Friday, 28 February 2014

It’s no good, Dawkins. No one’s going to abandon religion because some atheist is banging on at them about science

Mark Steel in The Independent

There’s a religious slot broadcast every morning on the radio, called Thought for the Day, and it’s marvellous. Because it usually involves some bishop telling you what he did the day before, and shovelling Jesus into it somehow. So it will go: “Last night I was watching an episode of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, in which a poor hapless restaurateur once again found himself on the wrong end of Gordon’s somewhat ribald invective. And I began to think to myself ‘Isn’t this a bit like Jesus’? Because Jesus too went out for supper one night, and that turned into a bit of a nightmare. Good morning.”

The fact that this quaint tradition endures with few complaints, despite a campaign led by the National Secular Society, suggests that the modern atheists are losing. So does the popularity of The Book of Mormon, the gloriously blasphemous musical I’ve finally seen, which, despite a swearing, camp Jesus and a plot revolving around religion being made-up nonsense, is strangely affectionate towards religion. You’re invited to judge the evangelists on what they do, rather than on what they believe, and that may be a vital part of its success, compared with the modern atheists whose attitude is: “Of COURSE Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, you idiots.”

Richard Dawkins, for example, complained that a Muslim political writer wasn’t a “serious journalist” because he “believes Mohamed flew to heaven on a winged horse”. I suppose if Dawkins had been in Washington when Martin Luther King made his famous speech, he’d have shouted: “Never mind your dream, how can Jonah have lived in a whale, you silly Christian knob?”

Followers of this ideal just can’t have it that some people are religious, even if they’re not doing any harm. I expect that during Ramadan they wander around Muslim areas in daylight shoving sandwiches in Muslims’ mouths, while reading from a biological paper on the workings of the digestive system.

One flaw in this approach is that it isn’t likely to win many converts. In all the debates in which Dawkins has argued with believers, there can’t have been many occasions when someone has said: “Ah NOW I see: we’re organisms composed of a complex series of particles. So that goddess with all the arms must be a load of bollocks.”

He can’t seem to grasp that what’s obvious to him might not look that way if you’ve been brought up in Catholic rural Spain or on the banks of the Ganges, so dealing with the intricacies of people’s ideas requires more than yelling science at them. If Dawkins were asked to treat an anorexic, he’d say: “This will be easy,” and shout, “Look – you’re NOT FAT, I’ll pick you up and chuck you over the wardrobe. THEN you’ll calculate that a man of my years couldn’t throw an adult unless they were in need of fattening up. So get these down you – they’re some pork pies I’ve got left over from Ramadan.”

The modern atheist often points to atrocities carried out by religious institutions, such as the tyranny of the Taliban or the child abuse of the Catholic Church, but isn’t it the actions of these people that are vile, not the religion itself? Unless your attitude is: “Those priests are a disgrace. They sexually abused children, covered it up for decades, then to top it all they give out stupid wafers in their service. How sick can you get”?

The contradictions of religion are certainly confusing. I spent a morning at a Sikh temple recently, where 4,000 free meals are provided for anyone who wants one, and hypnotic musicians play all day amid an addictive tranquillity. Everyone you meet exudes joy and respect, until I thought: “I reckon I could be a Sikh.” Then an elder informed me of the guru who fought for the Sikh people with such courage, that when his head was chopped off he carried on fighting for the rest of the day, blessed as he was by God. And if I’m honest, I think that’s where we had to agree to differ.

Even so, there’s so much to experience and discuss with followers at this temple – the process that led them from the Punjab to west London, the food, customs, community and music – so to start your acquaintance by explaining to them that you can’t run around without a head, maybe by performing a series of experiments with goats on the steps of the temple, would cut you off from any of that. In any case, if you turned up at Richard Dawkins’s house with 4,000 mates, I’d be surprised if you all got a meal out of him.

It’s almost as if the modern atheist is in agreement with the religious fundamentalist that a person’s attitude towards God is the most important aspect of their character.

This may be why, even among atheists, the strident anti-religious stance of those like Richard Dawkins appears less attractive than The Book of Mormon, whose creators said: “We wanted to write a love letter from atheists to religion.”

That must be the most heartening attitude of all, though if you were to take Cliff Richard and Abu Hamza to see it, they would probably literally explode in a fireball. Then millions from round the world would flock to see the site of such a miracle. 

Woman in coma told to find work by Department of Works and Pensions

The Independent

The Minister for Disabled People has offered an “unreserved apology” after a woman was sent a series of letters demanding she attempt to find work and attend job training, despite being in a coma for the past two months.

Speaking during a Commons backbench debate, Mike Penning admitted processes had clearly “gone wrong”.

