Saturday, June 07, 2003

ILL DIRECTED INCENTIVES: this story powerfully illustrates how well meaning laws can encourage a man to lead a life of indolence. Mr Ayovuare clearly has an entrepreneurial spirit that would be well rewarded in some other field but as is the European way today, its being directed in a pointless but socially costly direction. And in an even more European way, the British people don’t get a say about whether this idiocy should continue.

New measures will be introduced in Parliament on Wednesday to reverse the burden of proof in race relations employment tribunal cases. Instead of an employee having to prove that he or she was treated in a racist manner, employers will in future have to prove that they did not act in such a way.
The move, bringing Britain into line with European Union regulations, is likely to increase the number of successful tribunals brought on the grounds of racism from 70,000 a year to more than 100,000.
Instead of allowing MPs a debate on the matter, however, ministers are putting the regulations onto the law books by using a statutory instrument - a procedural device which requires no debate.”

OBLIQUITY AND DIRECTNESS: Some issues, like bad breath and dress sense, are best dealt with obliquely, but most others, in particular matters of public interest, are best dealt with directly. The current hysteria in the UK about whether Tony lied about why we went to war is best understood in this context; most people know that when they voted for the New Labour dream they were voting for an ideal that could not possibly be true. Now they’ve paid the taxes and not got the service how do these meek subjects react? In the eternal British way they go about it obliquely; shy of complaining about the big costly lies of education and health, they snipe at the justifications for a cheap war. As ever, Mark Steyn nobs the idiocy of this attitude.
THEY SEEK THEM HERE: One week 170,000 really important artefacts go missing, the next they turn up. So why the faux certainty that the really important weapons of MD aren’t there either?

PARADIGM LOST: Whither the on line media? Online the two most significant stories of the week have been the resignation of Raines and the Guardian Wolfowitz matter. In the first it would appear that Blogs, in particular Andrew Sullivan, played a large part in exposing the problem and pushing the solution – the removal of Raines. While in part this is a vindication of every bloggers fantasy – making a difference and screwing the mainstream media – in the end the principle beneficiary has to be the NY Times; for free the bloggosphere has helped it track its errors and (maybe) push it back to being a paper of record again.

But while some have been claiming a closer interface between the Internet and print media should therefore result, the dangers of such a fusion are well illustrated in the second incident.

In the Guardian sting, the Guardianonline wrongly posted a story in which it was alleged that Paul Wolfowitz admitted that “it was all about oil”. The story was false and when the Guardian realised (as a result of bloggers and online evidence, again) the story was withdrawn and a correction posted. While clearly wrong, it’s easy to see how the mistake was made; a journalist comes in with a story that finally vindicates the editorial line the paper has been pushing and they publish it as soon as possible, because, in their euphoria, they can – on line. But this only illustrates the danger of this technology; it encourages a competition that places such a premium on speed that it must inevitably discount the accuracy that only time can furnish. Thus the online Guardian published the story while the paper Guardian didn’t. Of course if the story had come in at 11 pm then it may have made the paper, but this counterpoint only illustrates the way discrete time daily publishing enforces a higher degree of accuracy than real time new media publishing. This dilemma repeatedly seen on the BBC website where the mysteriously morphing and disappearing stories are commonplace and well documented.

So rather than bringing the media together in a big American melting pot, it would seem that the internet may instead precipitate a separation. Competition means that real time reporting inevitably means scrimping on accuracy and perhaps the only way to guarantee accuracy is by a binding commitment to remove yourself from this competition. This can best be achieved by commiting to publish once a day, thereby maximising the time allowed for fact checking.

And what about opinion? Well opinion is based on pride and a belief that all the facts will later come in to vindicate your view. Thus in the opinion market the competition of money perhaps bites not as bitter as the nagging fear of loss of face. So as a market where the financial rewards are few but the potential for overnight fame many, the bloggosphere has perhaps the greatest potential advantage over the other media.

