Saturday, 14 April 2012

Hannan on the FT

A good post from Daniel Hannan:
The lower he sinks in the opinion polls, the more pugnacious Nicolas Sarkozy becomes. His favourite target is Britain – specifically, free-market capitalism as he imagines it to be practised in Britain.

Earlier today, in an especially bizarre outburst, he picked on the Financial Times. 'The FT, as they say in informed circles, has always defended the Anglo-Saxon model, considering the French incorrigible and that we would do better to align ourselves to the Anglo-Saxon model,' he said during a television debate. 'The FT has thought for many years that the solution for the world is that there should be no law. I think exactly the opposite.'

There's nothing wrong with national stereotypes, Sarko, but get them right, death of my life and the sacred blue. The notion that the FT is a doctrinally capitalist newspaper is so far off the mark that it's hard to know where criticism should begin. Since at least the early 1980s, the FT has been a corporatist paper of the Centre-Left, occasionally pro-business, but never pro-market. It opposed Margaret Thatcher's economic reforms, taking its hostility so far that it was, in effect, the only British newspaper openly to regret her victory in the Falklands War. Never mind Tony Blair; it backed Neil Kinnock in 1992. It was the single strongest supporter of ERM membership. It loudly applauded the monetary splurge which followed the credit crunch.

I recommend the whole article.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Branson on drugs

I just caught up with a a Telegraph article from January by Richard Branson:
Just as prohibition of alcohol failed in the United States in the 1920s, the war on drugs has failed globally. Over the past 50 years, more than $1 trillion has been spent fighting this battle, and all we have to show for it is increased drug use, overflowing jails, billions of pounds and dollars of taxpayers’ money wasted, and thriving crime syndicates. It is time for a new approach.

Branson goes on to say
Drugs are dangerous and ruin lives. They need to be regulated. But we should work to reduce the crime, health and social problems associated with drug markets in whatever way is most effective. Broad criminalisation should end; new policy options should be explored and evaluated; drug users in need should get treatment; young people should be dissuaded from drug use via education; and violent criminals should be the target of law enforcement. We should stop ineffective initiatives like arresting and punishing citizens who have addiction problems.
He's half right. Drugs can be dangerous, and can contribute to a downward spiral in the lives of some people. On the other hand, millions of people are capable of smoking pot, eating mushrooms, popping pills, and snorting coke for years on end without falling into a downward spiral. They hold down jobs, take care of their families, and contribute to society. They just prefer illegal methods of recreation and relaxation to alcohol and Prozac.

Do drugs need to be regulated? What does Mr Branson have in mind? What about rock climbing, horse riding, skiing and mountain biking? To be sure, those selling defective products should be held accountable, but do we need a regulator to achieve this?

Those who have a problem with drugs may well benefit from treatment, but who decides that they have a problem, and who pays for the treatment?

Should young people really be dissuaded from "drug use", as opposed to "drug abuse"? Should they be dissuaded from other pleasurable but risky activities? And who should be doing the dissuading?

Violent criminals should indeed be the target of law enforcement (along with burglars and vandals and anyone else who infringes the rights of others). But what's that got do with drugs? Being drunk or high shouldn't be seen as an excuse for criminal behaviour.

We should certainly stop "ineffective initiatives like arresting and punishing citizens" who harm only themselves, but we shouldn't presume to decide which of them have "addiction problems", or force treatment upon them.

Drugs shouldn't just be decriminalised, they should be relegalised. Mr Branson's proposals are a step in the right direction, but we shouldn't lose sight of the fundamental immorality of prohibition - the government has no business telling adults what to do with their own bodies.

Branson concludes
Many political leaders and public figures acknowledge privately that repressive strategies have only made the drug problem worse. It took 14 years for America’s leaders to repeal Prohibition. After 50 years of the failed drug war, it is time for today’s leaders to find the courage to speak out.

