Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Campaigners report Tony Blair's office over use of unpaid interns

Graduate Fog passes evidence of possible minimum wage infractions to HM Revenue and Customs
Tony Blair
Tony Blair's private office says it supports its unpaid interns by paying travel and lunch expenses. Photograph: Antony Dickson/AFP/Getty Images
Tony Blair's private office may face investigation by tax authorities for breach of national minimum wage laws over the use of unpaid interns.

The Office of Tony Blair, which helps administrate the former prime minister's consultancy and diplomatic interests, confirmed that despite its non-charitable status it uses unpaid interns for three months at a time.

Evidence of possible minimum wage infractions, gathered by the careers website Graduate Fog has been passed to HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC).

This includes an email from Blair's office setting out tasks which interns are expected to undertake during the full time role, including answering phones, managing meeting rooms and sorting and sending the post.

Recent employment tribunal rulings have used evidence such as set tasks and responsibilities as one way to differentiate between volunteer and paid worker status.

In a statement to the Guardian, Blair's office said that all its interns were volunteers and that they supported them by paying travel and lunch expenses.

One would-be intern has complained that despite passing an interview process, which included a timed 90 minute exam, he was rejected by the office because he was unable to work unpaid for the full five days.

When the graduate asked office staff if he could reduce his time from four to five days a week so he could continue to support himself financially with a part-time job, Blair's office eventually wrote back to say the position had been filled by another intern.

Writing to confirm that "four days a week availability did not suit your needs" office staff replied: "Sorry for not getting back to you sooner but the role has now been filled by someone who was available for the full 5 days."

Speaking to the Guardian, the 22-year-old, who did not want to be named, said: "From what I can tell, they are trying to staff the office with that classic, rotate your interns; get the interns to do the office admin, don't pay them a thing and, after three months, kick them out and get someone else in. That's what it sounded like to me."

"Through the minimum wage legislation," he said, Blair "had given people, young people especially ... a decent wage. But he's not even providing it for his own business. It's completely outrageous. I can't think of anything more two-faced to be honest."

Blair, who has made millions since departing as prime minister in 2007, operates numerous charities, diplomatic initiatives and business consultancies including Tony Blair Associates.

After an interview with Blair this summer, the Financial Times estimated his annual income at £20m.
It is understood that he continues to draw on a public allowance worth £110,000 per annum to support his good works and a prime ministerial pension of £70,000.

HMRC said they were unable to specifically comment on individual cases but gave a statement confirming they always act on allegations passed to them.

"We ensure that employers comply with the national minimum wage rules across the board. Where we have reason to believe the rules are being abused we will investigate. We always act on allegations of NMW abuse."

In a statement Blair's office said they value their interns "very highly".

"The Office of Tony Blair is not a charity," they confirmed. "Each internship lasts for around three months and is designed to give young people valuable experience in a high profile and fast moving work environment," they said adding, "our interns are volunteers."

A spokesperson for the London School of Economics, who previously advertised unpaid internships for Blair's profit making businesses, said they no longer do so.

"LSE is fully compliant with its legal obligations in relation to internships; furthermore we support the advice on internships issued by the UCU and NUS in 2011.

"LSE Careers is not advertising opportunities of any kind in the office of Tony Blair or with Tony Blair Associates and does not work with any third parties that facilitate unpaid internships."
Tanya de Grunwald, founder of Graduate Fog said: "Too many employers have convinced themselves that experience, plus a few quid for a sandwich and the bus fare, is an acceptable form of payment – we just never expected one of those employers to be the man who introduced the minimum wage law.

"Perhaps hanging out with some of the richest people on the planet has made it hard for Blair to remember how it feels to struggle to make ends meet every month on a meagre wage. What's more, for a man so obsessed with his legacy, it is astonishing that he seems to have 'sold out' over one of the few things he is remembered fondly for."

The market can’t deliver growth without government help

Like so many of The Daily Telegraph’s readers, I am an entrepreneur. And when I first left the small business I had created to join government in the 1970s, I was convinced that the best thing government could do was get off our backs – cut red tape, deregulate, lower taxes. These things are still important. My time in business still shapes my outlook. I believe there are many areas where government should stand aside completely. But I have learnt that there are some things that only government can do to drive growth.
In March, the Prime Minister asked me to report to the Chancellor and Business Secretary on how we might more effectively create wealth in the UK. My report has been shaped by my belief that in the vast majority of cases, we will only get the very best results if government, business and local leaders work together in partnership.

When producing recommendations, I have always asked: “Does this make us more competitive?” There are no easy ways to do this. Competition from an ever more educated, motivated and capable world is facing us every day. We do, however, have much to celebrate – from the very smallest of businesses striving on the street to the large multinationals headquartered here, from inspiring local leaders to a government that encourages enterprise. We have many strengths and should be proud of talking them up. But how do we go that extra mile and make sure we can beat our global competitors for generations to come?

There is no easy answer – we must face the reality that we can’t be complacent and rest on our laurels as a country. I have not selected a handful of popular suggestions. I make 89 recommendations – each one important. Taken together, they provide a blueprint for the future.

What does that future look like? Above all, it is a world with stronger local leadership. We must continue to reverse the trend of the past century by unleashing the dynamic potential of our local economies. Key to this are Local Enterprise Partnerships, which should be given a much greater role in supporting their business communities. Much more of the inspiration for our economy should be based on the strength, initiative and ambition of our cities and their communities.
There are those who hanker for the old rules of free trade, for the market to look after itself, who want to shut the Business Department and for government to have a minimal role. This is a clear and simple message. To some it is attractive. But it has one major weakness. No other leading country or emerging nation believes it can work. The US, our European cousins, the BRICs – they certainly don’t practise it. Why should we be out of sync with the rest of the world? You can close your eyes to the threat of an ever more competitive world, but that threat will not go away.