Responding to Rochdale MP Simon Danczuk raising his constituent Sheila Holt’s case during the debate, Mr Penning said: “I apologise, unreservedly, to the family as the minister responsible.

“It's about time politicians did stand up and apologise when things went wrong. It clearly has gone wrong and the family have every right to be aggrieved and I hope she makes a full recovery, as much as she can.”

Following the apology, Ms Holt’s father explained that it was the stress of losing her benefits as a result of welfare reform that left her fighting for her life in the first place.
Ms Holt has suffered from severe bipolar disorder all her life and had attempted suicide three times. The last time she had been able to work was when she was 16.

Despite this, Ken Holt claims Seetec, a contractor carrying out work capability assessments for the Department for Work and Pensions, started writing to her. The DWP stopped her income support and she was forced to go on a job-seeking course for eight days.
After each day she became more and more agitated until she “cracked” her father said, and was hospitalised following a “manic episode”.

On 17 December, while in hospital she had a heart attack and is still in a coma after suffering brain damage. Letters to her from Seetec however continued.

Mr Danczuk read one of the letters out during the debate, which was on the effects of welfare reform on sick and disabled people: “It said, 'Dear Ms Holt, you are now approaching the end of the first stage of your intensive job focused activity.

“'We hope that all the activity or training intervention completed so far has not only supported you to achieve your aspirations but has moved you closer to the job market.
“'You will shortly enter the second stage of your intensive job-focused activity. Sessions and workshops may vary depending on the centre you attend'.

“This letter was sent to my constituent Sheila Holt on January 30. I'm sad to inform the House that Sheila will not be attending the second stage of her intensive job-focused activity because she has been in a coma since December.

“I should inform the House that members of Sheila's family repeatedly informed the DWP and Seetec about this fact that she wasn't well but they continued to get harassed by those organisations.”

He added: “Let's make this important point - before the election when the Prime Minister toured the TV studios he often talked about broken Britain. Well I have to say that if this is the Prime Minister's idea of fixing broken Britain, hounding disabled people who suffer from mental breakdowns, harassing their distressed relatives, then I prefer the broken Britain that existed before.”

Cameron and the Tories have reduced immigration to tens of thousands. NOT!

Tory failure to cap immigration is an opportunity for a policy rethink

The PM promised something he couldn't possibly deliver. Now he needs an honest conversation with the public
Passengers board a bus for Western Europe from Sofia, Bulgaria
Passengers board a bus for western Europe from Sofia, Bulgaria: 'Cameron's problem is EU migration, and he can’t do much about that'. Photograph: Vassil Donev/EPA
Is there anyone who wouldn't have paid good money to have been a fly on the wall in Downing Street over the past 24 hours? David Cameron doesn't seem to be a sweary type; he doesn't blowtorch underlings or kick the copying machines in the style of Gordon Brown – but there will have been ructions on receipt of those latest migration figures from the Office for National Statistics. Net migration up 30% in the past year when, after all the breast-beating, and from all the promises Cameron made to the electorate, it should have gone down.
That was the battleground for the next election. Nothing else had the potential to address the Labour poll lead that has been so long out of reach. Cameron put all of his betting chips on what seemed to be the party's trump card: the "vote for us, we're tough on migration and tough on migrants" strategy. The bet was lost; the result not even close. Net migration has hit 212,000 and gone is the hope of bringing it below 100,000 before the general election. What do you give a dumb punter who has lost everything. Sympathy? He hardly deserves it.
Perhaps some advice, instead. The first thing to say is that he should stop taking silly positions. His problem here is EU migration. He can't do much about that. He shouldn't have given the impression that events outside his control were within it. He can't change the rules because his EU partners won't let him. And regardless of the chunterings from his backbenchers, he knows that to actually leave the EU – the only way to regain complete control – would be ruinous for Britain in terms of economics and world positioning. The path to irrelevance.
He acted as he did to show those backbenchers that he is a toughie, to draw the poison from the tabloids, and to head off Ukip. But over-promising has left him in a worse position with all three than he was in before, and with his credibility in tatters. He should get back to square one and fast.
He needs to start listening, as he should have from the outset, to the people who actually have to make his market-based capitalist system work. They are against his crude machinations on migration because they know how it affects their efforts to provide for Britain the economy he says he wants. He has, to use Geoffrey Howe's cricketing metaphor, been sending them out to the crease having sabotaged their bats.
Frustrated by his inability to deal with EU migration, Cameron will inevitably redouble efforts to rein in non-EU migration, which might be popular for a while, not least because it might also curb visible migration by non-white Commonweath types. But if he does opt for a rethink, he might use as a starting point advice from Mark Boleat, policy chair of the City of London Corporation. Writing yesterday in the London Evening Standard, Boleat said: "What is needed is a sensible, fact-based debate over what migrants bring to the capital, while also acknowledging their impact on communities and services. A row where only the loudest are heard fails this test … Policymakers should clamp down on those immigrants who come to Britain to take rather than contribute. But the overwhelming majority of immigrants come here to make a better life for themselves and their families through hard work, and in so doing are of huge benefit to Britain. Closing our borders or Swiss-style immigration quotas are not viable or sensible solutions." No hangwringing Guardianista is he; no authority more instinctively Conservative than the City of London Corporation.
The PM might opt to be brave. To take on the unreasoned, backward thinking populism we hear from Ukip and his right. To rein in his own election strategist Lynton Crosby who, from all we have seen in this and previous campaigns, appears to think that divisive manoeuvring on migration works like some form of electoral Viagra.
Cameron might decide to have a straightforward and honest conversation with the public. People flows and money flows are how the modern world works; there will be costs and benefits. We can rage against the dynamic or we can better adapt to it, thinking more about how we channel resources to those areas most affected, how we strike the balance between the needs of long-term residents and those newly arrived, and how we achieve balanced and harmonious communities.
This is hard, mainly because it means a break from the nostalgia that underpins the worst of our failings in this area. But there really is no going back to Britain as it was. It is hard but it is necessary, and the PM may observe one of life's ironies: with failure comes opportunity.