Thus it may well be that the past week will see a reversion. Newspapers like the NYT will realise that their competitive advantage lies in accuracy, and remember the old wisdom of separating the news and editorial desk in order to protect the golden goose of accuracy. Others like the Guardian will realise that having different online and in paper editions is ultimately incompatible. The BBC is in a less difficult position since a television station’s competitive advantage lies only in reporting what it sees, whether it stands on the shoulders of giants or the toes of dwarves. However being real-time, it must inevitably accept a diminished profile in selling opinion. And the bloggosphere – well, as I’ve argued its ideally suited for opinion because of the competitive field it provides.

So am I being vindicated? Well there is indeed there is some evidence that the NYT is reverting to its traditional separation of news and opinion. This editorial in the NYT manages to completely separate an opinion from reference to any facts. Now it’s over to the news department.

In Qatar, it's high-fives and handshakes for Bush: By Robert Fisk in Fallujah

From high over Iraq yesterday, President George Bush cast his Olympian eye over ancient Mesopotamia after praising the Americans in Qatar who had "managed" the war against Saddam Hussein. But far below him, on a dirty street corner in a dirty town called Fallujah that Mr Bush would prefer not to hear about, was a story of American blood and American power and American boots smashing down the front gates of Iraqi homes.

Article Length: 1418 words (approx.)

Truth (approx.)

NB: Why doesn't the Indie trust Word Count? Its not that hard to verify. Unlike Fisk's articles.

Friday, June 06, 2003

HYSTERISIS: The Economist runs an article on the productivity slump that’s been afflicting public services since Labour government started drowning them in cash. One problem it may have overlooked is that whatever reforms the government or Tories try to introduce, improving public services will now be harder because of hysteresis effects. While nurses and doctors originally resented the additional bureaucracy that engulfed them, some may now have become so accustomed to going to work for the paper work and procedures that they have become better at this than healing patients. In other cases, the incompetent but bureaucratically efficient practitioners will be promoted over the more competent but less compliant; the more conscientious of these will probably leave. And it is questionable whether the skills the thousands of “administrators” are currently practising will be easily transferred to the private sector if they are fired in any reform. So its not enough to say that the governments public spending spree is merely a waste of money, it may also be wrecking the skills and systems out of which a more efficient system can be built. And the longer it goes on the worse it gets.
STUPID WHITE MEN: Max Boot makes the sensible point:

“Those who make this argument must think that the U.S. and British governments are not only deeply venal but also stupid. Their theory, essentially, is this: The president and prime minister deliberately lied about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction to justify an invasion that they knew would show that no such weapons existed. “
NO NEED NOW OR BEFORE FOR WMD: Although its an arguable, there is strong historical evidence that Hitler was never a “direct” threat to Britain; if Britain had agreed not to stand by Poland and France, the Nazi’s would have left Britain to run its little empire in peace as before. But I don’t think this was right. Blair’s mistake was to not heed this lesson; there never needed to be a “direct” 45 minute threat to Britain in order to justify taking action against Saddam; it was sufficient that he was a latter day Napoleon who would inevitably develop and use or threatened to use WMDS against his neighbours in order to expand his power and territory- just as he had done before twice.

Thursday, June 05, 2003

REVOLUTIONARY? While the recent Conservative proposal is a step in the right direction, it hardly deserves to be called a policy yet. It simply sets out what will happen to the demand side of the health service while neglecting to consider how the supply side will produce. This is a common mistake free marketers often make; assuming that markets adjust quickly when we all know they don’t. The reality of this initiative could be high medical inflation in the short term; on the one hand medical specialists are likely to flee the overweening bureaucratic NHS to fulfil their dreams to provide efficient private health services. However since most other specialists are likely to have the same idea the price of suitable premises and the cost of renovations are likely to skyrocket. Meanwhile the attendant shortage of relevant specialists in the NHS will send the (inelastic) demand for private services up. Result in the short term; higher prices, less service, public outcry and possibly government back-down.

