The worst kind of people

Every now and again I encounter (or am forced to deal with) people who I regard as having no real sense of common decency. What I’m referring to are people who are selfish, rude, arrogant, opinionated, and don’t take heed of other people’s views (to name but a few of the characteristics of the type of people I would typically despise). I work in academia, which has a reasonable number of fairly arrogant, self-centered people, but I’m sure they can be encountered anywhere.

I typically encounter these people in meetings or via email exchanges amongst a group who are trying to deal with some issue. The problem I have is I hate letting them get away with expressing some opinion or view that is – in my opinion at least – objectionable. I will challenge them and will try to do so politely (although I don’t always hide my disdain particularly well) and in a manner that is as logical as I can be. I will sometimes even acknowledge when it turns out that the view they’ve expressed has some merit. The reverse rarely happens though. What I’ve noticed, however, is that I’m often alone in doing so. When I discuss the situation with others, their view is often (if not always) consistent with mine, but they can’t bring themselves to get involved as it’s just too much effort and, often, too stressful. One person I spoke with recently was so upset after a meeting they seemed to be suggesting that they would rather not go to such meetings in future.

I’m starting to have some sympathy with this, as I came home on Friday with a headache that really hasn’t gone away and I think it is largely because of a series of email exchanges I had with one of these people that, although not explicitly unpleasant, was fairly annoying. My solution in future is, potentially, to avoid such confrontations. I could easily do so, as everyone else seems to do this without any problems. The issue, however, is that these people will then get away with this type of behaviour and will, in some cases, actually negatively influence what we are doing. I also hate the idea that such people are able to progress simply because any form of interaction with them is so unpleasant that many just won’t bother. I suspect that I will not be able to avoid interacting as I think I will find it difficult to stand back and let them get away with poor behaviour. I just sometimes wish others would do the same. If enough did so, we would probably improve our working environment substantially.

Danny Alexander – Mansion tax

So Danny Alexander, in his speech at the Lib Dem conference, said that a Mansion tax was “simple, fair and unavoidable”. Really? In what way is it simple? It could be that it applies to the total value of the house, not the amount of equity. Someone who has just bought a £3 million house with a £2.5 million mortgage would pay the same tax as someone who has an unmortgaged house worth £3 million. That might be simple, but is hardly fair. It’s also then not technically a wealth tax, it’s effectively a council tax. Also, the proposal would be that they pay 1% of the value over £2 million so a £3 million house would attract £10000 mansion tax plus about £2700 council tax. Someone with a £1.99 million house would simply pay the maximum council tax (about £2700). Again, hardly fair.

If you want to attempt to make it fair, then it should only apply to the equity over £2 million. Now it’s hardly simple. There’d need all sorts of documentation and people would need to submit annual returns. What about those who’s houses are owned by a company (that they own) rather than directly by themselves? What about those who remortgage and use the equity for something else? Now it seems neither simple nor fair. What about the claim, by Danny Alexander, that a mansion tax is unavoidable? How is this true? There are numerous ways to collect tax. We don’t have to consider a wealth tax, so it’s clearly not unavoidable. It might be preferable, but not unavoidable.

Basically, do the Lib Dems simply say whatever they think sounds good without thinking about it, or do they think about it and then assume they’ll get away with something that is clearly neither true nor sensible? Probably a combination of the two, sadly.

Are the Lib Dems completely nuts?

It seems like the Liberal Democrats are trying to resurrect themselves by apologising for changing their election manifesto pledge on tuition fees and by promoting policies that should appeal to what would have been their base. The problem, from my perspective, is that most of what they’re now saying seems completely crazy.

Apologising for backing down on their “no increase in tuition fees” pledge is moderately decent, but they’re still sticking with the view that it was necessary to increase tuition fees because we couldn’t afford not to increase tuition fees. Do they think that by changing to the new fee system, the british economy now has more money and can suddenly afford to pay for Higher Education while it wouldn’t have been able to do so if we have stuck with a largely publicly funded HE system. Nonsense, all they’ve done is change how we pay for Higher Education. We’re still paying £10-12 billion per year for universities, we’re just doing it in a different way to what we used to do. What we need is an argument as to why this is a better way to pay for HE, not soundbites about “we couldn’t afford to continue paying for it through taxation”.

