Middle-class whining falls on deaf ears as police ignore ill-defined non-crimes

Worrying times for fans of social behaviour as headlines erupt with the news that police are failing to crack down on so-called anti-social behaviour. According to Chief Inspector of Constabulary Sir Denis O’Connor, while a massive 45% (3.5m) of police calls relate to anti-social behaviour, the cops are not taking it seriously and don’t consider them real crimes.

For the politicians on all sides of the political divide, this is good news. The Tories immediately respond by claiming this as another legacy of Labour’s failure (with, no doubt, a quick jab at the welfare state), while Labour use this to strike again at the coalition’s cuts. I’m sure the Lib Dems are screaming something about “police state”, but who really cares, eh?

But what does this actually mean? And what can be done about it?

I have some sympathy with the police here; it’s no surprise they don’t consider ASB to be real crimes. By definition they are not real crimes. If they were, the press would be talking about 45% of police calls regarding crime being ignored. Which would be serious. But they’re not.

If ASB is not a crime, what is it? Helpfully, the BBC have a list of the top 10 anti-social behaviour offences, based on a survey by Ipsos Mori.

Turns out that the top two anti-social offences basically consist of young people drinking and hanging out (would it be more pro-social if they locked themselves in their bedrooms and read a book?). Another three could fairly be summed up as ‘neighbours having fun’, ‘neighbours making noise’, and, simply, ‘neighbours’.

It seems the biggest problem with anti-social behaviour is people being social.

Of course, intimidation, abuse and violence should be dealt with seriously – though I’m sure they’re actual crimes and there are actual laws covering them. From the start, the non-concept of anti-social behaviour was doomed to devolve into the kind of hazy anecdotal bullshittery much-beloved of the Daily Mail.

So, what to do? Nothing. The government won’t put up the funds to flood the streets with coppers. And besides, extra bobbies would surely be as impotent as anyone when confronted with a group of youths ‘hanging out’ in public places shamelessly not committing any crimes.

Regardless, I’m excited to see how the coalition responds to this. Given all their attacks on New Labour’s civil liberties record (which was synonymous with their wasted attempts to curtail anti-social behaviour), will they echo the mistakes of the past or make entirely new ones?


From Saviour to Smug Git: The Decline of Nick Clegg (Part 2)

Tearing himself away from such important duties as helping his boss put up furniture, Supreme Architect of Change Clegg found the time to pop into the Lib Dem conference and catch up with some old friends. “Don’t panic,” he told the assembled throng of confused councillors and muddled members, unsure about their party’s political alignment, “this is the Right, government for Right, now”. [I think I punctuated that correctly…]

So, as the smugliest swanker in Westminster accused the IFS of partisanship after they pointed out evidential flaws in his flagship tax programme AND patronised his gathered Liberal flock following their apparently ignorant rejection of the coalition’s Free Schools idea, you would expect the People’s Deputy PM to carefully avoid making too easy a target of himself. Avid followers of Clegg’s dizzying (in the strictest sense of the word) career, however, will not be disappointed to learn that he didn’t (maybe he should’ve got Dave to do a sanity check when he showed it to him?).

Which is why FactCheck’s Cathy Newman was able to easily parry many of his hardest-hitting claims. I suppose with a wife as lovely and wholesome as the delightful Miriam, it’s no surprise Clegg’s on-the-side relationship with the truth is fleeting – and kinda rapey.

As commenter Cuse says:

Clegg claimed in his speech today:
“We have protected the funding for the NHS, the biggest public service of all.”


Wasn’t it the Lib Dems who had in their manifesto the promise not to ring-fence NHS spending?

So…he has claimed credit for policies that haven’t happened yet (closing Yarl’s Wood); claimed sole responsibility for policies that his Tory Masters also had (pupil premium); and now claimed responsibility for policies that he vigorously campaigned against in the election (ring-fenced NHS spending).

The man’s arrogance is breathtaking.

Unfortunately, Cuse does not seem to understand the nature of this New Politics. He still seems to think there are four lights. He must learn there’s simply no future for the Liberal Democrats if they continue to do what their stupid voters voted for. Making vague promises about improbable changes to Our Country is the new Lib Dem strategy for distinctiveness.