While I am sure that all of this has been taken on board by conservative central office and it’s hardly possible for them to coherently set out a supply side solution until the government finalises what its NHS reforms will be, there is nonetheless a danger of leaving an open gaol on this supply side issue. And this is not really necessary, since the medical specialists and nurses in the NHS are at least as dissatisfied as their patients about the service they provide. Given that the NHS is the largest employer in the country, there’s a fair few votes in policies that not only make the services more efficient for the consumers, but also make the jobs of the providers more satisfying. Because as anyone in public policy debate knows, its more satisfying to come up with a coherent policy than just a popular one. And most people who joined the health service did so with dreams of happy patients not met targets.

THE GREENHOUSE EFFECT: So it turns out that the Greenhouse effect has produced, well, the same effect as a greenhouse , it' s made things grow faster!

“The world has become a greener place in the past two decades as a result of climate change, according to a major study published today.
As the climate has warmed, the Earth has become more lush and rich with vegetation, notably in the Amazon rainforests, according to a study jointly funded by the US space agency Nasa and the US Department of Energy…..
In general, where temperatures restricted plant growth, it became warmer; where sunlight was needed, clouds dissipated; and where it was too dry, it rained more.
In the Amazon, plant growth was limited by sun-blocking cloud cover, but the skies have become less cloudy. In India, where a billion people depend on rain, the monsoon was more dependable in the 1990s than in the 1980s.”

We'd better put that through the Dowdifier for Greenpeace, though:

as a result of climate change,….according to a study jointly funded by the US space agency Nasa and the US Department of Energy…..
In general, …. temperatures restricted plant growth, it became warmer;….., clouds dissipated; and …. it was too dry…..In the Amazon, plant growth was limited by sun-blocking cloud cover…... In India, where a billion people depend on rain, the monsoon was more dependable in ….the 1980s.”

INTERNET VS THE NEWS MEDIA: Instapundit and the rest of the Blogocrats seem to think that the Raines resignation shows influence of the internet on the news sources. For some perspective, its interesting to look at where in the world the internet is the first choice for getting news about national / international affairs. According to the Pew report (pg 98 Q56 and Q57) the figures pan out as follows:

Country 1st choice 2nd choice
US 6% 11%
Canada 8% 9%
Britain 3% 5%
France 2% 7%
Italy 1% 4%
Germany 3% 5%
Czech 5% 5%
Slovakia 4% 5%
China 4% 4%
Japan 3% 5%
South Korea 12% 18%
Jordan 2% 6%
Eygpt 0% 4%
Lebanon 2% 6%
Argentina 1% 3%
Bolivia 1% 5%
Brazi 2% 4%
Venezuela 1% 4%

(I’ve left out the rest of the countries, where figures were below the typical margin of error for these surveys - 3%.)

The first notable feature is that the Koreans are the undisputed leaders when it comes to getting news on the Web; nearly as many people – 12%- look to the web as their first choice for getting the news as look to newspapers - 17%. It might be interesting to see if US news sights start to look to Korea as a business model.

Secondly, the figures for the UK are quite low given internet penetration there and its ability to free ride on the fact that most sites are in English. The Canadians, with the same GDP per capita and language advantage have a much higher figure. I suspect this is because in the US and Canada, if you want opinionated views based on unreliable facts you log onto the internet, in the UK you buy the Sun, Independent or Guardian.

Thirdly, why are the Czech and Slovak figures so high, given that no other Eastern European country registered? Could this be related to their idiosyncratic preference for Strong Democracy (see post below) – the Pew report found that they were the only country to choose a Strong Democracy over a Strong Economy in Eastern Europe.