We need a number of significant changes to provide a stable yet flexible architecture for the future. These include: creating a National Growth Council chaired by the Prime Minister, to ensure all parts of government play their part; inviting local business partnerships to bid for significant funding from central government on a competitive basis every five years to build local economic growth; an enhanced role for chambers of commerce in helping develop the capabilities of businesses; devolving funding for the skills system to improve its alignment with the needs of local economies; injecting greater urgency into the planning system; improving public procurement by employing an experienced chief procurement officer in every department; allowing all county councils to move to unitary status; and incorporating business engagement far deeper into the school curriculum.

The location of Birmingham Town Hall could not be more fitting to announce my report. It is a city with a proud tradition of civic leadership, going back to the days of Joseph Chamberlain. It is vibrant, entrepreneurial and prosperous: it saw tough economic problems in the past and faces challenges in the present. In this, it is a microcosm of Britain as a whole.

The drivers of our economy – business, central government and local leaders – should be organised and structured for success. I have therefore reassessed the way that we, as a country, conduct business. I’ve re-evaluated each of their roles with the single overall aim of embedding a culture of wealth creation. As the saying goes, we are all in it together.

It has been a privilege to produce this review for George Osborne and Vince Cable. The Government has shown strength and confidence by commissioning and facilitating this exercise. The Coalition is fundamentally on the right track, and in many areas I praise its work: Vince Cable for announcing the recent industrial strategy plans; Greg Clark for pioneering city devolution; Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith for their revolution in education and tackling unemployment. These initiatives need to be built on.

What I suggest is challenging – but it is not just a challenge to central government. It’s a challenge to the public and private sector, boardroom and business leaders, and to us as individuals. The end goal has to be wealth creation. There are debates as to how wealth should be divided, but ultimately these are sterile until it is created in the first place.

I am positive that if we work together, we can build a strong, sustainable future for the British economy – one we can be proud to pass on to our children and grandchildren.
Lord Heseltine is a former deputy prime minister

A roll call of corporate rogues who are milking the country

Starbucks TUC protest Oxford Street
Police officers protect a Starbucks outlet in Oxford Street during the TUC anti-austerity protest in London on 20 October 2012. Photograph: Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters
'Only the little people pay taxes," the late American corporate tax evader Leona Helmsley famously declared. That's certainly the spirit of David Cameron and George Osborne's Britain. Five years into the crisis, the British economy has just edged out of its third downturn, but construction is still reeling from government cuts and most people's living standards are falling.

Those at the sharp end are being hit hardest: from cuts to disability and housing benefits, tax credits and the educational maintenance allowance and now increases in council tax while NHS waiting lists are lengthening, food banks are mushrooming across the country and charities report sharp increases in the number of children going hungry. All this to pay for the collapse in corporate investment and tax revenues triggered by the greatest crash since the 30s.

At the other end of the spectrum though, things are going swimmingly. The richest 1,000 people in Britain have seen their wealth increase by £155bn since the crisis began – more than enough to pay off the whole government deficit of £119bn at a stroke. Anyone earning over £1m a year can look forward to a £42,000 tax cut in the spring, while firms have been rewarded with a 2% cut in corporation tax to 24%.

Not that many of them pay anything like that, even now. The scale of tax avoidance by high-street brand multinationals has now become clear, in no small part thanks to campaigning groups such as UK Uncut. Asda, Google, Apple, eBay, Ikea, Starbucks, Vodafone: all pay minimal tax on massive UK revenues, mostly by diverting profits earned in Britain to their parent companies, or lower tax jurisdictions via royalty and service payments or transfer pricing.

Four US companies – Amazon, Facebook, Google and Starbucks – have paid just £30m tax on sales of £3.1bn over the last four years, according to a Guardian analysis. Apple is estimated to have avoided over £550m in tax on more than £2bn worth of sales in Britain by channelling business through Ireland, while Starbucks has paid no corporation tax in Britain for the last three years.

The Tory MP and tax lawyer Charlie Elphicke estimates 19 US-owned multinationals are paying an effective tax rate of 3% on British profits, instead of the standard rate of 26%. It's all entirely legal, of course. But taken together with the multiple individual tax scams of the elite, this roll call of corporate infamy has become an intolerable scandal, when taxes are rising and jobs, benefits and pay being cut for the majority.

Not only that, but collecting the taxes that these companies have wriggled out of would go a long way to shrinking the deficit for which working- and middle-class Britain's living standards are being sacrificed. The total tax gap between what's owed and collected has been estimated by Richard Murphy of Tax Research UK at £120bn a year: £25bn in legal tax avoidance, £70bn in fraudulent tax evasion and £25bn in late payments.

Revenue and Customs' own last guess of £35bn has been widely recognised as a serious underestimate. But even allowing for the fact that it would never be possible to close the entire gap, those figures give a sense of what resources could be mobilised with a determined crackdown. Set them, for instance, against the £83bn in cuts planned for this parliament (including £18bn in welfare) – or the £1.2bn estimated annual benefit fraud bill – and you get a sense of what's at stake.
Cameron and Osborne wring their hands at the "moral repugnance" of "aggressive avoidance", but are doing nothing serious about it whatever. They've been toying with a general "anti-abuse" principle. But it would only catch a handful of the kind of personal dodges the comedian Jimmy Carr signed up to, not the massive profit-shuffling corporate giants have been dining off.

Meanwhile, ministers are absurdly slashing the tax inspection workforce, and even introducing a new incentive for British multinationals to move their operations inbusiness to overseas tax havens. The scheme would, accountants KPMG have been advising clients, offer an "effective UK tax rate of 5.5%" from 2014 (and cut British tax revenues into the bargain).

It's not as if there aren't any number of measures that would plug the loopholes and slash tax avoidance and evasion. They include a general anti-avoidance principle (of the kind the Labour MP Michael Meacher has been pushing in a private member's bill) that would outlaw any transaction whose primary purpose was avoidance rather than economic; minimum tax (backed even by the Conservative Elphicke); and country-by-country financial reporting, and unitary taxation, to expose transfer pricing and limit profit-siphoning.

