Even in today’s multicultural Britain, it’s a bit of a shock when you see one of them walking down the street towards you. Dressed in deepest black from head-to-foot, all hints of femininity are rendered invisible. Apart from the eyes, of course – those dark-rimmed eyes staring out at the world with unconcealed mistrust. But then that’s goths for you.
And not just goths. Youth sub-cultures of all kinds enable their members to stand apart from the rest of society – ‘expressing their individuality’ as they might put it, but in fact donning a uniform to signal a group identity.
So, if we are to ban the face veil worn by some Muslims, then why shouldn’t we ban all forms of attire that isolate their wearers from the mainstream? Leaving aside the particular circumstances in which facial recognition is necessary, why should we make a special example of the niqab or the burqa?
One could argue that face-veiling is demeaning to women, but as Jessica Abrahams argues in Prospect, the same could be said of certain other items of clothing:
And what about tattoos? It’s no longer unusual to see people with tattoo’d necks or hands – not the ideal boost to their future job prospects, one would imagine. Moreover, unless you can afford the surgery, a tattoo is for life. A veil, at least, can be removed.
Various motivations lie behind the call for a general ban on veils – both well and ill-intentioned. Racially-motivated attempts to secure a ban are certain to fail, but aggressive secularists are more likely to make headway.
According Christopher Flavelle's report for Bloomberg, the Canadian province of Quebec has gone a long way towards a general ban – and not just on face veils:
Among the religious symbols that would be banned are crosses over a certain size, headscarves, turbans and yarmulkes (the round caps worn by some Jewish men). You can see a graphic of what would and wouldn’t be allowed here.
No doubt, the people who came up with these proposals think that they’re standing up for liberal values. In fact, whether secular or religious in motivation, those who would regulate our clothes have an awful lot in common.
Is the Economist rightwing or leftwing? On its website, the magazine – or newspaper as it prefers to style itself – tries to clear up the confusion:
In other words, the publication is both economically and socially liberal. Nothing remarkable about that – it is an increasingly common political stance these days, especially among the chattering classes where it provides the only socially acceptable alternative to lefty liberalism.
What annoys many on the right, however, is that the magazine sometimes endorses parties and politicians of the centre-left over perfectly respectable centre-right alternatives. For instance, Tim Montgomerie (in a diary for the Australian edition of the Spectator) had this to say when the Economist backed Kevin Rudd over Tony Abbott:
The Economist’s own account is that it is “drawn to centrist politicians and parties who appear to combine the best of both sides, such as Tony Blair, whose combination of social and economic liberalism persuaded it to endorse him at the 2001 and the 2005 elections.”
Yet this lofty evenhandedness presumes an equivalence between the ‘unreliability’ of the mainstream right on social liberalism and that of the mainstream left on economic liberalism. This won’t wash. Across the western world all societies are heading towards greater license and away from traditional moral norms. Not even the Republicans in America are going to change that. By way of contrast, economic liberalism most certainly is under threat – not from the old left’s fondness for nationalisation, but from the new left’s drive towards an evermore indebted public sector.
To get what’s really going on with the Economist, we have to consider the most important political divide of them all – which is between those who believe that humanity is fallible in every respect (proper conservatives) and those who don’t (everybody else).
Only conservatism – true conservatism, that is – sees that the flaws in human nature compromise everything that we do and think. This is a hard truth to accept, which is why almost all of us carve out exceptions and place them on a pedestal they don’t deserve. For leftwingers the exception is the state. For rightwingers the exceptions might include the market, the ‘wisdom of crowds’ or the limitless exploitability of the environment. For refined liberals, however, the state and the market are mere tools – to be used and set aside according to rational criteria.
Therefore, to understand the Economist you need to realise that the thing it places on the pedestal isn’t the market, but human reason. Certainly this explains why the magazine should be so instinctively hostile to the presence of real conservatism, which empties the pedestal of all human endeavour.
Do we take the issue of early years education seriously enough? We should do, because according to Tom Chivers in the Telegraph, it can make an enduring difference to the life chances of disadvantaged children:
Some of the most compelling evidence comes from longitudinal studies that follow the progress of children from their pre-school years all the way into adulthood:
The American study found that compared to the control group, the average benefit to the public for each child that went through the pre-school programme was valued at nearly $200,000. This was composed of later savings to the education system, taxes on earnings, welfare savings and crime savings:
Tom Chivers then veers off into a discussion as to whether earlier years education should be overtly focused on the 3Rs or whether it should be about learning through play. Citing further research, he favours the more liberal approach:
This is simplifying matters somewhat. Formal education is almost certainly not appropriate for pre-school children, but that doesn’t mean that the prospects of disadvantaged toddlers are going to improved by enhanced opportunities to “hit each other with toys.” Unstructured learning environments – whether in the home or elsewhere – are all about giving children the fundamental things they need in order thrive when they do go to school i.e. emotional security, basic vocabulary and the rudiments of civilised behaviour. If children from deprived backgrounds aren’t getting these things at home then it is vital that they get them from pre-school programmes.
