All entries for December 2005

December 31, 2005

New Year, Introspection, Happiness

An article from the New York Times discusses the introspection people engage in come New Year.

Too much analysis can confuse people about how they really feel. There are severe limits to what we can discover through self-reflection, and trying to explain the unexplainable does not lead to a sudden parting of the seas with our hidden thoughts and feelings revealed like flopping fish.
What can we do to improve ourselves and feel happier? Numerous social psychological studies have confirmed Aristotle's observation that "We become just by the practice of just actions, self-controlled by exercising self-control, and courageous by performing acts of courage." If we are dissatisfied with some aspect of our lives, one of the best approaches is to act more like the person we want to be, rather than sitting around analyzing ourselves.

Social psychologist Daniel Batson and colleagues at the University of Kansas found that participants who were given an opportunity to do a favor for another person ended up viewing themselves as kind, considerate people – unless, that is, they were asked to reflect on why they had done the favor. People in that group tended in the end to not view themselves as being especially kind. The trick is to go out of our way to be kind to others without thinking too much about why we're doing it. As a bonus, our kindnesses will make us happier.

Read it in full here (via Marginal Revolution)

Reflection needn’t involve mere analysis of ones current situation as the first paragraph quoted suggests. Yes you can think for hours dwelling on some issue and end up not knowing where you stand because a) You can never know the plans and thoughts of other people involved, and b) You’ll never know what would have happened if you had taken an alternative path in a past scenario. The second paragraph quoted, encourages people to actually do something and overcome analysis paralysis. Well what should you be doing then? I suppose that’s what reflection on the past is supposed to tell you; we’re supposed to come away knowing what’s important to us.

If there’s an unambiguously ‘bad’ situation that can’t be reversed then action seems futile and planning equally so. Acceptance becomes the aim of the game. Focussing on positive achievements during the year may help take the edge of the annoyance/sadness.

If there are areas of life that aren't necessarily bad but merely a source of uncertaintly, planning and taking action may be highly suitable. No use spending the next few months wondering whether or not you’re capable of this or that; whether or not some goal is worth the effort; wondering what someone thinks of xyz, etc. You’ll never find the answer internally. Any answer you come to probably doesn't correctly reflect reality. Better to take some action and gain some feedback. Hopefully that feedback will be favourable. Even if it's not, the extra data allows you to come to better conclusions about issues and the mental energy taken up by uncertainty can be diverted elsewhere.

Whatever you think of this period of the year, reflection, resolutions and the like, I hope the coming term and 2006 as a whole goes well for you all :)

December 28, 2005

Government Sponsored Holidays

Libby Purves wrote an article in yesterday’s Times about assisting poor families who’re unable to go on holiday. She stresses the benefits such assistance would yield

What struck the Laurances [friends of the author] strongly was the frequent report from families and social workers that the simple holiday week could “spread” over much more of the year. Families talked about it in advance, chippy children worked and saved up, grandparents joined in, and for months afterwards everyone shared memories of the laughs and the novelty. All these things assuaged the difficulty of life, fostered optimism and made children do better in school. I was haunted at the time by two cases of parents committing suicide and taking their children with them: listening to the Laurances it struck me that if you had a memory of your child laughing on a beach that would be at least a bit harder to do.

Read it in full here.

That makes sense. I’ve spent the last couple of summers visiting relatives in the US. The trips are something to look forward to during the holiday and the pictures taken will yield a smile at many points during the year. Periodic breaks make the tedium of work and school more tolerable, and it's unfortunate that not everyone can disappear elsewhere once or twice a year.

However, she does the issue she’s campaigning for a disservice. Firstly she doesn’t consider how it’ll be funded. Practicalities are boring, yet essential if ideas are to meet reality. If higher taxation is implicit in the discussion, we’re in a sorry state. After all, there are innumerable programs that would benefit some group or other. Poor families may benefit from holidays, but my local stamp collecting club, the RSPCA and international NGOs are also clamouring for those funds. The stamp collectors may not be as worthy a beneficiary as the poor, but if they’ll be made better off, don’t they deserve something? Adopting any proposal that yields benefit to some group, however large, is folly. If Purves doesn’t want higher taxes, she needs to state what she’s willing to give up in return for those holidays. Nothing comes for free, and she’s miles off in stating this is a ‘win-win’ proposal. Somebody must pay, or something must be sacrificed.

