Tuesday, 13 October 2015

What's wrong with changing your mind?

So, all the rent a mouths are sounding off about the Shadow Chancellor changing his mind about the government's so called "charter of fiscal responsibility" (actually a charter of fiscal irresponsibility but we are in Newspeak territory here). Everyone can agree that he probably should have thought about it a bit more (perhaps taken some advice) before signing up in the first place, but shouldn't we actually be congratulating him for realising that it really isn't sensible for anyone, let alone a sovereign state, to bind themselves absolutely not to borrow even for investment purposes in normal times (whatever they are)? Come on guys, its not that difficult, even this non-economist, can figure that one out.

Of course the politics of backtracking needs careful handling. Perhaps that nice Mr Corbyn can call up a few competent mates to explain rather vigorously why McDonnell is now espousing roughly the right thing. Or is the tactic to let the half of the party that doesn't know what it is talking about blather on and provide even more copy for the idiot media that are attracted to all the sound and fury rather than the actual policy issue at stake.

As Keynes said, or perhaps didn't say: when the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?

Friday, 9 October 2015

Life is stranger than art

It's funny how occasionally you come across little snippets of information that momentarily knock your otherwise stable image of the world a little sideways. Often the information is of little significance in and of itself, but it's like an inverse loose thread, when you pull it things don't unravel, but on the contrary you begin to see how things are connected together.

The other day I was reading about Arthur Henry Ashford Wynn who as "Agent Scott"  turned out to be the major recruiter to the Oxford Spy Ring that the Soviets attempted to establish in the 30s and 40s. He actually had a remarkable life, a distinguished public service career, and appears to have done much good in the world. There is little evidence that anyone he recruited ever passed on anything of much importance to the Soviets.

Wynn's second wife was Margaret "Peggy" Moxon. She was apparently the first girl from Barnsley High School to get into Oxford and, it is alleged by Boris Volodarsky, that as well as being active in Oxford CPGB circles she was the agent referred to in Soviet intelligence files as "Bunny". Now here is the curious fact. The Wynns had four children and if you look their births up in the England & Wales Civil Registration Indexes you will find that for one of them, born in the mid 40s, the maiden name of the mother is given as Moscow! Serendipitous mistranscription or was she leaving a joke for posterity?

That is mildly amusing, but reading a little more about Wynn uncovered another surprising Oxford connection. As well as being a brilliant scientific polymath,  he also qualified for the bar and before the war had intended to form a partnership with his friend Stafford Cripps specializing in trade union law. This plan was scuppered by the outbreak of war. 

Now in 1942 Stafford Cripps returned to Britain from the Soviet Union where he had been  British Ambassador and immediately entered the War Cabinet as Lord Privy Seal. It turns out that he was a close friend of none other than Robert Rene Kuczynski the German refugee scion of an extremely wealthy and well connected banking family. Kuczynski held the Readership in Demography at the London School of Economics and after arriving in Britain in the 1930s he and his family took up residence in the infamous Lawn Road Flats where they were neighbours of, among others, Arnold Deutch (the controller of the Cambridge 5 and Athrur Wynn's recruiter) and Melita Norwood - the so called "spy who came in from the co-op". 

It is now well established that Kuczynski passed on War Cabinet gossip he acquired from Cripps about Britain's attitude towards the Soviet Union to his daughter Ursula  (Sonya) who was a Soviet agent (and later Klaus Fuch's handler) and that Ursula Kuczynski transmitted this information to Moscow from a Heath Robinson radio transmitter she had erected in the cottage she rented in the grounds of Neville Laski's house on Oxford's Woodstock Road. Neville Laski, a distinguished judge, was the older brother of the LSE's Harold Laski, though he did not share his brother's political views. Chapman Pincher makes the case that Neville Laski and Roger Hollis (the head of MI5) were on friendly terms, though the evidence for this seems to be entirely circumstantial. 