The latter would work better with international agreement. But there is already majority support in the European Union, and it is governments in countries such as Britain – where the City is itself a tax haven – that are resisting reform. When you realise how closely the tax avoidance industry is tied up with government and drawing up tax law, that's perhaps not so surprising.

But when austerity and cuts are sucking demand out of the economy, fuelling poverty and joblessness and actually widening the deficit, the need to step up the pressure for corporations and the wealthy to pay their share as part of a wider recovery strategy couldn't be more obvious.

The target has to shift from "welfare scroungers" to tax dodgers, and the campaign go national. Companies that are milking the country at the expense of the majority are especially vulnerable to brand damage. Forcing them to pay up is a matter of both social justice and economic necessity.

Just how wrong is the BCCI?

October 31, 2012

BCCI president Shashank Manohar (right) and N Srinivasan at a press conference at the BCCI headquarters, Mumbai, July 3, 2010
Such is the frequency with which the BCCI flexes its muscles, it has become almost too exhausting to criticise the board for it every time © AFP

Contradicting Ian Chappell during his days as baggy green 'un-in-chief was never a terribly wise idea, and it remains ever thus. As he asserted recently on this site, given that it can hardly be held responsible for all of cricket's ills, bashing the BCCI for every chink, kink and ruffle serves as a deterrent to deeper thought and as an alibi for inaction.

Besides, bashing the BCCI is now akin to criticising the Kremlin 30 years ago or the USA ever since, especially while the Bush boys were calling the shots. Indeed, such is the frequency with which the BCCI flexes its muscles like the proverbial playground bully, it has almost become too exhausting, not to say frustrating, to bother. If it isn't the refusal to back the DRS, it's the reluctance to invite Bangladesh over for an ODI, let alone a Test. To relent, though, is to concede defeat, which is what all bullies want. Eventually the Kremlin caved.

What, for instance, are we to make of the decision to demand that Sky Sports and the BBC cough up £500,000 and £50,000 respectively to cover England's impending set-to with India? While this might not necessarily be an over-estimate for 2000 sq ft of additional space at four Test venues, even if the air-conditioning does function properly, the short notice smacks of brinkmanship at best, at worst naked exploitation. Not that the idea of the ever-pompous BBC and the never knowingly satisfied Murdoch empire both being taken for a ride doesn't have considerable allure.

As with the refusal to field a frontline spinner in the India A XI, are we simply witnessing yet another skirmish in yet another pre-series, charm-free offensive ("C'mon lads, let's see if we can wind up Iron Bottom and all those snotty BBC types - should do MS and the boys a power of good")? Could it be a dastardly plot to cut Test Match Special out of the loop and do a back-door deal with those excitable folk at TalkSPORT? Or might it be something far more disreputable? Regardless of your vantage point, or even the efficiency of your blinkers, the words "fair", "proportionate" and "appropriate" are marginally less likely to spring to mind than "grasping", "provocative" or "here we go again".

We could be kind, magnanimous, even generous. We could interpret this unseemly kerfuffle as nothing more than a show of patriotic faith in native expertise and charisma, however misguided. It's India v England after all, in India, so why on earth shouldn't the world watch while armed with the guidance of Ravi, Sanjay and Harsha, who plainly know a great deal more about local conditions than Nasser, Sir Ian and Bumble? In any event, even if you really would rather hear "Got 'im!" or "Dropped 'im" exclaimed with a Lancastrian burr or an Essex twang, didn't Indian viewers in the fifties and sixties have to put up with haughty Jim Swanton and plummy Peter West?

But let's consider the other plausibility. Namely, that the BCCI believes the world beyond India should not be exposed to waspish condemnations of the board's DRS-phobia whenever a wicket is unjustly lost or falsely won. Those objections may have been documented ad nauseam but the bottom line remains as galling as ever: nine for, one against.

Such a blatant subversion of the democratic process need not, of course, be a guarantee of bad faith, 
or even downright wrongness. After all, the vast majority of the developed world was profoundly, almost religiously, racist for centuries. In any event, not even the DRS's most hardened and vehement advocates would strenuously challenge the observation that the fine-tuning prompted by the BCCI's prodding has enhanced the implementation of justice. I'm one and I certainly wouldn't. But still. Nine for, one against.
EMPATHY TIME. As a North London Jew, devoutly irreligious but fiercely proud of my race, I like to think I am not unfamiliar with what it feels like right now, what it means in 2012, to be an Indian cricket lover - as opposed, that is, to a lover of Indian cricket, a weakness to which, given that Indian cricket embodies the game's passions and subtleties like no other, I am only too happy to confess. I am also humbly and undyingly grateful for the Indian passion for cricket, without which the game might well not have a significant future. Or any future.

I too know what it is like to read an article about fellow members of my tribe - for the BCCI, read just about every Israeli government in recent memory - and shudder. Just because something shameful is done purportedly, in "our" name doesn't mean the rest of the world should view this as proof of consent, (im)morality or even fraternal forgiveness. Similarly, criticism of Israel shouldn't automatically brand the critic as anti-semitic.

Thus, more or less, did I begin my contribution to the annual Oxford Indian Society Symposium two weekends ago. There were 30 or so souls in the lecture theatre at St Antony's College, the rump of them students, all thoroughly immersed in the topic under discussion, "Are the BCCI's burgeoning finances harming world cricket?" - if only because it doubtless came as welcome light relief in the wake of sessions such as "What do the recent politics of protest in India and elsewhere imply for the principle of representation in parliamentary democracy?", "What is the future of India as a welfare state?" and "Can India's aggressive drive for nuclear energy ensure energy security in an environmentally responsible and internationally acceptable manner?"

