Tax Freedom Day

Apparently today is tax freedom day. According to the Adam Smith Institute the typical person has to work for 149 days to pay all their taxes, and so today is the first day in the year in which our money is our “own”. The Adam Smith Institute’s own rhetoric is “Slaves to the state until 30 May”. I don’t dispute their analysis. I do, however, dispute their interpretation. We live in a country where healthcare is free, education is largely free (apart from HE in England from next year), we have reasonably good roads, a reasonably effective police force, a fairly impressive military (who are able to rescue stranded oil workers from the Libyan desert at short notice).

If someone has not benefited in any way from the resources available in this country, then maybe they can feel justifiably annoyed. If, however, your kids go to the local school, you’ve been to the doctor, driven on roads, had your rubbish collected, etc., then what you’ve paid during the first 149 days of the year has not simply gone to the state. It has been spent providing services for the people of this country. If anything, it seems quite reasonable that it takes 40% of the income generated to provide the services that are provided. I’m not suggesting that things are perfect and couldn’t be improved, but I’d much rather live in a country that attempted to provide healthcare, education and basic services to the whole population than one in which we have to fend for ourselves.

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Full Fee UK students

I thought I would make a quick comment about this Guardian article suggesting that the government is considering the possibility that UK students could get a place at the university of their choosing if they were willing to pay – up front – the full fee. They would be paying the same as international students (i.e., not home/EU) and this is generally significantly higher than the fees currently proposed for local students (£12000 or higher).

This proposal is supposedly alright since these students would only be accepted if they satisfied the entry requirements for the degree programme to which they had applied. This sounds fine, doesn’t it? If they could get in anyway why not let them do so. They will pay more than other UK students and so will help to effectively subsidise other students. There are two reasons why this is disingenuous. Firstly why would anyone directly pay up to double what they need to? Sounds too good to be true. Secondly, most universities (or at least Oxbridge and the Russell Group) are selecting. This means that they have a minimum entry requirement (i.e., what prospective students would at least need in order to cope with the degree programme) but generally select students with grades significantly higher than this minimum.

What the government is presumably suggesting is that these full fee students would satisfy this minimum but could well have grades (and presumably ability) well below the typical for the degree programme onto which they have been accepted. If I really believed that students, who would be selected on merit alone, might be willing to pay much more than other students on the same programme, I’d be all for this. Since I don’t believe this is likely to be the case, I think this is an absolutely shocking suggestion and I hope universities show some backbone and refuse to allow this to happen.

No to AV wins!

So the referendum has resulted in a resounding No to the Alternative Vote (AV) proposal. Although not surprised, I am very dissapointed. I felt that AV was superior to First Past The Post (FPTP) for a number of reasons. In any constituency were a candidate is supported by a majority of those who voted, the result would be the same under AV or FPTP. However, in any constituency were the vote is divided amongst 3 or more candidates, none of whom have a clear majority (of those who voted), AV is more likely to result in a winner who is at least liked (when considering the preferences of the voters) by a majority of those who voted, while FPTP can easily result in a winner were this is not the case.

Something I didn’t know about, until I started reading about AV and FPTP, is the Condorcet condition. Essentially a voting method satisfies the Condorcet condition if the winner is someone who would beat any of the other candidates in a one-on-one fight. Neither FPTP nor AV strictly satisfy this condition, but it is my understanding that AV is much more likely to satisfy it than FPTP. I think (although I may be wrong) that AV satisfies the Condorcet condition if there are only 3 candidates while FPTP regularly would not. If there are 3 candidates, it is quite likely that 2 of them will split a particular section of the vote (i.e., left-leaning for example) and – under FPTP – the other could win even though they would lose if they were competing against either one of the other two candidates in a one-on-one contest (I keep using terms like “contest” and “fight” which I don’t really like, as elections are not a game or a battle, but I can’t think of other suitable terms). Under AV, however, the second preferences of those who’s first votes went to the third placed candidate would determine the winner (if there isn’t an outright winner already) and would indicate that the winner is at least “liked” by more than 50% of those who’s votes count.

The only example I could find where AV does not satisfy the Condorcet condition is from a comment on Gower’s Weblog and considers the following situation

27 % vote A,B,C,D (order of preference)
26 % vote B,C,D,A
24 % vote C,D,A,B
23 % vote D,A,B,C.