All that could be forgivable had Purves outlined why holidays for the poor will do more to enhance their welfare than contributing more money to the NHS, schools, local transport and generally trying to remove the need for state sponsored holidays in the first place. Whether or not you think such efforts are reasonable, they’re alternative uses of funds, and they weren’t addressed by Purves. If she admits that the provision of holidays is secondary to these alternatives the article was a waste of column space.

As mentioned earlier, the potential gains from allowing poor families to take a yearly holiday are real. However, the proposal is akin to the surveys I mentioned yesterday; without addressing cost, it should be left on the pile of other good, but unpractical ideas. In fairness this is being overly harsh – newspaper columns have word limits after all. However the point needs to be made given that many well meaning people proposing grand schemes act as if the money appears from nowhere.

December 27, 2005

What do the public want?

Don Boudreaux references an old article of his on how seriously we should take the voiced desires of individuals in polls. He states that surveys showing that voters want more money spent on education, defence, etc. shouldn’t be taken as gospel given that any one individual has relatively little influence on the eventual outcome and will bear a negligible amount of the cost.

Even the most scrupulously conducted poll cannot discover "what people really want."..polls by their nature cannot uncover what people want in an economically relevant sense. The verb "to want" has two different meanings. This difference is linguistically slight but economically weighty, insensitivity to this difference in meaning causes confusions—including being misled into thinking that polls elicit reliable information on what people want.

So when British citizens claim in a poll to "want" such things as greater welfare disbursements and continued police efforts to prevent adults from smoking pot, these answers do not mean that British citizens "want" these things in the same way that i want my 1992 Toyota or the bag of groceries that I just purchased. Such poll results reveal only Britons’ unconstrained wants, not their economically relevant ("constrained") wants. Because opinion polls do not reveal people’s constrained wants, it is illegitimate to use polls to guide government policy-making.

Decisions are thus made (and preferences expressed) most responsibly when the individual stands to gain the majority of the benefits or suffer the majority of the cost as tends to occur via market transactions. Not sure about anyone else, but in the past I’ve spent more time worrying about whether I’ve picked the right mobile phone, digital camera and capacity for my Ipod, than whether or not I chose the right party to vote for.

Read the article in full here.

December 21, 2005

The World Needs Another Top 10 List

I regularly bemoan my inability to express why I like a given piece of music, art or film, but in an attempt to avoid work and to appear thoughtful, here’s an attempt anyway.

Bloc Party – Silent Alarm
One of the early releases in 2005, yet it’s the one I’m least tired of. The Bloc Party EP released in 2004 which featured ‘Banquet’ and ‘She’s Hearing Voices’ suggested great promise and Silent Alarm didn’t disappoint. It’s a bleak sounding album with pounding bass, decisive drumming searing twin guitar melodies and bold vocals. They can be brash when they want but still produce ballads such as ‘So Here We Are’. The album brings back memories of a tedious period spent sending off job applications and receiving rejections the following day, yet I love it.

Tom Vek – We Have Sound
There’s a minimalist feel to some of these tracks as much of the melody and general catchiness comes from the bass line with guitar and drums taking a back seat. Vek’s vocal range can sometimes be non-existent though it really suits the synth laden music. He’s clearly capable of letting lose every now again as evidenced by the most exciting track ‘I Ain’t Saying My Goodbyes’.

Wolf Parade - Apologies to the Queen Mary
Wasn’t overly keen on this initially, but the fact that they’re from Montreal was reason enough to have a second (and third and fourth…) chance. The two vocalists (one grungy, one clean) add some variety to a sound that is compared with Modest Mouse.

