Friday, 28 January 2011

Friday Links

Also, no specific post - rather the whole thing: [trigger warning] MicroAggressions

Monday, 17 January 2011

Buses, and the point of public services

The local County Council has had a major budget cut from central government. Part of dealing with this involves reducing or removing the subsidy they provide for certain services which would not be commercially viable.

While they say that this does not necessarily mean the service will be withdrawn, both of the major bus operators have said that they cannot afford to continue more than a few of the services without a subsidy.

Sunday services and evening services are facing the majority of the cuts, mainly in rural parts of the county.

There are two things related to this that I want to draw attention to, and they apply to all sorts of cuts that the government is making or requiring local councils to make.

Firstly, as reported in the local free paper:

About a fifth of all bus services in the county are not commercially viable. But the council believes more than 95% of bus passenger journeys would be largely or entirely unaffected by the cuts.

Obviously most passenger journeys are not going to be affected. Most journeys are made on busy routes, which don't need a subsidy. The point of public subsidy of bus routes - and indeed public funding of many things - is to make affordable services that would not be possible on a pure market model, but which are necessary to many people. To say that most journeys will be unaffected is true, but not relevant.

Lots of people who rely on the bus services to get about are going to find their movement restricted, and that leads on to the second point: cuts to public services have a knock-on effect on the private economy.

We're told by the government that public spending is preventing private spending. Well, in this case that's clearly not true - it's not as if there would be private operators on these routes without the public subsidy: the private operators have said so themselves.

But furthermore, this public subsidy helps private spending. Cut the evening services, and people won't be able to get into the urban centres of the county then - or won't be able to get out later without spending several times the cost of a bus ticket on taxi fares.

So people going into towns in the evening for the nightlife are a bit stuck, as are people who go into town to work in the pubs and clubs providing that nightlife, or in other evening shift jobs in shops where they clock off after 8pm when many services are being withdrawn or cut back. The local private economy takes a dip as a result.

They could get a car and travel that way, but that's a large cost to themselves so won't be practical for a lot of people who were relying on the buses before, and it also increases congestion and exacerbates the lack of parking in town centres, which makes things worse for everyone. And, of course, having got the car, they then don't need the bus to get around on weekday mornings and afternoons either, so that's fewer bus passengers, and perhaps some of the more borderline unsubsidised bus routes start to slip out of profit too.

Reduced private expenditure leads to reduced tax revenue, so the whole cycle starts again.

By supporting necessary but not commercially viable services, public funding helps both the public and private sector, both of which are likely to take severe damage in the next few years.

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Sunday, 16 January 2011

This is not the time for insubstantial opposition, Labour

The government proposals to reform Disability Living Allowance are extremely worrying. They've been strongly condemned by numerous disability rights groups and charities. There is a petition to Maria Miller MP, the government minister responsible for the consultation, asking for the proposals to be withdrawn, which you might be interested in signing.

What's also worrying is that Labour, as the main "opposition" party, doesn't seem to be doing much to actually oppose these changes. There have been a couple of ministerial statements about some of the details, but the broad proposal to reform DLA - and significantly reduce eligibility - seems to be being accepted by Labour, with Douglas Alexander MP (the Shadow Minister for Work and Pensions) stating that:

Labour’s position is clear: we want to work with the government to reform Disability Living Allowance and introduce a new gateway as set out in the Budget.

I've written the following letter to my MP to try to get Labour to oppose the plans, or at least to find out why they aren't already doing so.

As usual, feel free to modify it for your own MP if you want, though this one more than most of my letters is very much written for a Labour MP, and would need considerable modification for tone to be suitable for a coalition MP.

You can write to your MP online using Write To Them.

Dear [MP]

The Department of Work and Pensions are currently running a consultation on the Disability Living Allowance, proposing to replace it with a "Personal Independence Payment". While the DLA system is flawed, the coalition government's proposals will make the situation even worse.