Under AV, candidate D would be eliminated first and the second votes of those who put D first would go to A who would then have 50% of the votes counted. Candidate C would then be eliminated and since D is already eliminated, the third preference votes of those who put C first would also go to A who would then win with 73 % of the votes counted. However, if you consider first and second votes only, B has 53%, A has 50%, C has 50% and D has 47%. The Condorcet winner might then be B as they would presumably beat any of the other candidates in a one-on-one battle. However, the differences are so small that any one of these candidates represents approximately the same fraction of the constituency and, from a democratic perspective, any one of them would be a reasonable winner. If this a typical example (which it may not be) where AV violates the Condorcet condition, then it doesn’t seem like a particularly significant problem.

Although disappointed about the result of the referendum, I’m also disappointed by the manner in which the referendum was lost and what it implies about our democratic leaders. The Conservatives (in particular the right wing of Conservative part) seem extremely pleased by this “victory”. Is this because they truly believe that FPTP allows us to select politicians who genuinely represent the majority view in the UK? I don’t think so. I suspect it is because the Conservatives know that the UK is a slightly left-leaning country and anything that is even slightly more proportional will be to their disadvantage. I should acknowledge that AV isn’t actually proportional, but it does at least allow the constituency results to more closely represent the views of the constituents. What does this imply? In my opinion, this implies that the party that currently essentially runs the country knows that they are not (and probably never will be) supported by a majority of the voters and rather than reconsidering their ideology, they’ve managed to maintain a voting system that suits them and allows them to have a better chance of remaining in power than they would have had were the voting system to change to AV. In fairness, it wasn’t only the Conservatives who campaigned against AV. Large parts of Labour did the same, probably for similar reasons.

It’s possible that the Conservatives genuinely believe that they are the best party to lead this country to greater and better things. The whole point of democracy, however, is that it is not up to them to make this decision, it is meant to be up to the electorate. Supporting a voting system that regularly results in winners who are not supported by even a majority of those who voted is a cynical and selfish attitude. Some might argue that we should not expect a party to support something that is likely to be to their disadvantage (compared to the current system at least). It’s like asking Turkeys to vote for Christmas. I would argue that if they truly believe that their ideology is “best” and believe that they could convince the electorate of this (which is partly the job of a politician) then they should feel comfortable with any reasonably fair voting system. Maybe their objection to AV suggests that even they don’t have confidence in the value of their own ideology.

Free Will

Even though I am a scientist, very few (if any) of my posts have been discussing anything particularly scientific. They’ve mainly been about things like higher education, scientific policy and politics. Something in a recent New Scientist , however, caught my eye and I thought I would write a short post about it.

The article was about free will and I started reading it at coffee before anyone else had arrived. I didn’t finish as others arrived before I could do so, but from what I read the article was discussing how we might respond if we were lead to believe that we didn’t have free will. Would we begin to do things that we might not have done otherwise because we believed we had no control (or responsibility) for our actions.

I haven’t given the concept of free will much thought, but have always assumed that it is related to Quantum Mechanics . It is Pierre-Simon Laplace who is often regarded as having said something along the lines of “if you give me the positions and momenta of all the particles in the universe I can predict the future”. I know he didn’t say exactly this, but it was essentially this. The reason this is “wrong” is that quantum mechanics, through Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, tells us that it is not possible to determine, exactly, the position and momentum of a particle.

I’ve got to admit that I haven’t really done any quantum mechanics (or thought very hard about it) since I was an undergraduate many years ago, but my memory of what I was told was that there are two interpretations of quantum mechanics. One is that particles do have a well-defined position and momentum, we just can’t measure them both exactly. The other (which I believe is largely accepted) is that particles do not actually have a well-defined position and momentum. They exist in a superposition of states (wave-particle duality), and when some kind of interaction occurs the momentum and position of a particle involved in the interaction is not pre-determined. There will be a range of possible positions and momenta, essentially represented by a probability distribution. There will be a most-likely position and momentum, but a finite chance that the particle will take on a different position and momentum.

I had always assumed that this property of quantum mechanics is what essentially gave us free will. If all particles in the universe initially had a precisely defined position and momentum then it seems that their evolution must be predetermined. How can we choose how to move if all the particles from which we are formed have a predetermined evolution. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but it seems that if the initial conditions of the universe are precisely defined then the evolution is predetermined. It may be chaotic and we may be unable to model it (i.e., it may not be possible to measure the positions and momenta with sufficient accuracy) but it would be predetermined nonetheless.

Quite how quantum mechanics gives us free will, I don’t know. Maybe there is some kind of uncertainty in exactly how neurons fire. Furthermore, how do we actually control this and does it have implications for quantum computing (I’m sure someone must have considered this already). Additionally if we can show definitively that we have free will, does that prove that quantum must be, at least in principle, true. Alternatively, as I’ve already said, maybe I’ve missed something obvious and this is all bollocks.