Venetian Snares - Rossz Csillag Allat Szuletett
Past releases from Aaron Funk of the ‘Snares have been guaranteed to scare kids into bed and cause irreversible damage to ones hearing should the volume dial be turned too high. Rather than being a straight up IDM release you’ve got some strings in here, piano, and even some vocal samples. It’s still dark music, but with real variety.

Death From Above 1979 - You're a Woman I'm A Machine
This duo shunning use of an electric guitar makes some highly energetic music. The raucous vocals and highly obtrusive synths more than make up for a lack of members and instruments. It’s a short album, but it doesn’t leave you bored for a second.

The Game – The Documentary
The on-off pseudo feud between The Game and mentor 50 Cent may be comic, but what should be taken seriously is this debut album featuring much radio-friendly, catchy hip hop. With Dr Dre and Kanye West assisting with production and collaborations with 50 Cent and Eminem it was never going to go far wrong. Highlights are ‘Hate It or Love It’ and ‘Dreams’.

M.I.A - Arular
No idea how to describe this, but to narrow the field slightly (or perhaps confuse matters) you’ve got a feisty female vocalist creating dance music that has some international influences. I was listening to the M.I.A and Diplo mixtape ‘Piracy Funds Terroism Volume 1’ at the time of creating last year’s top 10 which featured some of the tracks on her debut. I remember thinking the mixtape was a bit of a mess, but liked Arular anyway.

System of a Down - Mezmerize
It’s amazing how they can make the rudest lyrics sound so catchy and even….beautiful. The harmonies on this album make for great listening; you can even sing along too. I hear their second release of the year ‘Hypnotize’ is equally good but I’ve not had time to listen to it.

Kaiser Chiefs - Employment
Like the System album mentioned above, there’s so much good sing-along material here. There are some tracks I’m not particularly keen on such as ‘Time Honoured Tradition’ and ‘Team mate’, but the strength of the top half of the album more than makes up for things.

The National – Alligator
They’re compared to the morose Joy Division, which can't be bad. The opening track beginning with the paranoid lines ‘I think this place is full of spies’ give you an idea of what tone the rest of the album takes.

December 19, 2005

Hazlitt on Gordon Brown & Full Employment

Earlier, I commented on a recent speech from Gordon Brown. In it, generating full employment was a responsibility Brown claimed for the government. On those lines, there’s a chapter from Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson entitled “The Fetish of Full Employment”. It’s a chapter of relevance given growth in public sector employment. Is society made significantly better-off by the employment of Cultural Development officers for £35k per p.a. and Corporate Directors of Regeneration for £110k p.a?

Primitive tribes are naked, and wretchedly fed and housed, but they do not suffer from unemployment. China and India are incomparably poorer than ourselves, but the main trouble from which they suffer is primitive production methods (which are both a cause and a consequence of a shortage of capital) and not unemployment. Nothing is easier to achieve than full employment, once it is divorced from the goal of full production and taken as an end in itself. Hitler provided full employment with a huge armament program. World War II provided full employment for every nation involved. The slave labor in Germany had full employment. Prisons and chain gangs have full employment. Coercion can always provide full employment.
It is because we have become increasingly wealthy as a nation that we have been able virtually to eliminate child labor, to remove the necessity of work for many of the aged and to make it unnecessary for millions of women to take jobs. A much smaller proportion of the American population needs to work than that, say, of China or of Russia. The real question is not how many millions of jobs there will be in America ten years from now, but how much shall we produce, and what, in consequence, will be our standard of living? The problem of distribution on which all the stress is being put today, is after all more easily solved the more there is to distribute.

The book is available in full here. (via Newmark’s Door)

December 16, 2005

Interview with Richard Dawkins

Biologist Richard Dawkins answers various questions on religion and evolution in an interesting interview on (via Arts & Letters Daily ). A short sample –

What are your thoughts about the despair some people feel when they ponder natural selection and random mutation? The idea of evolution and natural selection makes some people feel that everything is meaningless--people’s individual lives and life in general.

