Thursday, 28 July 2016

America's most prestigious colleges have always defined "merit" according to their institutional interests

Nov 24th 2005 in The Economist 

AMERICANS justify their country's comparatively high social inequality by emphasising its equality of opportunity. The implication is that it is talent and hard work, not inherited privilege, which separate the rich from the poor.

The linchpin of such a meritocratic perspective is the educational system, which effectively allows access to the top of the socioeconomic ladder through the process of university admissions. America's big three universities (Harvard, Yale and Princeton) have for centuries created and reproduced the national elite, and have long sworn fealty to the principle of egalitarian opportunity. But in “The Chosen”, an encyclopedic and engaging account of their admissions over the last century, Jerome Karabel, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, demolishes their historical claim to be bastions of meritocracy. More provocatively, he questions the whole idea of whether you can define merit objectively, and instead uses painstaking archival research to prove that, over the years, the Ivy League universities have defined and redefined merit according to their shifting institutional priorities.
“The Chosen” highlights two critical turning points: the birth in the 1920s of selective admissions that introduced subjective non-academic merit as a criteria for acceptance, and the universities' dramatic shift in the direction of socioeconomic inclusivity in the 1960s, when they re-tooled the concept of merit to open their doors to racial minorities and women.

When Mr Karabel picks up the story shortly after 1900, the colleges were becoming increasingly concerned about the number of Jews who were passing the entrance exams. Since the Protestant upper classes who paid tuition bills had deserted other universities, notably Columbia, where “Hebrew” enrolments were deemed excessive, administrators regarded the increased Jewish presence as both a cultural insult and a threat to their institutional viability.

As a result, the colleges limited the size of their classes and began to reject students by creating a definition of merit that was expressly designed to justify quotas on Jewish applicants. Academic achievement would play second fiddle to the character and manliness thought to be inculcated by prestigious boarding schools. Jews (limited to 15% of the class at Harvard and 10% at Yale) were deemed lacking in these attributes. In the words of a former Harvard dean of admissions, Wilbur Bender, Jews were “effeminates, the precious and affected, the unstable”, while private school boys were “virile, masculine, red-blooded he-men”.

The three universities continued to find character almost exclusively in wealthy Protestant boys until the 1960s, when external social upheaval changed their institutional priorities. The student takeovers of university buildings and the violent race riots of that era caused administrators to fear for campus security, and they sought to avoid such disturbances by admitting (and, implicitly, co-opting) more black students. Since few black applicants had high test scores, the admissions definition of merit again had to be turned upside down. Character suddenly stemmed from socioeconomic adversity rather than privilege. Once the principle of diversity as merit was established, all-male Yale and Princeton were hardly in a position to reject the demands of the feminist movement for co-education, which they implemented around 1970.

The central thesis that Mr Karabel draws from this history is that the universities have always determined their merit criteria according to the admissions outcomes that would suit their institutional interests, rather than the other way around. Although he credits the three universities with becoming more accessible to the underprivileged, he notes that even today, the wealthy are still vastly overrepresented among their student bodies. This is partly due to the donation-friendly admissions preferences still given to athletes and children of alumni, which he concludes should be abolished.

But eliminating these practices won't turn these institutions into a meritocratic mecca because, as Mr Karabel argues, the concept of meritocracy itself is strategic and flexible, and often in outright conflict with egalitarian aims. “Those who are able to define ‘merit',” he writes, “will almost invariably possess more of it, and those with greater resources—cultural, economic, and social—will generally be able to ensure that the educational system will deem their children more meritorious.” Even today, efforts at Harvard to place more emphasis on the sciences (potentially replacing some wealthier white students with nerdy Asian-Americans) have attracted criticism that they might make the student body too one-dimensional instead of iconoclastic and well-rounded—exactly the same style of disparaging argument used to justify the Jewish quotas of yesteryear. As the book concludes, the unsettling lesson to be learned from a century of purported Ivy League meritocracy is that “the ideal of a inherently unattainable.”

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

There could still be a second referendum in Britain – if EU leaders listen

Vernon Bogdanor in The Guardian

A change to free movement could persuade the British public to vote again. And it can be done: treaties that stand in the way of reality have been changed before.

EU flags flying at half mast at the European commission to mark the Bastille Day attack. ‘As Donald Tusk declared before the referendum, the EU needs to take a “long hard look at itself and listen to the British warning signal”.’ Photograph: Darko Vojinovic/AP

How should Britain leave the European Union? The question hangs over Theresa May’s new administration as it considers when to invoke article 50, which will lay out the procedure for a withdrawal agreement, and indicate what sort of future relationship Britain wants with the EU.

Will it be membership of the European Economic Area, like Norway? A trade agreement with the EU, or reliance on World Trade Organisation rules? Yet the future relationship depends not only on the conditions in Britain but also on developments in the EU. And in that respect there are encouraging signs that European leaders are, at long last, listening to what their peoples have been telling them.

 As Donald Tusk, president of the European council, declared before the referendum, the EU needs to take a “long hard look at itself and listen to the British warning signal”. After the vote for Brexit, that is needed more than ever. During the campaign much was made of the dangers of an overweening Europe, aiming to become a federal superstate. Yet things have changed following theeurozone and migration crises. 

Despite the rhetoric of ever closer union, the member states are no longer prepared to sacrifice more of their sovereignty. Germany has no appetite for fiscal union, and Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s finance minister, has said that integration has gone “too far”. Poland has no wish to adopt the euro; there is clearly little desire for a common migration policy; and anti-EU feeling is growing throughout the continent. The EU has become economically, politically and culturally too diverse for any drive towards ever closer union to be successful.

More often than not, a political union of separate states requires an act of will brought about by force or an external threat – as with the United States in the 18th century and Germany in the 19th. The EU is in no position to produce such strength of feeling, so it seems certain to remain an association of states committed, as the European federalist Andrew Duff has lamented, to “never closer union”. The trend towards intergovernmentalism rather than supranationalism – where a power greater than the states takes control – was vividly illustrated when the eurozone crisis was handled largely by the council, made up of EU heads of governments, rather than the commission, which has the sole power to initiate laws.

The EU must now face reality. That means formally recognising the council as the supreme executive of the union, downgrading the commission so that it becomes, as the Gaullists have long wanted, a secretariat of the council without the power to initiate legislation. That would undermine the arguments of Eurosceptics, who thrive on the anathema of an unelected and unaccountable legislative body, something that Britain found particularly difficult to accept.

