Feb 252010
 

I return to my theme of today’s youth with the news that the new generation has obviously imbibed wholesale the baby-boomers’ intractable conviction that everything which is ‘good’ should be compulsory, and everything which is ‘bad’ should be banned. This rigid dichotomy has found its way into the state-school interns at the Times (and really, with all of that black-and-white ideology fed to pupils in state schools, what else did we expect?).

Make politics lessons compulsory, says sixth former,’ and he means it. Why?

By the time a student leaves sixth form/college, they are of voting age. They have the power in their hands to shape the form of their next government. This gives them the power to shape their own future and bring about change. The right to vote is incredibly important, as I am sure will be seen in the coming months as the General Election approaches.

But how well does school prepare the next generation about the UK political system?

Answer: Astonishingly poorly. Nowhere in my school career have I discussed UK politics, the parties and their policies, the voting system or the way the government works. So when most of us leave school, 18 years old, we have not even learnt about what each party represents or why it is important to vote.

I highly doubt this is true. My own anecdotal experience suggests that even students as young as 12 are aware of the parties, their leaders and policies, and generally how the government works. But that’s neither here nor there. A widely-acknowledged democratic deficit exists in this country; you’re not going to repair it by force-feeding teenagers propaganda that denies this reality.

Pupils do have the chance to choose government and politics or economics at A level, but those who are already interested will be the ones choosing these subjects. The question is, how can young people get the opportunity to learn about, generate interest and engagement in and discuss these issues without having to have a qualification in it?

Schools should have compulsory lessons, from the beginning of secondary education about the different parties, their policies, about ideologies like capitalism and communism. Current affairs should be discussed and taught about in schools to help pupils learn about the injustices and problems that face this world. It would teach the younger generation that change and reform are possible, and they can be at the forefront of it.

Much as I enjoy the idea of teaching such a class, I’m sorry, but no. Quite apart from the obvious problem that it would be nearly impossible to avoid bias in this context, there’s no reason whatsoever to make the ridiculous claim that voting ought to be based upon knowledge of ideologies, injustices, and world problems. The thought-police are not quite yet standing at the ballot box to make sure you’re voting for the right reasons (‘THE GREATER GOOOOOOOOD’) rather than because you quite fancy a particular candidate, or because a particular party has promised to give advantage to your faction. Voters are not required to adjust their motivations to satisfy the trite concerns of people who blog for the Times.

Would it be nice if voters were, in general, better informed? Certainly. Would that stop them voting for assholes? Hmm…

I believe that there are great problems with education system as well – inequalities which bring advantage to some, but disadvantage many more.

Different students learn in different ways, and this need is not currently addressed across the curriculum.

Standard cant. Actually, I’m with the kid here. Inequalities have brought advantage to him by getting his colourless rambling into the Times, which is totally unfair. Every student in the country should get a piece in the Times. Equality of outcome, my friends, equality of outcome.

Sarcasm aside, the education system is really quite shambolic. But that has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that, unlike Pridesh Raichura, most of his peers have twigged their powerlessness and couldn’t care less about politics. Presumably these peers will go on to do something useful with themselves. Pridesh Raichura, on the other hand, has a bright future ahead of him in the Establishment.

A lot of the time, lessons involve sitting in front of the interactive board and the teacher lectures away expecting students to take in all the facts. Occasionally, they may throw in a video to watch, or if you are lucky, you may get to discuss something in pairs!

However, some people simply do not learn that way. A more hands-on approach to teaching is needed and teachers must start thinking outside of the classroom.

Many lessons are spoon-feeding sessions, where facts are shoved to the pupils, who are expected to memorise them and regurgitate the answers come exam time. There is very little teaching where teachers make the students think creatively and try to solve the problem or work out the facts for themselves.

Especially at GCSEs and A levels, where teachers have to teach from the set syllabus – they just spill out all of the information related to the syllabus, and expect students to absorb.

WORD. But here’s the problem: teachers teach this way because compulsory teacher training teaches them to teach this way. Some of the best lessons I’ve ever taught have been literally outside the classroom. When working on a unit about Greek and Roman education, I used to take the students outside and stroll around with them in the open air, inviting controversial discussion topics and critiquing their arguments. They always seemed to enjoy it. But government has provided a list of things students must know, and ‘talking with my elders about interesting stuff’ ain’t on that list. The list is actually quite huge, however, and Pridesh would have us add to it with compulsory politics lessons, so that’ll leave even less time for Socratic debate in the classroom.

The piece finishes in much the same vein – which means, as you’ll notice, that our sixth-form friend hasn’t really made much of a case for forcing the youth to study the political system that systematically disempowers them. ‘Ooh, people might not vote, and if they do they might vote weird’ is not much of an argument for inflicting yet another pointless but compulsory subject on 11-18-year-olds.

However, lobbying the state for another control order is much easier, and much more likely to succeed, than lobbying it to reform the electoral system, present real alternatives to voters, or recover the people’s sovereignty from the EU.

But it’s all right, everything is all right. You see, Pridesh has won the victory over himself. He loves… well. You fill in the blank.

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 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?

HOW?

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.

MORE LEGISLATION.

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

PROPAGANDA.

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?

ARE YOU PEOPLE INSANE?

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?

WHY DO YOU PUT UP WITH THIS CRAP?

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.

