Wednesday 20 December 2023

Coincidence and probability


Lots of people struggle to understand the way probability works, and the fact that some ‘coincidences’ are relatively easy to predict. The classic example is the birthday problem which shows that in any group of 23 people, there is a 50% probability that 2 of them will share a birthday, and as the number in the group increases, so the probability also increases, until it becomes close to a certainty in a group of around 50. With there being 365 days in a year, it’s a result which just ‘feels’ wrong to most of us.

Other ‘coincidences’ are rather harder to predict. Millions of people update or replace their smart phones every week, and most of the time, it’s a process which is smooth and painless; but for a tiny minority something goes wrong and data is lost. That can also happen even if the phone isn't being replaced, although finger problems rather than technological ones are a likelier cause. I don’t know what the probability of that happening to any one individual is, but it’s going to be a very small number. It would be an amazing coincidence if three people who worked closely together all managed to lose all the data from precisely the same time period, and it's not an outcome which many people well-versed in probability theory would predict. It would be even more astounding if those same messages were then found to have mysteriously disappeared from the phones of those who had received them as well.

Still, being vanishingly unlikely isn’t the same as having a probability of zero, and sometimes highly unlikely events can happen. One doesn’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to wonder, though, whether there might not be a simpler and more probable explanation, perhaps relating to questions such as honesty and truthfulness.

Tuesday 19 December 2023

Identifying hostile states


During an apparently well-received speech at the weekend at a neo-Fascist Festival in Italy, the Prime Minister claimed that “hostile states” will increasingly “drive people to our shores” to destabilise Western nations unless leaders crack down on illegal migration and revamp asylum conventions. In the generic sense that most migration is provoked by the actions of hostile governments across the world (few people wake up one morning and think: ‘things are OK here, so let’s cross half a continent and then cross a dangerous waterway in a small boat to get to somewhere else'), he may be right. Getting him to correctly identify which those hostile states are is another matter.

We could start with Russia. Few would disagree that this is what a ‘hostile state’ looks like, and its war against Ukraine has certainly driven many millions to seek refuge in countries further west.

Then, rather more controversially, there’s Rwanda, which has been aiding and abetting the M23 rebels in Congo to drive people from their homes and seek refuge elsewhere.

More recently, there’s Israel, which has driven millions from their homes. It would be surprising indeed if at least some of these didn’t end up seeking refuge in Western Europe.

Then there are the traditional colonialist countries who invaded much of the world, stole their riches, exploited their people and then moved on. We cannot overlook the impact of that history on modern trends in migration.

Finally, neither can we overlook the two biggest miscreants of all; two states whose repeated military adventures over a decades-long period have done much to create what Sunak likes to call the ‘crisis’ of immigration into the UK and Western Europe more generally. I refer, of course, to the US and the UK, and the list of countries blighted includes Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya.

Having the UK government declare the UK to be a hostile state might seem strange to some, but it’s not a lot stranger than declaring an unsafe place to be safe, and the glorious flexibility of the English constitution would surely find a way through the resulting paradox. It could also give us a new enemy to hate: imagine the Tory Party going into an election declaring the Tory Government to be hostile to the UK and claiming that the only way to counter this would be to elect a Tory Government. It would probably be easier for them to unite people in hatred of the Tories than in hatred of the Labour Party. And it really isn’t a long way away from Sunak’s pitch at his party conference that he was the candidate of change who was going to overturn all those horrid things done by recent governments. It would make for an ‘interesting’ election campaign, although it might give the BBC some difficulty when it came to the rules around impartiality. Every time they interview Rishi Sunak, Prime Minister, they’d have to interview Rishi Sunak, Leader of the Opposition, as well so that he could refute what the first one had said.

There is a universe somewhere where this all makes sense: it just isn’t this one.

Monday 18 December 2023

Market forces are failing to date


It is axiomatic for Conservatives that ‘the markets’ can and will solve problems – it’s just a question of matching buyers and sellers. It’s an axiom which is coming under some pressure in relation to the Rwanda scheme. Those who own the aeroplanes are concerned about reputational damage if they become involved and the Home Office has so far failed to locate any planes which can be made available. It’s not because there aren’t any, it’s rather that the ‘sellers’ of aeroplane services aren’t willing to provide those services to the ‘buyers’, for reasons which (in the Holy Grail of capitalist economics) are a distortion of the market because they have nothing to do with money. For the purists, money is the only driver in economics.