Liberals often question the reality of widespread social breakdown. Yet the fact that they consider pre-school intervention by the state to be so necessary would suggest that a significant proportion of families do not provide the material, intellectual and spiritual nourishment that their children need in their early years. If that isn't evidence of widespread social breakdown, then what is?
According to the National Audit Office, the Government’s flagship welfare reform policy – Universal Credit – is in trouble. The purpose of the new benefit is to combine six existing benefits into a single payment, with the aim of ensuring that work always pays more than life on the dole.
Right in principle, the problems with Universal Credit are all in the implementation, especially when it comes to IT. Back in 2011, John Seddon wrote an open letter to DWP ministers to warn them that the standard Civil Service approach would end in tears.
Following the NAO report, it’s worth highlighting a few of the key paragraphs (the whole letter can be found on the Opportunities website):
Once again, the DWP has opted for a highly centralised approach facilitated by a shiny new IT system. What could possibly go wrong?
The basic equation, which applies to just about any area of public policy, is as follows: centralisation + complexity = disaster. Bitter experience has demonstrated the accuracy of this formula on countless occasions – and yet this Government, like its predecessor, is in thrall to what Seddon calls “command-and-control management”:
If this were really true, then of course it would be possible to design a fixed system to deal efficiently with a limited number of interactions between the users and providers of the service in question. Furthermore the simplicity of the system would allow it to be centralised, thereby achieving the desired economies of scale.
But it isn’t true. Getting people off benefits and into work means dealing with complex personal situations and joining up the various bits of the public sector that support (but sometimes hold back) dependent individuals. It should be screamingly obvious that a flexible, face-to-face, locally-based response is what is required – which is precisely what you’re not going to get from a regional call centre.
Last week the Deep End noted the influence of ‘journalese’ – the tabloid English in which much of our news is written. In a thought-provoking piece for Prospect, Michael Billig looks at a different kind of linguistic distortion – one that seeks to obscure meaning instead of exaggerating it:
The irony is that the academics who study the development of jargon in the public and private sectors are guilty of the same crimes against language:
Of course, the arts and humanities have long suffered from science envy. Natural scientists can fill entire technical dictionaries with polysyllabic words of Latin and Greek derivation and, thus, social ‘scientists’ feel they have to do the same:
But even if one abandons the pretence that sociology or literary theory can ever be as objective or empirical as chemistry or physics, is it not the case that academics still need to use specialist vocabulary? Michael Billig doesn't think so:
To compound matters, social scientists often use their supposedly precise technical terms to mean different things in different contexts – adding a further layer of impenetrability.
This isn’t just about sounding more intelligent than you actually are; there is an underlying ideological programme at work here:
If leftwing intellectuals regard plain words with suspicion we should not be surprised. Ordinary language is deeply conservative in that it is quintessentially traditional: held in common by ordinary people, it is passed down from generation to generation, growing and adapting free from central control.
Chaotic and contradictory, but constantly creative, everyday speech is an affront to those who would plan society from the top down.
The financial crisis of 2008 was too frightening for any sane person to enjoy, but for the centre-left there was some grim satisfaction to be had. With Wall Street and the City of London in meltdown, they could point to Germany’s robust stakeholder economy and say: ‘I told you so.’ Then came the Eurozone crisis and things got more complicated – very few people were right about casino capitalism and the single currency (though plenty were wrong about both).
One can always argue that the German economic model has proven itself in spite of the Eurozone – and that it is only Germany’s economic strength that has held the single currency together. But in an article for the Peterson Institute for International Economics, Adam Posen takes a very different view:
Indeed, leftwingers might like to note the essential ingredient in “Germany's path to competitiveness”:
Remarkably, “Germany now has the highest proportion of low-wage workers relative to the national median income in western Europe.” Ah, but at least there’s been plenty of investment in the country’s future prosperity, right?
Germany’s educational saving grace is its system of apprenticeships, but the country has not built on this established strength. Compared to other OECD countries German productivity growth is lacklustre and manufacturing employment is shrinking away:
Instead of restructuring its economy, Germany restructured its exchange rate – through membership of the Eurozone. Not only did this artificially reduce the price of the country's exports, it also enabled Germany’s trading partners to borrow lots of money to pay for them.
Far from being an unfortunate and undeserved burden on the German economic model, the Eurozone crisis is, in part, a consequence of it. Angela Merkel’s aim now is to ensure the survival of the single currency by pressuring other member states to follow Germany’s example and squeeze their workers’ wages too.
Of course, no one owes any of these countries a living – but to create a lean and mean workforce across the Eurozone will undermine the competitive advantage on which Germany depends.
If there’s one thing that unites the right, it’s respect for property. This includes intellectual property, which modern societies defend through legal mechanisms like the patent system.
And yet there’s a problem with patents. When they’re too broadly defined, they can act as a break on innovation and therefore growth. Ideas and concepts that should properly belong in the public domain are instead monopolised, enabling those who happen to own the property rights to extract economic rents from genuine innovators and entrepreneurs. Such rights are often sold on to third parties – known as ‘patent trolls’ – that specialise in this form of rent-seeking.