COMPETITION VS DYNASTY: This article argues that much of the problem at the NY Times and by implication, potentially at other US newspapers is dynasty.
“IN 1988, in the course of a trip to America, Prince Charles of Britain asked to meet not the sons of the country's leading political families, but Arthur "Pinch" Sulzberger Jr.--heir to the New York Times newspaper complex--and Donald Graham of the Washington Post. "The forty-year-old heir to the British throne wanted to meet some of his American counterparts," Susan Tifft and Alex S. Jones write in "The Trust," their history of the Times, "and Arthur Jr. and Donald Graham . . . were judged to be in situations roughly similar to his own."
The situation they shared was the rare one of being wholly assured of gaining great power, solely because of their parents and bloodline, with competence barely an afterthought. This is the real problem with the Times, and the source of its current and ongoing troubles: Its Jayson Blair problem is really a Howell Raines problem, which, in turn, is a Pinch Sulzberger problem. “
Which is why the FCC relaxation of media ownership rules should be welcomed.

DEMOCRACY VS. PROSPERITY: Back to Pew and some of the questions not in the final report. Question 46 on pg 86 of the ”top line” report: “If you had to choose between a good democracy or a strong economy, which would you say is more important?” In the US it’s 61% in favor of strong democracy, 33% in favor of a strong economy.
Then turn to Eastern Europe and the figures are reversed for every country – 21% in favor of a strong democracy vs. 67% for a strong economy in Poland, 11% democracy, 81% economy in Russia, 16% democracy, 81% economy in Ukraine. The exception is Czech (58% democracy, 38% economy), probably because they have a relatively strong economy with a strong democratic tradition nurtured by Havel.
In the Middle East the figures are roughly 50; 50 e.g. 41%% in favor of a strong democracy vs. 55% for a strong economy in Jordan, 48%, 51% in Lebanon.
I think these figures may be useful in plotting the roadmap to peace in Iraq and the Middle East and elsewhere. The even split between the prosperity/democracy sides could be because they have neither or because there is a genuine debate about which is a precondition for the other.
No matter, as the experience in Eastern Europe seems to indicate, after democratization there seems to then be a consistent and marked swing towards favoring of a strong economy over a strong democracy; this is true where democratic and economic development has been quite successful e.g. Poland and where neither has occurred e.g. in the Ukraine.
The lesson seems clear; the Iraqi people may be equivocal about which is more important now, but over the coming years, it’s a strong economy that they will crave most. And as the figures for the US shows, this a trend that will run counter to domestic public opinion where democracy is considered most important.

WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE: You know you’re in trouble when the Guardain endorses you:

“the New York Times - for my money, still the best newspaper in the world”

Raines o meter moves to 85%.

Tuesday, June 03, 2003

PEW, PEW, BARLEY MAGROU: The Pew reports are always fascinating snapshot on the world heartbeat and the latest ones out. Allot of is pretty obvious but it’s the counter intuitive parts that are interesting. So here’s my Cuthbert, Dibble and Grub:

Pg 114 71% of Italians, 69% of Germans and 66% of British. And 61% of the French think that people are better off under a free market. So why does the proposed European constitution commit Europe to a “Social Market”?

Pg 118: this is worrying. A majority of people in very country in Europe except Czechoslovakia and Britain believe things outside an individual’s control determine success. Very worrying, this is a third world attitude in a first world continent.

Pg 123: 37% of American believe that a marriage is most satisfying is only the husband works. In no European Country is the figure over 25% (and the fertility rate isn’t over 2 either).

Pg 119 70% of the French think that government is usually inefficient and wasteful and 40% think it is not run for the benefit of all the people. In the UK the figures are 66% on both questions. So much for those in the UK advocating a French rail and health service. Satisfaction is a myth.

Q8b pg 133: 13% of the French have a very favourable and 45% have a somewhat favourable opinion of the US. So what is the point of multipolarity – to disagree with what you believe?

Q18. Pg 141 25% of Americans have “seriously” considered not buying American as a protest, only 6 % of Brits have. So much for American self luv.

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