For all the successes I’ve had in business, I’ve also learnt to accept when things go wrong, work out why, and try to find a better way. The war on drugs is a failed enterprise. We need to have the courage to learn the lessons and move on.
Does anyone believe the Coalition will show such courage?

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Of sheep and swans*

A few days ago at Blenheim Palace I saw an unusual creature ...

There's a copy of Nassim Taleb's Black Swan sitting on one of my bookshelves, along with several other interesting books I haven't yet found time for. His thesis will be familiar to most readers. It's neatly summarised up in an essay for the May/June 2011 edition of Foreign Affairs - "The Black Swan of Cairo" (PDF):
Complex systems that have artificially suppressed volatility tend to become extremely fragile, while at the same time exhibiting no visible risks. In fact, they tend to be too calm and exhibit minimal variability as silent risks accumulate beneath the surface. Although the stated intention of political leaders and economic policymakers is to stabilize the system by inhibiting fluctuations, the result tends to be the opposite. These artificially constrained systems become prone to “Black Swans” — that is, they become extremely vulnerable to large-scale events that lie far from the statistical norm and were largely unpredictable to a given set of observers.
It makes sense to me, and Taleb seems like a generally sound chap. So I was surprised to read that he has the ear of David Cameron. Back in February 2010, the Royal Society uploaded this video of Our Leader in conversation with the best-selling author:

A quick search turned up a 2009 Guardian article that described Taleb as David Cameron's new intellectual guru, while a corresponding blog post asked "How much does association with Taleb damage Cameron?".

More recently, on the 12th of March, the BBC asked whether Taleb is "Downing Street's favourite adviser":
"I like going to 10 Downing," says Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the Lebanese-American thinker and former Wall Street trader, "seeing the offices and the most powerful person in his T-shirt and jeans".

The powerful person he is referring to is British Prime Minister David Cameron, whom he has been invited to meet several times - including at the official residence he refers to affectionately as "10 Downing".

The admiration is reciprocated. Taleb has described the prime minister as "extraordinary" and "the best thing we have left on this planet".

The striking closeness between this once obscure writer and the British leader encapsulates how Nassim Taleb's thinking has captivated senior British Conservatives.
But as Will Bancroft notes, there's not much to show for this supposed captivation.

Over on the other side of the pond, Taleb has given his support to the black sheep of American politcs - a man with rather more credibility than our buttered new potato:

I watched the election and realised that there's something wrong that's going on ... only one candidate, Ron Paul, seems to have grasped the issues, and is offering the right remedies
(It's a distractingly stuttery interview, but worth watching)

From where I'm standing, Cameron and Paul couldn't be more different. Does Taleb know something we don't? I doubt it. What little hope I had has long since evaporated.

* title inspired by Tom Paine

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Booze Britain?

Is this some kind of joke?

I started writing this post on the 12th of March, but between work and fatherhood there isn't much time for blogging these days. As Magnus Magnusson would say, I've started so I'll finish ...

If you haven't yet read this article by Christopher Snowdon, I highly recommend it:
the [ONS's] General Lifestyle Survey is, as Ron Burgundy might say, kind of a big deal. It is the main source of statistics for alcohol consumption and I couldn't help but feel, as I read the Beeb's report, that there was something they weren't telling us.

Sure enough, the text of the report tells a very different story...
Between 2005 and 2010 average weekly alcohol consumption decreased from 14.3 units to 11.5 units per adult. Among men average alcohol consumption decreased from 19.9 units to 15.9 units a week and for women from 9.4 units to 7.6 units a week.
That, folks, is a twenty percent drop in the nation's alcohol consumption in just five years. Is that not newsworthy? Why wouldn't a state broadcaster think licence-payers would want to know a fact like that?

When a few medics wrote a letter to the Telegraph calling for minimum pricing, that was considered newsworthy.

When the Lancet picked a number out of the air and extrapolated it over twenty years, that was considered it newsworthy.

When alcohol-related deaths increased by a statistically insignificant amount, that was considered newsworthy.