Dec 102009
 

A gentleman called Mark Higginson left a comment recently on the older wordpress.com version of my blog, directing my attention to a project he’s been working on called Magna Carta 2009.

Despite the name, it bears more resemblance to a constitution than the original Magna Carta Libertatum, and it contains some interesting features, not least of which is that it is designed to come into force through plebiscite after England achieves independence. The document lays out some provisions for its maintenance, namely that it cannot be altered, once passed, except by further plebiscite, which alters the current relationship between demos, Parliament, and Crown (and is especially interesting given the growing numbers of culturally non-English voters in England).

The author, having asked me to comment, duly received some input, and he then requested that I tell others about his project so that they may make their own comments known, if they wish. Being a pleasant, obliging sort of lady, I duly draw your attention to the following articles of Magna Carta 2009:

From the section entitled The English Government:

VOTING IN ENGLISH REFERENDUM, shall be compulsory whether referendums are for general elections, national referendums on other national issues, or for voting in and for County councils and matters of county wide importance. There shall be a fine for anyone who does not vote without good cause for doing so.

From the section entitled Law and Order:

IT SHALL BE ILLEGAL for anyone (English people or not), to harm the flag of England in public or before a public gathering at a private function or party or other gathering in any way, as a form of protest either by stamping on the flag, ripping or tearing or cutting the flag, setting fire to the flag, or any other action against the flag in a manor designed to cause offence against the flag of England, England or the English people. Such action if proved in court shall carry a penalty of five (5) years in prison without the possibility of parole.

From the section entitled Rights of the Individual:

ALL ENGLISH PERSONS, regardless of age, have a right to free health care, clean drinking water, nutritious food and a clean environment, as well as a right to protection from any activities that can harm welfare and development.

ALL ENGLISH PERSONS have the right to privacy, provided that such privacy is not used for criminal or inappropriate acts that could result in court action or harm to others.

Nothing in this Magna-Carta-2009 shall give the English person the right to bear arms, except under the current rules for fire arms licensing.

THE ENGLISH GOVERNMENT SHALL help to restore an English person’s health, self-respect, and dignity, regardless of age, after abuse or neglect.

EVERY ENGLISH PERSON has the right to freely participate in English cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits, and have the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

From the section entitled Rights of the Worker:

There shall be a set of minimum wages worked out by the English government for work done depending on age and experience.

THE RETIREMENT AGE for both men and women shall be 60 years. However, nothing shall stop a person from working beyond that age, without loss of state pension, if they so wish.

From the section entitled Education:

THE OFFICIAL LANGUAGE of England shall be English as spoken in England during the Anglo Saxon times before the Norman Invasion of 1066 and the modern Queen’s English as taught and practised in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.

THERE SHALL BE THREE official dictionaries, an Anglo Saxon English dictionary dated to 1065, and a standard English Historic dictionary dated from 1066 to 1957. The third dictionary shall be the Standard Queen’s English dictionary dated during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. The last dictionary shall be an English dictionary without any additions from foreign influences.

From the section entitled Other Matters:

ALL UTILITY COMPANIES, regardless of weather they are publicly or privately owned, be they gas, electricity, water or telephone companies, shall have a duty of care to their customers, and ensure that connections remain in place, regardless of the customers ability to pay.

OPENING HOURS FOR THE PURCHASE and consumption of alcohol at all ale houses, public houses and other establishments where such activities are carried out by the public, for the day time Mondays to Saturdays shall be from 11.00 am to 03.00 pm, with time called at 02.30 pm. On Sundays the time will be 12.00 noon to 03.00 pm, with time called at 02.30 pm. Opening hours for the evening times, Monday to Saturday shall be from 07.00 pm to 11.00 pm with time called at 10.30 pm. On Sundays the time will be from 07.00 pm to 10.00 pm with time called at 09.30 pm.

OTHER ESTABLISHMENTS MENTIONED ABOVE shall include but not be restricted to; Supermarkets, hypermarkets, off licenses, private clubs and establishments, nightclubs and private parties.

PRICING FOR ALCHOHOLIC BEVERAGES shall be equalized between ale houses and public houses, and all other establishments that sell alcohol, so that all bottle and case prices are the same, including barrel prices and prices by the bottle and glass. In all such establishments there shall be no reduction of prices, including such things as happy hours, etc.

From Appendix C:

PRIMARY SCHOOLS.

Structured rudimentary teaching in the following core subjects;

Maths (no electronic calculators), Anglo Saxon English, Religion (Christianity), Science, Queen’s Modern English, Geography, English History, World History, French, Art, P.E., Swimming, ICT.

SECONDARY SCHOOLS

A continuance of original core subjects, plus the following additional core studies;

Basic money management, Historic English (Between 1066 and 1960), Cooking, Relationships between all people.

Appendix D contains a primer of English etiquette, including:

Women are usually independent and accustomed to entering public places unaccompanied. It is usual for women to go out and about on their own as well as with friends. Men and women mix freely.

It is ok for women to eat alone in a restaurant.
It is ok for women to wander around on their own.
It is ok for women to drink beer.

These are only the features that leapt out at me as significant, upon several readings through the text. There is much more, which I have left out as being largely unremarkable or uncontroversial. Mark Higginson, the author, welcomes your comments here.