Further, so long as the idea of “ever closer union” remains enshrined in the EU, it will give eurosceptics a handle for criticism; and it allows the European court of justice to extend its remit too widely. The court should be an arbiter, not a missionary to eliminate states’ rights. So the EU must state clearly that ever closer union is unlikely to occur in the foreseeable future.

The EU must also face reality on freedom of movement. That principle was first outlined in the 1950s in conditions very different from those of today, by six member states at a similar stage of economic development and before the era of inexpensive mass transit. It is no longer suitable when Europe consists of 27 member states at very different stages of economic development. It not only imposes strains on the more affluent countries, stimulating the growth of the radical right, but also deprives the less affluent members of their most able and energetic citizens. Modifying this principle would also help Britain to negotiate continued access to the internal market.

It is said that the treaties preclude any interference with freedom of movement. Yet treaties intended to enforce the stability and growth pact, designed to limit the power of national governments, have been disregarded when necessity required. Adoption of the euro was supposed to be irreversible; yet, it is claimed Schauble urged Greece to abandon the euro and leave the Eurozone. Treaties, after all, are human constructs. If they stand in the way of reality, members can and should agree to revise them.

The EU needs not only long-term reform but also immediate measures to prove its value to the ordinary citizen. Tusk has rightly said that Europeans want not more Europe, but better Europe. Many Europeans have benefited from the single market, most obviously in cheap airfares – now, as the banker Sir Martin Jacomb has argued, is surely the time for a radical extension of free market rules into the energy and digital areas, and an effort to ensure that professional qualifications are genuinely transferable across Europe. This would provide citizens with concrete benefits, which would do more than a host of declarations or institutional reforms to prove the value of the European project.

Frankfurt tries to tempt the bankers fleeing a post-Brexit Britain

The British contribution to Europe was always to insist that rhetoric is subordinated to reality. Realism is now desperately needed if the European project is to be rescued from the elitist and technocratic establishment which currently dominates it, and which is losing it the support of its people. Perhaps if EU leaders listen to what citizens are saying, it might even be possible to persuade the British public to have second thoughts in a second referendum.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

What next for the BCCI?

Sharda Ugra in Cricinfo

There is no knowing whether anyone in the BCCI is a fan of either Charles Darwin, Benjamin Franklin or Albert Einstein. Supreme Court judges definitely are, going by the opening paragraphs of the 143-page judgement issued by the two-man bench of Chief Justice TS Thakur and Justice FMI Kalifullah. The three mighty minds were quoted when discussing humankind's resistance to change, with the bench recognising that the BCCI's strident objections to the Lodha committee recommendations were meant to protect a "continuance of the status quo".

The Supreme Court's final order directly addresses and proceeds to upturn the BCCI's objections to the Lodha recommendations, which detailed organisational reform within India's richest sporting body and cricket's strongest board. The court accepted both the Lodha report and its recommendations with a handful of minor "modifications and clarifications". This marks the end of three years of miscalculations by individual office-bearers, and collective decision-making by the BCCI that began with the arrest of three cricketers in May 2013.

What happens next? In real terms, the day-to-day operations of Indian cricket will keep running. Like the Lodha report, the Supreme Court order once again separates governance from operations. The operational BCCI continues on its way, now armed with a CEO, an ombudsman, an ethics officer, and a full-time professional auditor. What has been rigorously shaken, with nuts and bolts now left rattling, is the existing frame of the BCCI, which is less stainless steel and more rusted metal.

The order lays down a fairly watertight list of strictures for aspiring cricket officials, focusing on what posts they can hold in cricket administration, particularly at the highest level, and for how long. The much-advertised "love for cricket" of many seasoned, or indeed newly appointed, cricket officials will now be put to the test. The court has ordered that the recommendations be implemented within six months - by the time Justice TS Thakur serves his full term and hands charge for the BCCI's restructuring to the very individuals who held up a mirror to the board: Team Lodha.

The Supreme Court's order was fairly considerate when hammering home a few disputed recommendations. Fussed about how to fund a players' association? the court asked. The funding is your prerogative, but there has got to be an association. Angry about a "cooling-off period" between two terms in top BCCI posts? Arrive at a conclusion on how to handle this, but the cooling-off period stays. IPL franchises on the all-powerful IPL governing council? Let's ask the Lodha committee to work out if this is not a conflict of interest and then see what they say.

The court divorced itself from issuing unyielding orders on matters that were not strictly within the Lodha panel's reformative and recommendatory ambit. Like controlling the amount and nature of advertising on cricket broadcasts on television by reworking existing deals (this recommendation was dead on arrival on the grounds of common sense alone), or knotty legislative issues like legalising betting or placing the BCCI under the ambit of the Right to Information Act.

Weighty, monumental (and cataclysmic for the BCCI), the Lodha report order carries much significance. If the BCCI, a financially self-sufficient, self-sustaining and globally significant sports body - and therefore an anomaly among Indian sports bodies - can be made answerable to writ jurisdictions, its functioning taken apart in court, so can any other Indian national sports federation. These bodies that run India's Olympic sports, largely supported by public money, have previously been considered untouchable, backed as they are by political bigwigs and legal luminaries.

The Thakur-Kalifullah bench has cited the government's National Sports Development Code 2011 - which applies to all nationally recognised sports bodies - in setting an age limit of 70 for the BCCI's office-bearers. What applies to other sports bodies must work for the BCCI. So too, what has been ordered upon the BCCI, could be wrought upon any other Indian sports body.

An example has been made of the BCCI, until now considered well above these shambolically run associations, both financially and organisationally. No matter how much financial strength and global clout a sports body can acquire, it must work alongside with, rather than supplant, good governance, transparency and accountability.

The BCCI's response in this affair from the outset - despite the presence of many weighty shining legal lights on its roster and on its side - was heavy-handed. Both in court and in the public. The board's first response was to let out a few high-volume sound bites: that the recommendations were not binding, that the BCCI was a private body and so it could not be approached as if it were a public enterprise. It was this line of argument that occupied far too much of the court's time, and must have set the judges' teeth on edge.