Those ills for which the BCCI is responsible - selfishness, undemocracy, irresponsible use of power, blind allegiance to the almighty crore - are hard to ignore because they affect everyone who truly cares about this precious, precariously perched obsession of ours

In common with the organisers, I had hoped that my fellow panelists would number that world-renowned twit… sorry, Tweeter, Lalit Modi. Sadly, despite having confirmed his attendance, he'd cried off. A huge pity on a personal front, for two reasons: a) I had prepared what I was going to say with him very much in mind; b) his response would have been intriguing at the very least, at best, eminently newsworthy.

After Andrew Miller, the other panelist, had offered an erudite analysis of the ECB's economic and diplomatic strategy (if "strategy" isn't too flattering a word to describe some of its more harebrained actions), we took questions from the floor. What struck me most forcefully was the depth of embarrassment at some of the BCCI's less admirable policies. Some were genuinely shocked to learn that Bangladesh had yet to play a Test in India. Others recoiled at the image of India as filtered through the IPL: insular, superficial, brash, crass. Scepticism abounded, cynicism too. If anyone took issue with what I'd said - and, while suitably polite and anti-inflammatory of adjective, I can't say I pulled many punches - they kept it firmly to themselves. Sure, you could dismiss such reactions as either politeness or the predictable reactions of the privileged, but from where I was sitting, that would mean doubting their manifest sincerity.

All that said, few, surely, will quibble with the notion that, however long overdue, the racial shift in the balance of power at the game's top table, one unprecedented in any other major sport, has brought out the worst in many, particularly those stuffy Old Worldsters who would rather live in some sepia-drenched imperial past where the English Way is the Only Way; who would rather badmouth an accomplished younger brother for a minor misdemeanour than cheer his triumphs.

No matter what one feels about him, it was inevitable that Modi would clash with Giles Clarke, another chap accustomed to getting his own way. When new money meets new money, historical baggage is the barrier. "Be placatory," advised Rosie, a measured and terrifyingly eloquent hitman in Donald Cammell and Nic Roeg's ageless psychedelic-rock 'n' roll-gangster movie Performance: had Clarke been even semi-placatory, accepting the way cricket's axis had shifted, the ECB's desultory and delusory marriage of convenience to Allen Stanford would almost certainly never have got beyond a first date.

Empathy, however, has its limits. Those ills for which the BCCI is responsible - selfishness, undemocracy, irresponsible use of power, blind allegiance to the almighty crore - are hard to ignore because they affect everyone who truly cares about this precious, precariously perched obsession of ours. The impression, sadly, is that those we entrust to administer it are simply not up to snuff (there's no "I" in "run" but there is one in "ruin"). CLR James' immortal question needs updating: "What do they know who only money know?"

Which brings us back to what may one day be remembered, with much mirth, as "Skygate". Or better yet, "Bumblegate". To pretend that it's all about the dosh, given that the BCCI's most recent balance sheet showed a hearty profit, is plainly preposterous. And yet… last week, auditors, for the second year running, felt unable to approve the BCCI's accounts. Perhaps "Bumblegate" is indicative of a genuine recognition, after the years of wine and plenty, that, from now on, every pleasure must be earned and every rupee treasured?

And so to this week's quick quiz:

1) Would the honourable BCCI officials (and even the dishonourable ones) support slapping a surcharge on a ticket-holding spectator just as they clicked through the Eden Gardens turnstiles?
2) Do those officials give a toss if forcing Bumble and Co to commentate on happenings in Kolkata from West London rouses even more vigorous vilification?
3) Are those officials so convinced of their own invulnerability and so oblivious to the bigger picture that a gracious u-turn cannot be countenanced?

And the correct answers are:

1) Exceedingly doubtful.
2) Evidently not.
3) Let's bloody well hope not.
Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton
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Tuesday, 30 October 2012

'You Are Not So Smart: Why Your Memory is Mostly Fiction....

So you remember your wedding day like it was yesterday. You can spot when something is of high quality. You keep yourself well-informed about current affairs but would be open to debate and discussion, You love your phone because it's the best, right? Are you sure? David McRaney from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, is here to tell you that you don't know yourself as well as you think. The journalist and self-described psychology nerd's new book, You Are Not So Smart, consists of 48 short chapters on the assorted ways that we mislead ourselves every day. "The central theme is that you are the unreliable narrator in the story of your life. And this is because you're unaware of how unaware you are," says McRaney. "It's fun to go through legitimate scientific research and pull out all of the examples that show how everyone, no matter how smart or educated or experienced, is radically self-deluded in predictable and quantifiable ways." Based on the blog of the same name, You Are Not So Smart is not so much a self-help book as a self-hurt book. Here McRaney gives some key examples


The Misconception: Wine is a complicated elixir, full of subtle flavours only an expert can truly distinguish, and experienced tasters are impervious to deception.
The Truth: Wine experts and consumers can be fooled by altering their expectations.
An experiment in 2001 at the University of Bordeaux had wine experts taste a red and white wine, to determine which was the best. They dutifully explained what they liked about each wine but what they didn't realise was that scientists had just dyed the same white wine red and told them it was red wine. The tasters described the sorts of berries and tannins they could detect in the red wine as if it really was red. Another test had them judge a cheap bottle of wine and an expensive one. They rated the expensive wine much more highly than the cheap, with much more flattering descriptions. It was actually the same wine. It's not to say wine-tasting is pointless, it's to show that expectation can radically change experience. Yes, these people were experts, but that doesn't mean they can't be influenced by the same things as the rest of us, whether it be presentation or advertising or price. This drives home the idea that reality is a construction of the brain. You don't passively receive the outside world, you actively construct your experience moment by moment.

The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy

The Misconception: We take randomness into account when determining cause and effect.
The Truth: We tend to ignore random chance when the results seem meaningful or when we want a random event to have a meaningful cause.
Imagine a cowboy shooting at the side of a barn over and over again with a gun. The side of the barn fills up with holes. If you walk over and paint a bullseye around clusters of holes it will make it look like you have made quite a lot of correct shots. It's a metaphor for the way the human mind naturally works when trying to make sense out of chaos. The brain is very invested in taking chaos and turning it into order. For example, in America it's very popular to discuss how similar the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations were. Elected 100 years apart, Lincoln was killed in the Ford theatre; Kennedy was in a Lincoln automobile made by Ford. They were both killed on a Friday, sitting next to their wives, by men with three names. And so on and so on. It's not spooky. People take hold of the hits but ignore the misses. They are pulled into the things that line up, and are similar or coincidental, but they ignore everything else that's not. The similarities are merely bullseyes drawn around the many random facts.