The proposal is based on flawed assumptions, claiming that the award of DLA discourages people from working. While there is a correlation between low employment and receiving DLA, this hardly implies causation. People with disabilities are both likely to receive DLA and less likely to be employed due to either the nature of their disabilities making many forms of employment impossible, and/or a refusal by employers to make the necessary adaptations and other discrimination in the workplace. Concluding from this that DLA contributes towards unemployment is absurd.

The consultation claims in paragraph 14 of Chapter 1 onwards that DLA is "not fit for purpose", but nowhere in the following paragraphs is it explained why. Instead, statements are made to imply this. Here, the real purpose of the reform becomes obvious. Paragraphs 14 and 15 note that receipt of DLA has expanded considerably since its introduction, but why this is a bad thing is not explained.

Their aim, as other public statements by government ministers have made clear, is to reduce the number of people receiving disability benefits. They have stated that one of the aims is to reduce the number of people claiming disability benefits by around 25%. They have put forward no evidence, however, that the people in this 25% - over half a million people in total - do not need the support that DLA provides. Meanwhile, the fraud rate for DLA is the lowest of any benefit.

We can therefore conclude that the people currently receiving DLA have a genuine need for it. To introduce a new scheme that would leave up to a quarter of them without the money they need to lead their lives is a cruel decision, made with thought only for the bottom line and not for the people who will be affected, many of whom will have to give up their jobs, or their homes, or their independence, if their DLA is removed.

This fits with the general pattern of this coalition government so far, cutting vital services not because it is necessary but because their ideology demands it. This proposal, targeting people with disabilities, is particularly insiduous, because of the increased barriers to participation in the democratic process, through lobbying or protest, that many of them face.

It is clear that they intend to make the assessment for the "Personal Independence Payment" considerably harsher than that for DLA, which itself has been criticised for being too restrictive in its criteria.

There are additional cut-backs in the document, such as the removal of mobility allowance for those in publicly-funded hospitals or care homes (but not from those rich enough to afford private treatment - a reverse means-test), or the inclusion of assistive technology in an assessment of eligibility when the benefit may be necessary to afford that equipment in the first place.

Could you state whether you will personally oppose any reforms to disability benefits which are intended to reduce eligibility and so leave hundreds of thousands unable to afford basic necessities, and whether the Labour party, as the main opposition to the coalition government, intends to present a united opposition to these plans?

Yours sincerely,

(I am, of course, indebted to sites such as Where's the Benefit?, The Broken of Britain and One Month Before Heartbreak for much of the information used when writing the letter)

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Friday, 14 January 2011

Friday Links

Also, Fuck Yeah, Disingenuous Liberal (because of what the attitudes it criticises, some of the posts contain triggering language).

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Principles and power, with diagrams.

Broadsnark's "The Power of Principle" is an excellent description of the trade between having principles and having power. If you haven't read it already, it's well worth reading.

I agree with that, but it's a strongly-debated point. After all, if the current government is doing lots of bad things, wouldn't it be good to have someone even slightly better in? The lesser of two evils, as the cliché goes. So why doesn't sacrificing principle for power work?

Here's my theory as to why things work out that way, with diagrams.

Some simplifications, and why they're okay

Okay, so let's start by making a big simplification: we'll just consider one political issue, and assume that it's one that strongly influences people's votes. In practice, the effect below tends to happen to lots of policies together, so it's not an important simplification - when you consider every issue at once, the same thing happens. The members of the electorate then have various opinions about what the solution to this issue looks like, which are distributed in some sort of distribution.

I've drawn this with "left" and "right" because I think the diagram is more readable that way than with "up" and "down". There's not necessarily any connection on this issue with the traditional left-wing and right-wing positions, though, and the argument I'm making will generalise to issues where the options can't be expressed on a linear scale1, or indeed in Euclidean geometry.

Diagram 1
Diagram 1: A distribution of opinion. Somewhere between normal, flat, and lumpy.