One of the more revealing parts of the order says: "Neither BCCI nor anyone else has assailed the findings recorded by the Committee insofar as the deep rooted malaise that pervades in the working of the BCCI is concerned… either in the affidavits filed or in the course of arguments at the bar." Which in layman's language means that neither the BCCI nor anyone else has strongly criticised the Lodha committee's findings with reference to the flaws in the BCCI's functioning, neither in written affadavits filed or verbal arguments made before the bench. The BCCI was not righteously claiming to having been unfairly criticised with reference to its functioning. What it was saying to the highest court of the country - and the highest judge in that court - was that you do not have the right to tick us off.

The better option could have been to respond strategically to the Lodha committee report from the very beginning, by picking out early the recommendations they thought were the least amenable to implementation, or inconvenient, and work with that, approaching the court with humility rather than habitual hubris. They had a better chance of arguing the age limit and tenure continuity at length than they did about private vs public and the freedom of association as pertaining to the state associations. That too in a climate surrounding the BCCI's laissez faire attitude to the Goa Cricket Association's multiple scandals until the last month or so and theshenanigans of DDCA, also exposed in court.

The BCCI's legal eagles should also have been able to sense two moods - that the BCCI's public image was far from the best to start with, particularly in terms of its engagement with the judiciary. Secondly, in the past few years, India's courts have been particularly forceful in handing out judgements pertaining to governance or administration, a trend that has been referred to as "judicial activism" (or, in the words of policy academic Pratap Bhanu Mehta, "judicial exasperation"). For the BCCI it was certainly not the right time to show what would be called "attitude". But show it they did.

What might the BCCI's options now be? To start with, they could consider hiring a new legal team. A short-term response would be to disband the board and resume operations under a new name. Or dash off a letter to the ICC saying the Supreme Court has ordered them to accept government interference - in the form of the nominee from the Comptroller and Auditor General's Office - at both national or state levels. Or attempt some off-court filibustering in front of Lodha to try and stall any action, till Justice Thakur retires in January and they can begin the legal roundabout all over again.

But each of these counters has its counter-arguments. Besides, Monday's order says clearly that "should any impediments arise" the Supreme Court can be approached once again by a status report being filed.

Many within the BCCI - and there are several who are well-intentioned and committed - may find their positions now rendered non-existent and their powers severely curtailed, and may well ask, "How did we get here?" The answer to that is simple - one mistake at a time.

Southern is a story of rail failure. But the real agenda is to crush the unions

This is the most farcical privatisation even by the comedic standards of British railways – and the aim is to defeat one of the last holdouts of organised labour

Illustration by Nate Kitch

 Aditya Chakrabortty in The Guardian

You work in an office, study at a further education college, want to visit your nan in her care home. Whoever you are, wherever you go, you rely on the trains to take you there. Except you can’t rely on them – not at all.

The only thing predictable about the service is that it’s always awful: the train you want is odds-on to be late or cancelled. If the next one is running, it’s so crammed you can’t get on. Every commute brims over with aggro. Wedged in overcrowded carriages, fellow passengers suffer panic attacks. The local newspaper reports how other commuters have missed work so often, they’ve lost their job; how students have missed exams or holidaymakers haven’t made flights.

Rail minister resigns as Southern commuter chaos continues

You read about a single mother forced to give up being a lawyer in London because dodgy trains mean she can never get home to put her son to bed. And you and everyone else are paying thousands each year for this shambles. To stand for dozens of miles and have extra hours, needless anxiety and gratuitous misery added on to your daily commutes.

If any of this sounds like you then my commiserations – for you are obviously a Southern Railway passenger.

At any other time, this summer’s chaos on the trains would have dominated the front pages. Even amid the turbulence of Brexit, it is still producing political ructions as big as the 50-foot hole that opened up under a south London track yesterday. This month, the transport select committee held an emergency sessionto find out why the service is in meltdown. Last week MPs staged an urgent debate in Westminster Hall, where they laid into Southern as a “joke”, “awful”, “terrible” and “rubbish”. Then they lambasted the government.

In turn, Claire Perry admitted she was “ashamed to be the rail minister”, but vowed to try to fix the situation “until I am kicked out”. The very next evening she quit. The new transport secretary, Chris Grayling, spent Monday hurriedly holding meetings on Southern, which is “top of [his] priority list”.

Britain is hardly short of political crises at the moment, but Southern surely counts as one. In an era of private-sector failure, this is one of the most extensive. Consider: Southern runs among the most economically important train services in the country. It manages 156 stations, covers 414 miles of track, and is responsible for around 600,000 journeys each day.

And it’s part of the largest train franchise in Britain, Govia Thameslink. Also known as GTR – majority owned by the Go Ahead group – it ferries commuters from across the south coast into London Bridge and Victoria. It takes tourists and business travellers to Gatwick and Luton airports. Its empire stretches from Peterborough to Tonbridge to Bognor Regis and Brighton. In a country that has, stupidly, bet everything on London, GTR is utterly crucial to the national economy.

And it does an appalling job. It cancels more trains than all the other rail firms in Britain put together. It boasts the worst record on significant lateness. It is the worst performing train operator of the lot. And it shows little sign of improving.

Its response last week to the cancellation of so many Southern trains was to issue a new timetable, removing one in six of its trains. Of all the oddities thrown up by rail privatisation, this must rank among the oddest: a train company in the business of running fewer trains.

Southern rail passengers protest at Victoria station, London, July 2016. Photograph: Matthew Chattle/Rex/Shutterstock

Perhaps the sheer stretch of GTR’s network is part of the problem, even though Perry claimed just two years ago that that would help it “deliver a step-change on key routes”. Running services into London Bridge during a botched overhaul hasn’t helped. And going by the evidence GTR has given to parliament, it also inherited investment-starved services. But GTR’s boss Charles Horton comes from failed franchise Connex. In his first interview in his current job, he advised passengers forced to stand to take a later or slower service. And with staff morale at rock bottom he has ended up in a huge clash with the unions.

Southern has been crippled by industrial action. Horton also regaled MPs with stories of “sick-note strikes”, although David Boyle – whose blogs on the Southern mess have become a must-read – has found no evidence to back that up. Boyle instead discovered that employees are so fed up they will no longer do voluntary overtime – leaving the company with too few staff for its advertised services.

