the planet has nothing to worry about from global warming" in the New York Times with near apoplectic fury.

See the entries in full here.


January 04, 2006

Steven Landsburg on Healthcare and the Poor

Steven Landsburg writes about a cancer patient who was being kept alive by a ventilator. As the patient’s kin were unable to cover the cost of running the ventilator, it was turned off and the patient subsequently died.

A family has gathered to mourn a woman gone too soon. Tirhas Habtegiris was an East African immigrant and only 27 when she died Monday afternoon. She'd been on a respirator at Baylor Regional Medical Center at Plano for 25 days. "They handed me this letter on December 1st. and they said, we're going to give you 10 days so on the 11th day, we're going to pull it out," said her brother Daniel Salvi. Salvi was stunned to get this hand-delivered notice invoking a complicated and rarely used Texas law where a doctor is "not obligated to continue" medical treatment "medically inappropriate" when care is not beneficial.

Read the story in full here.

Landsburg states that such an outcome can occur within a compassionate society as we’re forced to make choices about what to provide for the poor. He says,

The back of my envelope says that a lifetime's worth of ventilator insurance costs somewhere around $75. I'm going to hazard a guess that if, on her 21st birthday, you'd asked Tirhas Habtegiris to select her own $75 present, she wouldn't have asked for ventilator insurance. She might have picked $75 worth of groceries; she might have picked a new pair of shoes; she might have picked a few CDs, but not ventilator insurance..There is nothing particularly compassionate about giving ventilator insurance to a person who really feels a more urgent need for milk or eggs. One might even say that choosing to ignore the major sources of others' distress is precisely the opposite of sympathetic consciousness.

Read the article in full here.

Not surprisingly, people weren’t very happy with that. Some blogs commented on the feasibility of ventilator insurance, others asked whether the race of the patient was an influencing factor and many more said compassion shouldn’t be constrained by cost. Take this for example

Despite Landsburg's aphorism that "economic considerations are the basis of true compassion", there is nothing compassionate about this. A truly compassionate society responds to a person's needs at the present moment – it shouldn't look back at what decisions led to this. Maybe when she was 21, Ms Habtegiris' need was for food – when she was 27, her need was for medical care. It may be the case that "there is nothing particularly compassionate about giving ventilator insurance to a person who really feels a more urgent need for milk or eggs", but equally there is nothing compassionate about turning up at the bedside of a terminally ill patient with a basket of groceries when they need a ventilator.

If compassion is our sole concern, there’s no limit to what the state is justified in taking from its citizens. It’s not possible to meet all needs at every stage of life. The number of needs that could be met is near infinite. Start raiding the purses of today's citizens to cater for as many of these needs as possible, and you'll compromise the wellbeing of future generations. Had compassion taken precedence over property and markets hundreds of years ago, we wouldn’t have much money to distribute to the poor, we'd have smaller hospitals, less equipment, fewer drugs, etc. The behaviour of the hospital and the highly unfortunate consequence for the cancer patient in question is what generated the living standards we currently enjoy. Whether there’s a reasonable balance between compassion and intervention is up for question. However, many of those outraged at Landsburg’s comments consider it abhorrent that he’s even willing to compromise.

Not surprisingly, most comment ignored Landsburg’s ending challenge; how many of the critics have set up some charity to help ensure others won’t face the same fate? Are they upholding their ideals of a compassionate society by making contributions that’ll alleviate the problems faced by the poor in the arenas of health and education? Their eagerness to comment on his story from the comfort of laptops and desktops worth hundreds of pounds implies that they’re perfectly happy with tradeoffs between compassion and private benefit in their individual lives. Their outrage doesn’t reflect their day to day choices.


January 02, 2006

Articles on the Minimum Wage

A recent article from the Mises Institute discusses minimum wage legislation.

The rate of unemployment tends to be directly proportional to the excess of labor costs over productivity. In many European countries with official minimum wages of more than $10 an hour, the rate of unemployment is measured in double-digit rates although governments spend massive amounts on make-work projects. Some victims readily submit to their fate and endure a life of idleness and bare subsistence. Many learn to labor in black markets where goods are produced and services are rendered in violation of minimum wage edicts and other regulations and controls. But most victims are young people with little training and know-how who tend to react angrily and violently. Their rate of unemployment actually amounts to multiples of the official rate. And if society should be divided ethnically, youth training and productivity may be lower yet and its rate of unemployment may approach 100 percent. Such a labor situation is laden with anger and fury which not only breeds high crime rates but also, at any time, may turn to violence by mobs of unemployed youth. The recent riots of French youth clearly resembled the riots of unemployed Americans in Watts in 1965, in San Francisco in 1966, Detroit and Baltimore in 1967, Chicago and Cleveland in 1968, and in Los Angeles in 1992.

Read in full here.

Few would dispute that higher wages are a good thing. The same applies to other employee benefits like holiday entitlements, maternity leave and legislation governing layoffs. Benefits accrue to those in employment, but on the other side of the equation you have those who would have been granted a job had employment costs been marginally lower. When it comes to the minimum wage, those on the ‘wrong’ side of the equation are the most vulnerable members of society; the very young, the highly unskilled and those susceptable to discrimination.

The welfare system is supposed to compensate these vulnerable groups. The government doesn’t want people to make claims indefinitely. Welfare should be a temporary solution whilst a job search is in progress. I’m sure in most cases that’s what happens, but for those with limited literacy, numeracy and experience I bet it’s not easy. Raising the cost of employment via minimum wages increases the likelihood of long term dependency.

Suppose such legislation was eliminated and we had jobs paying £1, £2 and £3 per hour. It’s pitiful compensation by average expectations, no doubt. However from the view of the recipient, the benefits aren’t just monetary. This paragraph from Walter Williams sums it up well

The primary beneficiaries of so-called McJobs are people who enter the workforce with modest or absent work skills in areas such as: being able to show up for work on time, operating a machine, counting change, greeting customers with decorum and courtesy, cooperating with fellow workers and accepting orders from supervisors. Very often the people who need these job skills, which some of us might trivialize, are youngsters who grew up in dysfunctional homes and attended rotten schools. It's a bottom rung on the economic ladder that provides them an opportunity to move up. For many, the financial component of a low-pay, low-skill job is not nearly as important as what they learn on the job that can make them more valuable workers in the future

Read it in full here.


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