Mark Steel at the People’s Assembly

There is a new “organisation” called the People’s Assembly which is, essentially, a movement against austerity. I’ve been rather lax in my reading (at least semi-political reading) and blogging recently and so don’t really know much about it. I do, however, think that austerity has been a disaster, both socially and economically, and so – if I understand the motivation behind this movement correctly – I agree with it wholeheartedly.

What I thought I would do is include, below, the speech given by Mark Steel at the People’s Assembly meeting yesterday. It’s both quite amusing and quite fiery. Something that I won’t expand on much here (but is something I may try and write about at a later stage) is why it appears that the most effective rhetoric for those on the left appears to come from comedians, while the most effective rhetoric on the right appears to come from what, I’ll politely call, firebrands. I’m don’t really understand why there is such a difference in style between the right and the left, but it is something I find of great interest. Anyway, enjoy the video.

Wage stagnation and the financial crisis

There was a very interesting and well-written article that I read a little while ago about wage stagnation, rising profits and the financial crisis. I can’t seem to find it again, so if any else knows the one, maybe they could point it out to me. It was about the US, rather than the UK. The basic narrative was that the increasing influence of neo-liberalism and the reduction in union power (and collective bargaining) meant that corporations were (from the 1980s onwards) keeping more of their profits than they had in the past. So, basically profits were increasing as a fraction of GDP while wages were dropping as a fraction of GDP.

So business owners, shareholders and investors now have more capital than they’ve had in the past. Of course they want to do something with this capital which, presumably, they will invest in the financial sector. Their consumers (who are also their employees), however, have less disposable income than they’ve had in the past. So what happens? Well, the financial industry sees all these people who could use more credit and who might like to buy houses. Sub-prime mortgages come into existence and credit becomes easier. People buy their houses and spend their credit on the very products made by the companies who’s profits are rising as a fraction of GDP. These people are, however, also the employees of these companies and their wages are dropping as a fraction of GDP.

So, at this stage corporations are winning on multiple levels. They’re keeping more of their profits than they have in the past (by not increasing wages at the same rate). They’re continuing to sell their products because of the easy credit that this extra capital allows, so they’re able to maintain their revenue streams and continue to extract their profits. Since this credit is essentially their money in the first place, they’re also earning interest on the money being lent to their own employees.

However, there’s a fundamental problem. If people’s wages aren’t rising while their debts are, there’s every likelihood that many won’t be able to repay their debts. Hence the credit crunch arrives when this starts to happen and the financial sector finally realises that the risk associated with the sub-prime mortgages and easy credit is much greater than they had initially realised.

Now, I appreciate that this applies to the US, but I recently saw an article on the Liberal Conspiracy website about wages and profits in the UK. It discusses essentially the same trend, which is illustrated in the figure below which I’ve taken from the article on their site. It’s certainly my view that we should be aiming to reverse this trend if we want to reduce the problems we currently have in our economy and possibly also in our society.

Graph showing the variation in wages and profits (net and gross) since 1960.

Graph showing the variation in wages and profits (net and gross) since 1960 (credit : Duncan Weldon, Liberal Conspiracy).

The intelligent management of the public finances

This is a topic that I have very interesting. It did seem obvious that trying to simply slash public spending may end up being counterproductive. This post seems to confirm that general view, but I’ll need to read it a bit more carefully to make sure I understand what it is saying and to get a sense of where the number are coming from.

The Uxbridge Graduate


Much discussion has surrounded the contention that high public debt levels are associated with low / no economic growth. Specifically,well-publicised research has suggested that if the public debt to GDP ratio exceeds 90% then economic growth will slow down markedly and perhaps come to a standstill. The British government  has eagerly accepted this finding and has used it to justify its debt reduction strategy, which is that cuts to public spending are necessary if the economy is to return to growth. The government has hence proceeded to cut public spending on the promise that the cuts will reduce borrowing and thereby generate economic growth. However, instead of economic growth, the government’s cuts to public spending have coincided with stagnation and recession.  I suspect this is because the spending reductions have been indiscriminate.

The following sets out my view on why indiscriminate cuts to public spending will often increase the…

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The elephant in the room with Lewandowsky

I haven’t been posting much lately as I’ve been busy with other things. I have, however, recently come across this article about the work of Stephan Lewandowsky. He is a cognitive scientist in the School of Experimental Psychology at the University of Bristol. He has published a couple of papers about why some people seem to reject (deny?) many of the findings of climate science. The post that I’m reblogging is reporting on a couple of his papers and suggesting that there is a link between having a libertarian (free-market) ideology and rejecting climate science. If you’ve read any of my other posts, you’ll know I have real issues with the basic tenets of free-market thinking and with those who reject climate science, so this post certainly gels with my thinking and it is interesting that it is based on published work in cognitive science. Doesn’t make it right, I guess, but I would recommend giving it a read.

The role of universities!

I haven’t had much chance to write posts recently, although I don’t have much of a following so I suspect not many have actually noticed. I’ve been quite busy with some other things and am also trying to write a talk for a conference next week. My recent post about the integrity of universities did, however, generate a little bit of interest. If you’re interested in that topic can I recommend that you read some of the posts on Richard Hall’s Space. He has a lot of interesting posts about the role of universities and their place in society. The only real criticism I have of his posts is that they are written in a manner that requires quite a lot of concentration. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but does mean that I find them quite difficult to understand when I’m perusing them in the evenings after a long day at work.