But the fundamental problem must be the most farcical privatisation even by the comedic standards of British railways. Because this is privatisation in name only. GTR is paid billions by the government – which then takes their ticket receipts and even refunds customers if the trains are delayed. This makes it unlike any other train company in Britain – and gives GTR no incentive to attract more customers or to stop annoying them. In effect, Horton and his executives are government agents paid lavishly for failing to provide a service.

‘Southern cancels more trains than all the other rail firms in Britain put together.’ Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian

We have a transport company that can’t really transport, and vast management fees paid to executives who clearly can’t manage. And the government acts as an apologist for a private company that’s meant to be providing a public service. Meanwhile, no apologies are forthcoming – in fact the boss of Go Ahead, David Brown, has just seen his annual pay soar above £2m, and the dividend payout to his shareholders has jumped to £37m. Someone is making a lot of money out of grotesque failure.

This is not just an issue for southern commuters, though – it’s a montage of everything wrong with business in Britain. Rather than strip GTR of its franchise, Tory ministers have instead made its conditions less onerous. Brown should be hauled in front of parliament to explain the chaos. Instead, he acts like an absentee landlord while officials at the Department for Transport say they couldn’t run the service as well as Southern does.

The question is why the government is going so easy on a failed train company. One answer comes from GTR’s dispute with the unions. The train firm wants to bring in driver-only trains, without guards to open and close the doors. The idea commands enthusiasm in Whitehall. It would certainly make rail management cheaper, if not safer.

But to strip trains of conductors requires the crushing of one of the last holdouts of organised labour. That’s not my extrapolation – it comes from DfT director Pete Wilkinson, who a few months ago told a public meeting, “We have got to break them [union members]. They have all borrowed money to buy cars and got credit cards. They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place.”

Civil servants are supposed to be impartial, but this one wants to drive trade unions “out of my industry”. Mind you, Wilkinson has worked in Whitehall as well as in the City. He lives in Vienna but commutes to Britain. He’s a gamekeeper comfortable setting policy for the poachers. And he and his colleagues appear to be using Southern to take on the unions, in much the same way Thatcher used Ian MacGregor and the National Coal Board to break the miners.

An industrial dispute by proxy, a dysfunctional privatisation pushed by ideologues: our railways are in for an 80s revival for all the wrong reasons.

Mexico cuts poverty at a stroke – by changing the way it measures earnings

Change in methodology by national statistics institute provokes scepticism after it shows Mexico’s poor are richer by a third compared with last year

A girl stands in a slum in Mexico City. Mexico’s poor may not be feeling better off despite the latest report from the national statistics institute. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

David Agren in The Guardian

Mexico’s impoverished masses were up to 33.6% richer in 2015 than the previous year, according to the state-run statistics service.

But the change owes less to a sudden increase in actual wealth and wellbeing for the country’s poor than to unannounced changes in the methodology for measuring household earnings.

The changes make comparing poverty rates from one year to the next impossible – something acknowledged by the National Geography and Statistics Institute (Inegi).

But the tweak will allow image-conscious politicians to claim success in their anti-poverty programs and economic stewardship, even though public discontent over stagnant wages and rising prices remains widespread.

Pope's focus on violence and poor likely to make for 'uncomfortable' Mexico visit

“Basically what the Inegi is saying is: we’ve been overestimating poverty levels,” said Jonathan Heath, an independent economist in Mexico City.

“The way that they did this” – without public consultation – “raises suspicion,” he added.

“The new poverty numbers are certainly going to fall by a significant amount and it’s not due to improvements, it’s not due to government action, it’s not due to anything. It’s due to the way Inegi has carried out this survey,” he said.

The methodological changes were revealed on Friday with the release of the 2015 edition of the Survey of Socioeconomic Conditions, which showed an overall real increase of 11.9% in household earnings. In some states, the increase was more than 30%, while the poorest Mexicans saw the biggest gain in earnings, according to Inegi.

The changes came as a complete surprise to social scientists and non-governmental groups, but were justified by Inegi as an attempt at obtaining a truer measure of poverty – a notoriously tricky undertaking as people tend to underreport their incomes.

Inegi said in a statement that it applied new criteria in the collection and review of field data, which allows it to “offer society and the State a more precise measure of household earnings”.

Measuring poverty has proved controversial in Mexico, where social programs are often criticized as vote-buying exercises and beneficiaries in some states are told erroneously that their benefits are conditional on supporting the party in power.

Mexico used to measure poverty based on income, but changed its methodology in 2008 to take a “multidimensional” measure based on six social necessities, according to Heath.

The information collected by Inegi is provided to the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (Coneval), an agency responsible for measuring poverty rates and the performance of social programs. Coneval put the poverty rate at 46.2% of the population in 2014, an increase of 0.7% points from 2012.

“[The] changes lack public technical documents to justify them,” Coneval said in a statement. It added the increase in household earnings “is not congruent with the trend that has been shown in other Inegi documents and with other economic variables”.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Why Good Storytellers Are Happier in Life and in Love

Studies find the way people tell their own stories has an outsize effect on their life satisfaction

Storytelling is one way couples bond when a relationship is young. But between long-term partners, the conversation often becomes mundane. Psychologists say it is important to keep telling and listening to each other’s stories. ILLUSTRATION: GARY HOVLAND FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL


In William Shakespeare’s time, the word “conversation” meant two things—verbal discourse, and sex.

That’s how intimate the most well-known poet and playwright in the English language viewed the act of talking with another person.

Since the dawn of language, people have shared stories with others to entertain, persuade, make sense of what happened to them and bond. Research shows that the way people construct their individual stories has a large impact on their physical and mental health. People who frame their personal narratives in a positive way have more life satisfaction.

They also may be more attractive. New research, published this month in the journal Personal Relationships, shows that women find men who are good storytellers more appealing. The article consists of three studies in which male and female participants were shown a picture of someone of the opposite sex and given an indication of whether that person was a proficient storyteller. In the first study, 71 men and 84 women were told that the person whose picture they were looking at was either a “good,” “moderate” or “poor” storyteller. In the second study, 32 men and 50 women were given a short story supposedly written by the person in the picture; half the stories were concise and compelling, and half rambled and used dull language. In the third study, 60 men and 81 women were told whether the person in the picture was a good storyteller and were asked to rate their social status and ability to be a good leader in addition to their attractiveness.

The results were the same across all three studies: Women rated men who were good storytellers as more attractive and desirable as potential long-term partners. 

