Mar 172010

I’m really sick and tired of you people on the left telling me what and whom I should be arguing against and how I should be constructing those arguments.

‘It’s not Ed Balls’s fault people think Latin is useless. You should be ranting against everybody who’s allowed it to decline blah blah.’

You know what? I’ll rant about Ed Balls if I please, especially if he’s the one I see doing something I don’t agree with.

And you know what else? I have no pretensions about making this blog a vehicle for social change. I don’t write what I write in the hope that my careful, inoffensive points reach a wide audience. None of my goals involves bringing people around to my way of thinking in order to effect terminal mass in opinions.

In fact, my blog reaches more people when I abandon careful inoffensiveness, which is bland, and rant my way practically to apoplexy. So why would I take your advice to tone it down and choose targets you’d like me to pick?

In the words of the great Lenny, Mayor of New York’s finest: ‘You do your job, pencil-dick. Don’t tell me how to do mine.’

Mar 152010

I cannot even begin to identify anyone whom I loathe more than I loathe Ed Balls, but at least I could console myself that it was nothing personal – until today.

Ed Balls, in his infinite fucking wisdom, has decided that Latin is a useless subject in schools. Like Boris Johnson, I am outraged, not least because this is my livelihood at stake. When the Secretary of State for Schools declares a subject useless, you can be sure that it will be sliced from the curriculum with great precision, Hannibal Lecter-style.

To quote BoJo quoting Balls:

Speaking on the radio, Spheroids dismissed the idea that Latin could inspire or motivate pupils. Head teachers often took him to see the benefits of dance, or technology, or sport, said this intergalactic ass, and continued: “No one has ever taken me to a Latin lesson to make the same point. Very few parents are pushing for it, very few pupils want to study it.”

Balls, my friend, I will tell you why head teachers have never taken you to a Latin lesson. First, it’s because Latin is offered in so few schools these days that I doubt any of the ones you’ve visited on your infrequent and disruptive photo-ops even teaches the subject.

Second, it would be a pointless waste of time to allow you to observe the teaching of such an elegant and complex subject. Not only would you be incapable of understanding the material, much less appreciating it, the superior knowledge of the students would show you up in a Tennessee heartbeat. Could you even begin to grasp the idea of an ablative absolute, or listen with any light of comprehension in your eyes to a discussion of the sexual puns in a poem by Ovid? Students can. Could you find in your shrivelled soul an inclination to laugh at the comedy of Aristophanes or experience a pang of sympathetic horror at the tribulations of Oedipus? Students can.

Could you learn the lessons of Sulla and Pompey, that it is not okay to destroy a country in pursuit of one’s own personal ambition? Of course not. As BoJo points out, you studied the classics at school. If you could have absorbed the moral of such cautionary tales from ancient history, you would not be what you are today.

Which is an ignorant, judgmental, pompous fool with no appreciation of culture or history and no interest in or understanding of what it takes to make a child a human being, rather than a mindless automaton whose only skill is the ability to wibble on pointlessly about social justice and carbon footprints.

As long as Ed Balls remains a force within the Labour Party, nobody will ever convince me that that party intends any good for anybody whatsoever, try they mightily, and I will do everything in my power to persuade every British voter I encounter that a vote for Labour is a vote for the total destruction of civilisation.

Feb 252010

Frustrated that people continued to consume so much alcohol even after it was banned, federal officials had decided to try a different kind of enforcement. They ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols manufactured in the United States, products regularly stolen by bootleggers and resold as drinkable spirits. The idea was to scare people into giving up illicit drinking. Instead, by the time Prohibition ended in 1933, the federal poisoning program, by some estimates, had killed at least 10,000 people.

Industrial alcohol is basically grain alcohol with some unpleasant chemicals mixed in to render it undrinkable. The U.S. government started requiring this “denaturing” process in 1906 for manufacturers who wanted to avoid the taxes levied on potable spirits. The U.S. Treasury Department, charged with overseeing alcohol enforcement, estimated that by the mid-1920s, some 60 million gallons of industrial alcohol were stolen annually to supply the country’s drinkers. In response, in 1926, President Calvin Coolidge’s government decided to turn to chemistry as an enforcement tool. Some 70 denaturing formulas existed by the 1920s. Most simply added poisonous methyl alcohol into the mix. Others used bitter-tasting compounds that were less lethal, designed to make the alcohol taste so awful that it became undrinkable.

To sell the stolen industrial alcohol, the liquor syndicates employed chemists to “renature” the products, returning them to a drinkable state. The bootleggers paid their chemists a lot more than the government did, and they excelled at their job. Stolen and redistilled alcohol became the primary source of liquor in the country. So federal officials ordered manufacturers to make their products far more deadly.

By mid-1927, the new denaturing formulas included some notable poisons—kerosene and brucine (a plant alkaloid closely related to strychnine), gasoline, benzene, cadmium, iodine, zinc, mercury salts, nicotine, ether, formaldehyde, chloroform, camphor, carbolic acid, quinine, and acetone. The Treasury Department also demanded more methyl alcohol be added—up to 10 percent of total product. It was the last that proved most deadly.
The results were immediate, starting with that horrific holiday body count in the closing days of 1926. Public health officials responded with shock. “The government knows it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol,” New York City medical examiner Charles Norris said at a hastily organized press conference. “[Y]et it continues its poisoning processes, heedless of the fact that people determined to drink are daily absorbing that poison. Knowing this to be true, the United States government must be charged with the moral responsibility for the deaths that poisoned liquor causes, although it cannot be held legally responsible.”