This New Politics is coalescent. It’s a mingling of blue and yellow. It’s a mongrel dog. It’s a red-hot interracial sex scene. The only constant is Nick Clegg’s unshakeable belief in… well, whatever he believes in at the time.

We, the people, can either learn to keep up, ‘get wit’ da nu programme’, or be left behind, wallowing in the politics of the noughties, ignorant of all the brave and brilliant things Clegg has done for us (at great emotional cost to himself, no doubt).

By the time of the next election, I’m sure there’ll be numerous examples of Clegg’s “brilliance” for us to look back on. Ah, here’s one now… Oh, and another. Keep ’em coming, Mr. Clegg!

From saviour to smug git: the decline of Nick Clegg (part 1)

There’s a saying: “love is blind, marriage is an eye-opener”. While I’m sure ‘love’ isn’t the right word to describe the public’s sentiment towards Messrs Cameron and Clegg pre-election (although Cleggmania certainly came close – remember that!?), comparing the coalition with a marriage has been adopted ad nauseum by the media, so I think the adage is perfectly pertinent.

As with any new squeeze, there was much that at first seemed attractive about the “New Politics”. And, again as usual, the affair quickly lost its sparkle after the shotgun wedding and short-lived honeymoon. What I find most interesting though are the particular quirks, at first coming across as so “cute” and “unique”, which very quickly turn from being the focus of our affection, to the very cause of our irritation. I’m thinking of such once-adorable peculiarities as Michael Gove, ministerial independence, “the end of spin”, the Lib Dems (in general), straight talking, political parties working together in coalition, and Nick Clegg’s personality.

Each of these deserve an explanation as to why I think they belong in this list – with the obvious exception of Michael Gove. The one that is particularly topical this week, however, is Nick Clegg’s personality. Specifically, his dismissive manner when dealing with questions. This was illustrated recently by his reaction to a question from a voter:

Voter: “How long is this marriage going to last? Only you know. But what I would like to ask is, is this marriage going to end amicably, or is it going to be like Cheryl Cole, you will be screaming that ‘I’ve been betrayed, betrayed, betrayed’.”

Clegg: “Much as your was elegant and humorous, please do not just glibly pick up whatever a headline says…”

Yes. This was a barbed question, but does encapsulate a serious concern felt by, I’m sure, many Lib Dem supporters.

Before the election, Clegg’s contemptuous way of dealing with questions he didn’t really want to answer had a certain charm. I remember the scornful disregard he had towards Adam Boulton’s shameful heckling during the second leaders debate. At the time, this worked for him. He wasn’t going to play the media’s silly game. Oh no. This was a dude who was totally anti-establishment. Rage against the machine, man.

Of course, the Mighty Clegg now IS the establishment, so when asked a question he really needs to give a straight fucking answer and stop being so arrogant. This isn’t like during the days of the “Old Politics”, when nobody really gave a shit about what he had to say, just so long as it was vaguely radical and idealistic. He’s now propping up a government making dodgy decisions for contested reasons and yet he remains stubbornly reluctant to account for his actions. A good example is his rationale for making a U-turn on economic policy. His explanation for which, it transpires, seems to have been an outright lie. Furthermore, he later claimed to have changed his mind before the election – without bothering to tell the people who voted for him.

Clegg quipped in response to media coverage during the election campaign that he went from being Churchill to a Nazi in less than a week. Without apparently changing at all in the past 100 days, he’s also gone from being cheeky rogue to, let’s be blunt, smug twat.

This may all be just me. Although, with a OnePoll survey of 3,000 Newsnight viewers revealing that Nick Clegg is the politician they most want to see face the interrogatory wrath of The Paxman, it could be that many other people have noticed this. And they all want to see that smug smile wiped off his face.

