Istos custodes

Ofsted is now in a dispute with the Department for Education about no-notice inspections. Puzzled readers may wonder why any school inspection involves notice, for to give notice transforms the inspection regime from an enforcement mechanism to a protection racket: you can run schools however you want, but only if you’re organised enough to cover it up between notification of an inspection and clipboard hitting the desk two days later.

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Instrumentalising the criminal law, part 94

Sometimes the public sector unions ask for the criminal law to be changed to make it a more serious offence to assault public servants; there was an apparently unsuccessful attempt a decade ago.

I wonder whether they think these laws should apply to union members who assault scabs and strike breakers during industrial disputes.

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Not muddying the waters about Euroscepticism

The author of this Kosmopolit article makes the claim that it’s silly to label people or arguments using the terms “Europhile” and “Eurosceptic”.

That’s just wrong; the terms work perfectly fine, they describe whether someone favours the EU vis-a-vis the member states (or similar actors). If you want your country to leave the EU, you’re a Eurosceptic. If you want to repatriate powers, you’re a Eurosceptic. If you oppose the transfer or arrogation of new powers to the EU, you’re a Eurosceptic. The converse positions make you a Europhile.

Where it gets interesting (and in the Kosmopolit article, this is where the straw-man style argumentation and rhetorical questions all start to appear) is in two areas: internal conflicts between EU institutions, and situations where the EU does things that particular Eurosceptics support.

Eurosceptics are just not going to agree with each otherabout intra-institutional conflicts between Council, Court, Commission and Parliament. Why should they? It’s like asking people who favour labour against capital which side they back in a dispute between shareholders, board and management: their ideology just doesn’t discriminate at that level of detail, though individuals might have opinions on a general or case by case basis. It’s a matter of strategy and tactics, not an issue of principle.

Similarly, there will be cases where Eurosceptics are divided about particular EU policies, such as the Euro, surveillance, IP laws, etc. Ignoring the people who tactically support bad policies in the hope of hastening the EU’s demise, there’s no reason that people who want less EU power are going to agree on any other issue: Tony Benn, Margaret Thatcher, Enoch Powell, Michael Foot, Bob Crow, Nigel Farage, Dan Hannan, Dennis Healey, David Owen, and Kate Hoey are all over the political “spectrum”. It’s inevitable that the EU will often do things that some of them support. One principled view is to say that one opposes all exercises of competences that the EU should not have, and this is completely normal in the United States: Republican opponents of gay marriage nevertheless oppose federal bans on gay marriage on states rights’ grounds.

Once one has taken into account such positions, the Kosmopolit argument isn’t very convincing. He/she says “So just because I think the policy outcome is positive I am considered a “europhile”?”. A Question To Which The Answer Is No.

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Other things Churchill liked

We’re often reminded that Churchill supported the ECHR or European integration more broadly, as though there were no better argument in favour or against these things.

For a bit of perspective, here’s a broader list of stuff Churchill liked:

  • “using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes”
  • the Gold Standard
  • denying India’s right to be independent
  • using the army against strikers
  • politicians issuing orders to the police
  • the European Convention on Human Rights
  • European integration
  • imperialism more generally
These people need some better arguments, or at least to explain why their cause gets to be associated with Churchill’s admirable qualities rather than his flaws.

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The Day We Fight What Exactly?

It’s no longer safe in the UK to talk to your GP about depression and mental illness – the government will force them to hand over this information, whereupon it may be leaked, hacked, sold, etc.

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Aliens don’t crash land

Today is the anniversary of the Roswell Incident, which is the subject of various conspiracy theories. I don’t like conspiracy theories; that way of thinking always tends to involve being selective about whether particular things are plausible.

There’s no reason to suppose that life necessarily exists outside our solar system, or that it is impossible for life to exist elsewhere, but that is not the point: we are invited to believe that intelligent creatures from outside our solar system crash landed in Roswell this day sixty-six years ago.

Is plausible that aliens could master interstellar travel, but not the ability to land without crashing?

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The stakes of the EU debate just got a lot lower

We’re often told that the particular form of European integration we currently endure is somehow necessary for preventing another war in Europe.

Since Croatia’s accession last night, the cost of the most recent war in which EU member states were on opposite sides has now collapsed. Twenty-two years ago this week, Slovenia and Croatia fought on opposite sides of the Ten Day War which secured the former’s independence from Yugoslavia; no-one really wanted to be fighting, and the unhappy state of affairs constituted one of the least violent wars of all time: only 63 people were killed.