Governments, yes, always act in the best possible ways for the largest number of people (‘THE GREATER GOOOOOOOOOD’). I hereby renounce my doubting ways and surrender myself to its loving embrace.

Feb 212010

I’m feeling bitchy today regarding the following subjects. Feel free to have a go at me in the comments if you like, as this will soothe and satisfy the argument-demon that’s taken up residence in my psyche.

Today’s Pet Peeves

1. People who ‘don’t get’ the left wing.*

Seriously, not getting something and not agreeing with something are not the same thing. Occasionally a left-wing proposition I’ve not yet been exposed to knocks me upside the head and my disbelief splutters out – but even a few minutes’ careful thought makes me ‘get’ it.

And even when individual propositions may be confusing, one should always keep in mind the fall-back position, that to be left-wing is easy. The left wing is the fashionable, the powerful, the self-styled intellectual faction of our modern West. It self-represents as the pinnacle of both reason (‘we are right’) and emotion (‘we are good’). It self-represents as the melding of the ideal and the utilitarian, working on the best possible principles to achieve the best possible outcomes. Not to be left-wing is to choose deliberately an uphill battle against a force which claims a monopoly on both morality and praxis. Not to be left-wing is what most people ‘don’t get’, as I’ve been told on a number of occasions.

Nothing the left wing does need be supported by any universally-accepted logic for, like America, because it claims to be good, even its seemingly illogical behaviour must also be good, because nothing that comes from good can be evil or wrong. (This is, it should be noted, a complete inversion of the once widely-accepted proverb ‘By their fruits you shall know them.’ Instead, we shall now know them by their roots, and if the roots are sufficiently good, the quality of the fruits is incidental and not really worth investigating.)

To expound a left-wing proposition is to align oneself with the prevailing majority conceptions of both power and right. There are many left-wing propositions that have value, of course, and one must recognise those if one believes in either truth or justice. But even left-wing propositions that appear to have no intrinsic or objective value whatsoever can be ‘got’ when advocated by some individual, for the reasons mentioned above.

In short, one should begin by investigating the logic, for this is only fair; if no logic is to be found, the fact that being left-wing is easy and makes you look good should be the motivation ascribed to those doing the proposing. Adopting left-wing attitudes is an adaptive behaviour, because nobody who wants to get anywhere gets anywhere these days if they fail (or worse, refuse) to adapt in this way. Is simples.

2. People who announce their departure and reappearance in internet forums.

‘Hey, guys, things in RL are getting really hectic. Don’t expect to see me for a while.’

‘Hey, guys, I’ve sorted out RL and I’m ready to jump back in. What’d I miss? Oh, and a shout-out to X, Y, and Z – thanks for thinking of me while I was gone!’

Why do people do this? Common courtesy, I suppose, the way you might excuse yourself from the dinner table to visit the toilets. However, much of the time this behaviour strikes me as some kind of self-imposed exile/martyrdom, of the view that to absent oneself totally is preferable to reducing one’s participation to a few remarks here and there when the time for it can be spared. Or, maybe, it belongs to the school of thought that says one must slice the trivial out of one’s life in order to focus on the nontrivial. Which seems rather bizarre to me, because to focus with such intensity on the nontrivial would appear to invite more stress than taking the occasional break to waste time on the series of tubes.

3. People who ‘don’t get’ the right wing.*

Frequently, I hear right-wing beliefs or attitudes ascribed to one or more of the following personal flaws:

(a) being ill-informed or uninformed
(b) stupidity
(c) suggestibility
(d) callousness

If I’m going to pay the left the courtesy of listening to its propositions and trying to understand their underlying premises, I think I (being, after all, frequently labelled ‘right-wing’) may with some justice expect the same courtesy. I am perfectly willing to admit to being uninformed (but rarely ill-informed), but I am not particularly stupid or suggestible or callous.

As I have mentioned in other posts, quite often the apparent paradox of the intelligent, decent, sensible right-winger makes people’s heads asplode. Enough already; stop looking for the source of our ‘delusion’ in our parents’ politics or corporate sponsors. At least allow us the initial assumption that we came to our beliefs through reasoned analysis. While this may not always prove true, at least it’s a respectful place to start.

4. Blogs without search functions.

Argh. ‘Nuff said.

5. People who dislike immigrants on grounds of ‘preserving culture.’

The intense dislike some individuals exhibit regarding unchecked immigration into their space is not particularly difficult to understand when expressed in economic terms. Increases in the supply of labour drive down wages, whether these newcomers are skilled or low-skilled or unskilled, and of course if one happens to live in a generous welfare state, an influx of people who receive the state’s bounty but do not greatly contribute to the coffers will chap the hide of the long-suffering taxpayer.

But leaving aside the economic implications of immigration, there is also a strand of anti-immigrant feeling that revolves around preserving the indigenous culture from the influence of, if not exactly ‘weirdos’, then people whose culture is demonstrably or perhaps worryingly different.