The guy who is currently running the country has the support of only 12% of the population (and other such stories)

Apparently, the honeymoon is over. But at least we’ve all been fucked. Last week, the Daily Mail unleashed a report based on a Harris Interactive Poll that contained some genuinely interesting findings. In true Daily Mail fashion, their summary is a lesson in spin:

The Coalition Government’ s honeymoon with the British public is all but over… the survey finds that some of the shine has come off the Coalition, with 57 per cent of people describing its performance as ‘disappointing’.

But the Harris Interactive poll also identifies strong support for Mr Cameron personally, along with backing for the Coalition’s programme of cuts.

I suppose that’s true (and are we supposed to be capitalising coalition?). But while 57% described the coalition as ‘disappointing’, 52% described it as ‘effective’. “Strong support” for David Cameron turns out to be that 26% of those polled thought he was performing better than expected – only 4% more than the 22% who said worse than expected. What the Daily Mail reporter Jason Groves interpreted as backing for the Con/Lib’s cuts was presumably based on the 56% who said yes, deep cuts are essential to tackle the deficit. What this analysis doesn’t seem to take into account, however, are the 41% who disagreed with the coalition’s programme of cutting quickly, compared to 37% who agreed, and the 38% who believe the coalition has the wrong balance between cuts and taxes, compared to 32% who think they have the right balance. (It could be more accurately said, in this case, that the country was divided on the issue, but with slightly more people seeming to favour Labour’s system of cuts).

But I suppose that’s what makes this such an interesting poll: the questions are vague enough so that any interpretation is valid. With this in mind, I’ve made a few observations of my own…

Why aren’t the Lib Dems doing their own bit of soul-searching?

According to the Mail, 28% of those polled said they would vote Labour at the next election. This is down slightly from 29% at the election. This election loss has triggered an immense period of reassessment and analysis from those in the Labour party, with many members calling for a rethink of just about everything that made the party electable since 1997 and, unsurprisingly, a major lurch to the left. This followed a crushing 5% loss in share of the vote compared to 2005.

Meanwhile, after the most high profile Lib Dem campaign ever, in which Nick Clegg was widely hailed as the winner of the televised debates and both the Independent and the Guardian came out in support of the party, their vote share increased from 22% in 2005 to… 23% in 2010. (I’ve rounded these results up to the nearest whole number; for the record the actual increase was 0.9% – for those who prefer mathematical symbols, that’s <1%). Of course, votes didn't matter to the High Prophet of Politics 2.0 after he'd secured entrenchment in Cameron's government.

But with the Lib Dem vote having now collapsed to just 12%, I find it strange that Clegg's party appear completely unresponsive to these damning figures. Of course, they are technically in government, so I don't expect them to embark on the sort of excruciating process of introspection currently boring anyone following the Labour leadership contest, but Clegg's arrogance seems inversely proportional to his support. If an election was called tomorrow, the man who is supposedly running this country in his boss' absence might only expect 12% of the popular vote.

For The Party of Perpetual Opposition, a stubborn, high-minded adherence to so-called principles, at the expense of the will of the people, may have held a certain noble/underdog charm. In just over 100 days of government, however, we've seen how easily such self-righteousness has been channeled – at the glaring expense of the righteousness. If the Lib Dems ever want to be anything more than a prop for whichever of the two main parties are found the least unpopular at the time, maybe they should start the difficult job of figuring out how a clique of disaffected idealists can build support in advance of the next election.

In 100 days, super-slick “Call me Dave” transforms into Calamity Cameron… and yet is considered to have performed “better than expected”. WTF?

Cameron’s litany of gaffes has been well-reported. And with one of the more prominent examples elevating the non-existant role of the U.S. as Britain stood alone against the Nazi war machine, it can hardly be said that this wouldn’t have touched a nerve. Despite this, Cameron has the exaltation of being the only minister in the Mail’s poll to exceed public expectations – in that 26% of people said he’d performed ‘better’ and 22% said ‘worse’ than expected. Crucially, 42% said he’s performed “as expected”, with no indication of whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.

Regardless, as the other ministers (Cable, Clegg and Osborne) were deemed to disappoint, Cameron must be doing something right. If it’s not pissing on our country’s “finest hour” or pissing off the Iranians and Pakistanis, then what is it?