Exactly what the distribution looks like doesn't really matter. There are usually going to be more people around the middle than at the edges, and it's not going to be completely smooth - there'll be peaks here and there that represent popular solutions.

Let's also assume that in general people vote for political parties close to their own opinions where possible. There's plenty of room for misinformation about who actually supports what policy to creep in, but since both sides are trying it the net effect is going to be relatively minor.

Let's also assume a 2-party system with a non-proportional2 electoral system that makes it very hard for a third party to break in anywhere, as we have in the UK (even with the rise of the Lib Dems) or in the USA. This is a fair assumption because it's what we have.

So, next picture: two of the big peaks of opinion distribution near the centre are occupied by the major political parties - the Oranges and the Carrots.

Diagram 2
Diagram 2: Same as the first, but with the Orange party occupying the peak to the left of the centre, and the Carrot party occupying the peak to the right of it.

There's then a general election. The Orange party loses the election, and the Carrots party enters government.

Why running to the centre works in the short-term

This is the point where the "principles or power" argument comes in to play. Obviously, it's really bad for the Carrot party to be in power. There's no real hope of another party coming out of nowhere to save the day, at least not by next election, so to get the Carrots out, the Oranges have to get in. But the electorate has just been presented with the Oranges, and didn't like them - it preferred the Carrot policies3.

So, to "be more electable", the Oranges move their policy along a bit towards the centre.

Diagram 3
Diagram 3: The Carrot party is still on the right peak, but the Oranges have moved their position into the valley between the two peaks.

At the next election, the centre point between the Orange policy and the Carrot policy is in a different place. The key swing voters in between the two parties are now going to cast their votes a bit differently, with the Oranges picking up more of their votes than before. They might lose a few votes from the left-most end of the distribution, too, but they can afford to: votes they lose from the left go to an inconsequential rival or abstentions. Votes they take from the right come off their major opponent's totals. They can afford to lose almost twice as many votes from the left as they gain from the right and still come out ahead.

For instance, if there are 100 voters in all, and 53 voted Carrot and 47 voted Orange, then by convincing 10 Carrot voters to vote Orange, the scores become 43-57. A 6 vote margin has been changed to a 14 vote margin in the other direction. If Orange loses 12 voters from their left as a result, they're still 2 votes ahead of the Carrots at 43-45, despite losing more voters than they gained.

So, by following this strategy, the Oranges are able to regain power at the next election.

So why doesn't everyone just end up in the centre?

Over in a formerly-smoke-filled but now nicely air-conditioned room at Carrot Headquarters, the party green-wigs need to decide on a strategy. They have two choices.

  1. They can do what the Oranges did to them, and move closer to the centre, to try to retake power. There's not a lot of spare space to move into, though, without dropping this as an election issue at all, which won't actually do them much good. And you need to have some space to manouevre for the 2:1 multiplier you get from winning swing voters to actually be possible.
  2. They can take a longer-term view, and move their own position to the right. That's probably closer to where they wanted it to be anyway, before an earlier pragmatic Carrot leader decided that on top of the peak was a good place to be.
Diagram 4
Diagram 4: The Carrot party has also moved off its peak to the right, re-opening a wider gap between the two parties.

The Carrots pick option 2, and lose the next election too. There's probably some internal squabbles at this point, but they wait them out.

... and then, the plan pays off.

Because public opinion is not static. It's fluid, and on some issues it can change really quickly in the right circumstances. Like advertising, if you say something for long enough to enough people, some of them will listen, and change their minds. If a party states a particular policy, its supporters become more likely to support that policy.

Consider, for instance, at this YouGov poll (PDF) from December. On page 7, there's a question about whether short prison sentences or community sentences are more effective.

In general, imprisonment is the stereotypical Conservative policy. They have the reputation for being "tougher on crime". So it was in some ways an unexpected announcement of Conservative policy that they would want to go for community sentences. In the poll, though, Conservative voters split 36:44 in favour of community sentences.

