All posts by John B

Traditional ‘where’s your grammar?’ line

(“in t’front room watching telly, what’s it to you?”)

An apparently valid study has shown that 25-34 year olds are best at using apostrophes correctly, while over-55s are worst. While this doesn’t fit with the traditional narrative of ‘it’s all gone to the dogs since trendy liberals took over teaching’, it does fit with the available evidence on functional literacy rates: it’s clear that the comprehensive system has provided its alumni with a more effective education than the grammar and secondary modern system did.

I’m aware that ‘bring back grammar schools’ is a dogmatic, rather than an evidence-based, position – but one might have thought the fact that older people are demonstrably worse-educated than younger people might impinge on their consciousness somewhere down the line…

Electoral impairment

Two things are going to impair my analysis of this election: brennivin, and my landlady’s inability to make the wi-fi work. On aggregate, however, I’d rather be spending it in Iceland than pretty much anywhere else.

update: yeah, that pretty much worked. been liveblogging on lc, will link sometime. Yay Obama, yay the American people, yay worst fears averted; let’s see how landslidey it goes, how the senate looks, and then what gets done afterwards…

Final word on Teacupgate

5CC wins:

At least the Daily Mail is doing its best to ensure this sort of thing never happens again. Its asylum coverage is working towards there never being any future Andrew Sachses by making sure they die in a war zone rather than be allowed in the country. Just like it tried in the 30s, when it opposed giving asylum to Jews fleeing the nazis, like Andrew Sachs.

Obligatory Manuelgate post

Andrew at Wongablog has the best take on this: it wasn’t a ‘prank call’ in the “we’ll call someone out of the blue and harass them” sense, there wasn’t any deliberate intent to offend Andrew Sachs – and the man is a holocaust survivor who’s most famous for a very funny and very offensive portrayal of an ethnic minority character in a very funny and very offensive comedy show, so is just about probably maybe big enough to cope with being targeted with lewd humour by a pair of DJs.

I accept the call shouldn’t have been broadcast, given that Andrew Sachs hadn’t cleared it and in fact proved to be offended by it. Bad BBC, slap on wrist, etc. But if you read the whole transcript rather than tabloid scare quotes, it is extremely funny.

The joke’s based on a classic piece of British humour: there’s a fact hanging over the conversation that the protagonists absolutely, totally know they shouldn’t talk about, develop an obsession with the fact as a result, end up blurting it out, try to apologise, but ultimately end up making things a million times worse by not being able to stop referencing the fact that they’re obsessed with. The end result is painfully cringeworthy, horribly inappropriate, and yet hilarious.

Now where have I heard that one before?

If this was a deliberate reference by Ross and Brand, then they are among the best comedians of a generation. If not, then the fates claim that title.

Update: have just been reminded of our man Wilde’s take on this kind of mass-moral-panic nonsense: “the British public is never so ridiculous as when engaged in one of its periodic fits of morality”. ‘Nuff said, pretty much.

Update 2: BBDO is the winner.

Update 3: Sorry, that was a lie, The Daily Mash is the winner.

Update 4: Russell Brand’s resignation speech is genuinely a masterpiece of class (especially where he makes the point that he’s held off making a public apology because it’s absolutely none of the public’s business – it’s between him, Ross, Sachs and Baillie – and he’s now making a public apology because he regrets the harm that he’s done to the BBC, rather than the offence caused to the idiots). This whole episode has increased my respect for Brand so much, although I still find his voice kind-of annoying….

Violence most horrid

It only seems like a few months since the biggest “idiots failing to understand numbers” issue was that of crime… oh, for those heady pre-recession days when people had nothing more to worry about than lamenting that crime was a major problem despite it generally not being one.

The latest row, which has unfortunately given ammunition to the ‘all crime stats are lies because my uncle’s neighbour’s nephew’s dad’s dog got STABBED! with a KNIFE!!!’ brigade, is about police forces wrongly classing minor-ish violent crime committed with the intent of inflicting majori-ish violent crime as ‘other violent crime’ (in line with how the courts treat these offences) instead of ‘most serious violent crime’ (in line with how the statistical guidelines say you should treat these offences).

