Why Johann Hari is wrong on the debt

My attention was drawn to this post by blogger and columnist Johann Hari. As a general rule, Johann Hari tends to divide people into two camps: those who hang on his every word and those who see through him, and as I’m in the latter group I don’t usually waste much time reading his stuff. But I read this, because a friend recommended it, and, having done so, I feel almost duty bound to point out why he’s wrong. And, since he doesn’t allow comments on his own blog (I wonder why not?), I have to do it here instead.

Hari’s basic argument in this article is that there’s nothing wrong with the current level of national debt, because historically it’s almost always been higher. As he says,

Let’s start with a fact that should be on billboards across the land. As a proportion of GDP, Britain’s national debt has been higher than it is now for 200 of the past 250 years. Read that sentence again. Check it on any graph by any historian. Since 1750, there have only been two brief 30-year periods when our debt has been lower than it is now. If we are “bust” today, as George Osborne has claimed, then we have almost always been bust.

As it happens, he is actually right about that. If you take the national debt in the context of the last couple of centuries, it is low by comparison. I don’t have stats which go quite that far back, but here’s a nice graph from economicshelp.org which goes back to the 1920s:

National Debt To be sure, if you look at that then our current debt is trivial by comparison with the years either side of WWII. So, does that mean that our current level of debt isn’t a problem?

Well, no, and I think most people can easily see why. For a start, the huge levels of debt from the 1930s through to the immediate post-war period were caused by the global depression and war itself. More importantly, government spending on things like welfare, health, education, etc was much lower in that era.  And I think that we, from our comfortable 21st century perspective, often don’t realise how much better our standard of living is now than it was then.

I was thinking about that a couple of days ago, in fact. My daughter’s nursery were doing a trip to the butterfly farm in Stratford, and as part of that all the children were asked to take a picnic.  It prompted me to ponder on how, when I was a child, if we went anywhere as a family day out, we’d take a picnic because we simply couldn’t afford to pay for food while we were there. These days, we very rarely do that – I think the only occasions when we have are when we’re not expecting there to be any food available, or because the picnic itself is part of the experience, rather than because we can’t afford it. Even when I was earning less than the average salary, I don’t think that the cost of eating out would have prompted us to take a picnic. It’s a huge change from when I was a child in the 60s and 70s.

Johann Hari, of course, isn’t old enough to remember that. His personal memories only go back as far as the 80s, so he’s never experienced a time when the UK could genuinely be described as poor. I’m only just about old enough to remember the tail end of it, but those from a generation before me will easily be able to recall the grinding hardships of austerity Britain in the immediate postwar period. But that doesn’t excuse Hari’s simple lack of research – there are plenty of websites and books which will dispel his illusion that living in a high-debt economy is perfectly OK.

The reality which Hari fails to acknowledge, or possibly isn’t even aware of, is that debt isn’t an abstract issue. The level of national debt correlates very strongly with standards of living – the higher the debt, the lower the average standard of living. It also correlates – and, again, inversely – with government spending on things like welfare and education. You could take the graph above and turn it upside down, and the line from the end of WWII until the 80s would indicate the increase in spending on the NHS, pensions, unemployment benefit and schools.

So, yes, we could live with a much higher level of debt if we’re prepared to accept a worse health service, a poorer education system and a lower standard of living overall. I don’t want that. I strongly suspect that Johann Hari doesn’t, either. But, unlike him, I’m aware that we can’t have it both ways. If we want to maintain our current standard of living in the long term, we have to get the debt down in the short term. And that’s why Johann Hari is wrong.

Thunderbird tells it like it is

Sad political nerd that I am, I’m signed up to the email mailing lists of all the main parties. So, this afternoon, the expected post-budget missives dropped into my inbox. I was rather amused to see, though, that Thunderbird apparently doesn’t have a very high opinion of Ed Miliband:

This message may be a scam

(Click on the image to see it full-size)

In case you’re wondering, no, none of the others triggered the warning. It was just the email from Ed.

There is a slightly serious point to this, though. Things that trigger the scam alert on Thunderbird are the presence in the email of elements such as tracking images as well as phrases that are characteristic of spammers and phishers. If you’re serious about using email as a means of mass communication, then it’s important to make sure that you don’t get caught by spamtraps. This one made it as far as my inbox; other people may well not have seen it at all as their ISP or email provider will have filtered it out. Not making the effort to avoid that is a bit of an own goal.

Turning the tide against bad arguments

I have to admit that I don’t usually read the business section of the newspaper. But I just happened to glance through it in today’s Times, and my eye was caught by a headline “Britain must turn tide against piracy”. Its location in the business (or, to be more precise, money) section suggested that it was referring to copyright infringement rather than violent assault and murder on the high seas, so I stopped to read the article. My hunch was proved right, as the author, David Wighton, was commenting on the Abu Dhabi media summit (whatever that is).

