Austerity in the UK*

by John Quiggin on November 28, 2010

Visiting London briefly, I’m struck by both the drastic nature of the cuts being proposed by the Coalition government, and the bitterness of the response. By comparison, the austerity measures being proposed by most eurozone governments seem both less regressive and more sustainable in the long run, and the demonstrations in response to be much more in the nature of normal politics, with an element of street theatre.

I haven’t had time for a detailed analysis, but a quick comparison of the eurozone cuts listed here, and the measures proposed by the Coalition seems to me to bear this impression out. Maybe it’s just lack of detail in the eurozone list, but (except maybe in Ireland) there seems to be nothing like the mass withdrawal of public services and the focus on punishing the poor for the crimes of the rich that is the hallmark of the Cameron-Clegg regime.

This, again, seems to me to cast doubt on analyses that focus on the role of the EU and the euro. As far as I can see, UK policy is essentially unconstrained by the EU and is driven by the demands of ratings agencies and the financial sector generally. On the plus side, the Bank of England has been more expansionary in monetary policy than the ECB, but it’s been equally supportive of fiscal austerity which is the main problem.

  • My intended allusion doesn’t jump off the page as I’d hoped, but UK political and social discussion has, to this visitor at least, a distinct late-70s air at present.

{ 52 comments }

1

Chris Brooke 11.28.10 at 6:09 pm

“a distinct late-70s air at present”

The joke that’s doing the rounds is that it’s the early 1980s all over again — economic recession, unpopular Tory government, riots in the streets, Pamela Stephenson on telly (then Not the Nine O’Clock News, now Strictly Come Dancing) — and now a Royal Wedding.

This time round, though, the government can’t necessarily secure re-election by fighting a quick war with Argentina, as — following the defence cuts — Argentina would probably win.

2

Jim Buck 11.28.10 at 7:12 pm

Nor is there the lure of the big privatisations that put a few pounds in a lot of pockets, and millions in others. A generation who knew not Atlee was thrilled to be offered the opportunity to treat the post-war settlement as a great big Monopoly board. There were those handy oil revenues, too–helping pay out unemployment benefits to ex-workers, contrite after years of maverick industrial action.

Nor is there the lure of the big privatisations that put a few pounds in a lot of pockets, and millions in others. A generation who knew not Atlee was thrilled to be offered the opportunity to treat the post-war settlement as a great big Monopoly board. There were those handy oil revenues, too–helping pay out unemployment benefits to ex-workers, contrite after years of maverick industrial action.
We need to spoil the royal wedding by getting this back on the top spot:

3

UK4ever 11.28.10 at 7:18 pm

Re: 1; actually, and thankfully, the combination of submarines and Typhoons (4 stationed in the Falklands and more ready to be flown in if needed) can defeat anything the Argies throw at us.

4

JulesLt 11.28.10 at 7:36 pm

I suspect the difference is between governments that are seeking to minimise the damage to public services – who see a period of austerity, but plan to return towards a norm – versus a government that are using ‘the crisis’ to wield an ideological wrecking ball (and lest we forget, have even less of a mandate from the public for these policies than the early Thatcher government).

5

Nick 11.28.10 at 7:47 pm

My understanding is that they aren’t cuts. They are reductions in previously planned spending increases: http://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk/downloadmult_ukgs.php?year=2010_2015&state=UK&view=1&expand=&units=b&fy=2010&chart=F0-total&bar=1&stack=1&size=m&color=c&title=

6

Phil 11.28.10 at 8:55 pm

I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by the scale of the response to the cuts in education and, in particular, by the way the media have responded: there doesn’t seem to be any appetite for a “union bully-boys”/”outside agitators”/”enemy within” narrative.

It’s not like the late 70s, because it is a Tory government: back then people felt that the Labour government had let them down and betrayed them, not that they were the enemy. It’s not like 1984-5, when it really felt as if battle had been joined, but unfortunately a lot of people were on the government’s side (including, when push came to shove, the Parliamentary Labour Party). It’s more like 1989-90, when just about everyone was united in hating the Prime Minister and wanting her to go (including most of her own party). But that was after ten years in government; this lot have turned the country against them in six months flat.