Psychologists believe this is because the man is showing that he knows how to connect, to share emotions and, possibly, to be vulnerable. He also is indicating that he is interesting and articulate and can gain resources and provide support.

“Storytelling is linked to the ability to be a good provider,” because a man is explaining what he can offer, says Melanie Green, an associate professor in the department of communication at the University at Buffalo and a researcher on the study. The men didn’t care whether the women were good storytellers, the research showed.

It feels wonderful to tell someone your stories when you are first becoming intimate. Think of the people you have been in love with in your life. I bet that at least once early in your relationship you stayed up all night talking, telling stories that were revealing and illuminating. That deep communication is sexy.

Stories are profoundly intimate, says Kari Winter, a historian and literary critic at the University at Buffalo. “It is empowering to the teller because they get recognition from the listener. And it is empowering to the listener because it helps them understand the teller.”

The problem is that once the heady early days of bonding are over, the conversation in a long-term relationship often turns mundane: Couples talk about jobs, schedules, the children. Is there any less inspiring question than “How was your day, honey?”

Psychologists say it’s important to keep telling each other stories. They help you remember why you were attracted to each other in the first place. In tough times, they help you make sense of what has happened. Many marriage therapists have couples in crisis each explain their side of events and then weave their stories into one cohesive narrative. “It’s a way to build and maintain a bond over shared history,” says Anna Osborn, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Sacramento, Calif.

How can you use storytelling to continue to bond in your relationship? Here are some tips.

Remember the basics. Every good story contains several core elements, Dr. Winter, of the University at Buffalo, says. The emotions and lessons of the story must be true, even if the story itself is a fantasy. (Think of the Harry Potter stories.) It must have a structure, including a beginning, middle and end. It needs a voice. And it has character development. If you are telling your own story, you need to reveal yourself.

Set aside story time. Find a time and a place where you aren’t rushed and there are no distractions. Then banish the humdrum. “Do not talk about household management issues. Do not talk about the kids,” says Ms. Osborn, the marriage therapist. Agree that this is time to tell stories of things that have happened that are meaningful to you. “Storytelling time should be an invitation to your partner to come into your world,” she says.

Start with your “firsts.” If you aren’t used to telling each other stories, it’s useful to have a few topics ready. Your first anything—date, kiss, dance, car, child, house—is a great place to start. The story of how you met can be particularly powerful and connecting, because it is, essentially, your origin story. And it’s always a happy memory. “Everything was pure then, nothing hurt yet,” Ms. Osborn says.

Tell stories of the past, present and future. Highlighting great memories or successes that you had together in the past helps you reconnect. Narrating recent events that have happened to you, or telling a story about a challenge you are facing, helps illuminate what matters to you. Weaving a story of a future event as you’d like it to happen—a vacation, a child’s wedding, the dance at your 60th anniversary party—can help you visualize what you want for your relationship.

Include your emotions. Show, don’t tell. (“She was wearing a red silk dress and my palms got sweaty.”) “Details can unlock the emotional truths that until now were never spoken out loud,” says Lauren Dowden, a social worker at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine’s Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center, as well as a Second City alumna and teacher. She runs a storytelling group for couples where one partner has Alzheimer’s.

Conversely, good stories avoid certain things—cliché, digression, saying too much, not saying enough, lack of attention to the audience and preachiness

Practice. Storytelling is an art form, like playing the piano or creating a garden, says Dr. Winter, the literary critic. “You can start with something simple and it might be satisfying, but it might not be as good or as true as it can be.”

Dr. Winter suggests the three Rs: Reflect on the events. Refine what they meant to you. Read. “Learn from the masters,” she says.

A nine-point guide to spotting a dodgy statistic

Boris Johnson did not remove the £350m figure from the Leave campaign bus even after it had been described as ‘misleading’. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

David Spiegelhalter in The Guardian

I love numbers. They allow us to get a sense of magnitude, to measure change, to put claims in context. But despite their bold and confident exterior, numbers are delicate things and that’s why it upsets me when they are abused. And since there’s been a fair amount of number abuse going on recently, it seems a good time to have a look at the classic ways in which politicians and spin doctors meddle with statistics.

Every statistician is familiar with the tedious “Lies, damned lies, and statistics” gibe, but the economist, writer and presenter of Radio 4’s More or Less, Tim Harford, has identified the habit of some politicians as not so much lying – to lie means having some knowledge of the truth – as “bullshitting”: a carefree disregard of whether the number is appropriate or not.

So here, with some help from the UK fact-checking organisation Full Fact, is a nine-point guide to what’s really going on.

Use a real number, but change its meaning

There’s almost always some basis for numbers that get quoted, but it’s often rather different from what is claimed. Take, for example, the famous £350m, as in the “We send the EU £350m a week” claim plastered over the big red Brexit campaign bus. This is a true National Statistic (see Table 9.9 of the ONS Pink Book 2015), but, in the words of Sir Andrew Dilnot, chair of the UK Statistics Authority watchdog, it “is not an amount of money that the UK pays to the EU”. In fact, the UK’s net contribution is more like £250m a week when Britain’s rebate is taken into account – and much of that is returned in the form of agricultural subsidies and grants to poorer UK regions, reducing the figure to £136m. Sir Andrew expressed disappointment that this “misleading” claim was being made by Brexit campaigners but this ticking-off still did not get the bus repainted.

George Osborne quoted the Treasury’s projection of £4,300 as the cost per household of leaving the EU. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Make the number look big (but not too big) 

Why did the Leave campaign frame the amount of money as “£350m per week”, rather than the equivalent “£19bn a year”? They probably realised that, once numbers get large, say above 10m, they all start seeming the same – all those extra zeros have diminishing emotional impact. Billions, schmillions, it’s just a Big Number.

Of course they could have gone the other way and said “£50m a day”, but then people might have realised that this is equivalent to around a packet of crisps each, which does not sound so impressive.

George Osborne, on the other hand, preferred to quote the Treasury’s projection of the potential cost of leaving the EU as £4,300 per household per year, rather than as the equivalent £120bn for the whole country. Presumably he was trying to make the numbers seem relevant, but perhaps he would have been better off framing the projected cost as “£2.5bn a week” so as to provide a direct comparison with the Leave campaign’s £350m. It probably would not have made any difference: the weighty 200-page Treasury report is on course to become a classic example of ignored statistics.