You're more biased than you think – even when you know you're biased

Nobody’s political opinions are just the pure, objective, unvarnished truth. Except yours, obviously

Buttons of President Barack Obama are displayed at a table set up by the Three Peaks Independent Democrats in the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
‘Even when people acknowledge that what they’re about to do is biased, they still are inclined to see their resulting decisions as objective.’ Photo: Spencer Platt /Getty
When it comes to the important issues, I’m pretty sure my opinions are just right. Of course I am: if I thought they were wrong, I’d trade them in for some different ones. But in reality, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that we’re all at least somewhat subject to bias – that my support for stricter gun control laws here in the US, for example, is partly based on wanting to support my team. Tell Republicans that some imaginary policy is a Republican one, as the psychologist Geoffrey Cohen did in 2003, and they’re much more likely to support it, even if it runs counter to Republican values. But ask them why they support it, and they’ll deny that party affiliation played a role. (Cohen found something similar for Democrats. Maybe I mentioned Republicans more prominently because I’m biased?)

Surely, though, if you tell people you’re giving them biased information – if you specifically draw their attention to the risk of being led astray by bias – they’ll begin to question their own objectivity? Nope: even then, they’ll insist they’re reaching an unbiased conclusion, if a new paper by five Princeton researchers (which I found via Tom Jacobs at Pacific Standard) is anything to go by. 

Emily Pronin and her colleagues asked Princeton students, and other people recruited online, to look at 80 paintings, and to give each a score from 1 to 10 based on their artistic merit. Half of the subjects weren’t told the artists’ identities. The other half were allowed to see a name, purportedly that of the painter of each picture. In fact, those names were a mixture of famous artists and names pulled from the phone book. As you’d predict, those who saw the names were biased in favour of famous artists. But even though they acknowledged the risk of bias, when asked to assess their own objectivity, they didn’t view their judgments as any more biased as a result. 

Even when the risk of bias was explicitly pointed out to them, people remained confident that they weren’t susceptible to it; indeed, they actually rated their performance as more objective than they’d predicted it would be at the start of the test. “Even when people acknowledge that what they are about to do is biased,” the researchers write, “they still are inclined to see their resulting decisions as objective.”

This is more evidence for the “bias blind spot”, a term coined by Pronin which refers to the head-spinning fact that we have a cognitive bias to the effect that we’re uniquely immune to cognitive biases. Take the famous better-than-average effect, or Lake Wobegon effect, whereby the majority of people think they’re above average on any number of measures – their driving skills, their popularity, the quality of their relationship – when clearly they can’t all be right. It turns out the bias also applies to bias. In other words, we’re convinced that we’re better than most at not falling victim to bias. We seem to imagine we’re transparent to ourselves: that when we turn our attention
within, we can clearly see all the factors influencing our decisions. The study participants “used a strategy that they thought was biased,” the researchers note, “and thus they probably expected to feel some bias when using it. The absence of that feeling may have made them more confident in their objectivity.”

This helps explain, for example, why it’s often better for companies to hire people, or colleges to admit students, using objective checklists, rather than interviews that rely on gut feelings. As Jacobs notes, it’s also why some orchestras ask musicians to audition from behind screens, so that only their music can be judged. It’s no good relying on the judges’ sincere confidence that they’d never let sexism or other biases get in the way. They may really believe it – but they’re probably wrong. Bias spares nobody. Except me, of course.