In an article for the Washington Post, Timothy B Lee reports that one industry in particular is suffering as a result:
Though the patent system is all about defending property rights, it is also a form of state bureaucracy – and, as we know, bureaucracies aren’t very good at regulating complex, rapidly-developing industries:
However, this suggests a future in which technological progress is held up while a growing army of expensive geek-lawyers argue over lines of code. Timothy B Lee argues for a very different course of action:
As the world becomes evermore connected by information and communication technology, with software becoming ubiquitous, we need to decide who we want shaping this future. It seems likely that those countries that opt for innovators and entrepreneurs over lawyers and regulators will have the best of it.
In its political sense, the word 'spin' is comparatively recent. No one talked about 'spin doctors' until the 1980s, though there are references to ‘verbal spin’ dating to the 1960s. However, you can go back to the beginning of the 19th century, if not earlier, to find references to ‘spinning a yarn’ – as in telling a story.
Long before the democratic age, journalists were earning a crust by telling – and selling – stories. Thus they’ve had more practice in spinning than the politicians, which is why they’re much better at it. Indeed over these long decades they’ve developed a language of their very own, a sort of parallel English through which they feed us the news.
Headline writers have played a major role in the development of this vocabulary. Words like ‘probe’ and ‘boffin’ are easier to fit into headlines than words like ‘investigation’ and ‘astrophysicist’. But as Hutton argues, there is much more to journalese than mere concision:
What this parallel language enables journalists to do is fictionalise the news – not usually in the sense of making it up, but in forcing it into a pre-determined narrative structure.
Is there anything wrong with this? After all, real events are like real dialogue – a complete mess that needs to be tidied up by skilled writers. There is, however, a point after which journalistic narrative distorts reality as well as repackaging it.
A good example is the coverage of Ed Miliband’s misfortunes as leader of the Labour Party. Throughout the summer this was the number one domestic political story (and it looks set to continue). And yet, if you look at the opinion polls over this period almost all of them show Conservative support in the low thirties and Labour support in the high thirties – a sufficient gap to put Miliband into Downing Street.
We’re so enrapt by the Labour-in-crisis narrative, that we’re willing to ignore the real story. Only the other day, there was a flurry of excitement over a poll showing Labour just one per cent ahead of the Conservatives. This turned out to be the ICM ‘Wisdom Index’ for the Sunday Telegraph, which asks people who they think is going to win the next election, not who they would actually vote for. How’s that for the complete confusion of perception and reality?
The word ‘spin’ is ultimately derived from the Proto-Indo-European root word meaning ‘stretch’. This makes sense when you consider the ancient method by which yarn was teased out of raw fleece. These days, however, it’s not wool that the spinners stretch, but the truth.
In terms of their willingness to lend, the banks have gone from one extreme to the other. For Tim Harford – the Undercover Economist – such behaviour reminds him of something:
In an ideal world, misbehaving bankers would be fully exposed to the harsh discipline of the market place. However, as with toddlers, reality dictates a more interventionist approach:
In other words, until the banks are made to grow up, the state – and therefore the taxpayer – will be forever mopping up after them:
If banks were to raise more of their investment capital in the form of equity then they’d have more of their own money to lose – which should encourage more responsible behaviour. But banks prefer to risk other people’s money (by borrowing it and then lending it out again) and therefore won’t resort to equity unless told to by the state:
However, there is another way:
What’s particularly clever about this proposal is that the state would only have to make one big decision – i.e. that "all unsecured bank debt must be in the form of ERNs." From that point on, the market would take over. For instance, should the bank in question get into trouble, those lending to it would be automatically ‘bailed-in’ according to the terms of the ERN.
Of course, with skin-in-the-game, it’s much less likely that investors would pump their money into poorly managed, reckless banks in the first place:
Like many higher education establishments, the University of Liberia holds an annual entrance exam. This year the results came as a bit of a shock – the pass rate was precisely zero. Out of 25,000 people who sat the exam not one made the grade.
For most media outlets around the world this was a perfect ‘and finally...’ news item – but, writing for Businessweek, Charles Kenny gets to the real story, which is the enormous learning gap between the developed and developing world:
You might think that students in less developed countries do much worse because they don’t get much schooling. But, in fact, the last few decades have seen rapid progress on access to formal education:
Obviously a school in a remote part of Africa or India will only have a fraction of the resources available to a school in the developed world – and yet that doesn’t appear to be the key factor:
Health outcomes are also improving across much of the developing world, with progress on indicators like child mortality out-stripping economic growth.
Charles Kenny argues that the major problem with schooling in poorer countries (including those that aren’t much poorer than the West) is simply the quality of the education provided. While children are spending more time in school they’re not necessarily learning much while they’re there.
Fortunately, experience shows that there's an affordable way of lifting standards:
In this country we’ve become increasingly sceptical about the imposition of onerous reporting requirements on schools and other frontline public services. To a large extent, we’re right to be so. However, the lesson from elsewhere in the world is that an objective and transparent measure of performance can still make all the difference.
And there’s another lesson we should learn before it’s too late. The under-performance of schools in the developing world shows just how much untapped potential these countries possess. Sooner or later that potential will be released into economies that are already growing fast. We’d better be ready for the competition.