But culture is neither static nor necessarily good. Without wishing to be relativist, I think I can safely assert that the culture of a particular people or place is neither wholly good nor wholly bad, but simply is, as a result of various events and trends that have taken place over time amongst that people or in that place. It seems a futile desire to wish to ‘preserve’ that which is always changing (even in the absence of weirdo immigrants), largely as a result of the evolving values and desires of the so-called indigenous people.

For example, let us consider Britain. If one listens to ‘reactionaries’ like Peter Hitchens, British culture has become less stoic, more saccarchine; less entrepreneurial, more dependent; less law-abiding, more criminal, since the death of dear Churchill. Is this the result of immigrants? Or the result of changing attitudes amongst the British themselves? Did the influence of immigrants cause the British to exhibit massive and public grief when Princess Diana died? (Hitchens identifies this as a particularly undignified episode.) Has the influence of immigrants created the dependency on the state exhibited by so many?

Frankly, I do not think so. British culture has its failings as well as its virtues. To wish to preserve its virtues is laudable; but to defend its failings because they are *native* failings is ridiculous. And really, I was under the impression that ethnic nationalism had gone out of style in the West. Just because one doesn’t advocate murdering the weirdos doesn’t mean one is free from the taint of ethnic nationalism. The difference between disapproving of foreign influence and violently eradicating foreign influence is really just one of degree.

6. Republicans/Conservatives.

The function of the Republican party in the United States and the Conservative Party in Britain is to disguise the fact that the country is ruled by what is essentially a one-party statist blob. Superficially, R/Cs may differ from Democrats/Labour on such issues as abortion, gay marriage, the role of family, etc – but the keen observer will notice that regarding all of these superficial issues, the solution on both sides is statist intervention of one form or another. Abortion – legal or illegal? Gay marriage – legal or illegal? Whatever the outcome, it will always be determined by some fiat legislation or judicial decree. Rarely does either side say, ‘Hey, these things are not for the government to decide.’

This political ‘dichotomy’ appears particularly schizophrenic to those of us who are neither centrists nor moderates, but occupy the ‘fringes’ (read: consistent factions) of the left and right. This is how we get complaints that, e.g., New Labour are in fact Thatcherite, and New Tories are in fact New Labour.** Actually both groups are ridiculously inconsistent in their ideologies, but at least Democrats/Labour do not pretend to be in favour of a limited state. Republicans/Conservatives do, but their actions when in charge rarely bear this out.

Furthermore, Republicans and Conservatives, by their insistence that they are materially and ideologically different from the Democrats/Labour, facilitate the claim of the left that right-wing hegemony carries on apace and the demon capitalism continues to oppress the working man. Whenever Republicans or Conservatives win elections, the cry from the left goes up: ‘See! There is still much work to be done in eliminating this wealthy-elitist scourge from society!’ They imagine themselves to be heirs of their 1960s forbears, struggling against an Establishment that is ranged against them in every possible sphere with powerful weapons.

In fact, they are the Establishment, and every protestation by Republicans/Conservatives that they offer a real alternative allows the left to pretend that they are still fighting The Man.

Which leads me to my next peeve…

7. Baby-boomers.***

There appears to be some justice in the common belief that the baby-boomers, having got into power since the 1960s, reordered society to suit themselves and pulled the ladder up behind them. Baby-boomers rule the Western world: they are the politicians, the bureaucrats, the professors, the journalists, the managers and CEOs, the head teachers, etc. All of the levers of actual power are in their hands. They direct policy and opinion and continue to shape the world according to their views. In their minds this is right and just, both because they possess ‘experience,’ and because they represent a considerable voting block in our much-revered system of democracy. They possess both seniority and numbers, which as we know are the accepted, legitimate reasons for allowing people to have what they want.

In an honest world, this would not be much of a criticism. But we live in a curiously dishonest world, wherein baby-boomers hold all of the power and then complain that the youth are disaffected and disengaged, unlike themselves when they were ‘the youth.’ In fact, most of the policies advocated by the baby-boomers in power seem deliberately designed to keep ‘the youth’ dependent on them, which is a perfect recipe for further disaffection and disengagement.

Let us consider recent proposals in Britain dealing with ‘the youth.’

(a) Compulsory education or training to age 18. This keeps ‘the youth’ under the control of the state (read: baby-boomer run) education system until legal adulthood.

(b) Sending more of the population to university. This keeps ‘the youth’ under the control of the state (read: baby-boomer run and operated) education system until well into adulthood.

(c) Government-provided work and training for graduates who can’t find jobs. This keeps ‘the youth’ (who are now into their twenties) dependent on the state (run by baby-boomers) for sustenance and the acquisition of skills.

(d) Parent training courses. This sends the message to ‘the youth’ who have dared to reproduce that despite their biological fitness for the job, they are mentally and emotionally unfit to raise offspring without guidance from the state (i.e. baby-boomers, those proven experts in child-rearing).

All of these policies could not make more perfectly clear the belief of baby boomers that ‘the youth’ of today are unfit to make decisions for themselves, support themselves, or support other humans; and yet still the baby boomers complain that ‘the youth’ don’t take responsibility for themselves and agitate for their own benefit. But why should they? They’ve been told they’re not competent to do this, and even the few who truly desire power (those who have somehow evaded the systematic demoralisation perpetrated on them) are content to wait, having accepted the baby-boomer creed that power comes automatically from seniority and numbers. Those people will simply wait until the baby boomers are all dead; the rest of us will continue to be disaffected (if not always disengaged) by the fact that the generation now holding power obviously think we are too stupid and childish to govern ourselves.