Sex in prison is commonplace

Women prisoners: Sex in prison is commonplace, the male inmates just hide it more than girls

As a report warns female inmates are being coerced into sex by staff in return for favours like alcohol and cigarettes, former prison officer Ava Vidal suggests sex behind bars is commonplace in both male and female prisons (both among inmates, and between inmates and staff) but the women are far more open about it

Orange is the New Black depicts inmates being coerced into sex by staff in return for favours. Meanwhile, Piper (right) has sexual relations with another inmate
Orange is the New Black depicts inmates being coerced into sex by staff in return for favours. Meanwhile, Piper (right) has sexual relations with another inmate Photo: Orange is the New Black/ Netflix

When you speak about sex in prison a few images come to mind. The most popular being that of a male inmate bending down in the shower to pick up the soap. Or perhaps you think of the horrific rape scenes inScum or The Shawshank Redemption. Unless you are a fan of Orange is the New Black or the updated version of Prisoner Cell Block H –Wentworth then female inmates may not immediately spring to mind.
However the Howard League for Penal Reform has recently published areport that investigated sex between female inmates and staff in England and Wales. It is the first independent review of sex of behind bars and they found that female prisoners have been coerced into sex with staff for favours, such as alcohol and cigarettes.
As a former prison officer that has worked in both a male and female prison I have a few views on this report. Firstly, I am not sure how accurate these studies ever are. A prison is a world within a world and everybody inside those walls is trying to survive no matter what their status is. The only people that really know what is happening in there are the people that are in there. And whether you are an officer or an inmate you only ever really know half the truth.
I believe that sex behind bars may possibly be more commonplace than this report leads people to believe.
When I worked in a female prison there were often rumours about female inmates that were taken out in order to get abortions, after having had sex with male members of staff. I am no biologist, but a woman that has been behind bars for a number of years doesn’t get pregnant by osmosis. Although The Prison Service has said that it doesn’t condone sex in prisons, it is powerless to stop it.
In a male prison 80 per cent of visitors are female. That is the same for a female prison. So in other words in prison (much like life) the people that are loyal and stand by your side tend to be female. Often when a woman is sent to prison then it means the end of her relationship. And as most women are the primary care givers of their children it often leads to a breakdown in the whole family.
In fact many females are often in prison because of men. And despite what fellow Wonder Women writer Jemima Thackray may think after spending one whole day in Brixton Prison shadowing the chaplain, Vicky Pryce is absolutely right about this.
Vicky Pryce in court
Many female prisoners have been coerced into committing crimes for their partners and when they end up behind bars they find themselves abandoned and they have to survive. And sexism doesn’t stop at the prison walls. Females are still at risk of abuse and rape and unfortunately because they are inmates there is often no legal remedy available for them to seek justice. The word of a prisoner is hardly ever believed. I have sat in on adjudications where to me it was clear that the prison officer is lying but the governor will always rule in their favour. So keeping on the right side of officers is paramount for survival. Many of these women have been abused or have mental health issues and they are vulnerable.
In all prisons there is a hierarchy. Staff and inmates all have someone that they have to answer to.
Inmates even judge each other. There are some crimes that even behind bars are seen as absolutely despicable and even fellow inmates will ostracise you if you are convicted of one of these. The most offensive to all are crimes against children. Although I do remember being at work one day when a van came in and it was rocking. There was a lot of shouting and there were threats being made from one set of inmates to another of what they would do when they got into reception. I was horrified. What crime was so terrible that it would garner such a reaction? Had these people murdered or assaulted a child in the most horrific way imaginable? No, it turned out they had stolen a teddy bear from outside Kensington palace when Princess Diana had died.
But when a power structure is in place it tends to be an imbalance of power and when that happens in prison, like the rest of the world, people tend to take advantage. And where there is a need for commodities then people will trade whatever they have and that includes sexual favours.
The main difference when it comes to sex in a male and female prison is the level of openness. There were male inmates that would have sex together, and there were male inmates that would have sex with male members of staff. But this was something that was generally frowned upon due to the level of machismo that is prevalent in mainstream society. Some inmates would get involved in sexual relationships but it was never spoken about openly.
In a male prison if someone was having sex with the ‘wing don’ it was often abusive and led to bullying from others.
Inside prison
Whereas in a female prison, sex was a lot more 'open' between inmates. They would publicly hold hands and show affection towards each other. It signalled that one is protected. Clearly, if a female prison officer was having sex with a female inmate, they wouldn't hold hands in public – the officer would have lost her job. But the idea was not so frowned upon as in male prisons.
Sometimes these relationships are not abusive and are totally consensual. The fact is that prison officers work very closely with these people. You see them day in and day out and you speak to them about their lives and their families. They often confide their hopes and dreams in you. They are sometimes expert at manipulating you and often have nothing better to do than think of ways to impress and flatter you. There are sessions at Prison Service training college that teach you how to prevent yourself being conditioned. You should never have a deep conversation with the same inmate more than two days in a row and you should always report any letters or presents that they may give you.
I never had a sexual relationship with an inmate. Was I ever tempted to? Yes, once. But reading this man’s record cured me of any passing infatuation. There are some very attractive people behind bars. There is an expression my American friend Giselle introduced me to called ‘yard swole’. That describes a man that has spent a lot of time in the prison exercise yard lifting weights and exercising.
Ultimately irrespective of the fact you are both adults, there is an imbalance of power and that is never right.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Loneliness should be recognised as a signal of poverty in today's Britain