7

Martin Bento 11.28.10 at 9:39 pm

The Brits have spent the last 15 years or so developing the technical and legal infrastructure that would enable them to do drastic things and treat any resulting rioting as more opportunity than crisis. They will be good at pinpointing who the troublemakers are and very unconstrained in dealing with them, Modern technology can give them the efficiency denied to most historical police states. To my knowledge, most of the EU is not there yet, and therefore has more to fear from its own citizenry.

8

Phil 11.28.10 at 11:10 pm

They will be good at pinpointing who the troublemakers are and very unconstrained in dealing with them

That’s certainly a possibility, but I’m not convinced the political conditions are there.

9

john b 11.28.10 at 11:13 pm

As far as I can see, UK policy is essentially unconstrained by the EU and is driven by the demands of ratings agencies and the financial sector generally

I don’t think this is true at all: rating agencies and the financial sector (as measured by UK government bond yields) were also comfortable when it looked like Labour might be returned to power, with a milder and less regressive austerity agenda that looked far more like the mainland European model.

Rather, this is an ideological move by the Tories to dismantle the institutions created by Labour and screw over the poor, using lies about economics, ratings agencies, and anything else they can think of to pretend that it’s a necessary move and not a choice. Which is hardly surprising – That’s What Right-Wingers Do.

My understanding is that they aren’t cuts. They are reductions in previously planned spending increases

That’s a reflection of your understanding, not of anything that can plausibly be described as “truth”. Your link projects government spending to fall from 44% of GDP to 39%. The nominal figures, being nominal, are entirely meaningless in an economy with inflation and, one hopes, economic growth.

10

Duncan 11.28.10 at 11:17 pm

Could someone who knows their stuff explain the figures that Nick @5 links to (or link to an explanation). I’ve seen them around the web elsewhere, and they look crazy wrong to me – but I am not an economist.

[The fact that the data's compiled by this guy ("I instinctively revolted against the suffocating left-coast culture of the Soviet of Washington"; "With the failure of the welfare state, it is time to consider what comes next"; "Our Democratic friends have been averting their eyes from the success of supply-side economics for a generation") doesn't inspire huge confidence. But I'd like to know what the deal is with the actual numbers.]

11

Martin Bento 11.29.10 at 12:41 am

Phil, the political conditions can be conjured. If the demonstrators are not being violent enough to give you political cover for what you want to do, send out some agent provocateurs. It’s the oldest trick in the book.

The real problem with violently suppressing unrest has always been logistical. There is too much anonymity, so you will inevitably hit a lot of innocent bystanders, undermining your own legitimacy. The British now have a surveillance infrastructure that would give the Stasi orgasms. They can deal with unrest surgically. I imagine the authorities are eager to put these toys to real use. They’re playing “Anarchy in the UK” full blast, I’m sure. Let’s rock and roll.

12

shah8 11.29.10 at 3:08 am

Technology has to be watched. It has to be repaired. New talent has to be hired every so often. Don’t be so sure that a fantastic anti-plebe apparatus is going to work, long term.

The only way to do this long term (and only for so long) is with snitches and a culture of snitching.

Also, people can’t be allowed to vote with their feet.

There is much that goes into creating a police state. You can’t just start one up willy-nilly, and most stable ones are the outgrowth of terrible wars where the state has incredible credibility–literally.

13

john b 11.29.10 at 6:07 am

Duncan: they’re in nominal pounds, is all. Since we’re expecting 3-5% inflation and 2-4% economic growth, they exaggerate growth in government spending as a % of GDP (which is the only figure that matters) by somewhere between 5 and 9%.

14

Phil 11.29.10 at 8:54 am

Martin – I just think the climate of opinion is very different now, for reasons I confess I don’t quite understand. If the guy who dropped the fire-extinguisher off Millbank was all over the front pages, Winston Silcott-style; or for that matter if pictures like this one and this one had become media icons, instead of popping up for a couple of days and being forgotten again; then, I think, we might be in for some scarily effective policing.