The cry of the baby boomers: ‘You can’t do anything without us! But why aren’t you trying anyway?’ Maybe it’s because, however stupid and childish we may be, we have at least learnt the futility of bashing our heads against brick walls.

*To my left-wing friends and acquaintances: Obviously I consider you exceptions to these unfriendly stereotypes, as I know you possess genuinely-held beliefs about the betterment of mankind and none of you have ever implied that I was stupid, ill-informed, suggestible, etc. for disagreeing with your desired methods of achieving this laudable aim.

**Consider the following symbolic logic: New Labour = Thatcherites (i.e. Old Tories); New Tories = New Labour; ergo New Tories = Thatcherites (i.e. Old Tories) and it becomes perfectly clear why the ‘fringes’ are screaming ZOMG THEY ARE ALL THE SAME!

***To my baby-boomer friends, acquaintances, and parents: Obviously I consider you exceptions to this unfriendly stereotype, as none of you are in positions of actual power and you all seem to be as frustrated with your generational compatriots as I am.

Feb 182010

Nef is not calling for sudden or imposed change, but for a slow shift across the course of a decade or more. Wage increments can gradually be exchanged for shorter hours. There will be time to adjust incentives for employers, to discourage overtime, reduce costs per employee, to improve flexibility in ways that suit employees, and to extend training to offset skills shortages. There will be time to phase in a higher minimum wage and more progressive taxation, to change people’s expectations, and to adjust to low-carbon lifestyles that absorb more time and less money.

This plan makes no sense. Why do we need a higher minimum wage if we’re going to be spending so much less money on stuff? Where are the extra jobs going to come from if people are purchasing fewer goods and services? How many businesses will be available to hire people after you’ve bankrupted a bunch of them by forcing them to pay their employees more money for less work and by discouraging people from consuming the goods and services they produce?

In short, how stupid and totalitarian are you, really?

Seriously, just go away. Go away and stop telling me what to do.

Jan 282010

What the f*ck is wrong with you British people? Seriously, is every single one of you on crack?

How in the name of all that is holy and good does THIS pass for effective campaigning by an opposition party that wants to be the party of Government?


We can make you behave

Even the Guardian is taking the piss out of this idea, which speaks volumes.

…a Conservative government will impose a seven-day cooling off period for store credit cards, so shoppers can’t immediately rack up debts on them when they sign up at the till. That’s a far less intrusive way to tackle problem debt than banning store cards, for example, or introducing a new tax.


A Conservative government will require all public bodies that want to launch marketing campaigns to state precisely what behaviour change the advertising is designed to bring about, and an element of the advertising agency fee will be made contingent on achieving the desired outcome


The new insights from behavioural economics and social psychology are helping us to apply that principle to today’s problems, and cut burdensome regulation and costs. In fact, when you come to think about it, it’s all pretty rational, isn’t it?


I can’t believe that, in this once-great nation, the populace has created for itself the choice between authoritarian control-freaks and authoritarian control-freaks. Is this really what you want? People in absolute charge of you who all think they know better than you? People who think you need a cooling-off period, like a child on the naughty step, before you can make a decision about what to do with your own damn money? People who think you need to be told by public agencies how to use your own brains to make rational decisions? Do you really find life such a complicated hardship that you want a government to hold your hand from cradle to grave?

What the hell could possibly make you think George Osborne knows better than you how you should live your life? Why on earth should people whose only skill is kissing your ass have this kind of responsibility? What set of facts makes you believe that the people who run your country are immune to irrational action?


Answers on a postcard. I’m off to have a drink.

UPDATE: Alex Massie writes in the Spectator:

Kinder, gentler, subtler authoritarianism is still authoritarianism and makes a mockery of Tory rhetoric. That rhetoric is quite appealling but when you actually look at what the Tories actually want to do then, more often than not, their plans bear little or no relation to the meaning of their words. So why should their words be taken seriously?

Then again, this should not be a surprise. As James points out in his excellent column this week, Cameron and Osborne run an unprecedentedly centralised operation inside the Tory party. There’s little reason to suppose that their approach to government will be any different. Your freedom is severely constrained by their idea of that freedom. But that’s ok because Muesli Authoritarianism is good for you!

Beneath, commenter Fergus Pickering likes the credit-card cooling-off idea:

Actually I think the store card idea is a good one. But perhaps, Alex, you haven’t yet had the pleasure of teenage daughters. When you have had, that’s when I’ll listen to you on this. Teenage girls spend what they haven’t got. It’s in the genes.

To which I can only say, Fergus, if you need the government to police your daughters’ spending habits, you should never have become a parent. And really – ‘it’s in the genes’? You sexist asshole.

Meanwhile, I am reminded that Osborne co-wrote this article with one Richard Thaler. Thaler has a history of co-writing, as it is he who co-wrote the original libertarian paternalist Bible, Nudge, with none other than our old friend, Cass Sunstein.

Jan 182010

People of Britain, do you want fewer teachers? Do you wish to have teacher:pupil ratios of 1:45 across the land? Do you wish for huge schools operated by huge education authorities and staffed by teachers in huge teachers’ unions who can command ever higher and higher salaries and perks for their members as there is more and more work to go round and not enough teachers to do it?