Poor social bonds damage people's employment prospects, living standards and wellbeing. Iain Duncan Smith, take note
loneliness poverty britain
Evidence suggests that people lacking strong relationships are more likely to have poor physical and mental health. Photograph: PhotoAlto/Alamy
Time to add loneliness to William Beveridge's famous list of "giant evils" in society. In today's Britain, people are impoverished by weak connections with, and minimal support from, family and friends. Iain Duncan Smith, the secretary of state for work and pensions, will announce this week new indicators to measure child poverty . Poor social networks should be included as a contributor to and signal of poverty.
Poor social bonds damage people's employment prospects, their living standards and their wellbeing. The demands of the modern labour market, especially for those on low incomes who are more likely to work night shifts and weekends, are often in conflict with the opening hours of public services. Sometimes formal childcare is just too expensive. Without support from family and friends, people are more likely to struggle in – or, worse, drop out of – the labour market.
As the Nobel prize-winning psychologist Professor Daniel Kahneman showsour happiness derives most from strong relationships, especially with loved ones. A growing body of evidence shows that those without strong relationships are more likely to have poor physical and mental health outcomes, including increased propensity to depression, sleep deprivation, problems with the cardiovascular and immune systems, early morbidity and even dementia.
Lamentably, social isolation seems to be on the increase. Single-person households have doubled over the past half-century. Time-use surveys indicate that people are spending more time working and looking after their own children than some decades ago, squeezing time for community and recreational activity. About half of all people in a recent poll said that they believed people were getting lonelier in general, and 11% had sought help for feeling lonely.
When loneliness is combined with material deprivation, the result is toxic. A cycle of worklessness, indebtedness and depression is so much harder to escape. Policymakers need to focus resource and attention on these people. So, the current indicators of poverty should seek to establish the extent of social support received. For example, when identifying income through the annual Households below average income survey, all levels of financial support from parents should be captured. Data on the regularity of practical support – from childcare to food shopping – could also be assessed.
Professionals such as health visitors need to focus efforts not only on social groups traditionally most likely to be associated with social exclusion – those on low income, teenage mothers – but also those identified as having poor social networks. Welfare policies need to be designed in such a way as to ensure claimants are more likely to benefit from the support of their wider family. When allocating social housing, councils could take more into account proximity to family and close friends. Equally, policies such as the removal of the spare room subsidy need to be reconsidered where they disrupt familial support, for example the provision of overnight childcare by grandparents.
Strong social networks are an important part of the battle against poverty. But so are diverse social networks. Character, aspirations and opportunities are more likely to be enhanced with exposure to different social environments. Indeed, the Equality of Opportunity Project in the US has shown that for two children with parents on the same income and with the same educational qualifications, the child who lives in a more mixed socio-economic neighbourhood is likely to experience higher social mobility. OECD evidence has shown that children from low-income backgrounds are likely to achieve higher educational results when they are in schools with children from higher socio-economic backgrounds. We need innovative thinking around creating more socially mixed public service institutions and communities.
Duncan Smith is right to seek a richer understanding of poverty and its causes. Social isolation and loneliness are a growing scourge that should be understood as a major factor contributing to impoverishment in modern Britain. To support people in poverty, to help them escape it, policy is needed to enable them to foster stronger and more diverse social networks.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Jesus was a Buddhist Monk