Recent studies confirmed higher death rates at weekends, but showed no relationship to weekend staffing levels. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

Casually imply causation from correlation

In July 2015 Jeremy Hunt said: “Around 6,000 people lose their lives every year because we do not have a proper seven-day service in hospitals….” and by February 2016 this had increased to “11,000 excess deaths because we do not staff our hospitals properly at weekends”. These categorical claims that weekend staffing was responsible for increased weekend death rates were widely criticised at the time, particularly by the people who had done the actual research. Recent studies have confirmed higher death rates at weekends, but these showed no relationship to weekend staffing levels.

Choose your definitions carefully

On 17 December 2014, Tom Blenkinsop MP said, “Today, there are 2,500 fewer nurses in our NHS than in May 2010”, while on the same day David Cameron claimed “Today, actually, there are new figures out on the NHS… there are 3,000 more nurses under this government.” Surely one must be wrong?

But Mr Blenkinsop compared the number of people working as nurses between September 2010 and September 2014, while Cameron used the full-time-equivalent number of nurses, health visitors and midwives between the start of the government in May 2010 and September 2014. So they were both, in their own particular way, right.

‘Indicator hopper’: Health secretary Jeremy Hunt. Photograph: PA

Use total numbers rather than proportions (or whichever way suits your argument)

In the final three months of 2014, less than 93% of attendances at Accident and Emergency units were seen within four hours, the lowest proportion for 10 years. And yet Jeremy Hunt managed to tweet that “More patients than ever being seen in less than four hours”. Which, strictly speaking, was correct, but only because more people were attending A&E than ever before. Similarly, when it comes to employment, an increasing population means that the number of employed can go up even when the employment rate goes down. Full Fact has shown how the political parties play “indicator hop”, picking whichever measure currently supports their argument.

Is crime going up or down? Don’t ask Andy Burnham. Photograph: PA

Don’t provide any relevant context

Last September shadow home secretary Andy Burnham declared that “crime is going up”, and when pressed pointed to the police recording more violent and sexual offences than the previous year. But police-recorded crime data were de-designated as “official” statistics by the UK Statistics Authority in 2014 as they were so unreliable: they depend strongly on what the public choose to report, and how the police choose to record it.

Instead the Crime Survey for England and Wales is the official source of data, as it records crimes that are not reported to the police. And the Crime Survey shows a steady reduction in crime for more than 20 years, and no evidence of an increase in violent and sexual offences last year.
Exaggerate the importance of a possibly illusory change

Next time you hear a politician boasting that unemployment has dropped by 30,000 over the previous quarter, just remember that this is an estimate based on a survey. And that estimate has a margin of error of +/- 80,000, meaning that unemployment may well have gone down, but it may have gone up – the best we can say is that it hasn’t changed very much, but that hardly makes a speech. And to be fair, the politician probably has no idea that this is an estimate and not a head count.
Serious youth crime has actually declined, but that’s not because of TKAP. Photograph: Action Press / Rex Features

Prematurely announce the success of a policy initiative using unofficial selected data

In June 2008, just a year after the start of the Tackling Knives Action Programme (TKAP), No 10 got the Home Office to issue a press release saying “the number of teenagers admitted to hospital for knife or sharp instrument wounding in nine… police force areas fell by 27% according to new figures published today”. But this used unchecked unofficial data, and was against the explicit advice of official statisticians. They got publicity, but also a serious telling-off from the UK Statistics Authority which accused No 10 of making an announcement that was “corrosive of public trust in official statistics”. The final conclusion about the TKAP was that serious youth violence had declined in the country, but no more in TKAP areas than elsewhere.

  Donald Trump: ‘Am I going to check every statistic?’
Photograph: Robert F. Bukaty/AP

If all else fails, just make the numbers up

Last November, Donald Trump tweeted a recycled image that included the claim that “Whites killed by blacks – 81%”, citing “Crime Statistics Bureau – San Francisco”. The US fact-checking site Politifact identified this as completely fabricated – the “Bureau” did not exist, and the true figure is around 15%. When confronted with this, Trump shrugged and said, “Am I going to check every statistic?”

Not all politicians are so cavalier with statistics, and of course it’s completely reasonable for them to appeal to our feelings and values. But there are some serial offenders who conscript innocent numbers, purely to provide rhetorical flourish to their arguments.

We deserve to have statistical evidence presented in a fair and balanced way, and it’s only by public scrutiny and exposure that anything will ever change. There are noble efforts to dam the flood of naughty numbers. The BBC’s More or Less team take apart dodgy data, organisations such as Full Fact and Channel 4’s FactCheck expose flagrant abuses, the UK Statistics Authority write admonishing letters. The Royal Statistical Society offers statistical training for MPs, and the House of Commons library publishes a Statistical Literacy Guide: how to spot spin and inappropriate use of statistics.

They are all doing great work, but the shabby statistics keep on coming. Maybe these nine points can provide a checklist, or even the basis for a competition – how many points can your favourite minister score? In my angrier moments I feel that number abuse should be made a criminal offence. But that’s a law unlikely to be passed by politicians.

David Spiegelhalter is the Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge and president elect of the Royal Statistical Society

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Turkey was already undergoing a slow-motion coup – by Erdoğan, not the army

Andrew Finkel in The Guardian

People hold a banner depicting Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as they gather outside the Turkish parliament in Ankara on 16 July. Photograph: Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images

What happens in Turkey matters. It is a G20 economy in a sensitive part of the world, sharing borders with Iraq, Iran and Syria. Turkey is an asset to its Nato partners when it is able to exercise a leadership role. It can be a liability when its own problems – like the tension with its Kurdish population – spill over those frontiers. And it can be a millstone around the world’s neck when it decides, as it did on Friday, to self-harm.

The coup attempt that night was, by any account, a cack-handed affair. It was an attempt to grab the reins of a complex society with the almost quaintly antediluvian tactics of seizing the state television station and rolling some tanks on to the streets. It is as if the plotters had never heard of social media, while the Turkish president himself to addressed his supporters via FaceTime, urging them out on the streets. Crowds played chicken with the putschists, betting they would return to their barracks rather than have the streets run red with blood. Even then, at least 180 people – civilians, police and coup makers – died.