Having said all of that, I feel compelled to point out that when I provided the feedback he requested, I was fairly unsupportive of this document. I do not believe he will ever get anywhere with it, for numerous reasons, but my overall impression is this: this document is so different in scope, tone, and content from the Magna Carta Libertatum as to be wholly unrelated to it. I have trouble imagining how this could possibly be based upon the original, as its author claims. It is no more a charter of liberties than my grocery list. It is a restrictive, self-conflicting, and invasive constitutional treatise, many of whose articles cannot be guaranteed except through the coercive power of the state, and sometimes not even then. Maybe it is the sort of thing English people want. But somehow I doubt it.

Oct 202009
 

Unity, writing at Liberal Conspiracy, has written a pretty cool interpretation of the difference between liberals/libertarians and conservatives, mainly in response to the debate sparked by John Elledge’s post there a couple of weeks ago. He’s linked to my own response, for which I’m grateful, and pointed out some angles to the question that I, never having read Edmund Burke, hadn’t considered.

Nevertheless, as usual, there are still some commenters at LC who don’t get it, Will (no. 45) in particular displaying a total want of thoughtfulness. There’s the usual conjunction of libertarians and hippies (though strangely a comparison rather than contrast):

Libertarians are not a bad lot on the whole – much as hippies are fine and dandy until they want you to join their lifestyle and you see it really isn’t for you.

Accusations of self-absorption:

I just see them as a set of people who just want the world to revolve around them and fuck anyone else.

And weird misrepresentation of a libertarian position:

…a Libertarian is a person who would have the mindset of small towns folk who believe in local farmers and purveyors of goods who live locally.

I don’t know many libertarians who have that mindset, I must say, especially since the whole ‘buy local’ view is much more openly held by what we might call green progressives rather than supporters of the free market, which is what most libertarians tend to be. Or maybe I’ve misunderstood, and this is just a drawn-out way of calling libertarians parochial.

Whatever the case, Will is a fool, and a rude one, given that he manages to call Tim Worstall, one of my personal heroes, a fucker and a twat in the space of two sentences. I can only hope that’s an inside joke.

So let’s lay to rest, once and for all, this ‘libertarians want the world to revolve around them and fuck everyone else’ crap.*

Yes – libertarians are self-centred. I’ve said it, it’s true, amen brother. Of course we are concerned with the self. The self is the only entity over which we do have and should have control. A libertarian is not concerned with others, because it is not for us to say what is good for others, or what others should and shouldn’t do. Our comprehension of others is determined by how those others affect the self. A libertarian refrains from affecting others in ways he would not himself want to be affected. A libertarian respects others who hold this same principle, because he knows they too have selves with which they are concerned.

Is that selfish? Yes. Is it wrong? No, because the self is always the first point of reference. First, not only. I’m afraid there is no getting around that, however much others might wish there were. It is impossible to act without reference to the self.

Libertarians, in the main, have no objection to helping others, or directing their concern toward others, as long as it is done voluntarily, in the absence of third-party coercion. Libertarians give to charity, they help homeless people on the street, they advocate policies that they truly believe will be to others’ benefit. But they do not want to do any of those things because someone has forced them to, and they do not want to do it at a cost to the self. Why is that so wrong?

I would even go so far as to suggest that the goal of libertarian action and policy, the ultimate goal, is for the satisfaction of the world’s people to rise. There are as many varieties of ‘satisfaction’ as there are people, so people must be free to pursue their version as they see fit, provided they do not employ coercion or fraud to do so (if they did, of course, net satisfaction would not increase).

What libertarians object to, as Will doesn’t seem to understand, is that currently we have a system of what I might call, in my less objective moments, third-party slavery. For example:

Person A has resources. Person C does not. In a libertarian world, they would both be free to work out an exchange that is mutually beneficial. Person C might choose to help Person A increase his resources in exchange for some of that increase. Or Person C might choose to trade unrelated labour in exchange for resources. Thus is Person C’s situation improved, and Person A’s situation is improved, and there is a bond of mutual benefit between them.

Now let’s consider what actually happens. Person A has resources. Person C does not. Person B compels person A, under threat of harm or imprisonment, to give him some of those resources, which he then turns over to Person C. Person A does not know Person C, or the particular circumstances of his need. He only knows Person B, who has extorted from him his resources, ostensibly for the good of someone else. Person C does not know Person A, or anything about how those resources were acquired or intended to be used. He only knows Person B, who has given him a handout for which he did not give any benefit in return and for which his only qualification was that he needed it.

And not all of the resources have made it to Person C, because Person B has creamed a bit off the top to recompense him for the labour of extorting and handing out.

Person A does not hate Person C, or look down upon him for lacking resources. Person C does not hate Person A, because he does not even know him.

But it is in the interest of Person B that his two victims should hate each other, lest they realise that he is the one perpetrating the true evil, that of stealing from one and infantilising the other. He wants Person A to believe that Person C is a shiftless layabout, a useless human being whose utter lack of ability should be punished, not rewarded with free resources. He wants Person C to believe that Person A is an exploiter, a monopolist, who would keep all the resources for himself and let everyone else rot.

And somehow, in this world, Person B has achieved this. There are those who hate the feckless, because it is in their name that resources are extorted from the productive. And there are those who hate the productive, because they have to be forced to share their resources with those who have none.