The Workers' party? That's us, say Tories in bid to rebrand

'Workers' party' will be used to describe Conservatives as David Cameron tries to rid Tories of their image as guardians of rich
The Workers’ party? That’s us, say Tories in bid to rebrand
Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps will say: "The Conservatives are the Workers’ party and we are on your side.” Photograph: Christopher Thomond
They are two words David Cameron's ancestors would more often have put together to describe a summer shindig for the employees on their estates.
But the words "Workers' party" will now be used to describe the Conservatives as Cameron tries to rid the Tories of their image as the guardians of the rich.
Grant Shapps, the party chairman, will stand alongside Sir John Major, the former champion of the "classless society", to announce that the Tories are now determined to show they want to spread – and not defend – privilege.
Speaking at the new Conservative campaign headquarters, the Tory chairman will say: "The Conservatives are the Workers' party and we are on your side."
The name of the Workers' party has a long, if less than noble, history. It was the moniker taken by former supporters of the Official IRA, which split from the Provisional IRA in 1969, when they broke from paramilitarism in the 1970s. Provisionals refer to the Officials as "stickies".
There is also the Trotskyist Socialist Workers' party, which rails against capitalism in the west and used to campaign against the "state capitalism" of the USSR.
The Tories are depicting themselves as the Workers' Party as they try to reach out to blue collar workers. Tory strategists believe that the only way to win a majority, by increasing the party's vote in the north of England and in the Midlands, is by reaching out to voters who may see the Conservatives as the party of the rich – hence the repositioning exercise.
Shapps has decided to go some way to accepting a proposal by the campaigning backbench MP Robert Halfon for the Tories to rename themselves the Workers' party. In a Sun article, Halfon said the party should replace its green oak tree logo with a ladder.
The Tory chairman will keep the party's name but will then describe the Conservatives in the next breath as the "Workers' party".
In his speech, extracts of which were released to the Daily Mail, Shapps will say: "Sir John Major campaigned for what he called a 'classless society, and I would argue this is the society we are fighting for in government today: a Britain where it doesn't matter who your parents are, where you can go as far as your talents and hard work will take you, and where work – rather than benefits – is what pays."
In a sign of the impact of the Tories' general election campaign chief Lynton Crosby, Shapps will release a five point pledge card modelled on the New Labour pledge card of 1997 which sets out the ideas for Britain's "long term economic plan".
The pledges, released to the Daily Mail, are: reducing the deficit, cutting income tax and freezing fuel duty, backing small business to create more jobs, capping welfare and reducing immigration; and delivering the best schools.
Shapps will say of Major: "Imagine a young kid growing up in inner city London – just a few miles from here. His mum and dad are working, but not very rich, trying to pay the bills.
"This young man was not particularly academic. He quit school at 16 and struggled to get on. So let me ask you something: what did the Conservative Party have to offer someone like that? I'll tell you. That young man's name is John Major, and the Conservative Party made him Prime Minister … His life is a symbol of our party. It shows whose side we are on."
The remarks by the Tory chair came as Downing Street did little to distance itself from a report in the Daily Telegraph that Cameron will give an undertaking during the general election campaign not to enter into another coalition even if he falls short of an overall majority. A No 10 source said: "The prime minister has made clear he is going all out for a Conservative majority."