The Lib Dems are now also talking about a wealth tax. Again, I think this is ludicrous. I think we do have too much of a wealth divide in the UK and it is something we have to resolve. However, taxing wealth is extremely difficult and potentially very damaging. I don’t actually see how one can sensibly implement a wealth tax. How do you accurately determine someone’s wealth? Also, imagine setting a wealth tax of 10%; you would reduce someone’s wealth substantially in a decade. How is that reasonable? We want people to save for their future, not penalise people who have been sensible with their money. Having said that I would be happy to see a change in council tax so that those who live in very expensive properties do pay more than they do today. We should just stop calling it a wealth tax. The real problem, in my view, is that we haven’t been taxing income properly and we have allowed those earning high salaries to take an ever increasing fraction of the wealth. We need to have an overhaul of the tax system so that high earners pay more tax on their income (be it salaried income, capital gains, or dividends). I also think we should be comfortable with inheritance tax. I don’t see why I should (if I ever did have any significant wealth) be paying tax on my wealth (rather than on the income it generates) but I don’t really see why my descendants shouldn’t pay tax on any of my wealth that they might inherit.

The most ludicrous idea from the Lib Dems is their suggestion that parents can use some fraction of their pension pot as collateral on their childrens’ houses, so as to allow their children onto the housing ladder. So the financial crisis was caused by lending money to people who couldn’t ultimately afford to pay back the loan. The solution to the housing crisis is to now lend money to people who are a risk (i.e., the banks are clearly nervous about lending to these people) and to use part of their parent’s pension as collateral. Firstly, a house buyer having a deposit says something about their financial situation (i.e., they’ve been able to save and so their incomings exceed their outgoings). Secondly, it means that negative equity is less likely. Even if house prices drop, it’s less likely that the buyer will owe more than the house is worth. The current suggestion essentially satisfies the latter concern, but doesn’t influence the first. Now, when someone defaults, the bank can recover some of the shortfall from the parent’s pension but the taxpayer may have to bail out the parents when their pension no longer covers their living expenses. Doesn’t really solve anything as far as I can tell. The real solutions are either to accept that many people in the UK will just have to rent (nothing fundamentally wrong with this – common in many other similar countries), or house prices should drop, or some combination of the two.

As far as I can tell, the Lib Dems are either just completely nuts and have no real idea of how to solve the problems we are now facing, or they’re just making policy statements that don’t make any real sense so as to appeal to some voters who may think they’re a good idea. Neither of these seems acceptable for a party that is currently sharing power in government.

I wanted to reblog this as although I have written about this issue briefly, my analysis is much less detailed than that presented here. I don’t understand all the details of what is proposed by the Finch report but, as far as I can tell, the criticism of it here is pretty much spot on.

Matt Burleigh's Blog

This morning, our “enlightened” Government had a bright idea. From April 1st 2013, all science research papers produced using UK taxpayer funding must be published in what’s called “open access” journals. That is, journals that anyone can access, where papers can be downloaded and read for free.

Sounds great. After all, in a democracy and meritocracy like our own, it seems absolutely right that taxpayers should be able to access all the papers we write.
Indeed, we astronomers have been doing this for years. In addition to publishing in refereed, “high impact” journals, we place almost all those papers on a preprint server, which anyone can access, called astro-ph. And we’ve been doing this since the early 1990s. After all, our cousins, the particle physicists, did invent the World Wide Web.

So this Government diktat is to be welcomed. At least, until you think it through. And then you…

View original post 1,245 more words

Some thoughts on NHS privatisation in England

It appears as though the effective privatisation of the NHS in England is moving forward, at least according to this post on The Green Benches. Furthermore, it is claimed that the Chairman of the Health Select Committee (Stephen Dorrell) has predicted the end of the NHS providing healthcare that is free at the point of use. Essentially it seems likely that there will be certain procedures that the NHS will no will longer provide for free.

Here are my basic thoughts on the issue. Firstly, I think we simply aren’t spending enough in the UK on healthcare. We spend about 9-10% of GDP on healthcare, or something like $3500 (£2200) per person. Many similar countries spend between 11% and 12% of GDP on healthcare. There are some who spend a similar fraction of GDP, but spend more per capita. If we want to have a healthcare system similar to that of France, Germany, Switzerland, Holland, etc, we should be spending about 20% more than we are today. Equivalently, we should be spending about £500 more per person. Given what the NHS currently provides, it is actually quite impressive that it can do so for 20% less than many comparable countries.

The one solution is to simply invest more in the NHS. Given the current government’s view that reducing the deficit is the main priority, this is clearly not going to happen. They’re also going to keep telling us that the NHS is unaffordable because of our aging society and other social problems that are costing the NHS money. What I suspect that they will do is keep the public funding of the NHS at a minimum. This will allow the NHS to provide basic healthcare and some kind of emergency care. As I mentioned above, to have comparable spending to other similar countries will require spending about £500 per person more than we are today. Those who can afford it, could therefore top up their healthcare through some kind of insurance type scheme. Assuming that one-quarter of the families in the UK could afford to do this, this would add about £7.5 billion to healthcare spending in the UK, but it would only provide coverage for about 1/4 of the population. Everyone else would be left with basic and emergency coverage through the NHS.