Perhaps capitalist economics will reassert itself if the buyer is prepared to offer such a high price that the sellers will ‘take the money and run’. Turning reputational damage into filthy lucre would hardly be a first. It may even be something that a certain Conservative peer might be able to assist with. She has no planes of course, but a lack of capacity to produce useable PPE proved not to be a bar either. And Chris Grayling managed to contract ferry companies with no ships, so there’s plenty of precedent. If the pile of filthy lucre is high enough, capitalism decrees that someone should eventually respond. But if the market does indeed fail, fall back plans seem to consist of hiring a plane in unbranded livery and hoping no-one will find out who owns it (probability: close to zero) or using RAF planes rather than commercial ones.

The Rwanda scheme isn’t the first occasion on which a government has rushed into a plan with a lack of detailed planning and preparation, and it won’t be the last. But it’s certainly shaping up to be one of the worst debacles in recent times. But then, the initial announcement was never intended to be taken seriously; it was always a Johnson-style plan to divert attention in the short term from his own behaviour. Sunak could have scrapped it within days of taking office (Johnson really wouldn’t have cared, although he might have huffed and puffed a bit just for show); how and why Sunak decided to double down on a half-baked plan which was never going to work is something which is likely to become an essay question for future students of the decline and fall of the Conservative Party.

Friday 15 December 2023

Returning stolen property


For one brief moment, when I saw the headline (“Parthenon marbles should return to Athens, says Lord Frost”) on this story, it seemed as though Lord Frost might actually have said something with which I could agree. It was not a thought which lasted long, though. It turns out that any return of the marbles to Greece is so heavily caveated that the Greek government could never agree to it, other than as a ruse to gain possession (even without recognition of ownership) and then breach the terms of any agreement reached. Maybe not: not all governments are as venal and dishonest as that of the UK. It is dependent on the Greek government agreeing firstly to a wider Anglo-Greek cultural partnership (the terms of which Frost, presumably, wants to dictate) and an agreement “…to definitively set aside for good the rights and wrongs of the individual acquisition”. Oh, and giving back one load of looted treasure cannot be taken as any sort of precedent in relation to other treasures looted by the British Empire. Whether the use of the term ‘Anglo’ is deliberate, careless or just an indication that he doesn’t know the difference between English and British is a matter of conjecture, although I tend to the view that it’s probably the last of those.

A starting point which initially looked like an admission of the need for change ends up being just another example of English exceptionalism, under which ‘England’ dictates to lesser nations the terms and conditions of regaining access to their own cultural heritage. Or, to put it another way, the state which committed the original crime attempts to look generous, and expects some credit for so doing. Why anyone thought it newsworthy is beyond me.

Thursday 14 December 2023

Running the numbers


In an attempt to estimate how many technically advanced civilizations there are in the galaxy, astronomer Frank Drake came up with the eponymous Drake Equation in 1961. It was intended to identify the factors which might be involved in determining an answer, and its shortness and elegance betrays the complexity and difficulty involved in assigning values to the assorted variables. For the mathematically-minded, it also shows how a galaxy with an apparently enormous number of stars can contain either a very low or a very high number of civilizations – and of particular relevance here, it’s an illustration of how the compound multiplication of low probabilities can rapidly reduce a large probability into a small one.

Some Tories have their own version of the equation (although they may not have realised that fact themselves as yet) – we might call it the Boris Johnson Comeback Equation. It sets out how their revered ex-leader might turn out to be their revered future leader. It all depends on the assumptions we make about the numbers. To pull off this feat, a number of things need to happen, each of which has a finite and non-zero probability:

a)   He needs to be accepted again as a suitable candidate by his party, some of whom may have become a little wiser with the passage of time

b)   He needs to find a Tory in a safe seat who is willing to step aside in his favour (and ‘safe’ doesn’t have the meaning that it used to have in the years B.J. (Before Johnson)

c)    He then needs to win the subsequent by-election, during which much of the attention will be on his past lies and failings

d)   He needs to persuade his fellow MPs in the House of Commons to back him as leader (despite the fact that it was they who deposed him in the first place), or at least put him in second place so that the vote goes to the party membership

e)   He needs to win the backing of those party members.

Even if the probability of all five individual factors is 90%, multiplying them together using the formula:

Probability = abcde

gives as a probability of only 60% for success; and 90% seems ‘generous’ for at least some of those factors. For those in the Tory Party who have repeatedly shown themselves to be mathematically challenged (including, of course, the man himself), none of this is a problem. And, or so the theory goes, once back in post he can elevate Nigel Farage to the Lords, appoint him as deputy PM and Home Secretary, and call an election during which his famous campaigning skills will see him sweep to victory over Labour.