Confirmation Bias

The Misconception: Your opinions are the result of years of rational, objective analysis.
The Truth: Your opinions are the result of years of paying attention to information that confirmed what you believed, while ignoring information that challenged your preconceived notions.
Any cognitive bias is a tendency to think in one way and not another whenever your mind is on auto-pilot; whenever you're going with the flow. Confirmation bias is a tendency to pay attention to evidence that confirms pre-existing beliefs and notions and conclusions about life and to completely ignore other information. This happens so automatically that we don't even notice. Say you have a flatmate, and you are arguing over who does most of the housework, and both people believe that they do most of the work. What is really happening is that both people are noticing when they do the work and not noticing when they don't. The way it plays into most of our lives is the media that we choose to put into our brains; the television, news, magazines and books. We tend to only pick out things that line up with our pre-existing beliefs and rarely choose anything that challenges those beliefs. It relays the backfire effect, which is a cognitive bias where if we're presented with contradictory evidence, we tend to reject it and support our initial belief even more firmly. When people watch a news programme or pundit, they aren't looking for information so much as confirmation of what they already believe is going in.

Brand Loyalty

The Misconception: We prefer the things we own over the things we don't because we made rational choices when we bought them.
The Truth: We prefer the things we own because we rationalise our past choices to protect our sense of self.
Why do people argue over Apple vs Android? Or one car company versus another? After all, these are just corporations. Why would you defend a brand as if you are their PR representative? We believe that we prefer the things we own because we made these deep rational evaluations of them before we bought them, but most of the rationalisation takes place after you own the thing. It's the choosing of one thing over another that leads to narratives about why you did it, which usually tie in to your self-image.
There are at least a dozen psychological effects that play into brand loyalty, the most potent of which is the endowment effect: you feel like the things you own are superior to the things you don't. When you buy a product you tend to connect the product to your self-image, then once it's connected to your self-image you will defend it as if you're defending your own ego or belief structure.

The Misinformation Effect

The Misconception: Memories are played back like recordings.
The Truth: Memories are constructed anew each time from whatever information is currently available, which makes them highly permeable to influences from the present.
You might think your memory is a little fuzzy but not that it's completely inaccurate. People believe that memory is like a video or files stored in some sort of computer. But it's not like that at all. Memories are actually constructed anew each time that you remember something.
Each time you take an old activation sequence in your brain and re-construct it; like building a toy airplane out of Lego and then smashing the Lego, putting it back into the box, and building it again. Each time you build it it's going to be a little bit different based on the context and experience you have had since the last time you created it.
Oddly enough, the least remembered memory is the most accurate. Each time you bring it into your life you edit it a little more. In 1974 Elizabeth Loftus had people watch a film of two cars having a collision and divided them into groups. Asking each group the same question, she used a slightly different description: how fast were the cars going when they contacted, hit, bumped, collided or smashed? The more violent the wording, the higher they estimated the speed. The way in which questions were worded altered the memories subjects reported.
They weren't looking back to the memory of the film they watched, they were building a new experience based on current information. Memory is actually very malleable and it's dangerous to think that memory is a perfect recording of a past event.

'You Are Not So Smart: Why Your Memory is Mostly Fiction, Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook and 46 Other Ways You're Deluding Yourself' by David McRaney (Oneworld, £8.99)

When corporations bankroll politics, we all pay the price

Letting taxpayers fund parties directly could revive our rotten system – and at £1 per elector, it would be cheaper too
Illustration: Daniel Pudles
‘Despite attempts to reform it, US campaign finance is more corrupt and corrupting than it has been for decades.' Illustration: Daniel Pudles
It's a revolting spectacle: the two presidential candidates engaged in a frantic and demeaning scramble for money. By 6 November, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will each have raised more than $1bn. Other groups have already spent a further billion. Every election costs more than the one before; every election, as a result, drags the United States deeper into cronyism and corruption. Whichever candidate takes the most votes, it's the money that wins.
Is it conceivable, for instance, that Romney, whose top five donors are all Wall Street banks, would put the financial sector back in its cage? Or that Obama, who has received $700,000 from both Microsoft and Google, would challenge their monopolistic powers? Or, in the Senate, that the leading climate change denier James Inhofe, whose biggest donors are fossil fuel companies, could change his views, even when confronted by an overwhelming weight of evidence? The US feeding frenzy shows how the safeguards and structures of a nominal democracy can remain in place while the system they define mutates into plutocracy.
Despite perpetual attempts to reform it, US campaign finance is now more corrupt and corrupting than it has been for decades. It is hard to see how it can be redeemed. If the corporate cronies and billionaires' bootlickers who currently hold office were to vote to change the system, they'd commit political suicide. What else, apart from the money they spend, would recommend them to the American people?
But we should see this system as a ghastly warning of what happens if a nation fails to purge the big money from politics. The British system, by comparison to the US one, looks almost cute. Total campaign spending in the last general election – by the parties, the candidates and independent groups – was £58m: about one sixtieth of the cost of the current presidential race. There's a cap on overall spending and tough restrictions on political advertising.
But it's still rotten. There is no limit on individual donations. In a system with low total budgets, this grants tremendous leverage to the richest donors. The political parties know that if they do anything that offends the interests of corporate power they jeopardise their prospects.
The solutions proposed by parliament would make our system a little less rotten. At the end of last year, the committee on standards in public life proposed that donationsshould be capped at an annual £10,000, the limits on campaign spending should be reduced, and public funding for political parties should be raised. Parties, it says, should receive a state subsidy based on the size of their vote at the last election.
The political process would still be dominated by people with plenty of disposable income. In the course of a five-year election cycle, a husband and wife would be allowed to donate, from the same bank account, £100,000. State funding pegged to votes at the last election favours the incumbent parties. It means that even when public support for a party has collapsed (think of the Liberal Democrats), it still receives a popularity bonus.
Even so, and despite their manifesto pledges, the three major parties have refused to accept the committee's findings. The excuse all of them use is that the state cannot afford more funding for political parties. This is a ridiculous objection. The money required is scarcely a rounding error in national accounts. It probably represents less than we pay every day for the crony capitalism the present system encourages: the unnecessary spending on private finance initiative projects, on roads to nowhere, on theTrident programme and all the rest, whose primary purpose is to keep the 1% sweet. The overall cost of our suborned political process is incalculable: a corrupt and inefficient economy, and a political system engineered to meet not the needs of the electorate, but the demands of big business and billionaires.
I would go much further than the parliamentary committee. This, I think, is what a democratic funding system would look like: each party would be able to charge the same, modest fee for membership (perhaps £50). It would then receive matching funding from the state, as a multiple of its membership receipts. There would be no other sources of income. (This formula would make brokerage by trade unions redundant.)
This system, I believe, would not only clean up politics, it would also force parties to re-engage with the public. It would oblige them to be more entrepreneurial in raising their membership, and therefore their democratic legitimacy. It creates an incentive for voters to join a party and to begin, once more, to participate in politics.
The cost to the public would be perhaps £50m a year, or a little more than £1 per elector: three times the price of a telephone vote on The X Factor. This, on the scale of state expenditure, is microscopic.
Politicians and the tabloid press would complain bitterly about this system, claiming, as they already do, that taxpayers cannot afford to fund politics. But when you look at how the appeasement of the banking sector has ruined the economy, at how corporate muscle prevents action from being taken on climate change, at the economic and political distortions caused by the system of crony capitalism, and at the hideous example on the other side of the Atlantic, you discover that we can't afford not to.

