Author Archives: Laurence Cox

Book Review: Bad Data by Georgina Sturge

Politicians’ memoirs are ten-a-penny while books by statisticians in the House of Commons Library can be counted on one thumb. This is that book and its rarity makes it all the more valuable. We are familiar with the flood of Government statistics; what is less apparent to the reader is how the data behind the statistics was collected. This book exposes how unreliable such data can be and how it can mislead even well-intentioned politicians.

Sturge provides a number of examples. We remember Gordon Brown meeting Gillian Duffy in Rochdale during the 2010 General Election, but what Brown and other politicians did not appreciate at the time was the level of immigration to the UK from the A8 countries. This was because for decades immigration had been estimated using the Air Passenger Transport Survey which sampled travellers passing through Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester airports, and this sampling had led to  estimates close enough to the decadal censuses that there was no good reason to change the sampling process.

What happened in the 2000s was that a Hungarian businessman Jóseph Váradi co-founded a low-cost airline, Wizz Air, which like other low-cost airlines, flew to small regional airports. The UK Government in anticipation of the A8 countries joining the EU had asked the statisticians for an estimate of the number of migrants from these countries coming to the UK and received a response of 5 to 13 thousand per year.

That had been based on an assumption that between 20 and 73 thousand per year would emigrate to Germany, but just before the enlargement the German Government had paused immigration from the A8 countries for two years. Not surprisingly many Eastern Europeans, particularly Poles, chose to come to Britain instead.

Unlike Germany, where any migrant has to register at their local Citizens Office within 14 days to live and work legally, there is no single action that a migrant needs to do in the UK and no link between National Insurance numbers and NHS numbers, nor are these linked to council records. As a result there is no easy way to make an estimate of immigration between censuses.

Another example Sturge uses from the Blair years is the change in agricultural subsidies from production to farmed area. Although land is registered on change of ownership, there were large areas of unregistered UK land: think of the land owned by the Crown, the Church, and Oxbridge Colleges. One consequence of the change is that it created an incentive to register land, even if it wasn’t actively farmed. In 2005 there were 100,000 applications to register land up from 9,000 previously.

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Review of “Control – The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics”

When Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species” in 1859; while the finches of the Galapagos Islands formed an example of natural selection, he also referenced selective breeding in animal husbandry as an example of how desired characteristics in breeds could come about. It did not take a genius to realise that selective breeding could also be applied to humans, although it was one, Francis Galton (Darwin’s half-cousin) the Victorian polymath, who did so and founded eugenics. At a distance of over a century it is difficult to see why they found eugenics so attractive as opposed to other interventions, but late Victorian Britain was a country in the grip of an early version of the Great Replacement theory, in this case the replacement of the educated middle and upper classes with the, then uneducated, working classes simply because the latter were having many more children. Galton’s “Hereditary Genius” set out the case for eugenics: that the ‘better’ classes should be encouraged to breed more and the ‘worse’ classes less.  This idea was attractive to many: Winston Churchill, Arthur Balfour, William Beveridge, George Bernard Shaw, Sydney and Beatrice Webb, Marie Stopes, and D H Lawrence amongst others. It even gained the support of the Manchester Guardian. In 1913 the Liberal Government, including Churchill, passed the Mental Deficiency Act (only 3 MPs voting against) which locked up those of low intelligence in institutions, effectively preventing them from breeding, although it did not require sterilisation. That Act was not repealed until 1959.

By 1913, Galton’s ideas had spread far beyond the UK with the United States, in particular, taking them up vigorously; the Eugenics Records Office at Cold Springs Harbour on Long Island being funded mainly by the Carnegie Institute, Rockefeller Foundation, and the philanthropist Mary Harriman. This should be a warning about letting those with money fund research; their interests may not accord with those of society as a whole. Unlike the British, the Americans had no qualms about sterilising those whom they thought should not be allowed to breed, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes writing in a 1927 judgement “Three generations of imbeciles is enough”.