Monday, 24 February 2014

This is no recovery, this is a bubble – and it will burst

Stock market bubbles of historic proportions are developing in the US and UK markets. With policymakers unwilling to introduce tough regulation, we're heading for trouble
London stock exchange
'Share prices are high mainly thanks to quantitative easing not because of the strength of the underlying real economy.' Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
According to the stock market, the UK economy is in a boom. Not just any old boom, but a historic one. On 28 October 2013, the FTSE 100 index hit 6,734, breaching the level achieved at the height of the economic boom before the 2008 global financial crisis (that was 6,730, recorded in October 2007).
Since then, it has had ups and downs, but on 21 February 2014 the FTSE 100 climbed to a new height of 6,838. At this rate, it may soon surpass the highest ever level reached since the index began in 1984 – that was 6,930, recorded in December 1999, during the heady days of the dotcom bubble.
The current levels of share prices are extraordinary considering the UK economy has not yet recovered the ground lost since the 2008 crash; per capita income in the UK today is still lower than it was in 2007. And let us not forget that share prices back in 2007 were themselves definitely in bubble territory of the first order.
The situation is even more worrying in the US. In March 2013, the Standard & Poor 500 stock market index reached the highest ever level, surpassing the 2007 peak (which was higher than the peak during the dotcom boom), despite the fact that the country's per capita income had not yet recovered to its 2007 level. Since then, the index has risen about 20%, although the US per capita income has not increased even by 2% during the same period. This is definitely the biggest stock market bubble in modern history.
Even more extraordinary than the inflated prices is that, unlike in the two previous share price booms, no one is offering a plausible narrative explaining why the evidently unsustainable levels of share prices are actually justified.
During the dotcom bubble, the predominant view was that the new information technology was about to completely revolutionise our economies for good. Given this, it was argued, stock markets would keep rising (possibly forever) and reach unprecedented levels. The title of the book, Dow 36,000: The New Strategy for Profiting from the Coming Rise in the Stock Market, published in the autumn of 1999 when the Dow Jones index was not even 10,000, very well sums up the spirit of the time.
Similarly, in the runup to the 2008 crisis, inflated asset prices were justified in terms of the supposed progresses in financial innovation and in the techniques of economic policy.
It was argued that financial innovation – manifested in the alphabet soup of derivatives and structured financial assets, such as MBS, CDO, and CDS – had vastly improved the ability of financial markets to "price" risk correctly, eliminating the possibility of irrational bubbles. On this belief, at the height of the US housing market bubble in 2005, both Alan Greenspan (the then chairman of the Federal Reserve Board) and Ben Bernanke (the then chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers to the President and later Greenspan's successor) publicly denied the existence of a housing market bubble – perhaps except for some "froth" in a few localities, according to Greenspan.
At the same time, better economic theory – and thus better techniques of economic policy – was argued to have allowed policymakers to iron out those few wrinkles that markets themselves cannot eliminate. Robert Lucas, the leading free-market economist and winner of the 1995 Nobel prize in economics, proudly declared in 2003 that "the problem of depression prevention has been solved". In 2004, Ben Bernanke (yes, it's him again) argued that, probably thanks to better theory of monetary policy, the world had entered the era of "great moderation", in which the volatility of prices and outputs is minimised.
This time around, no one is offering a new narrative justifying the new bubbles because, well, there isn't any plausible story. Those stories that are generated to encourage the share price to climb to the next level have been decidedly unambitious in scale and ephemeral in nature: higher-than-expected growth rates or number of new jobs created; brighter-than-expected outlook in Japan, China, or wherever; the arrival of the "super-dove" Janet Yellen as the new chair of the Fed; or, indeed, anything else that may suggest the world is not going to end tomorrow.
Few stock market investors really believe in these stories. Most investors know that current levels of share prices are unsustainable; it is said that George Soros has already started betting against the US stock market. They are aware that share prices are high mainly because of the huge amount of money sloshing around thanks to quantitative easing (QE), not because of the strength of the underlying real economy. This is why they react so nervously to any slight sign that QE may be wound down on a significant scale.
However, stock market investors pretend to believe – or even have to pretend to believe – in those feeble and ephemeral stories because they need those stories to justify (to themselves and their clients) staying in the stock market, given the low returns everywhere else.
The result, unfortunately, is that stock market bubbles of historic proportion are developing in the US and the UK, the two most important stock markets in the world, threatening to create yet another financial crash. One obvious way of dealing with these bubbles is to take the excessive liquidity that is inflating them out of the system through a combination of tighter monetary policy and better financial regulation against stock market speculation (such as a ban on shorting or restrictions on high-frequency trading). Of course, the danger here is that these policies may prick the bubble and create a mess.
In the longer run, however, the best way to deal with these bubbles is to revive the real economy; after all, "bubble" is a relative concept and even a very high price can be justified if it is based on a strong economy. This will require a more sustainable increase in consumption based on rising wages rather than debts, greater productive investments that will expand the economy's ability to produce, and the introduction of financial regulation that will make banks lend more to productive enterprises than to consumers. Unfortunately, these are exactly the things that the current policymakers in the US and the UK don't want to do.
We are heading for trouble.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Why we write books

ANANYA VAJPEYI in the hindu

Who becomes a scholar in order to insult and injure others? It is the bigots, propagandists, trolls and fundamentalists of the world who trade in insult and injury

Penguin India’s decision to withdraw Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, from publication — as a result of legal and possibly extralegal pressure from a right-wing organisation — has thrown up a series of questions in the public sphere. These include questions around the ethics of corporate action and the limits of corporate responsibility in supporting and protecting authors; the prevalence of two sets of laws in India — those governing freedom of expression and those governing insult and injury to groups defined around different vectors of identity, including religion and caste — and how these laws might constrain or override one another; and looming questions about the kinds of effects that a neo-nationalist and majoritarian political regime is likely to have on the spectrum of civil liberties and citizens’ rights in the coming months.
Together with five senior historians and Indologists of repute, I co-authored a public petition to our Parliamentarians and the Law Minister about the Doniger issue — (“Signing for freedom,” Comment page, The Hindu, February 15, 2014). Within a week of being up on the website, this petition garnered nearly 3,500 signatures worldwide. Whatever the actions of the book’s publisher, and whatever our judgment of those actions, I believe that a public conversation leading up to the review and reform of colonial-era laws dealing with hate speech and the incitement of communal passions is absolutely vital to expanding and strengthening freedom of expression in democratic India. But I write today as a scholar and an author, rather than as an expert on the law, or as an advocate of legal reform.
Section 295(A) of the Indian Penal Code, when pressed into service in a dispute of the kind involving Penguin India and the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, requires that the plaintiffs prove malicious intent — the intention to hurt and slander a community — on the part of the author. (It was not in fact pressed into service beyond a point in this particular case because the parties settled out of court, so let us not say this case but rather this type of case.) As a historian, I would like to examine this business of authorial intention more closely. When reframed as a problem of deciphering intent, the question really becomes: Why did the author write this book? (The implied answer being: In order to injure a given community, as assumption that, per IPC 295(A), the plaintiff must then prove by providing a corresponding interpretation of the text.) But if prima facie we reject this notion, that the author wrote with the intention of causing harm, then we must answer the next logical question: Why did the author write the book? More broadly, as scholars, why do we write?
A scholar’s journey