Unfortunately, The Times doesn’t want people like me who see an interesting article in the printed copy being able to link to the online version, so you’ll have to either take my word for it that I’m reporting it accurately or buy a copy yourselves. But there are a couple of things in the article which deserve comment.

For a start, Wighton leads off with the usual emotive language when he says that

…the industry still sees vast amounts of its sales stolen through piracy…

which, of course, is the kind of metaphor (I’m assuming he’s intelligent enough to know that it is a metaphor, and that no actual theft or piracy is actually taking place) that has been rebutted often enough that I really don’t think it’s worth my while doing again here. But the bulk of the article is taken up with a complaint that the British government is being excessively influenced by the likes of BT, Talk Talk, the Liberal Democrats and Google when it comes to dealing with copyright infringement. Regarding Google, Wighton says

In a Q&A session in Abu Dhabi, Nikesh Arora, Google’s chief business officer, was asked why when you sarch for a band 17 out of the top 20 results are usually illegal download sites. It was one of the few questions that he failed to answer.

Now, I wasn’t there, and I have no idea why Arora didn’t answer the question. It’s quite possible, for that matter, that he did answer it but that the answer simply wasn’t the one his audience wanted to hear. But it’s also possible that he didn’t answer it because it’s an unanswerable question as the premise itself is wrong. I did a little research, picking some bands and artists at random and checking the Google results, and in none of them did I find anything like 17 illegal download sites in the first 20 results. So that you can replicate my research, these are the search terms I used:

(I should point out that this doesn’t necessarily reflect my listening choices, it’s simply based on a few names which are unambiguous enough to not get false positives for things which are nothing to do with the artist in question)

OK, so that’s just seven bands, but I’m pretty sure that if illegal download sites were that prevalent I’d have hit some of them by now. But, in reality, they were conspicuous by their absence. Maybe Nikesh Arora didn’t answer the question simply because he was amazed that anyone would be stupid enough to ask it.

Let’s offer a little charity here, though, and assume that, just as we’re assuming that David Wighton understands that “stolen” and “piracy” are just metaphors, the questioner was innocently mistaking something else for illegal download sites. Maybe he just meant any unofficial site, for example. Why does Google return so many sites for bands and artists ones that are not those run by the media companies? That’s not an entirely stupid question (it is pretty stupid if you stop to think about it, but it’s not in the crazier-than-a-bucket-of-frogs stupid category of the one quoted by Wighton), so let’s answer it.

The first answer, of course (and the one that does make it bit of a dumb question) is that most bands only have one official website, but Google returns all possible results for a query and therefore the majority of them will always be unofficial sites. Maybe the music industry (or the sector of it represented by the question) thinks that Google shouldn’t even do that; that the only sites you should be able to find via a search engine are the ones that they sanction. If so, though, we’re back into bucket of frogs territory again – such a belief betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the Internet itself. So let’s be even more charitable, and assume that the question was really about why unofficial sites are so popular. Now, that really isn’t a stupid question, and it really does deserve an answer.

It’s worth noting here that the official site usually is the top result from Google. But it isn’t always (and often isn’t) the most popular, according to third party stats such as those provided by Alexa. It’s worth asking why this is the case.

The main reason why unofficial sites get more visitors, it seems to me, is that many record companies still don’t “get” the web. They see it as a means to broadcast to, rather than engage with, their audience. So when their audience wants to actually participate in the discussion, they have to go elsewhere. Some of the most popular websites on the net are forums devoted to bands. It’s no coincidence, too, that splash screens and Flash-heavy (or even all-Flash) websites, those relics of Web 0.1 and design fashions of the last century, are alive and well in official band websites. There are examples in my list, above. And it doesn’t take Hercule Poirot to suspect that unofficial sites are more likely to contain links to sources of illegal downloads. So maybe that is the real substance of the complaint: That unofficial sites are too popular, and they link to things that the record companies don’t want linked to.

The remedy to that is both really simple and really difficult. It’s really simple because all it takes is a change in concept: make official band sites a place where the band can interact with their audience (and properly interact, too, not just have a PR-managed questions page where band members say what clothes they like wearing or how much they enjoyed the last video shoot) rather than treating them as an online advert. And it’s really difficult because that doesn’t just require a change in the way websites are managed but also a change in the underlying ethos of the music industry – it requires them to stop seeing music fans as dumb consumers and start treating them as people. But it’s the record companies’ failure to do that in the first place which has contributed to the growth in illegal downloads. The music industry’s business model is dying; complaining about websites offering unauthorised downloads is a little bit like arguing over the arrangement of deckchairs on the Titanic.