Cameron’s greatest skill has been distancing himself from almost every decision and action being made by his government. Instead, he’s touring the country, visiting the downtrodden and answering questions ‘from the hip’. He’s flitting around the world, hitting it off with The Hope Incarnate and leading a vast entourage of seemingly important businessmen, doing seemingly important things. He’s encouraging tourism, not in the despairingly modern New Labour sense, but in a proper English sense using words like heritage, in a way that will, presumably, attract the ‘right’ kind of tourists. Cameron’s been reassuringly traditional and superficially ineffectual: a perfectly non-threatening example of aristocratic folly.

I wonder if, as a schoolboy at Eton, he was perceived as ‘keen’. He certainly fits the type. And you can’t dislike the ‘keen’ kids. Though they may not be as bright or as imaginative as the others in his class, you’ll always give them an A for effort. Osborne can’t pull this off. He comes across as the spiteful little tosspot cheering on the bullies in the hope that they’ll leave him alone for another hour. Clegg is the egotistic overachiever, and Cable the sanctimonious nerd. The problem with the ‘keen’ kids, though, is that they too can be right little bastards. Only worse, because they seem so utterly harmless (after all, they want to do right, they really do). Behind this facade lies… well, that’s the point, who knows? 100 days as Prime Minister and Cameron is still playing the act of facile do-gooder, saying whatever he must to get people to like him. That may mean slagging off Israel in Turkey, Pakistan in India, or… uh, Britain in the US. As an example of his super-teflon mutant powers, which of this government’s cuts can you really pin onto him?

He doesn’t want these cuts. No, no, no. To cut hard and cut now is a difficult decision, made unavoidable due to Labour’s legacy. These next four years are going to be painful and he wishes there was another option. But there isn’t.

When asked in one of his PM Direct town hall meetings if these “painful” cuts will be reversed in better times, he stressed that these are “once and for all” measures. As Hélène Mulholland reported in The Guardian’s live politics blog: “He is not for turning things back once the country’s finances have improved.”

Something doesn’t add up here. But, I have to admit, he has performed better than I expected.

“We want the troops home as soon as practically possible!” Define as soon as practically possible…

The final question that caught my eye in the poll asked, “when should British troops pull out of Afghanistan”. A whopping 66% replied, “as soon as practically possible”. The Mail chose to present this piece of information with the headline, “Voters Want Troops Home”. Which is understandable really. I’m sure the Independent would have opted for a far more decisive angle, probably along lines I’m already overly familiar with due to excessive exposure to left wing bloggers: the war can not be won, we’re making things worse, the Taliban weren’t so bad, we just don’t understand their culture, women like to have their noses cut off… stuff like that.

The beauty of such a vague question means I too can choose to read it in a way that suits my world view…

Only 14% of voters want our troops out of Afghanistan within 5 years. Two-thirds say they believe we should wait until practicalities allow us to withdraw – presumably, this means waiting until the country is stable, secure and the people finally have some hope that, after decades of being fucked over and forsaken by foreign powers looking after their own interests, they can enjoy some of the comforts taken for granted by these invaders. Even if this takes a generation.

Whose analysis are you going to trust, dear readers? The Mail’s or mine?

“Ban cheap booze! Those filthy commoners are too rowdy to drink!” Says former Bullingdon Club member

David Cameron today claimed sympathies towards a ban on cheap alcohol. While this may be yet another gaffe, kneejerk statement and/or personal opinion that in no way reflects the views of the Government (this seems to happen a lot in this era of new politics), the sentiment at least proves Cameron’s true blue Tory credentials:

1) The rationale is based on spurious claims.

2) It follows a typically Daily Mail-esque agenda.

and 3) It’s tailored to punish the poor. Because, in Cameron’s mind and in the minds of most Conservatives, it’s only the poor who can not be trusted with their booze. Oh, and it’s only the poor who deserve to be punished for anything. Ever.