That magnitude of loss and foreshortening of human life is at the sort of scale that pharmaceutical regulators have to deal with when licensing drugs for use in the health system. In a world of finite resources and finite altruism, someone has to choose what drugs and medical procedures should be available at the expense of the taxpayer, and that means weighing the lives and health of different groups of people: if you have the cash to help either the diabetic or the woman with breast cancer, but not both, you have to have a reason for placing the life of one above the other. Just flipping a coin is morally repugnant. This is why we have QALYs.

A regulatory decision which makes drugs more expensive costs lives and suffering. Every time the EU’s deliberately undemocratic processes are captured by rent-seeking lobbyists trying to increase medical patent protection, there is a cost measurable in QALYs. Now when politicians raise the spectre of war to silence critics, those critics can say “well, the last war only cost 20000 QALYs, and your proposal looks worse”.

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National Parliaments and EU Legitimacy

Jon Worth, Charles Grant and Ralf Grahn have been writing about the various options for giving national parliaments a role in the EU’s legislative process. This conversation between people who fundamentally agree that the EU in some form is desirable involves so many mistaken assumptions and false assertions that it’s impossible to deal with them all in a blog post of bearable length.

One feels like one’s wasting one’s breath even (re)stating all this but:

  • the EU won’t be legitimate until the people consent to its exercise of its current competences; what it will take to convince me that the requisite consent is present is a matrix showing, for every country C and subject S, that opinion polls say that the generality of people in county C are happy for their country to be bound by an EU-wide majority when laws are made about subject S; that’s how it works in real democratic federations
  • the “red card” proposals for national parliaments to have some role in blocking legislation only apply when the legislation violates the so-called principles of subsidiarity or proportionality, not when the legislation is outside the competence of the EU entirely
  • the EU does not have a demos, despite Mr Grahn’s reference to Miss Melchior’s assertion to the contrary. No test is suggested by either of them for how one might verify that the EU has a demos
  • vesting any sort of veto or consultative power in national parliaments is not going to improve input legitimacy
  • the best way to improve legitimacy is not to focus on outputs; there can be no such thing as a benevolent dictatorship, in theory or in practice; the exhaustive work of Bruce Bueno de Mesquita completely demolishes the case that it’s possible to improve citizens’ wellbeing whilst maintaining a kleptocracy
  • the democratic deficit is not a perception, it is a reality, and Mr Grant should concentrate on the wellbeing of actual voters rather than the opinions of the Quislington dinner party conversationalists to whom he seems to regard himself as exclusively accountable
  • unless “do you agree to be part of this country” is counted as part of “input legitimacy”, then the two-way split between input legitimacy and output legitimacy fails to capture a fundamental aspect of real political legitimacy. People in Ireland in 1918 and today in Northern Ireland rejected government from Westminster over any and all subjects; it was never the complaint that UK government was undemocratic, and if the EU were a democracy, many countries (more!) would still not want to be part of it
More seriously, adding national parliaments just adds more veto players; the problem is that people in individual countries don’t see it as in their interests to be bound by an EU-wide majority on almost any issue. The EU has already effectively arrogated to itself the power to legislate on any issue, but cannot get this ratified by the people, either incrementally or all at once.

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First steps with Metametrik

Last weekend I attended the Open Economics sprint about Metametrik, which is an OKF project to help computers read the statistics in academic journal articles. Guo Xu posted a rough outline of what Metametrik should look like a year ago, but not much had been implemented.

We took an approach which turned out to be fairly similar to Guo’s recommendation: create a JSON schema capturing the basics of a regression result (the dependent variable, the goodness of fit, the sample size, standard errors and effect sizes of results), and then make tools which produce and consume data in this format.

So far, we have a tool which generates Metametrik format data, and a tool which reads this into a database. What’s needed next is web UIs that produce this data (for articles already published) and allow you to search it.

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Doctor Who, the story so far

(Originally written 1999; updated for 2013).

I’ve been told I need to “lighten up”, so this blog post is a departure from my usual stodgy subject matter of the law-technology-politics interface, instead covering another thing which has fascinated me since I was a child: Doctor Who; I’m posting now, having almost finished work for the day, as in about an hour, they could well Spoil the show by revealing the Doctor’s name.