Monday, 29 October 2012

A good cricket book

10 for 66 and All That
by Arthur Mailey
Australian legspinner Arthur Mailey, circa 1910
Mailey: would rather have been hit for four than have bowled a straight one at a batsman © Getty Images 
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Suresh Menon: Today the most prized cricketer might be the one in coloured clothing who hits a ball into the dinner basket of a spectator near third man while intending to clear the fielder at midwicket. But not so long ago, it was the "character" who was the most popular. Of one such, Neville Cardus wrote: "The most fascinating cricketer I have known was the Australian [legspinner] Arthur Mailey, an artist in every part of his nature."
The writer and the cricketer were firm friends; both emerged from slums (though thousands of kilometres apart), both taught themselves to write well, each had a personal manner of demonstrating he had climbed out of the past to walk among kings and prime ministers. Cardus wrote on classical music, while Mailey threw champagne parties.
Mailey once said, "I'd rather spin the ball and be hit for four than bowl a batsman out by a straight one." And on another occasion, "If ever I bowl a maiden over, it is not my fault but the batsman's."
Yet the line he is best known for is the one he wrote in his autobiography, 10 for 66 and All That. He had just dismissed his great hero Victor Trumper, stumped off a googly, and the batsman walked back, pausing only to tell the young bowler, "It was too good for me." Mailey captured that moment thus: "There was no triumph in me as I watched the receding figure. I felt like a boy who had killed a dove." This most glorious of lines in all cricketing literature has, in recent years, had doubts cast upon its authenticity. Yet character is revealed as much by what a man has said as by what he would have said. If it is not factual, it is still truthful, and that's what matters.
Mailey, the only Australian to have claimed nine wickets in a Test innings, was an accomplished cartoonist, and his cartoons, which tell of a time and a place, enrich his autobiography. Even if it were merely a well-written story of an unusual life, 10 for 66 And All That might still have made the cut among the best books on the game. But it is more, its insights and predictions both startling and original.

And another five

  • Jack Hobbs: Profile of the Master by John Arlott A warm and affectionate story of a great batsman, the highlight for me a letter from Hobbs to Arlott that ends: "Thank you for everything John. You have been very kind and good to me over many years."
  • It Never Rains... A Cricketer's Lot by Peter Roebuck Comparable to the great mathematician G H Hardy's A Mathematician's Apology, this takes you inside the heart and mind of the cricketer and his futile search for perfection.
  • Pundits from Pakistan by Rahul Bhattacharya The cricket tour as excuse for history, travel writing, biography and cultural commentary.
  • A Corner of a Foreign Field by Ramachandra GuhaA historian and cricket nut brings his two passions together in this story of a man, his time and the consequences of the events that took place then.
  • On Top Down Under by Ray Robinson: An incredibly detailed story of Australian captains, most of them even more interesting off field than on.
Like those who go against the grain by temperament rather than planning, Mailey displayed a combination of authority and empathy that was unique. He was the one Australian who was sympathetic towards Douglas Jardine and Bodyline. What the series did, according to Mailey, was, it changed the face of cricket reporting. "On the next tour of Australia came an army of 'incident-spotters'," he writes, "just in case there were repercussions that were too newsy... it was then we saw a blast of criticism about umpires' decisions, about playing conditions, about the advisability of players having two or three eggs for breakfast, and of fried liver being on the menu... some of us viewed the future of cricket journalism with apprehension."
Mailey was an accomplished painter too. At an exhibition of his works in London, a royal visitor told him he "had not painted the sun convincingly". Mailey's response was: "You see, Your Majesty, in this country I have to paint the sun from memory."
Mailey, who played his last Test in 1926, was 70 when he wrote this book. And there was nothing wrong with the memory then of the man described by Cardus as an "incorrigible romantic".

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Doosra: Is it really a question of integrity?

