A Nobel prize for using RCTs?

Economics as a discipline doesn’t always connect with the real world, but at least the Nobel laureates with an interest in development economics are working on something that matters.  The new laureates have apparently been selected on the basis of their ‘experimental’ approach.  I gave the subject a brief mention in my forthcoming book, The Poverty of Nations, but you’ll have to wait to next March before you can read it.  Here, as a spoiler, are the sentences in the typescript I gave over to their evidence on Randomised Control Trials.  The reference is to A Banerjee, E Duflo, 2011, Poor economics, published by Penguin.

Banerji and Duflo advocate a greater use of RCTs, but their own examples show cases where this fails. In one study they mention, it appeared that textbooks did not help education; that was misleading. In another, the evaluation was supposed to identify the influence of contraception on family size; it overlooked the importance for parental decisions of the  prospects of children surviving to adulthood. Experiments and RCTs work by screening out extraneous information; the gaps that are left are only to be expected.


On the stigma of council housing

A notice on Twitter, advertising a radio appearance, drew my attention to a paper published last year on the stigma of council housing by Tom Slater. The paper is here; there’s an earlier version, for those who can’t get past the paywall, here.  Slater claims to be paying attention to

“a term that was invented by journalists, subsequently amplified and canonised by think tanks and then converted into doxa by politicians: the sink estate. “

That’s not right.

The stigma of council housing is long-standing.  It dates back at least to the people rehoused from slum clearance in the 1930s (disreputable areas had been identified before that, but  they weren’t council estates).  Many council developments were designed deliberately to be held at a distance from respectable housing: that is the subject of The Cutteslowe Walls, published in 1958 (the walls were built in 1934).  To take another example, the primary school I went to in Newcastle had different entrances for kids from the council estate and private estate.  Tucker’s 1966 book , Honourable estates, outlined the problems.

Within that system, however, some council tenancies were always seen as worse than others.  Harry Simpson, a former director of housing in the 1960s, commented that “ghettoes developed because councils, when allocating accommodation, graded families according to their deserts instead of their needs”.  In the 1970s, the leading text on housing management, Macey and Baker, advised agencies to rate the type of accommodation a person should receive by their personal suitability, including cleanliness and tidiness; that was how things were done when I started  letting houses in Hartlepool, where prospective tenants were rated on such things and got a house that matched their rating.   (I was carpeted at the time for writing an internal memo which said that this was leading to a concentration of people with problems in undesirable areas; later I included a comment on grading in my first report for Shelter in 1983.)   Macey and Baker did, at least, reject the idea of segregating ‘problem families’ deliberately.  I have the 1973 edition:

“All these problem families exhibit one common factor, namely, their inability to cope …. in some few instances, one or both of the parents may be physically well and of average intelligence, but of a type which the ordinary man in the street would classify as ‘bone idle’.  … (but) it is difficult to believe that such a background of coercion, coupled with the fact that the families are thrown into association with other sub-standard families, is likely to be a good atmosphere in which to raise any family’s standard …”

Bad areas were variously known as ‘difficult to let’, ‘ghettos’, or (in a 1975 Scottish report) ‘depressed schemes’.  ‘Ghetto’ estates were seen “as a form of punishment, a device for disciplining and the social control of tenants”.   So the term “sink estates” was not a new, or a particularly influential, invention; it was just another way of referring to a widely observed set of problems.

Poverty is killing babies in England

An article in the British Medical Journal shows a clear and strong relationship between the increasing number of deaths of children under 1 and the distribution of poverty in England.  The authors write:

The sustained and unprecedented rise in infant mortality in England from 2014 to 2017 was not experienced evenly across the population. In the most deprived local authorities, the previously declining trend in infant mortality reversed and mortality rose, leading to an additional 24 infant deaths per 100 000 live births per year …  There was no significant change from the pre-existing trend in the most affluent local authorities.  …  Overall from 2014 to 2017, there were a total of 572 excess infant deaths …   The findings suggest that about a third of the increases in infant mortality between 2014 and 2017 can be attributed to rising child poverty.