But this isn’t the 1980s, or even the 1970s. I keep flashing back to the Lindsey strike – mass pickets(!) by wildcat strikers(!!), and still we didn’t end up with another Grunwick’s or Orgreave. The police could have gone in hard, but they know how to pick their fights. They did go in fairly hard last Wednesday, and it helped the protestors more than it did them.

Interesting times. Paddy Power are currently giving 3/1 on a general election in 2011.

15

Nick 11.29.10 at 9:46 am

“they exaggerate growth in government spending as a % of GDP (which is the only figure that matters)”

That strikes me as an equally, if not more arbitrary, baseline on which to judge the amount of public spending. That would suggest that in a growing economy where the Government stayed exactly the same size, it would, in fact, be being cut rapidly year on year.

I will give you the inflation point (although that does mean that now my ISA is being “cut” year on year too). But what you are left with is a remarkably moderate reduction in overall public spending.

16

Chris Williams 11.29.10 at 9:55 am

My impression of the UK’s internal security infrastructure is that it’s not optimised for countering a very large and sometimes violent wave of protest, a la Poll Tax. They’ve not yet automated the filters in their data-processing. Also, they are very low on humint.

17

Alison P 11.29.10 at 10:09 am

I predict that the ineffectual response to the demos will demonstrate that ‘the UK is a massive panopticon’ is a massive load of bollocks.

18

Phil 11.29.10 at 11:10 am

They’ve not yet automated the filters in their data-processing.

I liked the story in Private Eye at the time of the miners’ strike. The setup was that MI5 supposedly had a semi-automated phone taping system set up to avoid monitoring overload: the tape would start rolling whenever one of the individuals being monitored said one of the key words, and not before. The story was that one of the magic words was “picket”, and all the people they were listening in on were basically saying it all the time, to the point where the system had actually broken down (literally rather than organisationally).

I have no idea of the voracity of this story; apart from anything else I’ve always wondered where it came from. But it has the ring of credibility; it’s the kind of problem an organisation set up to deal with a small & identifiable subversive threat would have at a time like that. Of course the monitoring technology’s better now, but equally, hey, Twitter.

19

Richard J 11.29.10 at 11:13 am

Also, they are very low on humint.

Really? That’s a bit of a switch around, from my limited understanding. Peter Hennessey’s ‘Secret State’ reports a senior MI5 officer complaining about the drag on their budget from paying pensions to all the CPGB informants they had on their payroll…

20

Sam Dodsworth 11.29.10 at 11:19 am

Martin – Another point is that police credibility is still low after the Stockwell shooting and the various fiascos at the G20 summit. When you combine that with ubiquitous phone cameras it makes it very difficult for them to construct a narrative about “dangerous anarchists” that would justify the kind of measures you’re predicting. (And which, incidentally, I thought were pretty common in non-very-panopticon Italy. Maybe the UK isn’t as unique as all that?)

Plus, of course, students often have rich and/or well-connected parents, which makes it harder to beat them up without someone objecting.

21

ajay 11.29.10 at 11:20 am

That would suggest that in a growing economy where the Government stayed exactly the same size, it would, in fact, be being cut rapidly year on year.

This would be a pretty good way of viewing it. Especially when you consider that there’s also going to be growth in population. So, the number of kids is growing, but there are no more schools being built. The number of sick people is growing, but there are no more hospital beds. The number of factories is growing, but there are no more health inspectors. There are more vehicles on the road, but no more roads being built; more wear and tear on existing roads, but no more money on repairs. And so on.

Seeing that as effectively a cut is not a misleading view to take.

22

john b 11.29.10 at 12:26 pm

Alison – I’d stake my freedom that you’re correct. Luckily, I’m elsewhere, so I don’t have to.