As speed cameras are being shut down across the country for being one of the few methods of law enforcement which do not discriminate, Cameron’s being careful to select the only restriction on the sale of alcohol which sidesteps any potential impact on the better off. A less discriminatory form of regulation would’ve been to increase VAT on all alcoholic drinks, or enforce an increase in cost dependent on the concentration. Yes, this would still sting the poor disproportionately more, but at least it sends a message to everyone who drinks in excess (and anyone who’s been to a piss up with posh people know that getting truly tanked isn’t just the reserve of the great unwashed).

As it stands, this idea is almost perfectly tuned to only affect the very poorest. Is it even pretending to do anything else? Has Cameron finally dropped that pretence? You only have to read the comments on ConservativeHome to see how the majority of Tories have accepted this in the self-righteous, detached, supercilious way in which it was intended.

(By the way, I highly recommend you follow the link to the Wikipedia article on the Bullingdon Club, of which Cameron was a former member. Maybe the binge-drinking lads and laddettes aren’t be the ones we should be worried about?)

Nick Clegg’s Letter to Justin Sane (from a kinder, gentler liberal conservative)

Nick Clegg - ArchMage of Political Reform and Scourge of Inequality
Me? Gay!? Have you seen my wife's yams!? Ohhhh yeah...

Dear Punk Rock star,

I’m just kidding, but if I can claim to have any influence over this government I may as well call you that. I like your attitude. I like your songs. I’ve been a really big fan since I can’t remember when. Well, since last week. But if you look at my speeches over the previous years, you’ll see that I never explicitly said I wasn’t a fan.

See, there are some times when I feel really alone, cause I don’t really have any friends in my party and I don’t fit in at work. David Davis called me part of a “Brokeback Coalition” in front of the Financial Times, so now the Labour Party puts me down by saying I’m gay. But I don’t care because I have nothing against homosexuals and David Davis is an arsehole!

I think the personal opinions I express are important (though NOT representative of the views of the government – Dave). Thanks a lot. Keep fighting – but not too much or we’ll have to get the police to move you along.

Nick Clegg (Deputy Prime Minister and Saviour of Our Civil Liberties)

The Tories twisted view of crime (or the only thing worth fearing is fear itself – and Tory policy)

So, yet another set of crime statistics are released showing crime has fallen since Labour came to power in 1997. Not just a little, but by a whopping 43%. And what has been the public reaction to this piece of reassuring news?

Let’s take a look at a fairly representative comment on the Daily Mail:

Of course, the statistics are wrong! After all, didn’t David Cameron stand up during Prime Minister’s Questions the other day and say with a straight face that violent crime had “nearly doubled” under Labour?

Is it possible that David Cameron, the Tories and the majority of Daily Mail readers are all deluded idiots, clinging on to a world view that is scarily out of touch with reality? Yes.

The fact is the British Crime Survey (BCS) does not base its results on police records. Its researchers speak directly to the public and so it covers both reported and unreported crime. The claim then that this decrease is only due to people “not bothering” to report crimes is absolutely absurd.

Furthermore, the statistics quoted by David Cameron are the police-recorded crime figures. These do indeed show an increase in certain crimes under Labour, but are considered a far less reliable measurement because methods in how police record crime vary over time. They’re also affected by factors such as government initiatives that lead to a higher number of people reporting crimes they otherwise wouldn’t have. That’s right. Despite the wailing of the Daily Mail masses, public experience of crime has dramatically fallen while reported crime has gone up. The exact opposite of what they believe to be true!

But back to Cameron, who really should know better. He’s deliberately cherry-picking a different set of measurements to pander to people’s fears and try to create the illusion of a crimewave – the “broken Britain” of his dreams.

Such casual cynicism is bad enough, but there is a distinctly sinister side to this story that goes beyond just another case of bullshitting politicians speaking bullshit.

According to the BCS, the only category that has shown an increase has been sexual offences. This particular offence is based on reported crime figures from the police and has seen a 6% rise compared to last year. This includes a 15% rise in rapes against women.

So, while the Tories aim to cut police numbers and roll back crime prevention measures, such as CCTV and speed cameras, the most significant piece of crime legislation suggested so far has been to grant anonymity to men accused of rape! Even Tory MPs (the female ones, at least) object to this on the grounds that it sends a negative message about women who accuse men of rape, and campaigning groups claim that such a move would deter victims of sexual abuse from identifying their attackers.