This is a conservative estimate, because the figures are area-based, not individual; the association with poverty might be much stronger.

This is what the UN Special Rapporteur had to say about poverty in Britain:

14 million people live in poverty, and 1.5 million experienced destitution in 2017 …. Food banks have proliferated; homelessness and rough sleeping have increased greatly; tens of thousands of poor families must live in accommodation far from their schools, jobs and community networks; life expectancy is falling for certain groups; and the legal aid system has been decimated. … Following drastic changes in government economic policy beginning in 2010, the two preceding decades of progress in tackling child and pensioner poverty have begun to unravel and poverty is again on the rise. Relative child poverty rates are expected to increase by 7 per cent between 2015 and 2021 and overall child poverty rates to reach close to 40 per cent.  For almost one in every two children to be poor in twenty-first century Britain would not just be a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster rolled into one.

The increase in poverty is the result of deliberate policy.  That policy is killing people.

Brexit: there are two parties to any relationship breakdown

There is no prospect of a deal being agreed between Britain and the EU before 31 October; any deal has to be agreed by the UK Parliament, the Council and the European Parliament, and there simply isn’t time.  That leaves only two options: delay or no deal.

It is easy to see the faults of the British governments, but the failures of EU diplomacy are just as strong.  The British position has been arrived at through a series of blunders:

  • giving notice without even having developed a negotiating position;
  • treating the negotiation as a question of government prerogative, rather than something subject to parliamentary scrutiny;
  • failing to engage all interested parties, and especially the political opposition;
  • establishing ‘red lines’ on immigration and trade relationships that were not part of or integral to the referendum decision
  • after the rejection of the proposed withdrawal agreement, failing to develop any other position for several months.

The problems created by the European Union, however, are no less important.  They include

  • specifying a two-stage process, when there was no time in the negotiating period to cover both stages;
  • insisting, in consequence, on a ‘backstop’ arrangement which could only have been removed by the resolution of the second stage;
  • treating the Withdrawal Agreement as if was a treaty that had been agreed, after it had been manifestly rejected;
  • refusing, despite its treaty obligations, to provide a position on the future relationship;
  • refusing to consider any arrangement when trading with the UK as a third party, that would not apply to all goods and services  – anything else was dismissed as ‘cherry picking’, when selection is in the nature of all negotiated settlements; and
  • failing to take any action relating to its declared priority – or ‘red line’ – of protecting European citizens.

The result is a shambles.  Neither party can hope to come out of this with any of the outcomes they wanted to achieve.

How Labour might rethink its social security policy

I’ve just received a copy of a book I’ve contributed to, which reviews Labour party policy on a range of topics.  The book is edited by David Scott, and called Manifestos, policies and practices: an equalities agenda; the contributors include Richard Murphy, David Blanchflower, Rebecca Tunstall and Graham Scambler.  I wrote the chapter on social security.

I’ve previously written that “Labour needs to think rather more thoroughly and deeply about what social security is for and how it might be changed.” I’ve been critical about Labour’s policy for some time – it was the Labour government that launched ‘welfare reform’, with its emphasis on work at all costs.  In this chapter, I’ve outlined a set of rather different proposals and approaches that Labour might consider:

  • Re-emphasise Labour’s previous commitments to security, meeting need and social justice.
  • Reconsider what people need benefits for, providing services rather than cash where appropriate.
  • Offer a wider range of benefits to meet social objectives.
  • Move away from means-testing, with greater reliance on contributory benefits and universal allowances.
  • Rethink how things are done: aim to have benefits with simpler rules, fewer conditions, fewer personal adjustments and longer time scales.
  • Secure benefits for disability to secure their financial status and their dignity.
  • Protect the position of children in disrupted families by directing benefits to the child
  • Improve provision for the oldest pensioners.
  • Reform occupational pensions, to secure the future of pension entitlements and to ensure that pensions funds are invested in the British economy.
  • Protect people better during the interruption of earnings caused by sickness and unemployment.
  • Separate benefits and employability provision; they are doing different things.
  • Provide more public sector jobs, to do the things that we want to have done.