Indeed, the question is less why the coup failed than why it was ever carried out. If it had an air of amateur desperation, it is because its perpetrators probably assumed that this was their last chance to stop the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from getting the military completely under its control. At the beginning of August, the military high council will meet, as it does every year, to consider who gets promoted, retired or pushed aside. In the last few days, the pro-government press has been more than hinting that a spring cleaning of the ranks is long overdue.

Indeed, many would argue that Turkey was already in the throes of a slow motion coup d’état, not by the military but by Erdoğan himself. For the last three years, he has been moving, and methodically, to take over the nodes of power.

The pressures on the media have been well documented, as the country slides in international ratings by organisations such as Freedom House, from partly free to not free at all. Opposition newspapers have been taken over by court-appointed administrators. Dissident television stations have had the plug pulled from satellites; digital platforms are no longer seen in people’s homes. Erdoğan curses the very social media which this weekend helped to save his skin.

Increasingly, the government has put the judiciary under its thumb. It is now a brave judge who rules in a way he knows will give official offence. So while the Turkish parliament congratulated itself on a long night’s defence of democracy, many wonder why its members connived in the decline of the rule of law.

And still Erdoğan craves greater authority. Last May, he discarded one prime minister in favour of another more sympathetic to his plans to change the parliamentary system into a strong executive presidency. When the coup plotters stand trial, they may suffer the additional indignation of seeing their attempts to put Erdoğan in his place backfire, by providing a mandate for such increased powers. The president has already promised a purge of those still connected to the exiled dissident cleric Fethullah Gülen – Erdoğanspeak for anyone who opposes his will.

To the outside world, this spectacle should cause dismay. Turkish ambitions to project power, to assist in the fight against Islamic State, to help forge a settlement in Syria will be much harder to realise if the government is at war with its own military and the army at war with itself. A Turkey that governs through consensus is the more valuable ally. The Turkish economy, too, will be more buoyant if relieved of the weight of political risk.

The lesson of the failed coup is that Turkey needs a leader who can bring different sides of a divided society together – or at the very least, one who is willing to try.

Friday, 15 July 2016

George Osborne’s austerity choked off the recovery: Brexit is his legacy

Aditya Chakrabortty

By March 2015, George Osborne was pulling together his final budget before the general election. The austerity chancellor had already hacked billions from health, education and social security; now he planned to slash billions more. But he had prepared one massive give-away: the complete abolition of taxes on savings, worth well over £1bn in lost revenue.

It was costly, at a time when the government was cutting to the bone. It was unjust, throwing millions at the richest, who needed it least. And it was a kick in the teeth to all those whose lives had been turned upside down in the past five years. The idea was blocked by Nick Clegg and his Liberal Democrat coalition partners.

Osborne’s response is recorded by David Laws, Clegg’s ally in government negotiations. It ranks as among the most revealing things ever said about the Conservatives’ austerity strategy.

The multi-million-pound spending spree wasn’t justifiable, admitted Osborne, according to Laws’ recent memoir, Coalition. “It will only really be of help to stupid, affluent and lazy people, who can’t be bothered to put their savings away into tax-efficient vehicles!” said Osborne. “But it will still be very popular – we have polled it.”

Disabled people could kill themselves to put an end to the government’s reign of terror, and the chancellor would shrug. Working-class kids could live on foodbank lunches and ministers would claim they had no alternative. But shovelling cash at the people seen as undeserving by their very own benefactor? That, Mr Austerity would happily do. Anything to buy votes.

Remember that exchange as the moist-eyed tributes to Osborne come in over the next few days from his friends in the Conservative party and press. “A great chancellor,” says his former aide. The man himself has kept it uncharacteristically modest: “I hope I’ve left the economy in a better state than I found it.”

If only, George. While at Oxford, Osborne was a member of the Bullingdon Club and during his six years at Number 11, he trashed the economy as thoroughly as the Bullingdon boys trashed their restaurants.

Under him, Britain has endured its weakest recovery in well over 100 years. The average worker is still worse off than they were before the banks collapsed in 2008. The chancellor, who promised a march of the makers, has presided over the collapse of our steel industry. The enemy of government borrowing has bequeathed to the nation a public debt burden almost three times what it was when Margaret Thatcher was ejected from office.

The arch defender of our credit rating has seen Britain lose its AAA status. And now he leaves the country staring into what David Blanchflower – the former Bank of England rate-setter who predicted the last crash – now warns could be “a crisis bigger than Lehman Brothers: a political and economic disaster”.

Osborne’s fiscal rules have been either broken or discarded, and where their replacement should be is instead a complete vacuum. The man praised for his “strategic grip” by his former permanent secretary admitted last month that he hadn’t bothered coming up with a post-Brexit strategy. Britain is adrift in what could be the choppiest waters in decades without a fiscal policy, a paddle – or even a map.
None of this is accidental. All of it could have been foreseen – indeed, was foreseen by some of us. But it is the direct result of a sniggering callousness that punished the poor while rewarding the rich, that promised greater power for the provinces while shunting ever more money to central London, that bilked the young of their futures while bribing their grandparents all the way to the ballot box.

Perhaps the biggest charge historians will make against the chancellor is that his unfair, unreasonable economics helped produce the vote to leave Europe.

At the heart of Osbornomics were two contradictory impulses. First, and most important, was his belief that the state was “crowding out private endeavour”. His remedy was simple: slash the public sector and cut taxes and – hey presto! – you have a flourishing economy. This is what produced the wild optimism of those early forecasts of a historic boom in business investment (which never came) and the deficit paid off within five years (a deadline that was soon extended to 10 years).

To bolster his case, Osborne used evidence the way a drunk uses lampposts – not for illumination, merely to support him in his excesses. He often quoted a paper by Carmen Rheinhart and Ken Rogoff predicting disaster if public debt got too high. The finding was utterly debunked by a 20-something student, but Osborne kept quoting it anyway. The result was that the UK took longer to come out of its slump and was robbed of income – until panicky backbenchers forced Downing Street to park the strategy and chase growth from any source, especially the housing market.

The other part of Osbornomics stemmed from a justified desire to “rebalance” the economy, away from the City and London towards other industries and parts of the country. That would have required serious analysis and investment. What it got was glibness and austerity economics.