Libertarians? We hate Person B. Call it the state, the welfare system, socialism, whatever – we hate whatever third party is interfering, to the detriment of Persons A and C, in what could otherwise be a peaceful and mutually beneficial exchange. Person B robs us all of our freedom and our dignity by imposing his ‘selfless’ concern for others into a relationship that would be much better conducted by the interested parties themselves.

And this hatred isn’t limited to economic exchanges. We hate anyone who would interfere in any way with mutually beneficial, voluntary relationships between human beings.

That’s what libertarian selfishness is. I think it’s a virtue. There’s nothing to me more abhorrent than the ‘selfless’ man who demands that I injure myself for the sake of someone else and then calls me an asshole when I say I’d rather not. As the Devil’s Kitchen has pointed out today, it’s war. But it’s not Person A against Person C; it’s all of us, together, against Person B.

*This insult usually manifests in outraged cries of ‘Solipsist!’ Libertarians are not solipsists in the (accurate) philosophical sense. We believe that things other than our own minds exist. Quite obviously, in fact, since we believe there are entities outside of the self that would impose their will on us. This view is logically inconsistent with solipsism. QED.

Oct 092009
 

Working class kids are dumb.

This seems to be the view of John David Blake, who lays into the Tories’ recent statements on education with particular zeal, in ‘The Terrifying Face of Tory Education’. (‘Terrifying’! Really!) He is, as he says, a history teacher, so he knows all kinds of shit about shit.

As it happens, I too was once a history teacher, so I too know all kinds of shit about shit.

Let’s see how his shit and my shit compare, shall we?

A quick low-down on personal backgrounds first, though, since that matters a great deal to Mr Blake. He used to teach at a grammar school! *gasp*

Now, first off, a confession – probably best to get this out of the way: I spent two years working in a grammar school. Gnash your teeth if you wish…

But don’t give him too hard a time, y’all. At least grammar schools are still funded by the state, so he was earning an honest living off the toil of the taxpayer, just as every honest man should. I, on the other hand, have always worked in private, fee-paying schools, taking no penny of my salary from the taxpayer, unless perhaps indirectly by teaching the children of government employees.

You might say, actually, that Mr Blake has combined the worst of both worlds: living off the sweat of others whilst teaching only the privileged, well-behaved and brightest of the country’s children. In his eyes, one of those is a sin. Three guesses which.

But backgrounds are important to Mr Blake; a sticking point for him is that Tory education policy was dreamed up and announced by some guys who were educated in selective, sometimes expensive schools and then went on to university at Oxford – thus disqualifying them from any credibility:

Baker, Gove and Willetts seemed inordinately fixated, for a group all of whom were educated at Oxford after (respectively) public, private and grammar school educations, on the notion of “real skills”. Since “real skills” clearly aren’t currently being taught in schools (otherwise why the need for the new technical colleges?) I can’t help but wonder what the phrase actually means. Did Baker pick up no “real skills” at St Paul’s? Did Gove’s have no “real skills” as President of the Oxford Union? (part 2)

Yeah, those guys have no idea what they’re talking about. ‘Cause nobody who has ever been involved in Labour’s education policy went to selective schools (*cough*VernonCoaker*cough*) or Oxford (*cough*EdBalls*cough*KevinBrennan*cough*) or was president of the Oxford Union (*cough*MichaelFoot*cough*) or all three (*triplecough*TonyBenn*cough*).

But the ad hominem strategy was never going to be a good way to prosecute an argument, so let’s move on to Mr Blake’s problems with the policies.

First, creating new grammar schools. Mr Blake deploys the common complaint that they take away bright kids from other schools, thus depriving the dim kids of the company of their intellectual (or perhaps just hoop-jumping) superiors:

Obviously, where grammars continue to exist they cause problems (especially, say, Kent, which has an appalling record of educational achievement and has been run by the Tories since the dawn of time) – they can drain the brightest kids away from other schools, they often gobble up resources unfairly… (part 1)

I could almost buy this, except for the fact that bright kids do not exist to help dim ones, nor should we be treating them as if they ought to. ‘Brightness’ is not catching; the only benefit bright kids have for dim ones is that their general attitude toward learning and work ethic might inspire. The hope that this might happen is not a particularly good reason to keep bright kids in classes with slower learners, or more disruptive pupils, than themselves, mostly because the influence tends to flow in the other direction: weak or difficult pupils inhibit the learning experience for the bright ones far more than the bright ones enable it for the weak and disruptive. I mean, should doctors force healthy people to hang around the wards in the hope that their positive attitudes might improve the attitudes of the sick? After all, healthiness is no more catching than brightness.

As I say, I could almost buy that, except Mr Blake then carries on to say this:

…[grammar schools] generally result in a divide between middle and working class children in education (which often mirrors a racial divide).

Now, anyone may correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding of grammar schools was that they took in the bright kids irrespective of background. This was sort of the point of them: any kid bright enough, working class or no, could attend. Grammar schools divide the bright from the dim; apparently they also divide the middle class from the working class. By analogy, then, Mr Blake thinks the working class are dim. If they can’t get into grammar schools, and all you need to do to get into grammar schools is be bright, then working class kids must not be bright. Or ‘ethnic’ kids, for that matter, since grammar schools cause (?) highlight (?) a racial divide.

This attitude of Mr Blake’s is frankly insulting.