Thos famous campaigning skills include, of course, hiding in a fridge to avoid reporters and refusing to be interviewed by anyone who might ask him difficult questions. Whilst it’s true that the Tories did win a general election under his leadership, ascribing the victory entirely to the leader is a leap which ignores the fact that the leader of the opposition was widely portrayed as unelectable, and that the issue of the day was Brexit, in the time before a more realistic assessment of the ‘benefits’ set in. There’s always a debate between two views of history – the one sees the movement of social and political forces, whilst the other concentrates on ‘Great Men’. Whilst Johnson clearly subscribes to the latter view, the idea that he is one of them is a bit of a stretch, to say the least. The suggestion that an election in which Johnson were the leader of the Tories would or could do other than concentrate on his many proven failings and lies is a strange one, particularly given the extent to which so many are disillusioned with Brexit and closely associate it with Johnson and Farage. Has the Tory Party become so utterly deranged that it would follow such a path? Opinions may differ, but the fact that it can’t be entirely ruled out tells us a lot about how far down the path to insanity they have travelled.

Sunday 10 December 2023

Identifying the good guys?


The disgraced, sacked, reappointed, and disgraced and sacked again former Home Secretary has certainly been getting into the festive spirit during the last week, with her demand that MPs should forgo their Christmas holiday and spend the time in parliament passing ever more vicious legislation against immigrants and asylum seekers. ‘Goodwill to all men’ trips off her tongue like superglue off a duck’s back.

Had she and her ilk been in power in Bethlehem a couple of thousand years ago, anyone arriving on a donkey would have been immediately detained and put on the next camel train to Egypt, innkeepers would have been subject to large penalties for using outbuildings as temporary accommodation for the desperate, and health care workers would have been banned from providing pre- or post-natal services to anyone arriving by donkey. Donkey, dinghy – much the same thing, really. In additional measures, angels would have been designated as terrorists for their role in an obvious attempt to overthrow the existing order and, using the absolute sovereignty of the local parliament, any unusual stars would have been described as fake news and banned from shining their light through local airspace. Any wise men arriving from afar would have been declared to be oxymorons (foreigners being automatically deemed unwise) and detained indefinitely for having a four-syllable descriptor. If the government proposed a cull of the first-born, the parliamentary party would set up a star chamber (although without a star, obviously) to determine whether the proposal was sufficiently cruel to act as a deterrent to procreation.

Back in the twenty-first century, the so-called ‘real world’ which we now inhabit, it really does look increasingly as though large and growing sections of the Conservative Party have become so indoctrinated by their new, improved British values that they’ve read the biblical story of the nativity and concluded that Herod was the good guy. His problem was that he was just too easy going and a bit of an old softy deep down.

Thursday 7 December 2023

Why concentrate only on one side of the equation?


The government claims that its proposed changes to the rules for legal migration into the UK will reduce the net total by around 300,000 per year. If they fully implement what they have announced, that may well turn out to be an underestimate; their numbers are based on the English exceptionalist belief that people are so keen to come to the UK that people will leave their families behind and come to take up low-paid jobs as carers, and that the brightest and best post-graduate researchers will similarly abandon their families and come to the UK alone, at least until their salary crosses an arbitrary threshold. It’s a big ‘if’ though; and the chances of the Tories fully implementing the plans are vanishingly small, not least because it will take time to draw up the detailed rules and procedures and process all those applications already in the system whilst the clock is already ticking down to the next election.

However, that isn’t the only reason for doubting whether they will ever do more than talk about the plans. Assuming that potential immigrants will happily leave their families behind as well as paying increased fees for the privilege of coming to the UK is only one of the silly assumptions that they’re making. They are also assuming that the electors whose votes they are chasing would either prefer to see the social care system go into meltdown than have immigrants working in it or else don’t understand the degree of dependency on those immigrants. The reality will become obvious at some point. It’s not a crisis which would hit social care overnight, of course – but like Hemingway’s description of bankruptcy, it’s something which will happen in two ways: slowly, and then suddenly. Perhaps there are some people who really would be happy with that – but it’s unlikely that those whose relatives are dependent on that care will agree. And as things slowly get worse, the government will inevitably be tempted to reverse its policy, albeit as quietly as possible. Hopefully before the collapse enters the sudden phase.