Phil – hang on, d’you mean that GCHQ chaps were listening to all calls but only hit ‘record’ when someone said ‘picket’? If so, you’d've thought that’d be fairly easy to get round (“err, guys, they’re saying ‘picket’ all the time” / “ok, let’s move to a list of ‘probable cause’ words”). If you’re suggesting automated voice technology existed in the 1980s that would’ve been able to actually detect people saying ‘picket’ in real-time on the phone, err, no^(10^1000).

Ajay – yes, quite. Also under the imaginary scenario where the public sector growing below incomes doesn’t involve cuts, average pay is growing, but nobody in the public sector is getting a pay rise. In Tabloid World, this is delightful; in the real world, it’s nonsense.

23

john b 11.29.10 at 12:28 pm

That wasn’t how I expected CT’s comments system to render {no to the power of (ten to the power of 1000)}. But I’m impressed that CT’s comments system does powers at all. I, for one, think Dan should change his username to d^2.

24

john b 11.29.10 at 12:29 pm

Eh, now that’s just weird. d^(2), maybe?

25

Jim Buck 11.29.10 at 12:33 pm

These days the panopticon is a 2-way mirror.

26

Phil 11.29.10 at 12:37 pm

If you’re suggesting automated voice technology existed in the 1980s

Not suggesting so much as dimly recollecting a contemporaneous story, but I am pretty sure that was the claim I dimly remember being made. And no, it doesn’t seem very likely.

27

cjcjc 11.29.10 at 1:20 pm

UK Institute for Fiscal Studies projects that govt. share of GDP will be around 40% in 2015…higher than it was in Labour’s first term and (more or less) its pre-crisis average.

RIOT!

28

Chris Williams 11.29.10 at 1:41 pm

Re the CPGB pensions. Infiltrating the CPGB, with its command-and-control organisation and matching desire to control all the organisations it was involved in, was both easy and useful. But, precisely because of the extreme weakness of the organised left in the UK, it’s harder now.

Some ageing footy hooligans (they don’t appear to have anyone in the EDL…), several score lads in the ‘radical mosques’, a bunch of treasurers of Trot front organisations, some of the ALF, and one or two in the anarchist left (one of whom came out recently, to much wailing and gritting of teeth in Nottingham) isn’t going to be much help in infiltrating the hundreds of thousands who are about to lose their EMA. New informers are going to have to recruited, or cops planted, very quick.

29

Duncan 11.29.10 at 1:44 pm

Thanks john b.

30

Richard J 11.29.10 at 1:52 pm

(they don’t appear to have anyone in the EDL…),

Does anybody? There’s a strange degree, and I think I mentioned this down the pub, of vagueness about their background. (This isn’t paranoia, just that it’s surprisingly unclear to me about who they are and what they believe in.)

31

Chris Williams 11.29.10 at 2:26 pm

Nigel Copsey has just written a good-looking paper on this issue. Given his record as a scholar of fascism and anti-fascism, I’m paying attention to it:
http://faith-matters.org/images/stories/fm-reports/english-defense-league-report.pdf

32

Tim Worstall 11.29.10 at 2:39 pm

John b’s sorta right. But this is hardly the overthrow of the post war order. Govt has been, on average, 38-39% of GDP over that period.

And this leads to the answer to Jon Q’s question: why is the UK cutting so much more?

Because the current govt wants to overturn the order New Labour created. Essentially Gordon Brown’s order. And that involves reversing his increase in govt as a % of GDP.

As to the cuts in education: it’s much more of a replacement of the funding source than it is cuts. From tax cheques being sent to a uni to a fee cheque being sent, that money being borrowed from the taxpayer by the student. It’s not even clear that there will be less money spent on tertiary education at the end of the process.

33

Sam Dodsworth 11.29.10 at 2:58 pm

It’s not even clear that there will be less money spent on tertiary education at the end of the process.

Although everybody – including, significantly, management at the university where I work – seems to be expecting reduced funding and consequent staff cuts before this utopian “end of the process”. And of course graduates “at the end of the process” will have to pay back three times as much as the current crop.