The last time this was about to happen was in the late 80s, when the Doctor was taunted about his identity by his enemies, and then asked by Ace who he was, and began “I am …”. But then the credits rolled. This episode, “Silver Nemesis”, was apparently supposed to end with the Doctor saying “I am Rassilon”, namely the co-founder of his planet’s society, and the writer for that episode didn’t know much about Doctor Who and thought the Doctor was God. Interestingly just before “Silver Nemesis” ends, the Doctor is playing chess, and lays down his king in resignation. This scene was paralleled last year in “The Wedding of River Song”, when again the Doctor is playing chess and strategically lays down his king. In the first story it was supposed to be an allegory for the crucifixion.

Who is the Doctor, and what is the Doctor?

Doctor Who as a story has lasted as long as it has because of its peculiar economics: the main actor playing the character can be killed off and replaced with someone else. The stories can be set anywhere and any time. This means stories in particular settings don’t need to introduce fresh characters each time, as we have the Doctor and his companions. There are a couple of other shows which work this way: the Goons and Blackadder spring to mind.

The other relevant economic aspect of the old series of the show is that it didn’t have a very large budget; this was part of its charm, but it also meant it couldn’t afford top flight producers, directors, writers, actors etc. Practically no-one involved in the old series is remembered for anything other than their connection with that series, except for the first producer, Verity Lambert, and Douglas Adams, who was script editor in the 1970s.

Inventing new characters and monsters and so on is expensive, and so the show gradually re-used monsters from its past (culminating in its 25th anniversay season where it did this every episode). You’d often notice a newly introduced monster, character or location would be back next season, and returning writers would bring their favourite monsters back with them. Eventually a couple of grand narratives emerged from the stories, and the show went on so long that three separate continuities can be identified:

  • the initial setup: we discover that the Doctor is not human, that he is instead a Time Lord living in exile and battling the Daleks and so on
  • in “Genesis of the Daleks” the history of the Daleks is rewritten, and the more interventionist part of the Time Lords’ government uses him as a somewhat willing agent advancing their agenda against the Daleks and other enemies; the Time Lords turn out to be rotten
  • from “Silver Nemesis” and “Remembrance of the Daleks”, it transpires that there is something special about the Doctor himself and not as he seems, but the show went on hiatus at this point

Beyond all this space opera tracery, what was fairly constant about the Doctor was that he would do what was right. He is supposed to be the good guy, and even when he is contemplating effective genocide (in “Genesis of the Daleks”) or murder (of the Daleks’ creator in a subsequent Dalek-related story), he was always clearly and thoughtfully doing what was morally right; the Third and Sixth Doctors were truest to this, often lecturing and hectoring people on moral grounds. In the original series, he always shown as fearless, though this is not true of the renewed series, which also gives him some sort of romantic life.

Politically, the Doctor seemed to have be a bit of a neocon, not the lefty that the media seems to have thought he was in “The Happiness Patrol”.

The new series has changed a lot of things: the production values are much better, particularly the writing, and the Doctor has fear and romance. What also seems to have changed is that there is supposed to be something special about the Doctor himself, as distinct from the Time Lords. He now seems to be of cosmic significance, which loses some of the original charm of the show, “but Doctor, the landslide will destroy the whole village!”. The new producer, who made the 1990s Comic Relief spoof of Doctor Who (in which the Doctor is played by Richard E Grant, and a woman …) loves getting characters to give long speeches saying why the Doctor is so great; these speeches are in “The Curse of Fatal Death” just as much as “Last of the Time Lords”, where they seem to have some sort of magical effect. Sydney Newman, one of the show’s co-creators, who’d never read Hamlet despite running BBC Drama, always said an serial should have only one unbelievable thing in it, and the new series depart from that seriously. The show needs to keep one foot on the ground.

There’s a much better environment now, too: the show was derailed in the 1970s by Mary Whitehouse. This censorious woman was engaged in a culturally destructive crusade, and stooped to bringing a criminal prosecution for sexual assault against a theatre director on the basis of eyewitness evidence obtained from someone sat in the back row. The BBC feared her, and she used her clout to get Doctor Who’s producer moved onto other projects. The show had been on a high, and never really recovered.

I hope the question marks remain about the man, and we don’t find out his name, or that Clara is the Doctor or is River Song or something, but we’ll see in a few minutes ..

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