05 September 2008

In other news

• Definition of ideological fanaticism? Being so desperate to change society that you write to the scripwriters of soaps to get them to tweak the worldview they purvey. That is what Cambridge University is doing to get more EastEnders viewers to apply for its undergraduate courses. You couldn't make it up — or could you? Perhaps some scripwriters will incorporate that into their plots, suitably tweaked. (I see a Doctor Who storyline: evil bourgeois dons try to influence TV drama in a pro-capitalist direction; plot is foiled by the good Doctor and his working-class sidekick.)

• 11-year-olds starting school this month will be the first to be legally required to stay on for an extra year of school. From next year it will be an extra two years. This is an outrageous infringement of liberty for a group of people considered adult on many definitions, and will no doubt be used to reinforce the idea that coercion is an appropriate response to social problems. If you disapprove (as you should), speak out about it and/or link to the opposition campaign blog.

• It's just over a year since the banking crisis began, and there's still not much sign of it abating, in spite of a couple of stockmarket 'capitulations' which were billed as marking turning points (just before the Fed's rate cut in Aug08, and the Bear Stearns crisis in March). When I first wrote about it, one of my readers was astute enough to ask "Are bank runs really a thing of the past?" One month later, queues formed outside Northern Rock. I get the sense that financial experts have been busily trying to patch the hull of the global financial system for over a year now, but are still not there. Will they fix it before it's too late? Time will tell. Bizarre chart to illustrate the issue (via Ambrose Evans-Pritchard).

• Funny seeing one's ideas echoed in a dumbed down form in the popular media. Last month I speculated that public perception of Gordon Brown might be negatively affected by the relative lack of social skills with which a comprehensive school education saddles people, and referred to the fact that the term 'autistic' is now used insultingly to describe people like Brown who are a bit introverted. A couple of weeks later, we have a debate in the blogosphere about whether Brown is 'bonkers'. To be identified with any kind of psychopathology is a very harsh insult in a mediocracy, partly because it's so dangerous to be labelled as 'mentally ill': you may find yourself permanently deprived of your liberty without having committed any crime. I strongly urge Gary Glitter and his like to refuse the label, and to retain the status of their behaviour as criminal rather than psychiatric: it is far safer.

• I see that an academic economist has emailed the ever-readable Devil's Kitchen to add some more data to what seems a slightly sterile debate about who is 'worse' at producing inequality — parties that favour rapid expansion of the state, or parties that prefer relatively slow expansion. I don't see much can be read into the data about the effect of different versions of the same basic pro-state ideology, given that each party's reign tends to involve a long reaction against the doings of the other one, and there are massive and unknown time lags between policy changes and effects. If you posit a model that (a) the Tories focus on growth, (b) growth requires increases in inequality, (c) Labour mops up after periods of Tory-sponsored growth by redistributing from the 'wealthy' to the state apparatus, you would get pretty much the effects that are reported.

David Thompson skewers a Guardian article by comedienne Arabella Weir which claims that state schools have important benefits to offer middle-class children, such as "who to be wary of, who to avoid, how to keep their heads down". Ms Weir asserts that the advantages of private schools "are the kind you can acquire whenever you want — it's only information." She may wish to note this conflicts with the latest wisdom from the 'liberal' intelligentsia, according to which crucial character building can only be achieved in a school environment.

• Academic George Steiner has stirred up controversy by revealing that he might mind if West Indians moved in next door — though it's statistically unlikely they would, given that he lives in an affluent part of Cambridge. It's difficult to feel very sorry for Steiner, as he made the comment in order to demonstrate the popular fallacy that 'everyone is racist'. In the Mail, Sir Max Hastings protests mildly for the right to make ideologically incorrect comments, but in such feeble terms that he might as well be arguing on behalf of the PC lobby. "It is very easy for us middle-class types, living in our cosy social enclaves ... to strike noble postures about race and immigration" says Hastings. Yes, and it's very easy for right-wing journalists, networking in their exclusive cliques, to ignore academics with unfashionable non-'liberal' views, especially those who have to survive without salaried posts because of academic bias.

• I've just come across some more from the hot-air-on-inequality bandwagon. Michael Gove's claims about increasing educational inequality under Labour have recently been criticised by educational 'expert' Ruth Lupton. However, as Nick Cowen points out, the entire debate is misconceived since it assumes that current SATS and GCSE results are meaningful indicators of educational achievement.