Writing is a deeply solitary and, at the same time, radically intersubjective exercise. One writes to engage with ideas, with language and with texts, but one writes also to communicate the outcome of that engagement to others. Most human beings think about things; writers take the further step of arranging those thoughts to convey them to a readership. A scholar’s labour is immense. One undergoes long and rigorous training; one tolerates poverty and material hardships; and one faces the very real prospect of never getting a big audience. One deals with the indifference, ignorance, contempt, misunderstanding, ridicule or sometimes outright hostility of others towards one’s work. Scholarship requires a belief in the meaningfulness of the human condition, a moral commitment to the idea of human flourishing, a desire to share in, understand and, if possible, alleviate the suffering surrounding us. Often, a scholar’s life is also a teacher and researcher’s life, spent educating hundreds of young people over several decades (like Wendy Doniger), and exploring the immense archives of human knowledge available in the different civilizations of the world. One plumbs the depths of the past to imagine a better future. One learns unfamiliar languages in order to enter, imaginatively, cultural worlds that can be jarringly unfamiliar, sometimes close to incomprehensible. One attends closely to what people say and how they say it, to the complex ways in which words generate reference, implication, connotation, and in certain sublime moments, an intimation of truth. Like artists, scholars too can tell you about the joy that comes from solving an intellectual problem — the “Eureka!” moment when everything falls into place. The perfection of certain sentences after hours of struggle to arrange the words just so. The sudden opening of a vista in the mind where immense swathes of jumbled, disparate human experience fall into a pattern, like the undulations in a landscape seen from a great height.
Indic traditions provide several concepts that begin to approach the inner processes of scholarship: sadhana, consistent practice which leads to perfection; tapas, a fiery determination to endure all the tests that truth demands; karuna, compassion for all sentient beings who suffer the ravages of time;maitri, the conviviality and goodwill without which no learning or teaching is possible; rasa, what it means to be human, to possess a consciousness shot through with impressions, passions and insights that can be recorded in language to outlast our mortal frames; samvad, the exchange and circulation of ideas in an intellectual community, the architecture of dialogue; chintan-manan, contemplation and reflection, turning things over in one’s mind, meditating on fragments so they may cohere into a whole, figuring out the effects of one’s statements on others. Every responsible scholar must cogitate deeply, to untangle the knots of meaning, to assess the flow of words, and to project the future entailments of whatever is claimed to be the case. Two of our greatest contemporary philosophers, Daya Krishna and Ramchandra Gandhi, even added swaraj to this list of what scholarship is about: the complete and final mastery over the self — self-knowledge, self-rule. In such knowledge alone, of and about the self, is there freedom.
Who becomes a scholar in order to insult and injure others? Apart from the Nazi academy, I am not aware of any other example in history of such a perversion of scholarship. If my agenda is harm, I will adopt the methods of himsa, intentional violence, not the laborious and fundamentally humane protocols of scholarly writing. I will go out and do politics, fight wars, extort the poor and crush the weak, not dedicate my entire existence to the love of language and the pursuit of truth. Whoever claims that scholars are power-hungry, money-grubbing, exploitative, aggressive, greedy, self-serving hate-mongers has no inkling what a scholar’s temperament, practice or life is like.
Wendy Doniger — like most of those who have signed our petition to revise the law and keep her book in print — is a practitioner of humanistic inquiry. So many of us work in the disciplines of philology, philosophy, history, literature, classics and the study of religious and cultural systems. Like her, we — Indians and foreigners, men and women, Hindus and non-Hindus, secular and pious — have devoted our lives to engaging the languages, texts, traditions, histories and knowledge systems of the vast universe we call India. What we do is, and cannot be other than, a labour of love. We do what we do because we are committed to our work, not because we expect great success, fame or riches.
As scholars we write because we want to share the knowledge we painstakingly discover and amass; we want our claims to be tested against the experience of others; we want to educate our readership, to enliven public life, to participate as best we can in the decisions that shape our collective future, and to improve the overall condition of our societies. We are in the business of comprehension and communication. It is the bigots, propagandists, trolls and fundamentalists of the world who trade in insult and injury. We reject their methods and condemn their motivations.