34

Chris Bertram 11.29.10 at 3:14 pm

_It’s not even clear _

Well you can say that again. It isn’t clear how much universities will be permitted to charge, what the rules on WP will be, or how this impacts on costs, it is coupled with very large cuts to capital spend in HE and “flat” (i.e. eroding) research funding. It is however clear that the drop in income will come earlier than the arrival of the fees “replacement”, so there will be a trough we will have to get through. All looking pretty ghastly from where I’m sitting.

35

Phil 11.29.10 at 3:23 pm

From tax cheques being sent to a uni to a fee cheque being sent, that money being borrowed from the taxpayer by the student.

To call that a change rather than a cut is to assume your conclusion, i.e. that fees will replace government funding 1:1. I’m not sure how many people in higher education expect that to happen.

36

Barry 11.29.10 at 3:42 pm

cjcjc 11.29.10 at 1:20 pm

“UK Institute for Fiscal Studies projects that govt. share of GDP will be around 40% in 2015…higher than it was in Labour’s first term and (more or less) its pre-crisis average.”

How much more will be spent on bailouts? I don’t have the figures, but the UK gov’t has been spending between [OMG] and [OMFG] on making sure that rich criminals stay rich.

37

john b 11.29.10 at 3:49 pm

To call that a change rather than a cut is to assume your conclusion, i.e. that fees will replace government funding 1:1. I’m not sure how many people in higher education expect that to happen.

There are some points here w.r.t how this affects universities once it’s up and running. We know that the ConDems are lying that a tax is a loan because it’ll make middle-class people happy, invoke the word ‘loan’ and thereby deter working-class people from studying anything [*]. But the point for uni postgrad funding is blatantly sod-all, unless you guys are taking a profit on the domestic undergrads (I always assumed a loss, but if that’s the dirty secret underneath everything then blimey o’reilley).

[*] which is sad, because the two amazing cultural flowerings that the UK (and, unusually, I mean the UK – all 3.5 nations at the same time) has had were both primarily based on “we’ll give working class people the dole and they can go be in bands”, and “we’ll give working class people student grants and they can go be in even better bands”. On the current deal, there’d be no Oasis and no Manics (assuming you take the former as a good example of “working class fuckwits who’d be done without the dole, and the latter as a good example of “working class uni boys who’d be done without grants”.

38

ajay 11.29.10 at 3:54 pm

36: it’s difficult to say how much the bailout will eventually cost, but note that the answer could be a negative number. You need to make a difference between accounting value and cashflow. Things like loan guarantees have an accounting value – having the British government back your debt is a valuable thing! – but, as long as you don’t default, it won’t actually result in a cash outflow from the government. Buying shares in RBS and Lloyds may end up yielding a cash profit, depending on how good UKFI is at its job. Providing toxic asset insurance might also prove to be profitable.
IIRC the latest overall cost estimate was £6 billion as of March.

39

ajay 11.29.10 at 3:56 pm

the two amazing cultural flowerings that the UK (and, unusually, I mean the UK – all 3.5 nations at the same time) has had were both primarily based on “we’ll give working class people the dole and they can go be in bands”, and “we’ll give working class people student grants and they can go be in even better bands”. On the current deal, there’d be no Oasis and no Manics

john, I’m really not sure that “a stroppy, mediocre sub-Lennon guitar band in every garage” is going to hack it as a political slogan.

40

Tim Wilkinson 11.29.10 at 4:00 pm

The thing about politically-motivated cuts (‘ideological’ seems an inappropriate description) is they are not just about saving public money, at least not in the short term. That’s what it is for them to be politically-motivated rather than an unavoidable and uncontroversial reaction to the need to reduce teh Deficit. Looking at headline (supposed) spending levels is not very useful in this context.

One issue is sources of revenue – aren’t they selling off the forests, for example? Further sell-offs permanently (and irreversibility is the key thing here) impoverish the res publica, but obviously don’t show up as spending cuts.

There’s also the question of how public spending is structured – and as we know right-wing governments are willing to spend money upfront on sweetening the pill of structural changes that they think will make cuts easier – ideally, automatic and unobstrusive – in the future. The ‘big society’ stuff is an excellent candidate for this kind of treatment – money may be spent in making various schemes work while they gain acceptance and become established, but the whole idea is that this money will not continue to be supplied. (S0me comments on HE funding come into this category.)