Mark Eaton has an excellent piece on this, using the old stats, the new stats and BCS data to make the point that the reclassification changed nothing significant (not least, because only criminal justice wonks look at these subcategories anyway, with reporters and politicians alike dealing solely in ‘reported crime’, ‘reported violent crime’, and specific types of offence). Hooray for the BBC for hiring him and saving me a job…

Furniture, nudity thereof

If anyone uses the phrase ‘the cupboard is bare’ when referring to the UK’s current economic position, this is an excellent indicator that they are entirely clueless about it. For one, it’s an embarrassingly trite and twee metaphor, unlikely to be used by anyone literate; for two, it paints an entirely false picture of the government’s financial situation (also, note that the government precisely and exactly did pay down the national debt as a proportion of GDP, which is the only figure that matters, during the boom times, which makes criticising them for not doing so particularly weird).

As Chris highlights (while also, correctly, pointing out that the current ‘sterling crash’ isn’t one at all – if it were, the pound would have fallen significantly against the euro, which it hasn’t. Rather, it’s a dollar/yen rally), people are still falling over themselves to lend the government money at very low interest rates. That’s an indicator that outside of cutesy-talking-point land, serious people accept there’s plenty of, err, cupboard-room.

While I’m here, a couple of points on the Centre for Policy Studies report that purports to show the UK has a ginormously terrifying public debt. For a start, it’s written by a Tory MP – aren’t think-tanks producing this kind of report supposed to maintain some vague pretence of not being entirely motivated by partisan hackery?

Content-wise, it’s the same report the CPS churn out every year, with the figures slightly updated. And as always, it’s spun ridiculously: the angle is approximately “when you include the PFI Enron accounting, Network Rail’s nationalised in all but name-ness, bank bits, various other dodges and public sector pensions, the national debt is enormous”. In fact, the only non-trivial sums it identifies are PFI payments – which it exaggerates by a factor of more than three by failing to follow anything even vaguely resembling accounting standards, as I’ve already pointed out here – and public sector pensions, which are an order of magnitude larger than any of the other factor, and are the only way authors of this kind of paper can get from “the national debt is 42% of GDP instead of 39%, nobody cares” to “oh my god, the national debt is 150% of GDP and we’re all ruined due to Evil Labour”.

Quite how the hell public sector pensions should be accounted for is a tough question, and not one which has been satisfactorily resolved anywhere by anybody. However, suggesting that the UK is particularly screwed because of Labour’s incompetence and dodging, when actually the problem has existed forever and in every developed economy, is grossly dishonest. It also doesn’t represent debt in the sense of ‘people who have pieces of paper saying you’ll pay them and who’ll sue you if you don’t’ – it’s just a promise from politicians to be nice to old people, and we all know about the iron-like unbreakability of politicians’ promises…

[*] Yes, Network Rail’s GBP20bn debt should be included in the headline figures, as it’s government-guaranteed and not secured against tradeable assets. So should the real PFI number of c.GBP30bn; together, these add an extra 4-5% of GDP to the official national debt figure. I’m happy to confirm for the benefit of readers who question my political neutrality that these should be classed in the national debt proper and that Labour are slippery sods for not doing so (although on the other hand, they were the first ever UK government to move to GAAP for public sector accounting and are one of the first globally to adopt IFRS).

The banks shouldn’t be: it doesn’t make sense to view debt backed by tradeable financial assets as part of The National Debt, since it doesn’t represent money that’ll have to be paid back out of future taxation. At worst, we’re on the hook for the difference between the value of the banks’ mortgage books now and the long-term value of the relevant houses, cushioned by homeowners’ wiped-out equity. Even if we have a two-year depression and house prices fall 40% from their peak, the loss potential isn’t high.