The broad outlines of who knew who are rather clear. Much less clear are the outlines of who knew what. Nevertheless there is a fascinating web of connections linking Oxford, Cambridge and the LSE. It wouldn't be at all surprising if British Intelligence took an interest in what was going on in British Universities.

And here is a thought to end with. Wouldn't it be richly ironic if the tremendous growth of sociology as a discipline in the UK in the 1960s was strongly influenced by the security concerns of the 1930s and 40s? The role of the Oxford "spys", in as far as it can be determined,  was essentially to become sleepers in the British establishment.  Of course it's not unknown for the security services to make use of their own sleepers.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Is there something we are not being told?

Magistrate resigns after paying destitute asylum seeker's court fine. I'm wondering on what grounds the magistrate was suspended? As far as I'm aware it is not an offence to pay somebody's fine for them.Yet again the law shows itself to have two long ears and a tail.

Friday, 25 September 2015

A good use of "big data"

And finally a good example of the use of "big data" to answer social scientific questions that someone actually cares about. This IFS study by Britton, Shephard and Vignoles uses matched HMRC data on earnings and Student Loan Company data on graduates to provide better estimates of the gap between graduate and non-graduate earnings than have heretofore been possible. The full paper is here and very worth reading. 

Now then UCAS, if HMRC and SLC can allow administrative data to be linked and then make it available to academic researchers investigating a matter of clear public interest why can't you do the same with your administrative data?

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Do Academies work?

There is a good piece on Vox by Andrew Eyles and Steve Machin about the performance of the early tranche of academy schools. Unlike a lot of the late switchers these were mainly poorly performing schools. Their research - which has a very nice design  - finds that the KS4 performance of schools which switched to academy status improved  by roughly 0.2 of a SD (it would be nice to know what that means in terms of GCSE points) compared to relevant comparators. What is  intriguing is that this effect was almost entirely driven by improvement in so called community schools - in the UK context essentially non church schools. Also notable is that switching to academy status was quite highly correlated with a change of leadership in the school, which of course raises the question of what exactly the "treatment" was. I particularly liked the fact that Eyles and Machin are at pains to stress that early adopters of academy status are very different from late adopters.

Monday, 21 September 2015

UCAS and their data

My old colleague Vikki Boliver has just just posted a very nice piece about UCAS - the body that has sole responsibility in the UK for handling undergraduate admissions -  and their very odd views about data.

The issue at stake is whether  applicants to "elite" UK  universities who are similar in all relevant respects apart from belonging to different ethnic groups  have the "same" probability of getting an offer of a place. I don't know anyone who has claimed that there is no public interest in devoting resources to getting as good an answer as we can to this question. Indeed one can say exactly the same with regard to gender, social class and a whole bunch of other characteristics - some of which are explicitly the subject of equality legislation.

I'd actually go further and say that the very large proportion of the population that now makes applications to enter higher education have a right, as citizens, to know that the process they are going through is fair and that they can have confidence that they will not be discriminated against. And that right is not merely the right to hear bland assurances from interested parties but a right to actually see the evidence and the right to know that that evidence has been evaluated by parties independent of the admission process.

Though the data that UCAS holds tells only part of the story, it is a crucial part, and without independent scrutiny nobody is in a position to feel assured about anything. We are supposed to be living in an age of open government, but there are still organizations that don't seem to understand this.

UCAS itself is a charity rather than a direct arm of government but what it does is, I assume, supposed to serve the interests of the public. It certainly has an interest in keeping the cost of the application process to the public at a low level, or at least that is their explicit justification for their commercial arm UCAS Media whose profits are cycled back into the charity. 

UCAS Media got itself into a spot of bother with the Information Commissioner's Office earlier this year for failing to give applicants "a clear option to avoid marketing" and being "unfairly faced with the default option of having their details used for commercial purposes". Naturally after getting a slap on the wrist for being a bit lax about the way that applicants' information was used to promote the interests of caffeine fuelled soft drinks companies  the organization is sensitive about any suggestion that its data is used for anything other than pukka purposes. And quite right too.