A very scary prospect is full free-market, privatisation of the NHS. The only country that really has this kind of model is the USA where total healthcare spending is 20% of GDP, but only about 60% of the population is fully covered. This would essentially result in a healthcare system twice as expensive as we have now but only covering half the people currently covered. Not only would this be morally repugnant, it also doesn’t make economic sense. Who in their right mind would think it a good idea to change to something twice as expensive that only does half of what it did before.

Top 10 NHS Trusts facing privatisation.

I was trying to reblog a post on The Green Benches about the possible privatisation of 10 NHS trusts in England, but it didn’t seem to work. Essentially the claim is that there are a number of NHS trusts in England that are either in administration, facing administration, or in fairly dire financial straights. It is thought that the preferred “solution” to much of this will be to effectively privatise some or all the hospitals within these trusts. This will occur by selling off hospitals or through some kind of franchise deal with a private healthcare provider (as has already happened with Hitchingbrooke hospital and Circle Healthcare). I think this would be a terrible outcome and one that will be very difficult to reverse if something isn’t done about it soon. It will also effectively prove that the current government’s ultimate aim is to privatise as much of the NHS as possible. I would suggest reading the post yourself and making up your own mind.

Open Access Publishing

I haven’t written anything about this topic before, but it is now becoming quite an interesting issue. As far as I understand it, there are two basic issues. One is that most research published today is publicly funded. Typically, however, journals hold the copyright to the published articles and they charge if anyone wants to read the published work. The second issue is that many publishing houses are making extremely large profits. The kind of numbers that I have heard are profits of £30-40 million on annual turnovers of £200 million.

The issue of public access to published work isn’t a problem in all areas. Many physicists and astronomers post their published work to the arXiv server. This is available to anyone and, as far as I’m aware, most of the relevant journals are happy with this. There are other areas where this is not the case and it seems clear that if the public are funding the research, they should have the right to access it without paying a journal for that priviledge. You could argue the public don’t have a guaranteed right to access taxpayer funded resources, but it seems clear that a private organisation should not really be benefiting, unduly, from it either. Furthermore, if the general public can’t access the results of our research, why are we doing it in the first place.

The issue of publishing houses making large profits is, maybe, less straightforward. They are private companies and will want to make a profit for their investors. They, however, do not pay for the research, they do not pay the editors (who are typically university academics), the do not pay those who review the articles (again university academics) and do not not even typeset the articles as this is now done by the authors, generally using latex. They do very little of the actual work, do not fund the research, are paid largely out of public money and make fairly enormous profits (20% or so in some cases). Furthermore, they often bundle numerous journals into a single package, forcing university libraries (for example) to pay for access to journals that they may not actually want. This way they can use popular and important journals to essentially fund the less popular and less interesting journals.

I have heard an argument that what has happened is that these publishing houses have simply become so good and efficient at what they do, that the costs have dropped and so why shouldn’t their profits rise. The problem I have with this is that if it was a truly open market, someone else would come along and provide the same service for less. If current publishing houses are making 20% profits, surely someone else would be happy to make 10%, it’s much more than you can make in many other markets. The reason this doesn’t happen is that in many fields there are a couple of journals that are regarded as the top journals in which to publish (as measured by the often justifiably criticised Impact Factor). A piece of work (and the academic who publishes the work) is often judged by the journal in which it is published, and so many would simply not publish in a new journal that doesn’t yet have any legacy. In some sense, the current publishing houses have an unfair advantage that is difficult to circumvent.

The government recently commissioned a committee, headed by Dame Janet Finch, to write a report addressing the issue of open access to publicly funded research. The government announced, a few months ago, that it accepted the recommendations of the Finch report. The report, which admittedly I haven’t read, only appears to address one of the issues, that of open access. The proposed solution is to make academics pay for publishing up-front, rather than (I assume) university libraries paying later for access to the journal. Currently journal access is normally paid for by the subscriber, typically university libraries. The idea is – I think – that if we have paid for all the costs of publishing up-front, then the journal can make access to the article free to anyone else. It may seem sensible, but it comes with a host of other problems. Where does the money to pay for publishing come from? What do you do if you’re currently unfunded? What confuses me slightly, is that some journals actually charge the authors and the subscribers, so what’s stopping that from happening here.

What I find encouraging is the groundswell against the current practices of many academic publishing houses. There is a petition against Elservier that has collected 12000 signatures, many of whom are refusing to act as referee, submit papers, or do editorial work. The telescoper is also proposing to start an online Journal with open access and with page charges that simply cover what should be the relatively small cost of managing and supporting such a journal. It’s things like this that should ultimately force the major academic publishing houses to change their behaviour.