Somewhere, in a world quite unlike our own, Universal Credit is working brilliantly

Universal Credit has its defenders, and the Daily Express has come out fighting:

“disruptive” proposals could hammer 30 million Britons, cost tens of billions of pounds and send taxes soaring.

The middle bit of this could be true, because all major reforms have a price tag; introducing Universal Credit had cost more than £2bn by last year, though that figure ignores the false start and ‘reset’.  The very belated Final Business Case claimed that UC will gain £24.5 bn in people choosing to work more, £10.5 bn in distributional improvements, and £9.1 billion in reduced fraud and error.  The National Audit Office has told us that “We cannot be certain that Universal Credit will ever be cheaper to administer than the benefits it replaces”; their 2018 report said that

 the extended timescales and the cost of running Universal Credit compared to the benefits it replaces cause us to conclude that the project is not value for money now, and that its future value for money is unproven.

We now know that the figure on fraud and error is wrong, and that Universal Credit has made fraud and error  much worse; and ‘distributional improvements’ don’t save money, they move it to a different place.  So the only possible saving could be by encouraging people into work, and given that only a very small proportion of claimants are continuously unemployed – the majority of claimants are too ill to work, carers, short-term unemployed or already working on low incomes –  it isn’t going to be anything like £24.5bn.  If I had to guess, I would estimate the net gain, by comparison with the previous system, at something closer to zero.

That leaves us with the extraordinary claim that 30 million benefit claimants will be affected.  Yes, that really is what the Express article says:

It would immediately impact around one million people currently on Universal Credit, but it would likely also have an impact on the 30 million-plus people receiving some form of benefits.

To get anywhere near 30m, that has to include all pensioners, and every child where the families receive Child Benefit.  It seems that the lives of children and pensioners have been turned around by the prospect of a benefit that neither group gets, and they can all look forward to a brighter future, if only this benefit remains in place.  But perhaps I  mistake the argument, and the Britons in question are the occupants of a parallel dimension, like the Man in the High Castle, where everything is subtly different.  Suddenly, everything in the Express starts to make sense.

The government’s counsel digs a pit for the government’s case to fall into

The challenge to prorogation is currently being broadcast. I’ve previously been critical of the way that the Supreme Court goes about its business, and the current hearing does not give me any reason to think differently about that.  The hearing has been punctuated by confusion about supportive documentation – misleading reference numbers, flapping between paper and electronics, and to cap it, Lady Hale’s computer failure this morning.

Having said that, I am going to take my courage in both hands and try to second-guess the outcome.  The government’s submission basically has been to say, ‘hands off’, and the most persuasive part of that case has been a series of previous instances where prorogation has been used politically.  And then, I think, the government’s counsel undermined his position, possibly fatally.  This is a clip from this morning’s hearing, as summarised in the Guardian briefing.

How democratic are the Liberal Democrats?

Not for the first time, I am perplexed by comments that have been made about ‘democracy’.  The Liberal Democrats have decided to put themselves forward for election on the basis that they will oppose Brexit, and that if they are elected into office they will seek to revoke Britain’s notice of leaving the EU.  Cue sound and fury.  Stephen Kinnock calls it ‘undemocratic’. David Starkey, never knowingly under-hyperbolized,  calls liberalism an “extremist, anti popular, undemocratic creed”, and throws in snobbery, contempt and intolerance for good measure.  Polly Toynbee, normally sensible, also describes the policy as ‘extremist’ and says this is ‘to hell with the will of the people’.   And a letter in the ‘i’ complains: “anyone who voted surely knows the principle of democracy is that whoever gains the majority in a vote is the winner! If we allow this to happen, where will it end?”

I wonder what we have wrought by not having civics lessons in schools.  First, as a matter of  general principle:

  • Democracies are systems of government that are open to argument.  The suppression of disagreement or opposition by a majority is no more consistent with democracy than the suppression of disagreement or opposition by a minority.
  • Neither majority voting nor the process of election is sufficient to produce a democratic outcome.  Many dictators in the world have been elected.  Many seek support through referenda – Mussolini, Franco, Marcos are illustrative.
  • “Winner takes all” is not a democratic principle.  That’s how you get Mugabe or Maduro.
  • The “will of the people” is not fixed.  People can change their minds.