Not surprisingly, these American ideas soon crossed back across the Atlantic, this time to Germany, where Alfred Ploetz built on them and the earlier scientific racism of Ernst Haeckel, who had brought Darwin’s ideas to Germany. In time this led to the Holocaust as we all know, but it is important to appreciate that the first victims were those they considered inadequate, either physically or mentally. That experience inoculated most of the world for a couple of generations, but with the success of the Human Genome project and the development of CRISPR gene editing it became possible not only to repair faulty body cells (somatic cells) to cure some rare diseases, but also change the germ cells that create the sperm and ova and so eliminate the disease in future generations. Eugenics was back!

The second part of the book brings the story up to the present and covers what gene editing can, and more importantly, cannot do. It is an important corrective to the idea that genetics at its root is simple: we all learned at school about the heritability of eye colour, controlled by the OCA2 gene. Yet only 62% of those with two copies of the blue-eyed version of the gene have blue eyes; while 7.5% of those with two copies of the brown-eyed version of the gene have blue eyes as well (p. 217). Genetics is nowhere near as simple as people think, and Rutherford offers several other examples.

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Scotland 2070 Healthy | Wealthy | Wise

Visions of a possible future for a country usually come from politicians or, more often these days, from think-tanks. This book is a notable exception, its authors coming from backgrounds in the oil and gas industry, the defence sector, and nursing respectively. The authors deliberately set out to make their vision non-political; what they suggest could equally well be achieved in an independent Scotland, in a Scotland that is part of a Federal UK, or a Scotland that has its present devolved powers. Their vision instead is for a Scotland with a renewal of the spirit that characterised the Scottish Enlightenment.

After an introduction to their vision, they go into more detail in six areas: the economy, the environment, renewable energy, healthcare, research and development, and infrastructure; then sum up the synergies that actions in these areas could bring to a Scotland that wholeheartedly embraced them. They do not claim to have painted a complete picture of Scotland in two generations time, but rather a framework to which others can add.

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Looking at the other side of the ledger

Often articles here in LDV advocate new spending commitments but rarely look at their costs, or consider what a fairer taxation system looks like. I like to start with what I call Harold Wilson’s ‘pound in your pocket‘ principle. Wilson was reassuring the public that devaluation didn’t mean that their £ was worth less in sterling, but I take a deeper message from it:: the ‘pound in your pocket’ buys exactly the same however you came by it, whether that was by working for it (earned income), from rents, interest or dividends on savings (unearned income) or by selling …

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Universal Basic Services – an alternative to Universal Basic Income?

While Universal Basic Income is popular in principle, support for it falls sharply once increases in taxation or reductions in benefits to pay for it are included as this IPSOS Mori survey shows. UCL’s Institute for Global Prosperity has just published a report, proposing what they call Universal Basic Services as a less costly alternative.

The first point to make about their proposals is that only some of them are truly universal, with others targeted at the lowest two deciles. The Royal Society of Arts, who have their own Basic Income model, have already criticised it.

The Universal Basic Services proposal concentrates on four areas:

Shelter,

Food,

Communications,

and Transport.

Shelter

They propose building 1.5 million new social housing units over seven years, funded by selling long-term Gilts. This is not really contentious, but they then advocate allocating them on the basis of need to people at nil rent and Council Tax and with an allowance for utilities costs. Potentially, there is a problem of inequity here with existing Council tenants who are paying rent, Council Tax and utility bills while receiving Housing Benefit and this does not seem to have been fully worked out in the proposals – they only look at overall costs.

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Review of “The Joy of Tax” by Richard Murphy

Last year Richard Murphy, well-known through his involvement with the Tax Justice Network, expanded his ideas into a paperback book The Joy of Tax. His association with Jeremy Corbyn may cause Liberal Democrats to reject his ideas, but I argue here that even if we reject his solutions, which include both Basic Income and local Land Value Tax, we should take seriously his criticism of the existing tax system and his analysis of the purpose of taxation.

After a short historical introduction in which he develops the idea of tax as being the band that holds together the Social Contract between a people and their government, he examines how the Government raises its revenue. We are all familiar with the three big taxes: income tax, National Insurance and VAT, which together raise just under 65% of all taxation, national and local, but Murphy also looks at the large number of taxes that raise the remainder and the justification for them.

He covers six reasons why Governments should tax:

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