Posted by Michael Jeh 1 day, 5 hours ago in Michael Jeh

John Inverarity has bowled me a doosra today with his comments about the doosra and integrity. I’m genuinely not sure which way to play this one.

That he is a gentleman and a scholar there can be no doubt. His reputation as man of decency and integrity allows him the privilege of making a comment such as this with some immunity from anyone looking to take cheap shots at him. From that perspective, reading his words carefully, I can draw no hint of mischief or hypocrisy in his brave statement. Perhaps a long bow could be drawn to infer that he is pointing fingers at some bowlers but I genuinely think that to do so would be to do the gentleman an injustice. Clearly he believes that the doosra has the potential to corrupt bowling actions and he would prefer to see the Australian bowling contingent shy away from that technique. Fair enough too if that is his genuine belief.

On the other hand, I also believe that it may be a bit naïve on the part of Australian cricket, if Inverarity is speaking on behalf of the institution rather than as an individual, to encourage a policy that is clearly going to disadvantage Australia to this extent. Put simply, the doosra is arguably the most potent bowling weapon in modern cricket. Especially in limited overs cricket, it is probably the single most influential factor in giving bowling teams a sniff of hope. The fast bowlers have proved woefully inadequate in coming up with anything new to stem the flow of boundaries. In fact, their skill level has actually dropped some considerable level, evidenced by the steady diet of full tosses that are served up at least once an over when under pressure. So the doosra and the variations that followed (carrom ball) can lay claim to being the most influential game-changer. When a bowler with a good doosra comes on to bowl, I immediately sit up and take notice because there is always the chance that a game can be turned on its head. Since Shane Warne led the new spin revolution, nothing has excited me more in the bowling stakes than the perfection of the various types of doosra.

That is why I am slightly flummoxed by Inverarity’s stance on it. Whilst not necessarily agreeing with his inference that it may lead to illegal actions, I respect his integrity enough to accept his point in the spirit it was intended. However, to encourage Australian spinners to not learn the art form is possibly putting principle before pragmatism. That in itself is admirable if it were applied universally but no country, least of all Australia, has ever applied this morality on a ‘whole of cricket’ basis so what makes the doosra so special? Is Inverarity suggesting that Australian cricket should now make decisions on the basis of integrity or is the doosra singled out as the one issue where we apply the Integrity Test? If so, is it any coincidence that we don’t really have anyone who can bowl the doosra with any great proficiency and will that change on the day we discover our own Doosra Doctor?

All countries have their own inconsistencies to be ashamed of so I’m not suggesting that Australia is alone in this regard. Far from it. Living in Australia, I just get to see a lot more of the local cricketing news so I’m better qualified to make comment on Australian examples. A few examples spring to mind….let’s think back to the times when we prepared turning tracks in the 1980s to beat the West Indies. A fair enough tactic too so long as there’s no complaints if other teams prepare pitches to suit their strengths. Similarly, I recall a period during the late 1990s when Australian teams insisted on having their fielder’s word accepted when a low catch had been taken. That theory worked OK until Andy Bichel claimed a caught and bowled off Michael Vaughan in the 2002/03 Ashes series when replays showed it had clearly bounced in front of him. I know Bich quite well and he is as honest as they come so it was genuinely a case of him thinking it had carried when in fact it hadn’t. Around that same period, Justin Langer refused to walk when caught by Brian Lara at slip, despite the Australian mantra that a fielder’s word was his bond. They come no more honourable than Lara in this regard so what happened to the principle? Like all matters of convenience, it is admirable but rarely works when it becomes an inconvenient truth.

And that is the source of my confusion with linking the doosra to the question of integrity. I’m not convinced that the integrity issue will stand the test of time if Australia accidentally discovers a home-grown exponent of this delivery. Likewise the issue of the switch-hit. Now that Dave Warner plays it as well as anyone, are we opposed to this too on integrity grounds? If Warner hadn’t mastered the shot, would that too be something that we would not encourage because it perhaps bent the spirit of cricket?

Only time will tell whether Inverarity’s wisdom and guidance will be mirrored by those in the organisation with perhaps less integrity and more pragmatism in their veins. I suspect it will take more than one decent man to stop an irresistible force. His motives may be pure indeed but I suspect that this is one issue that will turn the other way!

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Wave a banknote at a pundit and he'll predict anything