If it’s true that it causes people to feel despair, that’s tough. It’s still the truth. The universe doesn’t owe us condolence or consolation; it doesn’t owe us a nice warm feeling inside. If it’s true, it’s true, and you'd better live with it.

However, I don’t think it should make one feel depressed. I don’t feel depressed. I feel elated. My book, "Unweaving the Rainbow," is an attempt to elevate science to the level of poetry and to show how one can be—in a funny sort of way—rather spiritual about science. Not in a supernatural sense, but there are uplifting mysteries to be solved. The contemplation of the size and scale of the universe, of the depth of geological time, of the complexity of life—these all, to me, have an inspirational quality. It makes my life worthwhile to study them.

Read it in full here

December 15, 2005

Gordon Brown on the State

Yesterday's times mentioned a lengthy speech recently given by Gordon Brown. The occasion was the Hugo Young memorial lecture, Young being a late political journalist for the Guardian.

The transcript is given here. Brown covers plenty of ground, discussing the importance of liberty in society, positive obligations that come with that liberty and the role of the state. What stands out immediately is the breadth of citations; individuals quoted include Shaw, Hume, Roosevelt, Hazlitt, Voltaire, Locke and Smith. However, the strong conclusions he draws from these very different individuals are inaccurate.

Great emphasis is placed on ensuring fairness in society.

The twentieth century innovation has been to give new expression to fairness as the pursuit of equality of opportunity for all, unfair privileges for no one. And in this century there is an even richer vision of equality of opportunity challenging people to make the most of their potential through education employment and in our economy society and culture

Brown that it is through securing individual liberties and each of us exercising our obligations that this fairness is brought about. Private institutions alone are deemed insufficient to guarantee fairness without assistance.

Charities can and do achieve great transformative changes, but no matter how benevolent, they cannot, ultimately, guarantee fairness to all. Markets can and do generate great wealth, but no matter how dynamic, they cannot guarantee fairness to all. Individuals can be and are very generous but by its nature personal giving is sporadic and often conditional.

That paragraph is central to Brown's eventual conclusion that the state has a key role to play. He cites the recent Live 8 events as an example of private institutions being limited in their ability to change things. Live 8 and its associated meetings with government representatives were designed to increase foreign aid, encourage debt cancellation and promote fair trade. Without government action, these efforts would have been pointless. Therefore Brown says, "For the good society to flourish to the benefit of all, private endeavour must be matched by public endeavour." However the example doesn’t acknowledge that excessive debt burdens and 'unfair' trade rules were created by government in the first place. It is past judgements of fairness made by politicians that caused the problems private individuals and organisations sought to change via Live 8. The same can be said of many problems government seeks to solve. Policy is implemented, the consequences aren't as expected, more policy is developed to correct faults, etc.

Along the same lines he says,

So whether it be enduring responsibilities for full employment, or new frontiers balancing work and family life or caring for our environment or, more generally, addressing poverty and investing in schools, hospitals science and infrastructure to equip our country for all the global challenges ahead – if you will the ends, fairness to all, you must be prepared to will the means – enabling, empowering government to make fairness possible.

The truth is, Brown doesn't really know how well private institutions would fare in ensuring fairness, or equality or opportunity. How can you judge the effectiveness of market mechanisms in dealing with the environment when there aren't complete property rights for air space, bodies of water and areas of land? How can we say markets can't ensure a fair education system when the state affects admissions procedures, curricula and exams? In healthcare, the government owns the hospitals, owns the medical schools, regulates certification for practitioners, sets budgets, etc. It’s taken as gospel that doing something trumps doing nothing. Now Brown would readily admit that his ideal of fairness has yet to be achieved even though government had a hand in many spheres of public life. At no point in time has the ideal ever been achieved. In accordance with the adage "if you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten" Blair has even decided to do away with much state assistance. Whatever he says of free markets and charities, government has proved equally incompetent.