I do not think it remotely true that the working class, or the non-white, cannot benefit from grammar schools. All you have to do is be clever, and cleverness knows no class-based or racial boundaries. The problem at the moment, of course, is that there aren’t enough grammar schools to service all the bright kids. The other problem, one which is nothing to do with the education system per se, is that children from deprived backgrounds, of whatever race, tend not to be brought up in environments in which learning is prized. Either nobody bothers to tell them that education can improve their minds and lives, or they are actively discouraged by immediate peers and role models from pursuing it in the first place. Send grammar school representatives into these areas to recruit, and the class/racial divide such schools cause (?) highlight (?) will disappear. The ‘problem’ of separating the bright from the weak will persist, of course.

The only way grammar schools would become a massive issue in education again is if someone proposed building dozens of them in every local authority in England and Wales.

Which is effectively exactly what Kenneth Baker is proposing.

Hurrah for Kenneth Baker. One issue solved: there will be enough grammar schools to service the bright kids. Now just send them out to recruit.

And, incidentally, don’t include behavioural history as part of the selection process. My own experience as a teacher – and this is anecdotal of course – is that most of the behaviour problems in schools are caused by bright kids who are bored out of their fucking minds. Personalise their education, allow them to pursue their scholastic interests, and put them in small classes where they can get lots of attention from the teacher, and bingo. No more bad behaviour.

Then there are the proposed vocational diplomas:

Diplomas force children at 14 to choose between academic and vocational education – the decision to study GCSEs or Diplomas is the defining issue around which everything else is then shaped in their lives, because it determines how many other GCSEs they can do, which in turn affects what they can study at Sixth Form (can they do A-levels if they decide the diploma isn’t for them? Well, possibly, but not the “hard subjects”), which shapes what, if anything, they are able to do at university level.

This is just silly. Why the hell do we have FE colleges, if not to enable people to go back and do GCSEs and A-levels after they have done something else for a while? Education does not have to stop at age 16 or 18 if a person doesn’t want it to. What’s to stop somebody from doing a vocational diploma as a teenager, working for a while with it, then going back on their own time to do some GCSEs and ‘hard’ A-levels? Nothing.

But of course, this is not really about learning. This is about evil Tory LEAs stuffing all the ‘difficult’ kids into vocational schools where they don’t bring down the league table ranking:

[Baker] wants each local authority in the country (about 100 of them) to set up separate schools which will take children with an interest in vocational work – so popular will these schools be, said Baker, that soon local authorities will want more of them. And indeed, which local authority run (as most of them are today) by Tories wouldn’t want a school into which you can legitimately dump at 14 every difficult child in every other school in your area?

This strategy would apparently isolate kids from everybody who knows them and make sure they know their place forever:

Take them out of that environment and put them into a new school where no one knows them and everyone has an incentive to keep them just where they are for as long as possible and these children will be cut off from the higher levels of academic achievement throughout the rest of their school career at the age of 14 (and, let’s be honest, if that happens, very few of them are going to go back in their own time later in life). Worse, they will be earning qualifications which, the history of educational qualifications in Britain would suggest to us, are less likely to be highly regarded by universities or employers (the reason we have a GCSE today was because employers were only interested in the “academic” O-level not the “second-class” GCE). Students will be divided by outcome; and not the outcome of the same set or a similar of examinations, but at different qualifications entirely, within a system which is already set up to favour those who follow the traditional route.

Oh, I see: they won’t go back to school later in life, after being sequestered in the vocational schools to keep them out of the classrooms of the privileged middle class kids. They’ll, like, not go to university! Or get jobs!

Again: silly. They’ll get jobs. Maybe not hugely remunerative ones, but they’ll get them. They won’t go to university, but hey, lots of people don’t. It’s not for everybody. It helps if you want office jobs, or academic jobs, but not everybody wants those.

And if we’re being honest with ourselves, if employers insist on job candidates having GCSEs these days, it’s probably because that’s one of the few ways to confirm that an applicant is functionally literate and numerate (and even then you can’t be sure). If we had fewer problems at the pre-secondary level – if kids could definitely all read, write, and ‘rithmetic by the age of 11 – employers would likely have less of a box-ticking mentality about the GCSE.

The US model is a good one to look to: although vocational schools are few and far between, they offer the core curriculum alongside the vocational skills. Half the day is spent doing English, maths, history, and science, and the other half in the workshop. If that was done here, kids in vocational schools could get GCSEs easily. It might take them an extra year or two, but they’d have them by the age of 17 or 18.

This has nothing to do with improving education for the least well-off in society; this is about saving Home County parents from having to send their children to school where working class kids also go. That’s Kenneth Baker’s offer: build a new sink school, local authorities, and the rest of your schools will drained of the poor, the problematic and the needy. Wave goodbye to the black and the backwards, it is Grammar schools for everyone (who already votes Tory).

And your argument, Mr Blake, has nothing to do with children’s needs, despite your protestations about pastoral care and attention. It has everything to do with class warfare, in which the person who appears to hold the lowest opinion of the working class is not Kenneth Baker, but you.

Moving on, we get into the arena of ‘real skills’, which we’ve already seen Mr Blake doesn’t think well-educated Tories are fit to judge.