Perhaps the stereotypes are wrong? Public opinion often isn't what it's claimed to be. Are the Conservatives playing to their base after all?

This time, though, there's something else at work: compare that poll to this other poll (PDF), also carried out by YouGov, only a month earlier.

In this poll, Conservative voters are split 57:35 against the use of community sentences. In a month, there has been a 30 point swing in Conservative voter opinion. Additionally, there has been a 19 point swing in general voter opinion (which includes the Conservatives). From being a policy that had the weight of public opinion against it - and think tanks warning the government away from it - it's now one that the public is roughly split on.

There are differences of question wording between the two polls, but these mainly consist of the later poll having a tiny neutral summary of the purported advantages of each choice (which I don't think is particularly significant), and the later poll attributing the community sentences policy to the current government (which may well be a significant wording difference, but one that strengthens my point if it is)

I don't think public opinion is quite that fluid on most issues - sentencing policy is in general not an issue of major importance to most voters - and in general that sort of change takes years or decades rather than weeks, but it definitely happens over time.

So, how does this affect the diagram?

Diagram 5
Diagram 5: The distribution of public opinion has shifted, with the peaks moved towards the parties' new positions.

The next election, the Carrots win it, by about the same margin as they won the election back in Diagram 1.

So, the Oranges have to do something. It worked last time, so they move their policy off the peak, and closer to the Carrots.

After a couple of cycles of this, what happens is of course that the Oranges have ended up fairly close to where the Carrots were originally. At this point, the Carrots can start moving slowly back towards the Oranges, both picking up votes themselves, and trying to make the new consensus one that sticks so that they don't have to defend it in future. The result: the Carrots have spent a fair proportion of the time in power, the Oranges will be implementing their policies anyway while the Carrots are out of power, and the Carrots can direct their energies to winning the next argument.

It took a little more than a single election cycle, but the Carrots have most definitely - by sticking to their principles - won. This is why, as Broadsnark said:

The people whose power lasts are those whose power comes from their principles, not from selling their principles out. It’s not naive to think that people shouldn’t sell their principles to power. It’s naive to think that someone in power who has sold their principles can do us any good.

So, the Oranges have power - and are using it to implement Carrot policy. Whether they count this as a success depends entirely on whether they went into politics to get power or to advance their principles. Meanwhile, the people who liked the Oranges' initial policy are stuck out on their own, without any formal representation, and now have to work hard to draw the Oranges (and ideally the Carrots, too) back towards them.

I've given this example with political parties, but it really works for anyone trying to make a difference to anything - in the long term, the successful people are people who've convinced opinion to follow them.

What if the Carrots are really bad?

Some governments are so bad that even letting them be in power for one term is going to be disastrous, and it's worth paying a high price to keep them out. The problem with this argument is that you can't keep them out forever.

Governments in the UK lose an average of 3 points of popular vote between elections. Virtually none have actually gained popularity between elections. Sooner or later, the accumulated frustrations of the population are going to kick them out no matter how well they're doing.

The opposition will be back in power eventually and you can't stop this. It's not worth delaying it a few years if the cost is implementing their policies anyway.

There are in a democracy ways other than being the official opposition to make it politically unviable for the government to do something, anyway.

(This only applies if you trust the opposition to hold another fair election, of course, but if you don't there are bigger problems)

Wouldn't this just lead to no-one compromising on anything, and nothing getting done?


In practice, though, no. There's a major difference between compromising on what gets implemented now, and compromising on your underlying principles.

To illustrate this, say there are two issues (A and B), with three possible policies (A0, A1 and A2, with A1 being 'between' the other two policies, and similarly for B).

If A2 is the current situation, a supporter of A0 could team up and compromise with supporters of A1 to get A1. It's not what they actually want, but it's closer to it. And if between them they can make A1 stick, then maybe in a few years it'll be possible to get mass support for moving to A0.