But a twenty percent drop in alcohol consumption? Nah, who'd want to hear that? After all, it's hardly going to help the campaign for minimum pricing and a total advertising ban if people discover that the Booze Britain narrative is a myth.
I checked the ONS report myself. Here's the data from Table 2.1 with an added column showing the drop for each category:

That's a drop for both men and women, in every age group. You'd think the Health Nazis at the BBC would be dancing for joy.

Table 2.2 shows the percentage of people exceeding specified amounts in an average week:

That's a drop in every category except one (the percentage of old ladies drinking more than 35 units stayed the same).

Table 2.3 shows drinking patterns for the week leading up to the interview:

For both men and women, in every age group, people are drinking less than they did in 2005 (except for the oldies, who have stuck to their drinking patterns).

It's not until Table 2.4 that the temperance nuts can find anything remotely resembling bad news:

The percentage of men 65 and over drinking more than 4 units in a day has risen from 21 to 22, while the percentage drinking more than 8 units has risen from 6 to 7. Scary stuff!

And Table 2.4 is still overwhelmingly good news from the perspective of those who want us to drink less. The percentage of 'hard drinking' grannies stayed the same at a whopping 2 percent. In every other category, people were drinking less, with the biggest drops in the 16-24 age bracket. Only a third of young men exceeded 4 units (2 pints of Tetley's), and only a quarter exceeded 8 units (3 pints of Kronenbourg), down from about a half and a third, respectively, in 2005.

On almost every metric, Britain is less boozy than it was in 2005. And yet here's the spin we get from the BBC:

Adults aged over 45 are three times as likely to drink alcohol every day as those aged under 45, results of a lifestyle survey suggest.
That older people drink more often than younger people is not news. Look back at those charts. In 2005, only 10% of men aged 16-24 drank 5 days or more in the week before interview, compared with 18%, 28%, and 26% for those aged 25-44, 45-64, and 65+. Women's drinking shows a similar progression (5%, 11%, 17%, 14%).
Although younger adults were less likely to drink every day, the survey suggests that they were more likely to binge drink than older adults.
The survey also found that men tended to drink more often than women

Never mind 2005, what about the difference between 2009 and 2010? Overall, alcohol consumption fell by 3%. It fell 11% for those aged 16-24; 1% for 25-44; 4% for 45-64; and 1% for 65 and over. So even compared to last year, we're drinking less. If the BBC were honest and unbiased, their headline would have read "Alcohol consumption continues to fall". But as Chris Snowdon says, that wouldn't help the campaign for minimum pricing (which seems to have finally succeeded).

It's bad enough that we suffer propaganda from a bunch of compulsorily-funded zealots at the BBC. But it seems that the compulsorily-funded statisticians at the ONS also believe that drinking is a problem, and that this is the government's business:

How the data are used and their importance

The Department of Health estimates that the harmful use of alcohol costs the National Health Service around £2.7bn a year1 and 7 per cent of all hospital admissions are alcohol related. Drinking can lead to over 40 medical conditions, including cancer, stroke, hypertension, liver disease and heart disease. Reducing the harm caused by alcohol is therefore a priority for the Government and the devolved administrations. The GHS/GLF is an important source for monitoring trends in alcohol consumption.

£2.7bn sounds like a lot. That's £2,700 million. So how does it compare with what the government collects in taxes on alcohol? Let's have a look at another report available from the ONS: the Alcohol Duties Statistical Bulletin - December 2011:

Chart 1B shows 2011/12 year-to-date (April to February) Total Alcohol Receipts are £8,678m, which is £68m (0.8%) less than the same period in 2010/11.
Now, I'm sure that "harmful use of alcohol" has costs to individuals and organisations other than the NHS, but only public costs should concern the government. Do the non-NHS public costs really add up to £5.978 billion?

I don't know what's more disturbing - that the government churns out this propaganda, or that people believe it. Either way, it's enough to drive any sane person to drink.