Leaving aside their rather optimistic faith that the only thing required to turn around our most disaffected youngsters is some time with power tools, or the fact that they were just making jobs up out of thin air (not everyone who leaves the new technical schools will be guaranteed a job unless the government starts interfering with the economy in a fashion that “David” and “George” are not going to be happy with), what we seem to be talking about here is a vision of education which relates solely to the things you can do practically at the end of it. I have real problems with this, largely because as a History teacher, I find that when people say “skills” they mean “things that will obviously make you money” rather than “things that will allow you to assess, understand and work to alter yours and other people’s place in the world”. (part 2)

So: the Tories want to fix education so that people can better themselves; Mr Blake thinks the purpose of educating a child is so that he can better other people. Who’s right?

A good education is not something that can be shared, in the sense that, once you’ve got one, you can’t siphon off a little bit to someone who hasn’t. In that respect, education is very much a selfish endeavour: you want the best possible one you can get, which will accrue to you the greatest possible benefit. But ‘benefit’ is a fairly subject value; some people feel benefited by ‘making money’, others by ‘assessing, understanding, and working to alter their and other people’s place in the world.’ But ultimately, it’s up to the individual to judge that. In fact you might say the purpose of education is to provide the individual with the critical skills necessary to make that judgment.

But the Tories just want to educate you so that you can ‘ make you money’, those evil bastards. This from the guy who was just whinging about people being ‘guaranteed a job’! Make up your mind, Mr Blake! Should they be guaranteed a job (and thus make money, how horrid), or should they assess, understand, etc? Or, perhaps, they should somehow be getting non-paying, world-altering jobs. I dunno. I’m confused. You complain that these kids won’t get jobs, but then you say education shouldn’t be focused on enabling them to make money. So somehow education should be focused on enabling them to get jobs that don’t make money. I don’t get it.

But this allows us to move into another of Mr Blake’s critiques, which is that the Tories aren’t promising jobs. Leaving aside for the moment the absurdity that anyone should be guaranteed a job (is this a new human right?), he says:

Unless someone gives building firms, engineering firms and others a great deal of money, there aren’t going to be any jobs for these young people to go to. The banks haven’t got any money, and David Cameron is ideologically opposed to government giving any money…

Excuse me, but the people who should be giving these firms ‘a great deal of money’ are their customers.

Finally, Mr Blake carries on to rail against fee discounts for university students who repay their student loans early:

…when our bright, articulate working class youngster gets to the dreaming spires, or the solid red brick, or the upcoming 1992 university, she will discover rich people will be getting their university places for cheaper than she is.

Willetts, a beaming smile on his face, guaranteed that 10,000 new university places would be provided by giving students who paid back their debts early a discount on their fees. (part 3)

I must admit, I don’t really know how this policy operates, given that the fees are paid at the set rate before the student begins to pay back his debts. Perhaps he will be given a discount on the repayment interest rate. But it was my understanding that all (English) students at all British universities pay exactly the same amount of money in tuition and fees. Getting a cheaper interest rate on your student loans hardly translates into ‘getting [your] university places for cheaper’.

Government-funded student loans represent a market failure anyway. The reason we have them is because banks don’t like to give out loans to people with no collateral who are likely to default. The government absorbs that risk via the taxpayer – but still attempts to obviate the risk by garnishing a person’s salary for repayments as soon as he ceases to be a student and gets a job.

Now, one could argue that since we want to encourage people to go to university, whether they are rich or poor, these are reasonable government policies. But surely it would be better for students to borrow from a private lender, with the state acting as guarantor, than for the state to lend the money and then garnish wages.

It was also my impression that student loans were means-tested, so this complaint is a little odd to me:

There are student now who manipulate the student loans system by taking out loans they are entitled to, sticking the money in a high interest savings account, and then getting through their university with handouts from mummy and daddy. Now, fantastically, they’ll actually get to keep not just the interest from that cash, but some of the money too. It’s like a lottery only rich people can win.

If there are ‘rich people’ getting student loans, maybe it’s time to change the way those means are tested. They do it in the US – it’s called the FAFSA. It’s pretty harsh. Even some people who are low on means indeed have trouble getting government aid. Of course, they take a different view of paying for university in the US; grants are swell, loans are tolerable, but if you expect to go to uni for fucking free you’d better get a scholarship. Most American university students I knew worked at least part-time throughout their course (including me). British university students appear to take their government money, pay their rent, and spend the rest on beer. There is no shame in tending bar or waiting tables whilst studying – and I’m sure many British uni students do – but give me a break. If the government is stupid enough to give you a loan you don’t need, and you stick it in the bank to collect interest, good for you. The fact that not everybody can do that is no reason to start bitching.

Meanwhile, those students who do have to pay something but really need the loans face the prospect of not claiming their discount. But, you cry, presumably they can go into high paid jobs? Then they can pay it back faster. Well, possibly … although one would think the Milk Round is going to be a little curdled for a while, and besides, why should the decision to enter teaching, or medicine, or nursing, not be a reason for a discount on your fees, whilst a decision to enter banking or corporate law saves you money? It is an absolutely naked piece of government welfare to the class from which all three of these men, and their leader and their shadow chancellor, are drawn.