Incidentally, there’s a really delicious typo in the article. Referring to the Digital Economy Act and its provisions for “web blocking”, Whighton writes:

BT and Talk Talk object to the Act’s provision that would force them to block websites that facilitate illegal downloading. They see it is an expensive responsibility for a problem which is nothing to do with them

I’m pretty sure that what Whighton meant to write (or what he did write, but the copytaker misread)  is that BT and Talk Talk “see it as an expensive responsibility”, rather than “see it is”. That is, he’s intending to report their opinion without agreeing with it. But I think that nearly everyone who actually understands the issues here would say that the published version, ironically, gets it right – it is an expensive responsibility that isn’t the ISPs’ problem. It would be rather amusing if this typo were later to be quoted as representing David Wighton’s opinion in debates elsewhere.

Fear, Uncertainty and Deception – the media goes into meltdown over Japanese nuclear power

This is a combination of stuff that I’ve written elsewhere in various forums, Facebook posts, etc, so apologies if it isn’t entirely consistent.

Last week, Japan suffered a major earthquake and devastating tsunami. The actual number of deaths isn’t yet known, but estimates range from the low thousands to the tens of thousands. Plus, of course, there are equally large numbers of injuries as well as major damage to the country’s infrastructure. It was one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded, and one of the worst tsunamis ever experienced. By any measurement, then, it was a pretty major catastrophe.

Among the damage was that caused to several nuclear power plants. Now, if you listen to to the broadcast media or read the tabloid (and even broadsheet) press you could be forgiven for thinking that the earthquake didn’t really do much damage at all. That’s because the press has continually focussed on the power plants and the potential for a nuclear disaster.

The problem with that is that, quite simply, much of the reporting is nothing more than uninformed speculation. Before you read the rest of this article, please go away and read these first:

http://mitnse.com/2011/03/13/why-i-am-not-worried-about-japans-nuclear-reactors/

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/03/14/fukushiima_analysis/

http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/site/article/10292/

The last one is particularly interesting, as it makes the very important point that even if the worst possible case scenario comes to pass at one or more of the Japanese nuclear power plants, it will still be far less damaging than the tsunami itself. A worst case scenario from a major disaster at one of the power plants could see up to around 50 people exposed to deadly levels of radiation and maybe a couple of thousand exposed to levels that may adversely affect their health. But the earthquake and tsunami have already killed and injured far more than that.

Time for another brief diversion. Take a look at the list of previous nuclear accidents, here:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2011/mar/14/nuclear-power-plant-accidents-list-rank

It’s an interesting list. Most notably, only a few of them – even those more serious than Fukushima – have resulted in fatalities, and only Chernobyl caused a large number of deaths. The more hysterical commentators in the media and elsewhere seem to believe that any nuclear disaster will inevitably result in vast numbers of deaths and injuries; the reality is that death and long-term injury are rare even at the more serious end of the scale. More people died in the Flixborough explosion in 1974 than have been killed by any nuclear power station incident other than Chernobyl. And those who argue against nuclear power and in favour of so-called “renewable” sources might care to note that 75 people died in 2009 when the Sayano–Shushenskaya hydroelectric power station failed and the turbine hall was flooded. Oil-fired power stations rarely have major incidents, but the oil has to come from somewhere and 167 people died when Piper Alpha exploded in 1988. The same applies to coal:  It’s a safe way of generating electricity but mining it is dangerous; just ask the relatives of the men killed in a New Zealand coal mine. Or, for that matter, ask the survivors and relatives of victims at Aberfan.

Anyway, back to Japan. It’s also worth noting that, as a result of damage to the nuclear power plants, Japan is suffering a severe shortage of electricity. Rolling blackouts have had to be imposed across Tokyo and other major cities, affecting transport and infrastructure as well as homes and industry. The damage to rail and roads in the affected areas means that medical supplies are running low in hospitals and clinics. Food and water are running low, too. An oil refinery at Sendai has been burning since Friday, emitting dense clouds of carcinogenic smoke that roll across residential districts. People will die as a result of all of these.

It doesn’t help, of course, when campaigning organisations leap on the Japanese experience and use it to make political capital. Greenpeace, for example, says that

Nuclear plants like the one at Fukushima were never designed to withstand a meltdown of the reactor core

That is, quite simply, a lie. And I mean a lie, in the sense of deliberate malicious falsehood. This isn’t a mistake by people who don’t know any better, it is a statement made by those who care nothing for truth and everything for making their voice heard. Anti-nuclear campaigners in the UK have latched on to similar beliefs and are happily using them to mislead others.

Even if the absolute worst-case scenario in Japan materialises – breaching of the reactor shell itself and release of radioactive material directly into the atmosphere – the consequence in terms of fatalities is likely to be measured in the tens or less. In an area where thousands – and possibly tens of thousands – of people have already died as a direct result of the tsunami itself, that’s barely a footnote.

The continued obsession of the Western media with the nuclear power plants is diverting attention from the real human tragedy in Japan (and don’t forget Libya while you’re at it). I’d like to think we can do better than that.