On the other hand, I have a pet theory/suspicion that Cameron and Osborne are for a variety of reasons not really too bothered about the next election, and in a mirror image of 1997, are going to try and get everything done – subject to placatng Lib Dems, career MPs, to some extent Tories like Ken Clark – before the electorate can do anything about it.

(Anything electoral, that is. FWIW, note this statement by the head of MI5, re: other responses. BTW I don’t think the lookout for the watchers is as poor as some are suggesting. Much of the public have become heavily reliant on electronic comms – often easily accessible, e.g. Facebook, and sweeping powers to get hold of such info (because the legislation has a capacious definition of trrism into which ‘extremism’ or Evans’s ‘radicalism’ can fit pretty easily – even if corporate info-holders were inclined to resist any requests in the forst place). Further, even (pan-) optical surveillance is being digitised via face- and gait- recognition methods. With computerised databases, the capability to keep a pretty close watch on people is there, given a modicum of competence. Also I don’t think the deployment of agents provs. is limited by public cameraphones, nor that the police reputation is a problem in that regard. In fact the rep of the police is pretty strongly polarised, I’d have thought – many people are pretty evidence-proof in their approval 0f the police, and tend to think that any one who gets done over was asking for it. Those who do notice strong evidence of worryingly excessive force are likely to be those who have reason to fear it – and that means if anything that they don’t turn up to be kettled and possibly even killed in the first place – which suits the authorities just fine.)

Also, as the US experience demonstrates, free market types are much happier with government spending when it goes to their mates supply side wealth-creators – which is public spending alright, but not a very appealing form of it.

The history of rail privatisation illustrates quite a few of these points, and can’t be understood properly without noting the two-tier system with intercity and commuter traffic receiving fare protection and relatively high investment, local and ‘leisure’ traffic not so much.

Obviously the incidence of taxation and more generally the distribution of wealth and income is also invisible to headline spending figures.

The point is not really how much money passes through government books, but where the money comes from, where it goes, and what happens to public goods and services, incomes and wealth distribution in the long run.

That’s beside what others have said about the source of these figures, and the adjustments needed to put them in real terms. I’d add that these figures are presumably based on what the government currently say is going to happen.

(john b – re: exponents – that’s one of the undocumented ‘ features’ of the site – flanking a character string with carets formats it as ^superscript^ (unless the string begins or ends with whitespace e.g. ^ this ^.) That’s why comments sometimes have unwonted strikethroughs in them: hyphens work in the same way, mut. mut.. )

41

Alison P 11.29.10 at 4:56 pm

Cameron and Osborne are for a variety of reasons not really too bothered about the next election

I believe this is true. Clegg may plan to trash the Lib Dems, and take up a new role in the Conservative party. However, I think Cameron and Osborne are prepared to trash the Conservatives. No, ‘trash’ is too strong a term, but let us say I think they are not overly concerned about the long term political outlook of the Conservative party. It is not their main goal.

42

Martin Bento 11.29.10 at 9:50 pm

I think some people are overreading what I’m saying. The Brits seem to be in a position to be unusually efficient at suppressing civil unrest, but all societies seek to suppress civil unrest. That’s not enough to make Britain a police state. They may also use the situation to target a few people who seem to be particularly problematic, but that is not unusual either. Although it went through with the program, Greece does seem to have been genuinely spooked by the riots; other continental countries also seem concerned about riots; the British government seems to be acting as though potential riots are not a factor. It is worth asking why.

John’s post here seems an elaboration of an argument he made in another recent thread (comment 41), which was a response to a question I raised: whether Leftist European Union advocates were having second thoughts given the damage the Union currently seems to be imposing on various European welfare states. John’s response was that what is happening to Britain is more extreme than what is elsewhere in the EU, but is not being pushed by the EU. That’s not entirely germane, as it doesn’t change the fact of what is being pushed by the EU elsewhere, but is nonetheless a good question: why are British conservatives going further than continental ones? Well, they usually do, but beyond that, my answer is: for the same reason dogs lick their balls. And the reason they can is because they do not fear civil unrest. Their actions show that they do not. Phil seems to think they have misread the situation. Perhaps so. He is apparently on the ground there in England, and I am not. I hope he’s right.