If you answered yes to all of those questions, then good for you: because that’s exactly what you’ll get.

Earlier this year, the General Teaching Council expressed its wish that all teachers, whether in state or independent schools, be required to have a teaching certificate. This would entail a year of post-graduate education for all teachers, creating further cost to the taxpayer and further debt for the teacher-in-training. Further costs are a barrier to entry to the profession, and will result in fewer teachers.

Now David Cameron has said he would deny state funds to teachers-in-training whose undergraduate degrees were ranked third-class or below:

Under a Conservative government, according to Mr Cameron, no one with less than a 2:2 degree would be granted taxpayer’s money for postgraduate teacher training. It builds on a Tory plan announced last year to raise the entry qualifications for primary teachers.

Look, Camerhoon: the reason we have state funds for teacher training at all, and the reason for golden hellos, student loan discounts, and easier immigration requirements for teachers of certain subjects is because there are not enough teachers, good, bad, or otherwise. The financial incentives exist to attract people to what the government officially classes as a shortage occupation. Teaching is no easier than any other job. The salary it commands, in general, is lower than other professions that require a post-graduate degree. It is a job that few people are prepared to do, for one reason or another, and it is a sad fact that in this country the perception of teachers is that they went into teaching because they could not do anything else useful. (In some cases, that may be true, of course, and there are certainly a fair few teachers out there who are crap at their jobs.)

But the main point is that the vast majority of people do not choose to be teachers. The government’s policy is therefore to bribe the ones who can be bribed with financial perks. The message, so far, has been clear: ‘Please be a teacher! We will give you money!’

Now, suddenly, we are getting this incredibly stupid message: restrict the supply further! Only this will give the teaching profession status!

Britain can learn from Finland, Singapore and South Korea, who “have some of the best education systems in the world because they have deliberately made teaching a high prestige profession. They are brazenly elitist, making sure only the top graduates can apply.”

I’ve got news for you, dude. Teaching is a high-status profession in other countries for two primary reasons: first, lots of people want to be teachers. They are over-supplied. When lots of people want a particular job, employers naturally take only the best. Teachers have a high status in these places because their populations place tremendous value on the quality of education. Here in Britain, where there aren’t enough teachers to fill the positions that exist, we can’t really afford to be so picky. And, plainly, the value people place on quality of education here is minimal. Why do I say this? Because in Britain, a politician can be credibly attacked for having attended a top-quality school. Because in Britain, universities are encouraged to deny places to applicants from top-quality schools. Because in Britain, the ‘professions’ are told to deny entry to pupils from top-quality schools. Because in Britain, clearly, quality of education takes a serious backseat to social justice and equality.

The other reason for the popularity of teaching in many other countries is that teachers are seriously protected from market forces. In Spain, for example, it is virtually impossible to sack a teacher. Many teachers never leave the profession, and young people who want to teach are often obliged to wait years for a position to open up (years which many of them spend, according to my anecdata, working in tapas bars and living with their parents). Teachers are paid an enormous amount of money relative to most other jobs in these places; they have excellent working conditions, a great deal of disciplinary freedom, and good facilities available for their use. In short, these other places spend a huge amount of money on education, and they are willing to pay top dollar for top-quality educators.

Britain… does not. Education is, by comparison, underfunded; teachers’ pay scales are not linked to quality, but to seniority and certificates; facilities are poor, discipline is lax, and graduates with good degrees can earn far more money in other jobs. National pay scales mean that teachers in parts of the country where cost of living is high are short-changed compared to teachers in other places. And the state sets a maximum salary for teachers who do not have a teaching qualification (£25,000 pa full-time, for the curious), meaning that pay is not even related to the amount of work one does or time one spends on the job, much less the quality of that work.

So: in a country where people don’t want to be teachers, quality of education is not a priority, and historically the government’s stance on the profession is to bribe people to enter it, the solution is to make it even harder to become a teacher?

Good luck with that, Dave.

UPDATE: Iain Dale has posted a hefty extract from Camerhoon’s speech:

We’ve made our teachers lives more difficult, undermining their judgement, curbing their freedom, telling them what to do and how to do it. We send them into some chaotic environments with little protection or support, leaving them feeling demoralised and under-valued.

That’s right – you’ve made teaching a very unattractive profession. People with the ‘best brains’ look at this litany of woes and think, why in the name of sweet Jesus would I want to do this job? And then they go do something else.

If we’re only going to let the best brains teach, and most of the best brains don’t want to because

people with a good degree who would make great teachers think instead about the civil service, the BBC, maybe the Bar

then we’re not going to have very many teachers at all, are we?

Now. How do we make teaching more attractive than the civil service, the BBC, and the law? For a start, the state could stop undermining teachers, telling them what to do and how to do it, protect them from abuse, support them on matters of discipline – pay them according to effectiveness and skill whilst leaving them free to find the best path to effective teaching.

If you want the best brains to teach, make teaching attractive to people with good brains. What do people with good brains find attractive? Freedom to find the best way to do their jobs, opportunities to be creative, fair rewards for outstanding job performance, and the ability to be a mover and shaker in their profession.

At the moment, if you’re a twenty-something or thirty-something who has made it in another career but fancy giving teaching a go, the bureaucratic-odds are stacked against you.