The nature of prejudice

I wrote this a while ago and then decided not to post it. It was partly referring to something that had recently happened and I think I was slightly worried that those involved may work out (if they read this, which was probably unlikely) what I was referring to. Since some time has passed, I decided I would post this now.

Although I don’t believe I’ve ever been prejudiced against, I have been exposed to a lot of it during my life and the issue of prejudice in society is a topic that I do find interesting. I’m also not always convinced that it is understood, in general, as well as it should be. I should start by making it clear that I object extremely strongly to what I understand as prejudice: the act of people being disadvantaged primarily because of some characteristic beyond their control. Not only do I object to it on principle, I also feel that we as a society do not benefit from such behaviour. We should be taking advantage of all the skills and capabilities in our society, and not excluding some people purely because they differ in some largely irrelevant way.

However, I do sometimes get the sense that we confuse being prejudiced with simply disliking someone. Although I personally do not take any pleasure from being nasty to other people and try my best to avoid it, as far as I’m aware there is nothing wrong – both legally or morally – with people disliking other people and being unpleasant to them. Additionally, if someone wished to really annoy someone they didn’t like, they may choose to say something that refers to some characteristic that the other person feels sensitive about. If someone calls someone else a “skinny bastard”, does that imply that the first person is prejudiced against all skinny people. My gut feeling is that it doesn’t necessarily imply a prejudice, but may suggest that the first person is a fairly unpleasant individual – which may imply a tendency towards being prejudiced, but doesn’t prove it.

A caveat to the above is, however, that there are certain terms (that I would rather not repeat here) that we as a society have generally decided are inappropriate and so the use of them, even when directed at an individual, implies more than simply a dislike of that individual. With this caveat in mind, I still think that we have to be careful about confusing individual dislikes with genuine prejudice. What is important for our society is that we do our best to stamp out prejudice and make sure that no one is disadvantaged because of some largely irrelevant characteristic, and should avoid spending too much time and money worrying about individuals who just happen to dislike each other.

AV and minority parties

It seems like one of the main objections to the Alternative Vote (AV) is that the second (or higher) votes of those who voted for minority parties could be decisive. The main objection seems to be “why should the second, third or fourth, etc., preference votes of people who’s first vote goes to the likes of the BNP or UKIP get to – in some cases – determine who wins the election”. Firstly, I think this attitude is wrong. I object to the BNP and I think UKIP is a silly party that also has some rather objectionable views, but they are currently legitimate parties and those who vote for them are entitled to make that choice without prejudice. Arguing that AV would give these voters some say and that this would therefore be bad is wrong, in my opinion. I know we’re not disenfranchising these voters, as the AV system doesn’t exist yet, but this argument does feel equivalent to an argument for disenfranchising a section of the community. Maybe the views of these voters would change if they felt their votes were having some influence. It could be a positive step.

Secondly, I don’t actually see the logic in this argument against AV. I looked up some numbers and at least 80% of UKIP and BNP candidates lost their deposits. This means that they received less than 5% of the vote in their constituency. Only a total of 2 or 3 candidates in each of these two party received more than 10% of the vote and the average for UKIP was 3.1% and for the BNP was 1.9% (since neither party had a candidate in every seat, the average per candidate is somewhat higher). These are minority parties, which by definition means they receive very few votes. If the second, third or fourth preference votes of voters who’s first votes went to UKIP or the BNP makes a difference, it implies that there must have been two other candidates both of whom had close to 50% of the votes counted and hence were similarly liked (or disliked) by the voters in that constituency. If the UKIP and/or BNP higher preference votes pushes one of these candidates over the 50% threshold, surely this is a reasonable result. You have two candidates who are similar (since not all people vote, a few percent difference may mean that the popularity of these two candidates is statistically the same) and a sensible method had been used to differentiate between them.

There are probably some reasonable arguments against what I’ve said above. There will be some constituencies where the UKIP/BNP share of the vote is above 10% and this could make quite a big difference. Again, why should the views of these voters not be taken into account. Also there are planned to be 600 constituencies and the number in which the UKIP/BNP share exceeds 10% is something like 5 (so 1% or less). Another argument might be that higher preference votes from UKIP/BNP may preferentially support the Conservatives rather than Labour and the Lib Dems. However, there are other minority parties (Greens for example) who’s voters are more likely to support Labour and the Lib Dems, so again this doesn’t seem like a reasonable argument either. As I’ve said in a previous post AV appears to produce results that – compared to FPTP – will more reasonably reflect the views of the electorate. Arguing that it will give undue power to minority party voters is not only wrong as these voters should have the right to express their views (as long as they’re not breaking the law), but these are minority parties and so the only time that they will make a difference is when two candidates are very close anyway, in which case why does it matter.