Brown claims, “I have come to understand that..[Smith’s] invisible hand [was] dependent upon the existence of a helping hand." That may be so, but Brown overestimates the extent of help needed.

December 13, 2005

Musings on the NHS

Recent news regarding the NHS has caused some to question the fairness of its general operations. Firstly, there was the news that a few NHS trusts are to stop carrying out knee and hip replacements for those carrying around ‘excessive’ weight. Secondly there was news that trusts have been instructed to delay appointments and operations in order to save money. The Times says,

Harrow Primary Care Trust, which is facing a deficit of £8-£12 million, has asked the hospitals treating its patients to do “the minimum required” to meet national targets. In the leaked letter, Ken Walton, chairman of the trust’s professional executive committee, tells GPs: “This means patients sent for outpatient appointments will only be seen at 10–13 weeks (national target 13 weeks) and elective surgery will be delayed until the sixth month (national target six months).”

It means that the maximum wait of six months promised by the Department of Health will become the minimum. However, the delays will enable the trust to postpone paying for operations, saving it money this financial year.

Restricting operations to those deemed ‘deserving’ and limiting how quickly one can be seen are examples of rationing. With a fixed budget, the NHS must prioritise the potential uses of funds. Amid grandiose statements about equality and quality of provision, the reality of rationing can be forgotten. Not everyone can have all the treatment they want, or feel they deserve. Nobody should be surprised or upset about care being refused to some. In the US which favours private insurance, prices help ration resources. However it’s seen as morally abhorrent to deny treatment to those in need merely because they lack money. Rationing of resources via prices is thus deemed unacceptable.

Recent episodes in the NHS illustrate that even a nationalised system can produce unacceptable outcomes. Another example of rationing under our system is limiting access to new, expensive drugs whose benefits are deemed marginal, or simply limiting access to older drugs in great demand. As a case in point, see the debate over the availability of the breast cancer drug Herceptin (info here ). Additionally, there's the quarrel over the number of flu jabs GPs can give out this winter. Quantities of costly medical equipment are also limited. See this post from James Bartholomew on the number of CT scanners and MRI machines the UK has relative to other industrialised nations.

The obvious solution to such problems is to increase the NHS’ budget. With more money, more equipment, drugs and operations can be purchased, thus allowing more needs to be satisfied. However there are clear limits to the proportion of national income we can devote to healthcare. Gordon Brown has committed himself to curbing growth in NHS funding from 2008. The attitude of future chancellors to the NHS is unknown, but one assumes a Conservative government wouldn’t be lavishing money on the system. With time, our population will age, life spans will increase and newer more expensive technologies and drugs will be developed. The extent to which patients will be forced to forgo promising new healthcare opportunities depends on how rapidly NHS funds increase relative to growth in the number of elderly patients and the cost of technology, drugs and staff.

I don’t intend to say whether or not nationalised healthcare is desirable; simply that all systems require some form of rationing. Rationing may be on the basis of wealth, or perceived need. It’s easy to look at the uninsured poor in the US and take the moral high ground, but even our supposedly fair and equitable NHS can and does produce morally displeasing outcomes.

December 07, 2005

More on Outsourcing

Writing about an entry you don't have permission to view

A slightly disjointed response to a comment by Thomas Prosser on the outsourcing of work by multinational corporations (MNC):

I will never believe that firms should just be able to go to where labour costs are cheapest. What, for example, about the social impact of restructuring? Why should we, as a society, that, in my view at least, should be concerned about our own interests over the interests of foreign workers, accept more pockets of large unemployment in our country? The appearance of 'Chavs' and very, very poor people in the last ten years or so has been a consequence of the light regulation in the UK in my opinion, and I feel that should further large scale restructuring occur in the UK then the social consequences would be disastrous.

Admittedly, pockets of unemployment are a problem. Resultant welfare payments put a strain on the public finances and poverty is closely linked to a decline in skills and increased crime. However I feel it’s a step too far to blame social and economic ills on the actions of MNCs.