Why have the Tories chosen rape to introduce laws that will protect the accused? Let’s check in on another fairly representative comment from the Daily Mail:

We can mock the Daily Mail for its shoddy journalism and laugh at its readers for their ignorance, but when the government appears to echo such sick sentiments and actually believe it as well, you start to realise that the “nasty party” is even worse than you ever imagined…

What kind of new lifestyle awaits the British public at the end of this Tory/Lib Dem detox?

I was unfortunate enough to read this pile of garbage by Matthew d’Ancona in today’s Evening Standard. It’s an oddly toothless piece considering it covered almost an entire page (that’s valuable advertising space), seemingly designed to push several of the coalition’s favourite narratives. My favourite has to be where d’Ancona casually, slavishly, refers to 10-20% cuts in defence and education as “efficiencies”. And thus develops a fresh piece of unspeak.

Trust me, the vast majority of d’Ancona’s commentary is crap and not worth even a quick scan. However, one remark did get me thinking:

Tell somebody he has to scale back his mortgage, his family’s food bill, his spending on his car, his holiday budget by 10 per cent, and he will wince. Tell him that he has to slash 40 per cent from his monthly spending and he will have to change everything about the way he and his family live.

What d’Ancona’s inadvertently getting at is that, thanks to our government’s excessive cuts, we’re soon to experience a dramatic change in our “national lifestyle”. Sounds quite exciting in a “change we can believe in” kind of way. Who reading this hasn’t pledged to reinvent themselves at some point in their lives?

The scary thing, however, is that nobody seems to have a clue what this new “us” looks like.

To use a personal analogy, so favoured by coalition politicians, if you make big, restrictive changes in your life you usually have some sort of desirable end result in mind. Partly to help encourage you through the difficult times, but also to help you structure and plan what to keep and what to cut.

For example, if you’ve lost your job, you’d do well to cut down on booze, fags, satellite TV and might consider selling the Xbox. On the other hand, you’d be foolish to cut spending on transport, broadband and may even want to invest in some shirts from Peacocks. Similarly, any company wouldn’t dream of “efficiency” savings or, let’s be more accurate here, huge fucking cuts, without some sort of strategy.

This is what bothers me the most about the Tory/Lib Dem hack-frenzy; there’s no clear direction. Like crime scene investigators we’re slowly discovering the victims of the coalition massacre piece by bloody piece, but we don’t really know the killers’ motives.

There’s a vague understanding, evident in the articles of certain columnists, that a crippled public sector is a desirable thing. It’s generally assumed that this is the Tories ideological intention, but this wasn’t communicated to the electorate by David Cameron before the election, this wasn’t what Nick Clegg promised his voters, and this still hasn’t been addressed since the formation of the ConDem alliance. Also, what does a small state actually MEAN!?

Ok, we’re being told that nobody wants to do this and it’s unavoidable. For the sake of argument, let’s say this is true. That still doesn’t make the need for a strategy any less valid. There must still be some sort of end result in mind that’s guiding these cuts. Or is it simply a case of hack away what you can?

I would speculate that the Tories have plans so hideous they intend to keep it silent or risk terrifying the voters. Unfortunately, based on what I’ve seen from the ‘new politics’ so far, I don’t think even they really know what they’re doing.

The arrogance of Tom Harris MP

This post is my response to a rant by Tom Harris MP, Labour, calling for the ejection of the protesters at Democracy Village. He closes his impassioned cry for the forced removal of a legal protest by writing:

What arrogance must motivate you to believe that you have the right to monopolise an area to which other citizens should have free access; to protest, yes, but to enjoy also, to take a stroll in, to have a quiet sit down. And what arrogance must motivate someone to believe that their compulsion to shriek incomprehensibly (and to absolutely no effect whatsoever) through a megaphone is more important than the comfort of others who might prefer not to be harangued aggressively as they pass by.