And not just that. Most of them would be taking a drastic pay cut and surrendering all personal autonomy on the job, not to mention running the gauntlet of the CRB system to prove they’ve never so much as looked at a child cross-eyed. Anyone who’s been successful in a non-teaching career and wants to become a teacher should be hired on the spot, qualification or no, because nobody who wasn’t passionately dedicated to the art of pedagogy would do such a personally disadvantageous thing. Who cares what kind of degree they received?

We’re going to change all that and give high-flying professionals a fast-track into teaching. We will replace the Graduate Teacher Programme with a new one – Teach Now. Modelled on Teach First, it will be a one-stop-shop for people who want to transfer into teaching.

No, no, a thousand times no! Waive the qualification requirement entirely.

In fact, do that across the board. Far more people would go into teaching as a result, and there’d be so many that schools might actually be able to sack and replace the crappy ones.

We need much greater flexibility than currently exists – flexibility over rewarding the best and yes, getting rid of the worst. So we will free schools to pay good teachers more. With our plans, head teachers will have the power to use their budgets to pay bonuses to the best teachers.

And because the evidence shows that schools that have the greatest impact in poorer areas are the ones that extend their hours into evenings and weekends, we will also give them the flexibility to reward teachers for longer hours.

This is good, actually.

But we also give head teachers greater powers in the other direction. Today, it’s far too difficult for them to fire poorly performing teachers.

This is not. I’m all for schools being able to sack bad teachers, but this is only a useful tactic if you can hire a new one. And there aren’t enough teachers to go round.

We’re going to say to our teachers, if you want to search for and confiscate any item you think is dangerous or disruptive- you can. If you want to remove violent children from the classroom – you can. And if you want protection from false allegations of abuse that wreck lives and wreck careers – we’ll make sure you have it.

How? Are you going to repeal some legislation? If so, what? Are you going to use the criminal justice system to crack down on dangerous students? If so, how will you force the judges to issue harsher penalties? Will you use legislation to ensure that false allegations are expunged from the records? Will you get rid of the ISA, which includes hearsay, rumour, and false allegations as ‘evidence’ in its vetting scheme? Where are the details, dude?

Anyway. This is all just to reiterate my point: restricting teacher training to people with good degrees will simply worsen the teacher shortage, because most academically successful people (‘best brains’) don’t want to become teachers. It’s an unattractive profession to people who value creativity, resourcefulness, and freedom to innovate. And even if the best brains did become teachers, there’s no guarantee they’d be good. Many academically gifted people have trouble communicating the subject of their expertise at a level that is accessible to schoolchildren anyway; and probably the core skill involved in teaching is being able to synthesise patiently, to simplify complex ideas, to keep what you’re saying on a level kids can understand and in a way they can tune into.

Finally, I will say this. I teach Latin. I am not an expert in the subject, nor do I have a degree in it, nor do I have the faintest clue where my American university degree would fall on the degree-class scale used in the UK. I do not have a teaching qualification. And yet every time I apply for a teaching position, the school falls all over itself to hire me and to pay me well above the going rate for my services. I can’t be the only teacher like that. David Cameron’s plans will, by and large, make it harder for people like me to get teaching jobs. And for what? So that a bunch of smarty-pants graduates with 2:2s or better can have a ‘high-prestige’ career.

Camerhoon, school is not about teachers. It’s about children. And anyone who wants to teach, and can demonstrate that they do it well, should be encouraged to do so, whether they have fancy papers to qualify them or not, and whether they have the biggest brain in Britain or just a mediocre brain that happens to be full of passion and love of learning and dedication to showing kids how amazing the world they live in is.

UPDATE 2: Yes, and many more times yes, from the BHS:

For the Conservatives, we need to restrict the pool of applicants to one which is ‘brazenly elitist’, in the hope that by only recruiting the very best graduates, you’ll recruit only the very best teachers. There are two major problems with this. First, we still have a teacher shortage, as evidenced by the fact that there are some substantial rewards for people training to teach subjects like science and maths. Second, quite apart from the fact that there are scores of people with mediocre qualifications who are exceptional teachers, there’s no guarantee that someone who graduated from Oxbridge with a first in Mathematics is going to possess the people skills needed to succeed in a classroom. It’s quite possible that the Tories’ plans would not only lead to fewer teachers, but fewer good teachers as well.

Jan 162010

NB: The un-updated version of this post was reproduced in its entirety on Infowars. Without permission, I might add, and without linking here. Since they have not bothered with this common courtesy, I must ask you all to believe the conspiracy theory that THEY SUCK. And, ha, in light of the contents of this post, I must disclaim that I have anything to do with Alex Jones, his website, or his political views. That is all./NB

Thanks to the author of the Bleeding Heart Show, I have got my hands on a copy of Sunstein’s white paper entitled Conspiracy Theories (2008). I’d like to draw your attention to some interesting features.

According to the introduction of the paper, polls suggest that roughly one-third of Americans subscribe to a ‘conspiracy theory’ about the September 11th attacks in NYC, whether it be that the government knew about it in advance, conspired in it themselves, or covered up Israeli involvement. In most illuminating fashion, the paper then states:

When civil rights and civil liberties are absent, people lack multiple information sources, and they are more likely to accept conspiracy theories.

And in the footnote:

we assume that low civil liberties tend to produce terrorism, a hypothesis that is supported by the mechanisms we adduce.