The problems mentioned above are significant to the extent that unemployment is persistent. If a group of workers made redundant by a call center are still unemployed 5 years down the line, something’s probably wrong. If there’re out of a job for a couple of months, then it’s less of an issue. What generates persistency in unemployment? – Many factors which are far at least as significant as the movement of jobs to Europe. For example an education sector which doesn’t equip leavers with required skills, benefit systems which generate dependency and minimum wage laws which price highly unskilled & young workers out of the market.

The employment picture in the UK is far from dire. The UK does well as compared to other industrialised nations and positively outshines Europe. Even those at the bottom of the income ladder are better off in absolute terms than in the past. And this is in a country which over time has seen the movement of major sectors abroad – manufacturing, textiles and mining. Despite the significant loss of jobs during these major episodes of change, the lower costs and positive spillovers have generated growth that’s made us richer. It’s only because of that growth that regular breaks, extra pay at holidays, paternity leave, maternity pay, compulsory pension contributions etc. are affordable enough to be considered employee ‘rights’. I don’t want to dismiss the costs of change, but there’s a lot of historical evidence to support a laissez faire attitude towards shifting production; that's party why this attitude is being adopted by Eastern European governments in the first place.

What's the alternative to sitting back and letting change happen? Forcing companies to compensate their workers for leaving the country simply delays matters and puts a brake on the employment of anyone new. Similarly, forcing them to stay in the country makes them sitting ducks for Chinese and Indian (and one day Eastern European) competitors. It’d be hypocritical to hinder the movement of domestic firms whilst politicians publicly embrace foreign direct investment from other countries.

Production takes place for the purpose of consumption. Taking action to preserve domestic production and high domestic wages (even when cheaper alternatives exist) implies that we consider production to be the ultimate end. If this is the case, we might consider taking action to halt the outsourcing of work to software and computers; these technologies have led to far more job losses than any mutinational company.

December 06, 2005

Outsourcing & Eastern Europe

The current issue of the Economist comments on the outsourcing of business operations to Eastern Europe. Countries such as Poland, Hugary, Estonia and the Czech Republic are proving to be desirable for certain functions. Why opt for Europe over China or India?

..cost is only part of the picture. “If I want a huge English-language call-centre, or to design an aircraft engine using tens of thousands of man years, I will go to India,” says Stephen Bullas, whose company eCODE assesses outsourcing locations. “But if I want a small controllable team of telesales people, or back-office workers with a cultural fit to the continental EU or Britain, then it can be much more appropriate to choose an east European country.”

The article serves to highlight that cost isn’t the sole consideration in outsourcing decisions. Geography, level of bureaucracy plus the availability of skilled workers and potential managers are important concerns; as illustrated by the following passage:

The biggest shortcoming is a legacy of communism: a shallow talent pool, particularly for middle managers who need to be customer focused and conscious of quality. These were not qualities that the planned economy demanded. Mr Goodstone's most recent deal, with a Latvian supplier, has been hobbled by the gulf between each side's expectations: “They throw up their hands and say, ‘Oh Ralph, we're only a couple of weeks late—our customers round here never worry about that'. When they run into problems they think: ‘Oh we'll sort it out', but you can't—you have to get it right first time.”

This insight should assuage the fears of those thinking the UK has nothing to offer businesses. At the same time, it should spur Gordon Brown to consider the UK’s position in future rankings of business competitiveness. The Doing Business 2006 index ranked the UK 9th for ease of doing business. The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report ranked the UK 13th. Brown’s pre-budget report (see here) states, “the Government will focus on further improving the UK business environment and tackling barriers to business growth to allow the UK to fulfill its potential as an entrepreneurial economy”. Rather than using tax revenue to develop ‘creativity and innovation centers’ and ‘science cities’ whilst commissioning numerous reports on creativity and entrepreneurship all with the aim of eventually generating growth, why not cease extracting the money from businesses in the first place.

Read the article in full here (subscription required)

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