On more specific points, this business of the surveillance system being overwhelmed by people saying “picket” more often than expected: scaling problems are real, but almost always in response to exponential, not linear, changes in input. They said it twice as often? 7 times as often? Very short-term problem at worst. 10,000 times as often would be a problem, but that does not strike me as realistic. I don’t smell the air of credibility. If anything, this strikes me as a “nothing to see here” story the police might plant.

Repairing the technology is mostly a non-issue. One doesn’t repair micro-circuitry, one replaces it, and it is pretty cheap these days. And if British talent is unavailable (unlikely, even police states have their supporters), Russian and Malay talent is available. And I’m not necessarily talking about anything long term. Just long enough for the changes to be irreversibly made.

Sam, phone cameras generally cannot distinguish provocateurs from the real article. And how much people fear the police is of more salience to rioting than how much they believe in them, though there are always a lot of people who will reflexively believe the police.

43

Chris 11.30.10 at 2:39 pm

UK Institute for Fiscal Studies projects that govt. share of GDP will be around 40% in 2015…higher than it was in Labour’s first term and (more or less) its pre-crisis average.

That sounds suspiciously reasonable until you realize that the crisis has (a) shrunk the GDP (we hope temporarily), and (b) created an increased need for government services that keep the poor out of trouble, lock them up once they have gotten in enough trouble, or some combination of both. (Desperate people will turn to crime rather than quietly starving in a gutter, so if you don’t want so much crime, don’t let so many people become so desperate. Despite the obvious logic of this reasoning, aid to the poor is rarely seen as the crime-prevention measure it actually is.)

Between those two factors, something else (or everything else) in the budget would have to be quite severely pinched to keep the govt/GDP ratio constant *during an economic crisis*.

(In fact, it’s not supposed to stay constant: see “automatic stabilizer”. But in order for that to really work properly, you have to raise enough revenue to fund the government during booms, so that it has something to fall back on when the lean years arrive. And it’s politically difficult to do that when you could be handing out goodies.)

44

Phil 12.01.10 at 8:45 am

Despite the obvious logic of this reasoning, aid to the poor is rarely seen as the crime-prevention measure it actually is.

That was one of the things New Labour almost got right. Unfortunately, largely as a result of listening to the wrong criminologists, they implemented “help the poor to become less feckless, amoral, anti-social, rude and horrid” instead of the more intuitive “help the poor to become less poor” – which would have had more durable effects and would probably have worked out cheaper.

45

Phil 12.01.10 at 8:50 am

We know that the ConDems are lying that a tax is a loan because it’ll make middle-class people happy, invoke the word ‘loan’ and thereby deter working-class people from studying anything.

If it will predictably deter a large group of people from going into HE, while tying HE financing to the number of people who go into HE, then it’s hardly going to be revenue-neutral, is it?

And in what sense is something on which you pay a ‘realistic’ rate of interest not a loan?

46

Martin Benot 12.01.10 at 9:47 am

John B., about that speech recognition, I dunno. Dragonsoft had speech recognition for PCs in 1990, based directly on the DRAGON program developed under DARPA in the early 1970′s (The founders of Dragonsoft had worked on DRAGON. DRAGON was limited vocabulary and very slow on the available hardware, but had a lot of the fundamentals down. And we’re talking ’75 now, not ’85). The notion that the NSA with its huge banks of supercomputers and the largest staff of mathematicians in the world might have been 5 or 10 years ahead of the commercial software industry for PCs in the days of DOS doesn’t strike me as far fetched. And the NSA and M15 cooperate quite a bit. It is true that Dragon must be trained for individual speakers. That’s consistent with the miner’s strike where specific individuals could have been targeted. Monitoring everyone this way is a harder problem. And the original version was not continuous speech. OTOH, Dragon has to try to transcribe anything you might happen to say. Searching for matches to a list of 50 or so keywords is a lot easier than that.