These are both impeccable reasons for ensuring that the government does absolutely nothing to curtail domestic civil liberties. Unfortunately, the US and the UK have adopted the opposite strategy. Do I begin to hope that Cass Sunstein will be able to sway the Obama administration away from the apparently disastrous policy of restricting civil liberties in response to terrorism?

Carrying on, we find a definition of conspiracy theories for the purposes of the paper:

We bracket the most difficult questions here and suggest more intuitively that a conspiracy theory can generally be counted as such if it is an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who have also managed to conceal their role. This account seems to capture the essence of the most prominent and influential conspiracy theories.

Hmm. Except that sometimes powerful people do plot and plan whilst concealing their role in events. In fact, this sort of behaviour by powerful people is not at all rare; we have special government departments for doing just that abroad. It would be enchantingly naive to think such machinations did not also take place, at least a little bit, at home.

Sunstein’s good, though; he identifies this problem:

Of course some conspiracy theories, under our definition, have turned out to be true. The Watergate hotel room used by Democratic National Committee was, in fact, bugged by Republican officials, operating at the behest of the White House. In the 1950s, the Central Intelligence Agency did, in fact, administer LSD and related drugs under Project MKULTRA, in an effort to investigate the possibility of “mind control.” Operation Northwoods, a rumored plan by the Department of Defense to simulate acts of terrorism and to blame them on Cuba, really was proposed by high-level officials (though the plan never went into effect).

But wait!

Our focus throughout is on false conspiracy theories, not true ones. Our ultimate goal is to explore how public officials might undermine such theories, and as a general rule, true accounts should not be undermined.

But… but… how does a person not in possession of an unelected, unaccountable high-government job know the difference? How does the average American twerp distinguish between false theories that public officials rightly undermine, and true theories that public officials undermine in the name of security? After all, public officials have been known to do just that. How do we know whether a public official is telling us the truth or lying to us? Perhaps Sunstein will tell us…

He sort of does, in fact, when he discusses the distinction between justified and unjustified false belief. For example:

…the false belief in Santa Claus is justified, because children generally have good reason to believe what their parents tell them and follow a sensible heuristic (“if my parents say it, it is probably true”)…

I posit that the belief (true or false) that politicians lie to the electorate is also a ‘sensible heuristic.’ It has been known to happen rather more often than is comfortable to the electorate. Politicians wishing to disseminate true information to dispel conspiracy theories are caught in a trap of their own devising: they are the Boy Who Cried Wolf. People would be far more willing to trust the establishment if the establishment were more trustworthy, and if its members were not caught lying, misrepresenting, prevaricating, and peculating so depressingly often.

Sunstein goes on:

A broader point is that conspiracy theories overestimate the competence and discretion of officials and bureaucracies, who are assumed to be able to make and carry out sophisticated secret plans, despite abundant evidence that in open societies government action does not usually remain secret for very long. Recall that a distinctive feature of conspiracy theories is that they attribute immense power to the agents of the conspiracy; the attribution is usually implausible but also makes the theories especially vulnerable to challenge. Consider all the work that must be done to hide and to cover up the government’s role in producing a terrorist attack on its own territory, or in arranging to kill political opponents. In a closed society, secrets are not difficult to keep, and distrust of official accounts makes a great deal of sense. In such societies, conspiracy theories are both more likely to be true and harder to show to be false in light of available information. But when the press is free, and when checks and balances are in force, government cannot easily keep its conspiracies hidden for long.

I quite agree with this piece of analysis; nevertheless it appears to break a fundamental precept of logical argument: namely, it begs the question. Where is the proof that America is a free society? Its conspiracy theories are false. How we do know its conspiracy theories are false? Because it is a free society. Minus 10, Mr Sunstein; see me after class.

He goes on:

This is not, and is not be intended to be, a general claim that conspiracy theories are unjustified or unwarranted. Much depends on the background state of knowledge- producing institutions. If those institutions are generally trustworthy, in part because they are embedded in an open society with a well-functioning marketplace of ideas and free flow of information, then conspiracy theories will generally (which is not to say always) be unjustified.

Let us use Sunstein’s own reasoning. I put it to you that the widespread prevalence of true conspiracy theories, as mentioned above, mean that the knowledge-producing institutions of the US are NOT trustworthy and that there is NOT a free flow of information in American society. Ergo even the false conspiracy theories are justified.

On our account, a defining feature of conspiracy theories is that they are extremely resistant to correction, certainly through direct denials or counterspeech by government officials.

Yes, because of the aforementioned ‘sensible heuristic’ that, on the balance of probability, government officials are liars. When you do not trust the messenger, you do not believe the message.

…the self- sealing quality of conspiracy theories creates serious practical problems for government; direct attempts to dispel the theory can usually be folded into the theory itself, as just one more ploy by powerful machinators to cover their tracks. A denial may, for example, be taken as a confirmation.


Okay, look. I have made an effort in good faith to read this paper and give Sunstein a fairer hearing, but stuff like this:

Perhaps conspiracy theories are a product of mental illness, such as paranoia or narcissism. And indeed, there can be no doubt that some people who accept conspiracy theories are mentally ill and subject to delusions. But we have seen that in many communities and even nations, such theories are widely held. It is not plausible to suggest that all or most members of those communities are afflicted by mental illness. The most important conspiracy theories are hardly limited to those who suffer from any kind of pathology.

is beyond the pale. I don’t care that he dismisses the ‘individual pathology’ claim; he’s still making a major mistake.