But there is a world of difference between using applicants' contact details to generate income from the commercial sector - to be clear UCAS "...does not sell, disclose or give access to applicants' personal data for advertising or marketing purposes"  though it does use these data to facilitate communications between commercial clients and the pool of applicants - and providing bona fide researchers with anonymized data for the purposes of auditing the fairness of the university application process. These are not remotely the same thing and shouldn't be thought about in the same way.

It is perfectly consistent for me to not want my personal details  used  to send commercial marketing in my direction while at the same time to want my anonymized data to  be used by suitably  qualified people within an appropriate regulatory framework to monitor whether the admissions process works in the public interest. At the moment UCAS rather bone headedly seems to not to recognize this distinction.

In many ways all this is rather fantastical. UCAS insists that it is right and proper to only release anonymized applications data to researchers for those applicants that have explicitly given permission for their data to be released.  But this is to apply the wrong logic. Administrative data is already released - in a tightly regulated way - to genuine researchers without the explicit permission of those required to provide the data and without - as far as I know - there ever being the slightest danger of the disclosure of the identity of a single individual. The National Pupil Database is one example, the Census Sample of Anonymized Records is another and the ONS Longitudinal Study is a third. Access to UCAS micro data could be granted on exactly the same basis as it is granted to these. It really does no credit to UCAS to pretend that there are difficult technical and legal problems involved. All of these have been solved and are well understood. 

The bottom line is this. Applicants to undergraduate courses in the UK have no choice but to apply through UCAS. They can't go anywhere else if the don't want their data to be used for anything other than the admission process. At the moment nobody is asking them whether they want the data they provide to be used to make sure that the process they have to go though is fair. It's not obvious that there is a public interest case for doing so, but if there was, what would we make of those who refused to allow their data to be used for that purpose?

Thursday, 17 September 2015


It's pretty obvious really; the actual state of the world & what "the public" believe about the world are not necessarily the same. So if you are a politician an obvious strategy is to work on the latter, especially if working on the former is too hard or you don't give a damn about it. Personally I prefer a politics that does give a damn about the  real state of the world  (otherwise we may all just go and look after our own gardens) but at the same time acknowledges that while what people currently believe is of tactical importance, it is of  strategic importance to change it when it is not well aligned with reality.

One of the battlegrounds is simply over the sloppy and (unwittingly?) damaging way that  commentators, the media, etc. are allowed to redefine words to delineate the contours of their story. Given that many (most?) people are uninterested in politics except when put on the spot to give an opinion or make a choice between one or the other  of the horses that are running, they clearly have to rely on the vocabulary and stock of narratives that are easily available to them (just as I do when I'm asked about something I don't know much about - which is more or less everything). So firmly  challenging media vocabulary and media framing is actually very important. 

Historically it seems to me that the political right have been much more successful at doing that than the left - think of Mrs T or even Ronald Reagan. The current lot are also pretty good at it - how else, against all the evidence, is it possible to persuade the great British public that the Tories have a monopoly on economic competence while the Labour Party is single-handedly responsible for the crash of Lehman Bros. and Gordon Brown incompetent in the way he handled the resulting mess.

All of which is a preface to a new occasional series - New(s)speak - what the media says and what it actually means. So our starter for ten is:

Out of touch - anyone with an opinion that differs from the one that me and my mates pulled out of our jacksies this morning at the editorial conference while scoffing cinnamon buns and talking about last night's football. Closely related to:

Not living in the real world - contrary to the line that the owner of my organ told me to take or that I arrived at after several minutes of intensive research with a few unnamed sources ("think-tank" interns, parliamentary wannabees, people I went to school with, people I slept with at Cambridge, people I didn't sleep with at Oxford...) in a  Soho cocktail bar.