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Phil 12.02.10 at 9:07 am

Calling johnb from the vasty deep…

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ajay 12.02.10 at 10:22 am

Oh, you can call, and so can any man; but will he come when you do call for him?

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dsquared 12.02.10 at 11:49 am

He might if you post it on Twitter.

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john b 12.02.10 at 12:38 pm

Haha, apparently creating a summoning that isn’t on Twitter, but which makes Richard J tweet me about it, is Highly Effective. And apologies for the digression on MSP and Oasis. If I’m drunkblogging, I tend to reduce All That Is Good to 1990s guitar music.

Martin: OK, I’m *slightly* more convinced than I was – having used the kind of speech recognition things that my dad occasionally tested and rejected for his business in the mid-1990s, I was well aware that sticking a speech recogniser on a wiretap was complete scifi then. I hadn’t considered that you might actually record Scargill’s speeches, manually transcribe every word, and stick it into the program.

However, if you’re restricting your tapping-’n'-taping to a small enough sample of people that you can manually monitor their conversations and/or public speeches, and stick those into dedicated software borrowed off the Yanks, you’re also restricting your tapping-’n'-taping to a small enough sample of people that you can listen to their bloody phone calls.

And from what I understand of cross-border technology begging among allies (limited to t’internet, spy memoirs and alleged-spy friends-of-friends, so mine-of-salt time), it’d be easier and involve less loss of face to stick 100 junior spooks on bugging every miner going than to try and persuade the Yanks to let you use their latest technology on a labour dispute.

Unless Thatcher was actually *sleeping* with Reagan, which I suppose is possible.

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Tim Wilkinson 12.02.10 at 2:58 pm

I think Martin’s obviously right that the defence/space/intel industry are highly likely to be ahead of (ordinary non-secretive) commercial efforts where tchnology useful to them is concerned.

And johnb can’t be taken seriously when he dismisses the miners’ strike as a mere ‘labour dispute’ of little interest to Cold Warriors or Reaganite neoliberals.

Still the story about voice-recognition triggers sounds highly implausible. Given that, I’d be inclined to suspect (that’s: inclined to suspect) that it might have its origin in misinfo put out to promote the ‘cock-up not conspiracy’ line that depicts covert agencies as poorly-resourced bunglers (in this case it is the primarily the former, which would be more palatable I suppose. It also, incidentally tends to suggest that MI5 were concerned to limit their eavesdropping to conversations directly pertinent to union activity (rather than personal ones that might provide useful blackmail or other psyops material, perish the thought). It thus supports in an indirect way another of the mixed messages that are disseminated about such agencies – that they are highly bureaucratic and characterised by tight adherence to ethical and legal standards.

But coming back up to date, to expand on parenthetical remarks from #40, it is very likely that this kind of capability exists now – remembering that unlike labour-saving dictation software, call screening of this kind can afford quite a few false positives (and indeed false negatives, since nothing is thereby lost relative to the position of not trawling at all).

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Tim Wilkinson 12.02.10 at 3:15 pm

Alison P: Cameron and Osborne are prepared to trash the Conservatives. No, ‘trash’ is too strong a term, but let us say I think they are not overly concerned about the long term political outlook of the Conservative party. It is not their main goal.

I think that may be right – after all do they really want to spend 8 years on this shit when they have no need of such a career? But there are other reasons not to concern themselves with it. Labour are not looking too clever, first-term incumbency, the el;ectoral benefits of looking decisive, the Lib Dems being finished as a single indpendent force (themselves being a coalition of coalitions in the first place), events, dear boy and the vagaries of electoral politocs in particular. Much of the fretting about polls that politicians do is bordering on the superstitious, for want of any better means of predicting and controlling things, and boldness may actually be as good a strategy as any. Which is deeply worrying, given that a PM with captive backbenchers and no concern for the next ballot is remarkably close to a dictator.

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