Does Britain bust a left or hang a right? (British Social Attitudes Survey Part II)

I think we can safely assume the majority of Brits don’t define themselves in crude political terms. So, let’s look at some of the detail of the British Social Attitudes Survey (BSAS) to understand how closely the sympathies of Britons align with the aims of the coalition and the right-wing press.

Inequality and Fair Pay

A majority believe the gap between those with high incomes and low incomes is too large, that this contributes to social problems and that it is the responsibility of the government to reduce income inequality.

The government are not ignorant of this, having commissioned Will Hutton to produce a report looking at fair pay. However, the report’s remit was restricted to the public sector with the brief to investigate a pay ratio of 20 to 1 – according to the BSAS, people think the ratio should be 6 to 1.

You have to question whether the government’s aim with this report is really about fair pay. Both the Tories and the right-wing media appear more concerned about government spending and mythical “public sector fat cats” than income inequality across the whole of society. The right-wing media, in particular, are strongly against government involvement in reducing income inequality across the private sector.

This puts the British public further to the left than the Tories and completely at odds with the right-wing media.

Just over half of people believe the government should provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed, but only 27% believe more should be spent on welfare benefits for the poor.

The 27% figure is the statistic most favoured by the right-wing press. And it is significant, especially considering support for higher welfare spending has decreased from 58% in 1991. However, considering this survey comes off the back of a Labour government which has increased welfare over the previous decade, the massive drop doesn’t necessarily reflect a desire to greatly reduce benefits.

This finding is therefore inconclusive. Other findings of the survey show that people aren’t unsympathetic to the poor and, in fact, favour distinctly un-Thatcherite policies: 62% want better education or training opportunities to enable people to get better jobs, 54% want the minimum wage increased, and 40% want higher income taxes to be increased.

Investment in public services

Secondary schools have been seen to improve in every way under Labour and there is widespread support for an increasing emphasis on non-academic areas including practical and life skills.

While Tory (and Lib Dem) rhetoric before the election uncontroversially focused on limiting top-down interference over schools, the policies of Michael Gove since then seem at odds to what the public clearly perceive as a successful decade for education under Labour.

In particular, Gove’s peculiar fixation on ‘traditional’ lessons (including Classical Greek, Biblical Hebrew and Latin) is not shared by the people, 72% of whom believe the teaching of life skills is more important than academic subjects.

While happy to trumpet the parts of the survey that support with its own agenda, the Daily Mail sneers at the ‘alarming complacency’ suggested by the nearly three-quarters of people who think our schools teach basic schools well.

Regardless, it’s not obvious how Gove’s plans will improve schools in the way people want. His anachronistic baccalaureate idea and intent to abolish coursework conflicts with the view, agreed with by six in ten people, that “schools focus too much on tests and exams and not enough on learning for its own sake”.

Satisfaction with the NHS is at its highest level ever, reflecting that people recognise and value the improvements made by Labour, particularly the successful introduction of maximum waiting times targets.

I never understood the right-wing war against NHS targets, especially considering (if my memory serves me correctly) they were introduced as a result of right-wing media pressure.

When Labour entered office in 1997, satisfaction with the NHS was at the lowest level (34%) since the survey began. In 2009, satisfaction reached the highest level since the survey began (64%). Even among Conservative supporters, satisfaction with the NHS is at its height.

Against this backdrop, you really have to wonder why the Tories are embarking on a highly controversial and extremely risky reorganisation of the NHS. Many would suggest the motivation is ideological. If this is the case, Tory ideology (and that of its right-wing supporters) is clearly not shared by the British public.

So what?

This is just a scraping of findings from the report’s executive summaries available online. Still, I think it’s pretty damn supportive of New Labour’s record and suggests the Tories should be careful.

The unexpected ambition of their education and health reforms are controversial at the moment. Considering they are completely out of line with what the public actually wants, when they are introduced the shit, as they say, could well and truly hit the fan.

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[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?

One…

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.