This is a good compromise, and isn't inconsistent with having principles and keeping them.

Suppose, then, that this support of A0 also supports B0. The current situation is A1 and B1. A supporter of A2 and B0 offers to help with getting B0 in exchange for help in getting A2.

Assuming that A and B are both major issues - if A is "who pays for lunch?" and B is "should we invade Norway?", this doesn't hold - this is a bad compromise. To take it, the principle of A0 will have to be sacrificed.

In between the two is an offer to support B0 if you don't campaign for A0 and accept A1 as sufficient (assuming A1 is currently true) - at least in public.

I think this is still generally a bad deal - both sides of the deal want (or at least, aren't opposed to) B0 already. So you could probably get B0 another way without giving up the possibility of A0. There might be cases where it's worth taking, though, if B0 is likely to be the sticky position, and so you can go back to working towards A0 relatively quickly once B0 is done.

The reason that the good compromises are good is that they don't stop you working on moving mass opinion towards your position. The reason the bad compromises are bad is that you have to shut up and contribute towards making things worse, which means that when you decide you've had enough, you've been digging your own hole for the last few years and have to fill that in first.

Only making good compromises means that political alliances on one issue aren't necessarily going to be the same as the political alliances on a different issue. There's nothing wrong with that, either, though it can take some getting used to.


The way to win, in the long-term, is to have principles, to stick to them, and to argue for them consistently and convincingly. There are plenty of situations where the short-term gain is from abandoning some principles to help others: beware.

Having short-term political power, in the way the default thinks of "political" and "power" is not necessarily useful, and may in some cases be actively counter-productive to principled success because the costs of getting it are too high.


1 If I was better at drawing, there would be a picture of an opinion surface in two dimensions to demonstrate this. Please imagine your own.

2 In a proportional system, the incentives are different, and the advantages to sticking to your principles are much clearer. It's the main reason that I want one.

3 Not necessarily true in a non-proportional system, but let's assume that like the UK and USA, the tendency is to expand differences in the popular vote, rather than reduce them. Elections where the winner of the most seats and the winner of the popular vote differ will result in a very different - and generally messier - political dynamic anyway.

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Saturday, 8 January 2011

Absolute or relative need?

The BBC are reporting that the proposed cuts to Disability Living Allowance could break the Human Rights Act. It's worth a try legally, though I doubt it'll work.

There's a quote from Maria Miller MP (Conservative, Basingstoke), the Minister for Disabled People at the end of the piece.

We are dealing here with a benefit which as I said is one of the largest benefits that's paid in the UK and that we need to make sure it's getting to the people who need it most.

"Need it most"? "Need it" would be a much better attitude to take to these benefits (and indeed benefits in general). Someone's need for additional cash to support themselves is not diminished just because some else has an even greater need.

Of course, given that there is a consensus between all major political parties that DLA is too easy to get - despite it already being refused to people with severe disabilities - there's not much hope here.

Much more information about the proposals and their flaws is at Where's the benefit.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Where did that analogy come from?

There's been quite a lot of talk recently about how the various protest movements against the government that are springing up (well, it's doing lots to protest about) are "open source". Here's a Left Foot Forward post, for example.

As someone who's both organised protests and developed open source software, my reaction to the analogy is extreme bafflement.

The idea behind the analogy is that the "new protest movement" is open, transparent, decentralised and largely non-hierarchical, with everyone able to contribute in the ways that they are most suited to.

Which is fair enough. Legitimate ideals, and they seem to be reasonably effective in practice too, but the areas in which it's actually similar to open source software development projects are areas in which it's also similar to just about every other protest movement ever, so the analogy just doesn't work.

Open source software development is considerably more hierarchical than the stereotypes suggest. It has to be, if it's to actually develop useful software. For any complex piece of open source software - any of the big ones with widespread name recognition like Linux or Firefox, but much smaller ones too - there are a core set of leaders, who make most of the decisions about what the long-term aims of the project are, and all the decisions about which individual contributions go in to the project.