The government has every reason to incentivise people to go into high-paying jobs. That lovely welfare Mr Blake and Don Paskini like so much doesn’t come cheap – it requires money. To put it bluntly, for every graduate who pays off his loans early by getting a high-paying job, the government expects to soak him for the maximum possible tax and National Insurance contributions. These people are the wealth creators (well, not from lawyers, obvi), and government can hardly hand out generous welfare without access to some, y’know, wealth. Doctors, nurses, and teachers are not wealth creators; they are at best wealth enablers, ensuring that people are healthy and knowledgeable enough to go out and create some; they are at worst wealth drainers, as some teachers especially are so bad at it that they simply suck up taxpayers’ money without even giving their kids some decent book-learnin’.

But as it happens, this is kind of something I agree with Mr Blake about. If the government is going to mandate the same tuition fees at East Buddhafuck Polytechnic as at Oxford (’cause to do otherwise would just be another example of the Tories fucking over the poor kids by making only crappy universities affordable to them), then the amount the students are made to pay back should be the same across the board, too.

On the other hand, the policy doesn’t really sound to me like aid for the Tory class. Mr Blake spends a bit of time pointing out that they don’t have any ‘real skills’ because they’ve worked in politics and its subsidiaries all their adult lives. From what I’ve heard, that career path doesn’t pay very well until you claw your way up the ladder. Conversely, lots of normal (read: non-toffs) people leave university to get productive jobs, found companies, etc. ‘Discounts’ for those who go into the paid professions, rather than the work-for-peanuts ass-kissing professions, seems to me like it might help working-class graduates rather than hurt them.

But as Mr Blake reminds us, this isn’t about class warfare, despite the fact that he thinks working-class kids are stupid, badly-behaved, and likely to go into low-wage jobs if they manage to get as far as university:

And what [Cameron’s] men are is spivs. Men on the make. Bright, articulate, desperate for power, uncaring of how they get it, and determined to look out for their own. They don’t give a damn about you or anyone like you, and for ten years that total indifference to the real concerns of the British people kept them out of power. But they’ve worked it out at last: they’ve dressed their education policy up, like their health and benefits policy, as the reforms for working people Labour never gave you.

Hmm. Change a couple of words, and that paragraph would read:

And what Brown’s men are is spivs. Men on the make. Bright, articulate, desperate to cling onto power, uncaring of how they do it, and determined to look out for their own. They don’t give a damn about you or anyone like you, and for ten years that total indifference to the real concerns of the British people has been demonstrated whilst they’ve been in power. But they’ve worked it out at last: they’ve dressed their education policy up, like their health and benefits policy, as the reforms for working people the Conservatives would never give you.

This is obviously not about the substance of the Tories’ proposed educational reforms; it’s about the Tories themselves. And why should the voter give a good goddamn where the Tory leadership went to school thirty years ago? All a voter should care about is whether the policies will work. I don’t think they will; they’re so milquetoast that I doubt they’ll have any effect if enacted. Cameron’s men aren’t being radical enough.

This is about hatred for the Tories, in their incarnation of The Privileged, and finding every way possible to insinuate that they’ve got it in for people who aren’t like them. To what end, I ask you, would they do this? Is it really in the Tories’ interests to foster an ill-educated, poverty-stricken underclass who would (a) simply have to be supported on benefits anyway, and (b) never ever vote again for the party that robbed them of all chance at social mobility? Perhaps Mr Blake thinks this is just the beginning, and eventually the Tories will strip away the benefits too, so that everybody who’s ‘not like them’ will starve to death, thus ridding the country of an inconvenient burden?

I’m sure Mr Blake doesn’t actually think that. What he also doesn’t think is what has actually happened: that social mobility has worsened under Labour, educational achievement has worsened under Labour, and enough people realise this that they’re likely to vote for the very party that supposedly fucked everybody over back in the eighties.

Finally, Mr Blake is invoking the kind of political cant that was the standard 25 years ago. Is he appealing to new voters, young voters, the very people who would be most affected by some of these policies? No – a voter turning eighteen next spring will have been born in 1992. Too young to remember how evil the Tories were. Too young to know anything but thirteen years of Labour government. The only people these days for whom ‘toffs! class warfare!’ is going to work as an electoral rallying cry are the ones who were bitching and moaning around the place in 1984 and who think all Tories are exactly like Margaret Thatcher, despite the fact she’s been out of power for twenty years.

If you want people to take your criticisms seriously, Mr Blake, then make some serious criticisms. Don’t stand or fall on the ancient reputation of the Conservative party and a bunch condescending remarks about how haaaaard everything is for the, by your implication, stupid and unemployable working class.

Aug 252009
 

The government has finally decided, it appears, to ban what people are calling ‘legal highs’: unscheduled party drugs that, like any other substance on the planet which you choose to ingest, can kill you in certain circumstances.

The two drugs, known as BZP and GBL, have been linked to a number of deaths.

‘A number’? How many, exactly?

In May, a coroner in Sheffield linked BZP, also known as herbal ecstasy, to the death last year of 22-year-old mortgage broker Daniel Backhouse.

It is understood that Mr Backhouse had also taken ecstasy.

This is a bit like saying, ‘A coroner linked BZP to the death last year of Daniel Backhouse. It is understood that Mr Backhouse had also been run over by a backhoe.’ Classic post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. But still, that’s one of our ‘number of deaths.’

Here’s another:

Hester Stewart, who was 21 and a medical student, died after taking GBL in Brighton. Both drugs would be classified as Class C.

Hester Stewart’s mother, Maryon, has campaigned for legal highs to be banned.