Labour’s response has been little better. Equally convinced that the population are demanding an immediate halt to immigration, they have come up with an entirely arbitrary proposal to cap net migration at 200,000. Why 200,000? Why not 250,000? Why not 150,000? These are not questions to which they have any sort of rational answer; they’ve simply produced a figure from thin air which they think might be acceptable to the racists and xenophobes whose votes they seek, with no real thought given to the implications. Yet still they are likely to win the next election. Suella Braverman has said this week that the Tories face “electoral oblivion” if the government’s Rwanda legislation fails. In a rare moment of consensus, I agree. But then I’d also agree if she’d said that the Tories face “electoral oblivion” if the government’s Rwanda legislation succeeds. Saying that the Tories face electoral oblivion is one of those sentences which currently works perfectly well without any qualifying clause.

There is one policy change that they could make which might actually get the net migration figure down without the performative cruelty which they both seem to think is essential politics. Mathematically, in any ‘net’ figure there are two factors involved – so increasing emigration would have the same effect on the net numbers as decreasing immigration. It’s unfortunate that they shot themselves in both feet by removing freedom of movement, but if the financial incentives were good enough, there might be quite a few people willing to help the government out of its troubles by emigrating. It’s not a solution that’s ever likely to occur to them though: from their exceptionalist position, they would never understand why anyone would ever want to escape the dysfunctional rogue state which the UK has become.

Tuesday 5 December 2023

Labour austerity looks inevitable


It’s impossible to disagree with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer when he says that Margaret Thatcher was responsible for significant and long term changes in the way that the UK economy works, or that she entered government with some clear ideas about what she wanted to do. Whether the changes were a good thing or not is much more arguable, to say the least; and the idea that those changes released entrepreneurialism in the UK has been succinctly rebutted by Prof. Richard Murphy. Perhaps Starmer merely wished to praise the determination and attitude she showed rather than what she actually did, but it didn’t sound that way when he said it, and not for the first time he seems to be struggling to ‘correct’ his words retrospectively. And whether it was politically wise even to go that far is another question entirely – why on earth raise a comparison to Thatcher when you’re staring at an open goal left by Sunak?

There is a fundamental belief at the core of Conservative ideology that the private sector and the public sector are in competition, and that the private sector creates wealth whilst the public sector consumes it. It’s clear from their statements that better public services depend on private sector economic growth that Starmer and Reeves also believe it. They’re not alone: it’s one of those things that is so ‘obvious’ that many people across the political spectrum believe it. It’s also absolute tosh. It may be based on a confusion between two different meanings of the word ‘wealth’. There is the wealth which all the individuals in a country own, measured by bank balances and assets held, and there is the wealth of the country as a whole, measured by GDP. The ‘growth’ that Starmer is referring to is an increase in GDP, but an increase in spending by the public sector leads to the same amount of GDP growth as the same amount of increased spending in the private sector. Given the way that GDP is calculated, it cannot mathematically be otherwise. Certainly, some people became extremely wealthy under Thatcher, but much of that was a redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich, and the ever-increasing gap between the richest and poorest in society is the most pernicious long-term effect of Thatcherism. The accumulation of private wealth in an ever-smaller number of hands is not the same as an increase in national wealth.

There are, of course, arguments to be had about whether it is ‘better’ for investment to come from the private sector or the public sector – and the public sector’s record in managing some projects and investments leaves a lot to be desired. Whether that is inevitable or a result of structural or procedural problems is a debate for another time, but the idea that only one of those approaches should count in measuring growth is just ideological bias. When the private sector invests, the money comes from a combination of borrowing and income raised from customers; when the public sector invests, it comes from a combination of borrowing and taxes raised from the population as a whole. In GDP terms, whether we pay for something out of tax or as part of the price of the goods and services we buy is irrelevant – we’re still paying either way. It’s just that tax deducted from salary is more obvious. And in either case, 'borrowing' is a simplistic way of describing a complicated process whereby the government - or the banks operating under government licence - create and destroy money at the press of a few keys, as well as borrowing directly from people who see their loans as investments.

The debate which we should be having – and which a Labour Party worthy of the name would be leading rather than suppressing – is about which things we want to purchase collectively through the state, which we want to leave to the profit-driven market place, and how we decide between the two. It’s a point which ideologically-driven fiscal conservatives like Starmer can’t even begin to understand. And that lack of understanding leads inevitably to Labour austerity.