Niall Ferguson and John Maynard Keynes

Niall Ferguson has been heavily, and quite rightly, criticised for suggesting that John Maynard Keynes’s economic ideas were influenced by his homosexuality and by his lack of children. The idea was that by not having children he was less concerned about the long-term impact of his economic ideas. Niall Ferguson’s claim is, in my opinion, highly offensive and entirely baseless. Niall Ferguson has now, however, produced an unqualified apology. As far as apologies go, this is pretty textbook. No excuses, no attempts to suggest that we needed to understand the context, simply an unreserved apology and an acknowledgement that he was wrong.

Okay, but this doesn’t erase what he has said and even if one can accept the apology, I don’t see how one cannot still conclude that, ultimately, Niall Ferguson is homophobic and that one should be careful about how seriously to take any future comments that he makes.

This reminded me, for some reason, of something I heard on the radio yesterday. The comment on the radio was that the Tory party would have to convince voters that they weren’t privileged and that they weren’t out-pf-touch with regards the realities of life in the UK. The first thing I thought when I heard this was that surely the only way they could do this was by lying. It’s fairly clear that a majority of leading Tories are extremely privileged and have lifestyles very different to the lifestyles lead by most in the UK.

The Tories could try to convince voters that despite this they can still govern in a way that would be acceptable to most and that their policies will be aimed at making the country better for all, rather than simply for those who are privilege like themselves. This is very different to convincing voters that they aren’t privilege and out-of-touch, but at least it would seem to be honest.

I guess, what struck me was that we now live in a world where people feel that they have to say what they think others want to hear. In a sense, I would rather that people were more honest. That’s not to say that I want to have high-profile people who are homophobic or government leaders who are openly dismissive of people who are not as privileged as they are. What I would like is to know what people really believe so that we can make informed decisions about who should be “allowed” to have a high-profile role in society. The media can choose not to give a platform to those who are openly homophobic (for example) and we can choose not to elect those who, deep down, don’t really wish to run the country in a manner that would be optimal for the majority. I know this is naive and simplistic, but I guess – to be honest – that’s probably what I am.

REF and teaching

There’s a recent article in the Guardian about the influence of the Research Excellence Framework (REF2014) on university teaching. The basic issue is that money will only be allocated on the basis of papers that score highly (3* and 4*) and that league table rankings will also be determined by these high-ranking papers. Therefore, there is an incentive for universities to only submit researchers who have enough (essentially 4) papers that will be judged to be 3* or 4*. The concern is therefore that those who do not qualify will be encouraged (forced) to focus primarily on teaching or (as in the case of Queen Mary, University of London) face redundancy.

Many universities are making “clear pledges that not being entered to the REF in November will not damage an academic’s career“. There are others, however, where this is clearly already having an impact (Queen Mary, University of London, Kings College and Strathclyde are three that I’ve heard about). I personally think that it is potentially a real problem. There is a big difference between how research and teaching are evaluated at universities, with an individual’s contribution to the research ranking being much more obvious than an individual’s contribution to any teaching ranking. One concern is that it will create a hierarchy within universities with some able to focus more on research and others “encouraged” to focus primarily on teaching and administration. I don’t have an issue with different people contributing to an academic department in different ways. I just would rather it were dynamic and evolved in some “natural” way, rather than being forced upon us by an external assessment exercise.

University leaders are trying, in general, to make it clear that research and teaching are both valued parts of an academic’s career. The problem is that they don’t get to decide if the staff regard them as being of similar value. It certainly seems that even students are concerned about the impact that REF might have on the motivation of staff who might be judged to be “unworthy” and hence encouraged into having a larger role in teaching. I certainly think that these concerns are justified, even if there isn’t any evidence that REF is having, in general, this kind of impact.

There do seem to be two common views expressed by those who are more supportive of REF than maybe I am. One is that it is not unreasonable to expect academics to publish 4 good papers every 7 years. In general I agree with this, although there may be some exceptions. However, there is a difference between publishing 4 good papers and publishing 4 papers that will be judged (by a panel – many of whom may not be particular expert in your field) to be good. Maybe about one-quarter of my papers have done quite well (in terms of citations) but I don’t really have a good idea why they did well and why others didn’t. I can’t really look back and claim that I can now tell why some papers would be judged to be good, while others would not. I’m typically quite pleased with most of the papers I publish. Whether or not they do well (in metric terms) all seems a little random to me.

The other claim that is often made is that REF has forced universities to take hiring more seriously and that hiring is now based on excellence. Firstly, this is presumably only “perceived excellence” in research. One of the perennial criticisms of university hiring has been that teaching ability hasn’t been taken seriously enough. I really can’t see that REF has helped here. My feeling is that it may have made the situation worse. The other issue I have with this claim is that it suggests that the typical academic today is somehow better (because of REF) than they were 20 or 30 years ago. Really? I thought universities in the UK have been world-class for decades. I’m sure many academics who were active in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s might be slightly insulted by this suggestion. I suspect there were issues with hiring practices in those days, but that was probably more to do with societal issues that have been remedied via equalities legislation, than via REF.

It strikes me that there has been quite a lot of recent coverage about the negative aspects of REF, so maybe some of it will sink in. Not that hopeful though. Maybe I should be considering holding back some of my current work so as to publish papers that will qualify for REF2021.