Such encampments would be dealt with swiftly by the authorities – and with overwhelming support from the public – were they to be inflicted on any other part of the country. That this eyesore still afflicts Parliament Square, that it has been allowed to grow and spread like a malignant infection, is a testament to the failure of politicians who should have acted decisively long before now.

Of course we should – and do – respect the right to protest. But though it might sound bizarrely counter-intuitive to say so, the democratic credentials of elected representatives must be respected also. Just because you’re elected does not mean you represent no-one, and just because you’re unelected and self-appointed does not mean you’re representative of a wider community.

I say, to Mr. Tom Harris…

This is a bad argument. You object to “Democracy Village” for the same reasons as people like Iain Dale: because it is an “eyesore”, an “irritant”, and “pointless”. None of these are good reasons for forcibly removing protesters – regardless of the amount of passion you inject into your rant. You could make the same argument against fat people in leggings.

Your point about the “arrogance” of the protesters is again very weak and raises the question of which citizens have the greater rights. Is it those who are nicely behaved, sitting on the grass for a quick lunch break, or those ugly, noisy non-conformists? You seem to have decided the former, and I’m sure many people will agree. However, I’m sure many others would argue that it’s more arrogant to assert that the right for a quiet place to eat sandwiches overrules the right for someone to protest against the killing of lots of people.

What about the arrogance of elected officials who think they have a mandate to decide which protests to tolerate and which to shut down?

More importantly, how arrogant is it to base such a decision on purely aesthetic, superficial reasons?

[Updated] If the Telegraph’s Economics Editor is right, does rape also help drive a strong economy?

I do worry about The Telegraph sometimes. Edmund Conway, Economics Editor, is presumably the best person working for that newspaper to explain how this whole complicated economy thing works. In fact, the author blurb of his blog proffers, in a charmingly self-deprecating way, “Come join in as I try to get my head, and hopefully yours, round what on earth is happening in the financial crisis”. Ah, how sweet. Unfortunately, based on the evidence of his recent article, “America: the least generous unemployment system in the world“, I think he first needs to get his head around basic analysis.

Conway begins by saying:

How is it that the American economy manages year-in-year-out to outperform its European neighbours in economic terms? There is no simple answer, of course, but this chart might hold some of the clues. It shows the comparative generosity of long-term unemployment benefits around the world – and guess who is right at the very bottom?

I would, of course, agree with the statement that there is no simple answer. But, as someone who isn’t economics editor for The Telegraph, I would also suggest the answer to the first question is that the US has almost four times (3.8 2DP) as many people living there than the biggest European country, Germany. I would also then take a couple of minutes to do a little bit of research and, judging performance in economic terms by the widely accepted measure of GDP, discover that the US is also almost four times (3.9 2DP) as strong economically. Interesting. But, Conway wants to talk about unemployment benefit, so let’s have a look at that graph…

Well, that certainly does show that the US has one of the least generous unemployment benefit systems in the world. Does Conway really expect us to read that much into it?

If you were after some evidence of how the US has managed to enshrine hard-working values in its citizens, this chart is probably a good place to start. And these figures matter.

It looks like he does. Conway asserts that this graph is evidence that the United States’ miserly unemployment benefits are a driver for its economic power. Likewise, “European-style statism” results in the opposite.

On the face of it, this is obviously stupid. You could take almost any measurement that shows the US at one extreme or another and assert that this relates to a similarly extreme measurement. For example, America manages year-in-year-out to outperform its European neighbours in terms of total recorded rapes. Does this mean there’s a relationship between the number of rapes in a country and economic performance?

I know, I know. This is a flippant comparison. Conway does at least attempt to provide a theory suggesting cause-and-effect, but it’s absolutely pointless if he doesn’t illustrate the relationship in hard terms. Continuing the tradition of his Telegraph blogging brethren, Conway clearly hasn’t bothered to actually check the validity of his claims. It’s far easier to just say stuff, safe in the knowledge that your readers have already decided that it’s true.

Fortunately, I’m here to do all the hard work – unpaid, of course – and help this successful journalist and expert on all matters economical wrap his head around such tricky things.