Monday 4 December 2023

Avoiding criticism


According to Rishi Sunak, the UK is a world leader when it comes to action to respond to climate change, despite his decisions to delay some actions and plough ahead with further oil and gas exploration. To put it in context, however, he regularly claims that the UK is a world leader on most things. Lack of any supporting evidence is, apparently, no hindrance to making outrageously inaccurate claims and expecting that everyone else will just accept those claims as true. In the case of climate change, he does, on this occasion, produce some 'evidence' for his assertion: none of the other world leaders at COP28 have raised any issues with him, proving, in his mind at least, that they’re all very happy with what he’s doing. It probably helped him to avoid their criticism that he made only the briefest of flying visits, spending more time flying there and back (in a private jet, of course, so as to demonstrate his credentials on the subject) than he did on the ground.

Those who did stay a little longer certainly picked up plenty of criticism from other delegations. The Observer says that “Representatives of several countries also told the Observer they were disappointed at the UK’s stance”, and Labour sources say that they “… found other international delegations bemoaning the UK government’s approach.” But Sunak didn’t stay long enough to hear it for himself, even if he knew how to switch his ears to receive mode, and it therefore doesn’t count. US climate envoy Al Gore was pretty blunt, but he probably doesn’t count as a world leader in Sunak’s view – not least because he isn’t British and only the British government can be a world leader. Besides, Gore’s accusation that the UK government is “in the pocket of fossil fuel companies” probably sounds like a compliment to Sunak. After all, isn’t facilitating the making of private profit by large corporations exactly what Conservatives are for?

Saturday 2 December 2023

Ending the silliness


Most of us would understand that if we buy a television from a person who previously stole it from the house next door it doesn’t suddenly cease to be stolen, and nor does it become ours, even if we get a proper paper receipt from the thief. Once stolen, always stolen; and it remains, legally, the property of the original owner. And receiving stolen goods is an offence in its own right. As a general rule, that is the viewpoint of the UK government – except, apparently, when it comes to cultural treasures, in which case possession becomes nine-tenths of the law. There isn’t really much doubt that the Parthenon marbles held in the British Museum were looted from Athens by Lord Elgin, and arguing – as the British government does – that he took them with the consent of the Ottoman rulers at the time rather overlooks the fact that the Ottomans had simply helped themselves to the whole of Greece in the first place. The subsequent sale to the British Museum, covered as it is by a proper paper receipt, doesn’t make the original theft go away.

Sunak claims that the issue is “long-settled”, and the Greeks should stop raising the issue. It seems to me that for a dispute between two parties to arrive at the status of ‘settled’, one of two things has to happen: either both parties agree that it is settled, or else some mutually-agreed outside body, court, or mediator makes a judgement. In the case of the marbles, the Greek government has never agreed that the issue is settled, and the UK government has refused all offers of mediation and dispute resolution – presumably because it recognises that it would lose. A unilateral declaration that the issue is ‘settled’, of the type made by Sunak, is a product of magical thinking of the sort at which English exceptionalists excel.

They do, of course, have an act of parliament to back up their refusal to consider repatriation of the looted materials. But the belief that a law passed by the English parliament prohibiting the British Museum from ever disposing of any of its treasures, howsoever they were acquired, will somehow stand up in any international court is as silly as believing that an act of parliament can make an unsafe country safe. (It’s also inconsistent with the core principle of the English constitution that no parliament can ever bind its successors, but consistency isn’t exactly a strong point of the current government.) It is, though, the sort of silliness that flows inevitably from an unshakeable belief that the English parliament, uniquely on the whole planet, has absolute sovereignty and can pass any law it wishes, as well as ignoring any international treaty or body that it chooses, because that sovereignty was bestowed by God in person on the monarch. It is also the sort of silliness which transcends any change of government, and to which all previous governments have fallen prey, and we have seen from Starmer’s response to Sunak’s approach that the next government will be no different.

A change of government is never going to be enough to stop the silliness; the whole system and structures of government also need to be changed. A written constitution recognising that sovereignty belongs to the people not the monarch would be a good start, closing down unelected law-making institutions would be another, and an electoral system which didn’t put absolute power into the hands of a extremist fringe on the basis of a minority of the votes would be a good third step. (And banning the alumni of certain schools, which seem to actively promote magical thinking, from ever standing for election or holding any positions of power might help as a stop-gap until the bigger issues could be addressed.) None of this will we get from Labour. Yet all of it is available any time that we take the decision to do things ourselves. We really don’t have to allow ourselves to be dragged along by the silliness.