Illustration by Satoshi Kambayashi
On the evening of 5 April 2009, Luigi Guigno of L'Aquila in Italy was phoned by a sister terrified by tremors under their village. He told her not to worry. Government experts in "the forecasting and prevention of major risks" had just been on the news declaring there to be "no danger" of an earthquake. They need not go out into the street. A few hours later an earthquake struck and Luigi, his pregnant wife, their son and 300 others were crushed to death.
This week a local judge jailed six of the scientists, not for failing to predict the quake but for giving what he regarded as reckless reassurances. He fined them £6m and disbarred them from public office. World scientists condemned the verdict as inquisitorial and medieval. Britain's Lord May said it ignored the basic nature of scientific inquiry. Luigi's relatives disagreed. A local official said simply: "Some scientists didn't do their job."
When a forester fails to predict that a tree might fall and it kills someone, he is arrested. The same goes for a train mechanic who fails to repair a carriage, a cook who poisons a customer and a builder whose house collapses. They didn't mean to kill, but they failed to forecast what might ensue from their defective expertise.
Why does the same not apply to the professional scientists, experts and pundits on whose predictive genius so much of our life depends? The answer is that they claim protection, either through (usually weak) self-regulation or by pleading Lord May's fifth amendment, that the nature of scientific inquiry exonerates them of harmless mistakes.
This week agriculture ministers were left floundering by conflicting scientific guidance on bovine TB and badgers. Transport ministers were humiliated by statisticians failing to predict revenue on the west coast railway. The Totnes MP, Sarah Wollaston, called attention to the hysterical 2009 swine flu "forecast", which panicked Whitehall into blowing £500m on dubious Tamiflu, whose test results it refused to disclose.
Yesterday we were told that the nation was recovering from a second "dip" in a recession, which its forecasters had failed to predict. This is despite government economists being served by ever more powerful computers and mathematical models. No one, to the best of my knowledge, has been called to account for this failure.
Science has rarely enjoyed greater status. Schools are in thrall to it. Broadcasters grovel at its feet, with hours of programmes devoted to children gazing adoringly at scientific researchers, depicted as funny, garrulous, lovable role models. Science has taken the place of religion in a cocoon of uncritical certainty. Those who claim the title "scientist", be it natural or social, expect to combine the immunity of diplomats and the infallibility of popes. Science is merging into scientology.
Of course, Lord May is right, that academic inquiry must proceed uninhibited by risk from error. That is what universities are for, and why they should stay independent of the state. But the Italian geologists were not doing research: they were paid to apply their expertise to keep the public safe. They were not researching, but advising. They failed catastrophically.
The truth is that there is one law for the officer class and another for the poor bloody infantry. When experts trained to detect seismic phenomena fail, their fraternity does not criticise or review their work, but treats them as innocent and relieves them of blame. If an ordinary worker miscalculates the risk, if trains crash, trees fall, rivers are polluted or foodstuffs rot, he goes to jail. The difference is not in class of error but in class of person.
Since the dawn of time, people have craved prediction against uncertainty. They have paid soothsayers, witchdoctors, stargazers and palmists. They ask journalists at parties: "Who is going to win the American election?" and seem cheated if the reply is "I just don't know."
Some people are paid to forecast. Their job is to make assertions about the future, assessing likelihood over a spectrum of certainty. When a scientist says this or that "will happen", we expect it to have greater credence than if he had merely gazed into the entrails of a sacred goose.
The worst offenders are meteorologists. A Devon entrepreneur, Rick Turner, declared last month that he would sue the Met Office for inaccurate and "persistently pessimistic" forecasts, which had cost his region millions of pounds in lost revenue. I hope he wins. The gloomy Met Office, seemingly in the pay of the outbound tourism trade, is reckless with other's people's livelihoods. The weather on the Welsh coast this summer was not ideal, but it bore not the slightest resemblance to the daily "forecast" of it on the radio. The sun shone for far more hours than it rained, yet the forecast kept people away in droves. And there was never any hint of correction or apology.
Prediction matters to people. If the variables are too great, science should shut up, rather than peddle spurious expertise. But you can wave a banknote in a pundit's face and he will predict anything you like. Of course, it is outrageous to jail scientists for honest errors, but it is not outrageous to hold them to some account. When did Lord May's Royal Society last inquire into a scientific scandal? Journalists, like bankers, are getting hell these days for their mistakes. Why let seismologists off the hook?

Friday, 26 October 2012

Closed drug trials leave patients at risk and doctors in the dark


Drug companies can hide information about their drugs from doctors and patients, perfectly legally, with the help of regulators. We need proper legislation

We need muscular legislation to ensure that all information about all trials on all currently used drugs is made available to doctors
We need muscular legislation to ensure that all information about all trials on all currently used drugs is made available to doctors Photo: Alamy

This week, Daily Telegraph readers have been astonished by revelations about the incompetent regulation of implantable medical devices. This paper has clearly demonstrated that patients are put at risk, because of flawed and absent legislation. But many of these issues apply even more widely, to the regulation of all medicines, and at the core is a scandal that has been shamefully ignored by politicians.
The story is simple: drug companies can hide information about their drugs from doctors and patients, perfectly legally, with the help of regulators. While industry and politicians deny the existence of this problem, it is widely recognised within medical academia, and meticulously well-documented. The current best estimate is that half of all drug trials never get published.
The Government has spent an estimated £500 million stockpiling Tamiflu to help prevent pneumonia and death in case of an avian flu epidemic. But the manufacturer, Roche, continues to withhold vitally important information on trials of this drug from the universally respected Cochrane Library, which produces gold-standard summaries on medicines for doctors and patients. Nobody in the Department of Health or any regulator has raised a whisper about this, though Roche says it has made “full clinical study data available to health authorities around the world”.
In fact, while regulators should be helping to inform doctors, and protect patients, in reality they have conspired with companies to withhold information about trials. The European Medicines Agency, which now approves drugs for use in Britain, spent more than three years refusing to hand over information to Cochrane on Orlistat and Rimonabant, two widely used weight loss drugs. The agency’s excuses were so poor that the European Ombudsman made a finding of maladministration.
Even Nice, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, plays along with this game. Sometimes chunks of its summary documents on the benefits and risks of drugs are redacted, because data has only been shared by companies under unethical “confidentiality agreements”. The numbers are blacked out in the tables, to prevent doctors seeing the benefits from a drug in each trial; and even the names of the trials are blacked out, as if they were code names for Russian agents during the Cold War.
This is a perverse and bizarre situation to have arisen in medicine, where decisions are supposed to be based on evidence, and where lack of transparency can cost lives. Our weak regulations have been ignored, and if we don’t act quickly, the situation will soon get much worse. The European Medicines Agency’s sudden pledges of a new era of transparency are no use: it has a track record of breaking such promises. We need proper legislation, but the new Clinical Trials Directive, currently passing through the European Parliament, does nothing to improve things.

Are you glazing over at the mention of European directives? This is where it all went wrong. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, but these issues have been protected from public scrutiny by a wall of red tape, while the people we trust to manage these complex problems have failed us. Regulators have lacked ambition. Politicians have ignored the issue. Journalists have been scared off by lobbyists. Worst of all, the doctors in medical membership bodies, the Royal Colleges and the Societies, even the patient groups – many of them funded by industry – have let us all down.

This must change. We need muscular legislation to ensure that all information about all trials on all currently used drugs is made available to doctors. We need the members of patient groups and medical bodies to force their leaders to act. And we need EU medicines regulators to be held to public account, for the harm they have inflicted on us.

Ben Goldacre is a doctor and author of 'Bad Pharma’ (4th Estate 2012)