That mistake is to lay the responsibility for false beliefs and conspiracy theories entirely on the shoulders of those who hold them, and absolve the establishment of any responsibility for the phenomena. Indeed, for Sunstein, conspiracy theories are a problem which government officials must solve, seeking out ways to promote the right sources of information and improve people’s ‘crippled’ epistemologies.

And isn’t that always how it is for people like this? The Herd have a pathology! Government must fix!

Until people like Sunstein realise that it takes two to tango, they’re never going to reach their solution, whether it be through nudging, taxes, prohibitions, bans, thought crimes or any other ridiculous measure that fails to take into account that public officials are part of the problem. So, the government wants people to believe the information it gives them, to trust them, to feel that society is open and transparent free? Public officials, I’ve got your solution right here:


UPDATE: I am not alone in my suspicion. Glenn Greenwald at says virtually the same thing:

It’s certainly true that one can easily find irrational conspiracy theories in those venues, but some of the most destructive “false conspiracy theories” have emanated from the very entity Sunstein wants to endow with covert propaganda power: namely, the U.S. Government itself, along with its elite media defenders. Moreover, “crazy conspiracy theorist” has long been the favorite epithet of those same parties to discredit people trying to expose elite wrongdoing and corruption.

It is this history of government deceit and wrongdoing that renders Sunstein’s desire to use covert propaganda to “undermine” anti-government speech so repugnant. The reason conspiracy theories resonate so much is precisely that people have learned — rationally — to distrust government actions and statements. Sunstein’s proposed covert propaganda scheme is a perfect illustration of why that is. In other words, people don’t trust the Government and “conspiracy theories” are so pervasive precisely because government is typically filled with people like Cass Sunstein, who think that systematic deceit and government-sponsored manipulation are justified by their own Goodness and Superior Wisdom.

In my own reading of Sunstein’s 2008 paper, my head asploded before I got to the part where he proposed that government insert covert information-disseminators into ‘extremist’ (i.e. anyone who believes what he labels a conspiracy theory) groups and that government pay so-called ‘independent’ experts to bolster its informational claims. And yet here it is, straight from the horse’s pencil:

What can government do about conspiracy theories? Among the things it can do, what should it do? We can readily imagine a series of possible responses. (1) Government might ban conspiracy theorizing. (2) Government might impose some kind of tax, financial or otherwise, on those who disseminate such theories. (3) Government might itself engage in counterspeech, marshaling arguments to discredit conspiracy theories. (4) Government might formally hire credible private parties to engage in counterspeech. (5) Government might engage in informal communication with such parties, encouraging them to help. Each instrument has a distinctive set of potential effects, or costs and benefits, and each will have a place under imaginable conditions. However, our main policy idea is that government should engage in cognitive infiltration of the groups that produce conspiracy theories, which involves a mix of (3), (4) and (5).

Government counterspeech, government financial solicitation of support – ‘cognitive infiltration’ of groups of anybody who hold what the government deems a false, dangerous, and unjustified view.

But fear not, brave readers!

Throughout, we assume a well-motivated government that aims to eliminate conspiracy theories, or draw their poison, if and only if social welfare is improved by doing so.

Oh. That’s perfectly all right, then. No badly-motivated government that aims to suppress views if and only if their power is thereby entrenched would ever use these same fucking strategies.

Honestly, how sinister can Sunstein get? Is it not enough that he holds an unelected and unaccountable position of almost unimaginable power and is also tipped as a potential Obama Supreme Court nominee? Does he really have to advocate this kind of government thought-control, however benign he might think his methods and however justified (‘THE GREATER GOOOOOOOD’) he might think his reasons?

Why can’t people like Sunstein just leave us the fuck alone?

Jan 122010

Perhaps the “hardest” language studied by many Anglophones is Latin. In it, all nouns are marked for case, an ending that tells what function the word has in a sentence (subject, direct object, possessive and so on). There are six cases, and five different patterns for declining verbs into them.

One cannot decline verbs, as any fule kno. And there are seven cases.

This system, and its many exceptions, made for years of classroom torture for many children. But it also gives Latin a flexibility of word order. If the subject is marked as a subject with an ending, it need not come at the beginning of a sentence. This ability made many scholars of bygone days admire Latin’s majesty—and admire themselves for mastering it.

Meh. Sure, there’s a flexibility of word order in Latin. There is in English, too, though not perhaps to the same extent. But even in Latin, one doesn’t just arrange the words any old how. Word order is stylistic, just like word choice and syntax. An elegant word order is one that provides the audience with the clearest possible meaning, the greatest possible emphasis, and the most pleasing conjunction of sounds. Exactly like English, in fact. And where English is more constrained than Latin because of conventions regarding word order, Latin as a language has far fewer vocabulary choices from which to choose when constructing a sentence.

Also, that last sentence – scholars admire themselves for mastering Latin, eh? Is it a requirement now that every journalist, be he ever so mistaken in his facts, insert a snide dig at anyone mentioned in the article who has ever accomplished anything of value or difficulty? Jesus, no wonder journalism as a profession is dying. It’s because its practitioners are a pack of unjustifiably smug assholes.