Let’s start by testing his theory that less generosity results in greater economic performance. Here’s a far more useful graph than the one provided by Conway (click on it to enlarge). I’ve compared the generosity of unemployment benefit figures with GDP by country:

If Conway’s belief that less generous unemployment benefits drives greater economic strength was correct, we’d expect to see the countries who are most generous (the ones on the left) experience lower GDP. Similarly, those that are least generous (the ones on the right) would have higher GDP. A correlation isn’t immediately obvious, but the flaw in this comparison is – specifically, the countries with the biggest economies are also the countries with the highest populations. In fact, if you were to rank the top seven in terms of population and GDP, I think the relationship would be clear. So, let’s take that bias out of the equation and use GDP per capita (click on the image to enlarge).

Now this is much more interesting! Well, not really. There’s no clear correlation here. Although, if anything, countries with a generosity percentage around 20% or lower seem to come off worse. But I’d hesitate before doing a Conway and jumping to conclusions, the countries with the lowest GDP per capita were all members of the Eastern Bloc, which must go some way to explaining their weaker economies. What’s most intriguing is the fact that America actually underperforms compared to many of its European neighbours (including the bounteous Denmark – which is eleven times more generous than the US!)

So, what are the conclusions?


Despite what you’re undoubtedly going to hear repeated ad nauseum by right wing commentators and the coalition government over the next few months (possibly years), there is no obvious connection between generosity of unemployment benefits and economic performance.

And two…

Edmund Conway is wrong.

Update: based on a suggestion left as a comment, I’ve created a new graph comparing generosity with long-term unemployment. This is an interesting comparison to make and could show us that being less generous with benefits ensures people stay in work – even if it doesn’t exactly help GDP (as usual, click on the image to see the full size version).

Again, a disappointing graph showing little to no correlation: Italy has almost five times the rate of long-term unemployment as the US, but is only 3 points more “generous”. Among European countries, there seems to be a slight trend for countries offering lower benefits suffering from higher long-term unemployment. However, the US is a clear exception with the lowest long-term unemployment within this group of countries. This raises many interesting questions: what is it that keeps long-term unemployment low if not a tightfisted benefit system? Is there a unifying “work ethic” between countries with low long-term unemployment? Is it simply related to availability of jobs? In short, what the fuck is going on?

Out of interest, I compared long-term unemployment with employment protection (EP), the latter referring to the level of regulations concerning the hiring and firing of employees. This last gasp at finding something worth talking about could suggest a relationship between less “red tape” and greater workforce dynamism. This comparison is shown on the graph below (click to see full size).

This is almost very exciting, but sadly it’s a case of close but no cigar. If you kind of squint your eyes and look for a pattern you want to see, you could argue the correlation is quite convincing, but unfortunately it isn’t.

Just to be clear (mainly for you stat junkies out there), here are the correlation coefficients for all the comparisons shown in this post…

GDP vs. Generosity = -0.32
GDP per Capita vs. Generosity = 0.30
Long-term unemployment vs. Generosity = -0.22
Long-term unemployment vs. EP = 0.36

If you’re not familiar with how you measure the correlation between two datasets, here’s a brief explanation of what these results mean:

Correlation is measured on a scale of -1 to +1
A perfect positive correlation will achieve a score of +1 (the higher the values of one dataset, the higher the values of the other dataset), while a perfect negative correlation will achieve a score of -1 (the higher the values of one dataset, the lower the values of the other dataset)
Any number in between these two “perfect” scores shows the strength of correlation (0.87 is a strong positive correlation, while -0.25 is a barely significant negative correlation)

Alone, these are pretty useful figures, but we can make judge our results even more accurately by taking into account the critical value – that is, the strength our correlation has to reach before it becomes significant. Using this handy table with a degree of freedom (df, the number of subjects in the study minus 2) of 18 and a level of significance of 0.05 (this means we can expect a fluke result 5 times out 100), we can see that we’d need the correlation to be at least 0.44 before jumping to any conclusions. And even then, a correlation does not necessarily mean a cause and effect.

Y’know, I might persist at this until I actually find a correlation. In the meantime, don’t trust anything you read that boasts of relationships unless they give you the critical value of r. That’s some good advice.