She told the BBC News Channel: “I’m delighted. I think the Home Office is moving in the right direction.

“We need to tell people that GBL plus alcohol can equal death. Hester hadn’t had that much alcohol and then later on that evening an old friend of hers gave her half a dose of GBL which he said was safe.

“So the two mixed together just sent her into a coma and she didn’t wake up…”

Maryon Stewart is the same woman who, back in April, was weeping all over Telegraph reporters that if the government had just banned this shit ages ago like it promised, her daughter would never have died:

“How can the Home Office not be accountable for something like this? How come it’s not classified? How could this happen?

“Some pen-pusher somewhere should be able to work out how to ban it,” said Mrs Stewart. “How come they hesitated?

“This is a disaster. It’s just beyond belief that something like this could have happened to such a brilliant, caring, intelligent girl who had so much to offer the whole world, not just her family.

“I feel gutted, I feel cheated, I feel bitterly frustrated and angry that this has been allowed to happen.”

I tried to be vaguely sympathetic the last time I wrote about this – some may claim I failed even then – but now there is simply no excuse. This interfering fucking busybody exemplifies all that is wrong with a certain sort of person today. In blaming the Home Office for failing to ban this drug and thus prevent her daughter’s death, she absolves herself (and her daughter) of all responsibility. By her own account, a friend gave her daughter the pill, claiming it was safe. WTF? I like my friends, and by and large I trust them, but even at the relatively still-stoopid age of 21, I would never have taken a random pill at a party without knowing what it was. I’m sure many people would, and do, and nothing bad happens, but that’s the chance one takes. Didn’t Maryon Stewart teach her daughter this stuff? She is, after all,

a founder of the Natural Health Advisory Service and presents a series on a satellite television channel. “In my work I teach people how to look after themselves and all the stuff I do is caring about people, and that’s the kind of environment Hessie’s been brought up in,” she said. “I’m just gutted the Home Office didn’t care enough.”

That’s right. It’s the Home Office’s fault for not caring enough about

the third person to have died in the past 12 months after taking GBL

Yup. There’s our ‘number of deaths.’ 3.

Last August, the Government’s drugs advisers told the Home Office that the substance should be classified as a Class C drug.

But because it also has a use as an industrial solvent – in the plastics industry and as a nail polish remover – officials have been delayed in framing the legislation. It is banned for personal use in America, Canada and Sweden.

Who are these drug advisers? Is it the same Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs who recommended the downgrading of ecstasy to class B, amongst other things – most of whose recommendations about drugs policy (that is, in fact, what the ACMD exists to make) are ignored by the government when they conflict with the Daily Mail’s anti-drugs crusade?

Probably not, or the article would have told us. Instead, we must wonder at these shadowy drug advisers who wish to pursue anti-drugs policies that have been super-successful in such utopian drug-free countries as…the United States.

(Leave aside the fact that GBL is an industrial solvent used in nail-polish remover. Have you ever smelled that stuff? It says right on the bottle that it’s not for internal consumption. Only a fucking idiot would ingest it.)

But all of this is by the by, really; here is what’s happened. Slightly rebellious young adult goes to party, does the equivalent of slurping nail-polish remover, dies. Mom-in-denial blames Home Office. Home Office bans slurping nail-polish remover. The one-woman crusade has succeeded. Surely the biggest problem here is not the drugs, nor even the banning of them, but the fact that one guilt-stricken grieving woman has the power to influence government policy.

Wait, that’s happened before?

Aug 072009
 

Not too many weeks ago, I ran across a blog, the name of which I cannot now remember, in which the author posted a hypothetical government ban on books – not because of their literary content, but because as old books decay, they could release fibres and other toxins which might be inhaled by the reader, thus damaging the reader’s health. He was using it to illustrate, if I remember correctly, the way the government wishes to restrict or ban anything which gives us pleasure and justifies doing so on rather spurious ‘health’ grounds.

If anybody knows the blogger I mean, do let me know, because I’d like to give him a head’s-up:

Congress to ban sale of children’s books printed before 1985

Why? Because they are hazardous to the health.

UPDATE: Yes, it was Frank Davis.

Aug 052009
 

Oh, George. Read your own words:

As any old hippy will tell you, festivals aren’t what they used to be. Gone are the days when you could announce a happening, call up a few mates with drums and guitars, and put the word out that something groovy and free was about to kick off. In these buttoned-down times, it would be treated like an al-Qaida training camp. Today, you must apply for a licence and spend months of your life filling in forms and liaising with the various responsible authorities. There are good reasons for this: it ensures that no one is crushed to death and that local people aren’t harried by intolerable noise and disruption. There are also bad reasons: the controlling, snooping, curtain-twitching state tendencies which insist that all spontaneity be planned six months in advance, that no one can ever take her top off or smoke homegrown weed or get a little bit outrageous – even within a festival site – for fear of offending some tight-arsed busybody in desperate need of a life.

You didn’t defend us when they snooped in our rubbish bins. You didn’t defend us when they fined us for not recycling properly. You didn’t defend us when Jamie Oliver wanted to dictate what chickens we buy at the supermarket. You have been, for some time now, one of the tight-arsed busybodies in desperate need of a life.

And now they’ve turned on you and your pet causes, too. Doesn’t feel nice, does it? Lie in the bed you helped to make, George. Lie there and learn to love it.