Then, in relation specifically to the UK:

  • The UK has a system of representative democracy.  People vote for representatives, not for parties or leaders.  (Parties and leader can change.  If you voted in 2015 for a government led by David Cameron, or in 2017 for a government led by Theresa May, you were mistaken about what you were voting for.  If you voted in 2017 for Sam Gyimah, Sarah Wollaston, or anyone who joined the Independent Group, you are now represented by someone in a different party.  )
  • Referenda are not binding – the 2016 referendum was advisory.
  • Parliamentary elections, by contrast, are binding within the UK system.  Some of the advocates of Brexit believe that the referendum trumps parliamentary democracy; but the legitimacy of the parliament subsequently elected in 2017 is at least as great, if not greater, than the 2016 vote, and in due course the legitimacy of any parliament elected in 2019 or 2020 will supersede both.
  • Some  politicians work to the (debatable) principle that representatives receive a ‘mandate’ from the electorate to carry out their stated policies. The Liberal Democrat motion put the case that “the election of a Liberal Democrat majority government [would] be recognised as an unequivocal mandate to revoke Article 50 and for the UK to stay in the EU.”
  • Another view of democracy, put by Schumpeter, is that it is an institutional process where opposing parties compete for votes.  Failing all else, the Liberal Democrats are attempting to gain the votes of at least the 6 million people who signed a petition asking for revocation.

There is nothing remotely ‘undemocratic’ about standing for election on a commitment to change current government policy.  As to whether the position is popular, we’ll find out very soon.

My submission about benefits takeup

The Scottish Parliament Social Security Committee has issued a call for evidence on the takeup of social security benefits.  I’ve done lots on this in the past, so I’ve dashed something off based on a paper I presented in Belgium a little time ago.  Here, for the truly dedicated,  is the submission.  The key points:

  • Arguments about takeup have often centred on means-tested benefits, but the problems are much more extensive. Non-means-tested benefits are just as vulnerable.
  • The main explanations for non-takeup conventionally include ignorance, the complexity of benefits, limited marginal benefit, and stigma. More detailed accounts consider perceived need, basic knowledge, perceived eligibility, perceived utility, beliefs and feelings, perceived stability of circumstances, and the process of making a claim.
  • The benefits with the best takeup – Child Benefit and State Pension – are simple to access, have few conditions and are delivered for the long term. The benefits with the worst (including e.g. Pension Credit and DLA/PIP) are complex, poorly understood and have several moving parts. While there is scope for greater automaticity, the key problem rests in the design of such benefits.
  • Takeup reflects the complex relationship between people and the public services, and consequently it can be enhanced by outreach and support; but the problems are more fundamental.
  • Benefits should be understood as part of an income package. The route to security is not the integration of complex systems, which implies more complexity still, but the delivery of smaller, simpler, stand-alone benefits with a common pay day.



In praise of fixed terms

The Fixed-Term Parliament Act has not had a good press, and some commentators have condemned it either for making things worse or having no effect (those things can’t both be true at the same time).  If it was intended, as Mark Elliott suggested a couple of years ago, to curb the power of governments and increase the power of Parliament, it has just done rather well.

The fundamental premise of the Act is that the business of Parliament should carry on even if no-one has a majority. The Coalition government was evidence there there was an alternative, which was government by a majority coalition.  There is another alternative, which is a minority government that limits its programme and proceeds by negotiating with opposition groups; that is what happened in February 1974, when there was no majority, and it was thought of as normal practice in Scotland, where the electoral rules were initially believed to limit the possibility of anyone ever having a majority.  Neither Theresa May, nor Boris Johnson, has seemed to be able to grasp the basic idea that “the government” is not “in charge”.   The government is a legislative leader and executive, not an autarchy. People have to be won over, and everyone has to compromise.   That style of government may be beyond the capacity or wit of the Johnson administration.