The advantage of open-source over closed-source is not that it doesn't have leaders and hierarchies, but that a popular rebellion against those leaders and hierarchies doesn't have to start from scratch when providing a replacement. Nevertheless, someone disagreeing with the current leadership will have a difficult and time-consuming task on a large project in getting enough supporters, hardware and hosting budgets, and so on, to make a "fork" of the project viable. Successful forks are extremely rare, though hypothetical ones are pretty commonplace.

But there are definitely leaders and a hierarchy, because once a software project gets complex, there is an intense need for quality control. Contributions that aren't up to the necessary standard, or which just aren't considered useful, don't get in.1 That sounds much more like a "traditional" centralised protest movement to me.

Similarly while the outputs of an open source software project may be transparent, the process is not necessarily so. There can be a lot of "back room" discussion about controversial decisions.

As far as the actual similarities between open source software development and "open source" protests go, you'd be hard-pressed to run a protest without them.

  • Everyone can contribute? Most protests work on that basis, since they want the numbers. The more common problem is that protests aren't selective enough and let in unrelated people who try to make the protest about something else.
  • If you don't like the direction, "fork" it? No protest movement has yet, as far as I know, tried to patent the concept of protesting against a particular thing. This is automatic. Unlike with software, there's not months of dull and boring work to be done before you get back to something vaguely resembling the original if you start from scratch.
  • Sharing of ideas/materials? Again, most protests don't try to trademark their slogans, or to threaten with copyright infringement people who modify their sample letters to MPs before sending them.
  • Transparent output? By definition, yes. Once you've seen a protest you're at liberty to copy its methods or slogans for your own. As with open source software, though, you might not be aware of the tangled route it took to get to that finished state.
  • "Many eyes make all bugs shallow"? A protest has no underlying "source code"2 that one can inspect for bugs. The output of the protest is the original form. As with closed source books, where you don't need access to the original typesetting to spot the typos and layout errors, "bugs" in a protest are open to anyone to find regardless of the protest organisation.

    Transparent organisation can make the "bugs" obvious before "release", just as many bugs are found and fixed in development versions of software before they ever make it into a formal release, but that doesn't mean they'll necessarily be fixed.

    Meanwhile, just as allowing the public to help test planned releases is not limited to open-source software, being transparent about future protests and listening to suggestions and criticism is not something that non-hierarchical movements have a monopoly on.

Call it "decentralised", or "non-hierarchical", or "chaotic", or "anarchic", call it "crowd-sourced" if you must, but don't call it "open source" because it's not in any meaningful way similar to that (indeed, the social network tools used to organise most of the actions are largely corporate-owned and closed-source).


1 The idea is that the hierarchy and the leaders are a meritocracy of sorts: if you do enough good work for the project you'll be invited to join them. The Geek Feminism blog has some good articles pointing out that - as with everything else - the definition of what counts as "good" and "work" is default-biased

"Democracy", however, is generally not something that open-source software projects use or need.

2 The actual openness of the source is not a major factor for finding bugs in most projects. Just about all of the bugs reported for projects I've been involved in have come from users using the software who'd never read the source, not from people who happened to read the source and thought "hey, that'll never work". For any successful project, the proportion of its users who have the time, skill and energy to read the source for bugs is approximately zero.

Likewise, I've never found a bug by reading open source code. I've found bugs by using software and then been able to report them to the developers complete with a cause and a fix, in a few cases, and this is a useful advantage of open source software - especially those pieces of software such as system tools likely to be used by people who can program. More usually, despite in theory being able to read the source and provide a fix, I've just told them about the bug and let them get on with it.

But anyway, on this metric our Parliament is "open source": read the draft Bill, write in with a "bug fix", and the "developers" might well accept it before "release".

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