The “march of the makers” ended with the collapse of the Redcar and Port Talbot steelworks. As for the much-vaunted “northern powerhouse”, it was always a branding exercise rather than anything serious. After Clegg lobbied him to include Sheffield, he came out of the meeting chuckling to Laws: “George is hilarious. He immediately suggested including Sheffield and just dropping Leeds.” Sheffield, Leeds: to a Notting Hill boy they’re all oop north, aren’t they?

It was all just a hi-vis gag: according to the government’s own figures from last July, of all the spending on infrastructure on which work is actually under way, almost 50p of every pound is going to London. The north-east is getting less than a penny. Alongside this are the findings of Steve Fothergill and Christina Beatty, showing how the Tories’ welfare cuts left the prosperous south-east and booming inner London almost untouched. According to the authors, the areas hit hardest were “older industrial areas, less prosperous seaside towns, some London boroughs”. In other words, Brexit-land.

Thatcher and Blair might have left parts of the country battered and feeble, but it was Osborne who cut off their life support, by taking away the public sector jobs and benefits. It was Osborne who created the post-crash economy of low pay and zero-hours contracts, at the apex of which stand the likes of Mike Ashley and Philip Green. It was Osborne who took the tax revenue from eastern European workers but refused to reinvest it in schools and local government, thus stoking community tensions. It was Osborne who indulged in the divide-and-rule rhetoric of skivers v strivers. He has to take part of the blame for Brexit, even while he no longer has to shoulder the responsibility for it.

It’s his successor, Philip Hammond, who will face the news of big businesses pulling investment, workers getting less work and shops receiving less money. Of Mark Carney admitting the Bank of England has precious little room for manoeuvre – as a direct consequence of Osborne’s failure. To save the economy, Hammond will have to repudiate Osbornomics. I fear that that remains unthinkable for a Tory.

Still, George, what larks, eh? Now on to the non-executive directorships and six-figure speeches.

A Uniform Civil Code: It isn’t about women

Nivedita Menon in The Hindu

The talk of a Uniform Civil Code has nothing to do with gender justice. It has entirely to do with a Hindu nationalist agenda to ‘discipline’ Muslims

For nearly eight decades, the women’s movement has discussed and debated the desirability and feasibility of a Uniform Civil Code, and has ended up posing a simple question — what is the value of uniformity? Is it for the “integrity of the nation” that uniformity in laws is required, as some judicial pronouncements have suggested? If so, who exactly is the beneficiary? Which sections of people benefit from “integrity of the nation”, that abstract entity which is not exactly at the top of your mind as your husband throws you out on the street?
Or are uniform laws meant to ensure justice for women in marriage and inheritance? In that case, a Uniform Civil Code would simply put together the best gender-just practices from all Personal Laws. So yes, polygamy and arbitrary divorce would be outlawed (a feature derived from Hindu Personal Law). But conversely, as feminist legal activist Flavia Agnes has often pointed out, a Uniform Civil Code would require the abolition of the Hindu Undivided Family, a legal institution that gives tax benefits only to Hindus, and all citizens of India would have to be governed by the largely gender-just Indian Succession Act, 1925, currently applicable only to Christians and Parsis.
A stick to beat Muslims with

Muslim Personal Law is already modern in this sense, since it has since the 1930s enshrined individual rights to property, unlike Hindu law, in which the family’s natural condition is assumed to be “joint”. In the decades of the 1930s and 1940s, contrary to later discourses about Muslim law being backward, it was Hindu laws that were considered “backward” and needing to be brought into the modern world of individual property rights.
Again, since the Muslim marriage as contract protects women better in case of divorce than the Hindu marriage as sacrament, all marriages would have to be civil contracts. Mehr, in Muslim Personal Law, paid by the husband’s family to the wife upon marriage, is the exclusive property of the wife and it is hers upon divorce, offering her a protection Hindu women do not have. So, the Uniform Civil Code would make the practice of mehr compulsory for all while abolishing dowry.
The patent absurdity of these suggestions arises not from the ideas themselves, but from the fact, recognised by everybody, that the talk of a “Uniform Civil Code” has nothing to do at all with gender justice. It has entirely to do with a Hindu nationalist agenda, and is right up there with the beef ban and the temple in Ayodhya. A Uniform Civil Code is meant to discipline Muslims, teach them (if they didn’t know it already) that they are second-class citizens, and that they live at the mercy of “the national race” (the Hindus), as M.S. Golwalkar decreed.
The real issue of gender justice

So let us pose the question differently — who suffers in the absence of a Uniform Civil Code? Is it Muslim women, victims of polygamy and triple talaq, as Hindutvavadi wisdom has it? But for decades, feminist legal practice has successfully used both the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 — that is available to all Indian citizens regardless of religious identity — as well as the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986, to deal with polygamy and triple talaq, and to obtain maintenance, child custody and rights to matrimonial home for countless Muslim women. In addition, feminist legal activists have used the landmark Shamim Ara v. State of U.P. (2002) ruling to buttress their claim that arbitrary triple talaq is invalid.
Moreover, polygamy is not exclusive to Muslims. Hindu men are polygamous too, except that because polygamy is legally banned in Hindu law, subsequent wives have no legal standing and no protection under the law. Under Sharia law, on the contrary, subsequent wives have rights and husbands have obligations towards them. If gender justice is the value we espouse, rather than monogamy per se, we would be thinking about how to protect “wives” in the patriarchal institution of marriage. “Wives” are produced through the institution of compulsory heterosexual marriage, the basis of which is the sexual division of labour. This institution is sustained by the productive and reproductive labour of women, and almost all women are exclusively trained to be wives alone.
Thus, when a marriage fails to fulfil its patriarchal promise of security in return for that labour, all that most women are left with is the capacity for unskilled labour. Or they remain trapped in marriage with children to provide for, while men marry again, legally or otherwise, producing still more dependent, exploited wives and children for whom they take no responsibility. If gender justice is the point of legal reforms, the centrality and power of the compulsory heterosexual, patriarchal marriage, and the damage it can do to women, is what must be mitigated. This would mean recognising the reality of multiple “wives” as a common practice across communities, and the protection of the rights of all women in such relationships.
In this sense, recent Supreme Court rulings that have granted rights to second wives in Hindu marriages dilute the legal standing of monogamy for Hindus but empower women.
A survey conducted by the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, a significant voice in the debate, found that more than 90 per cent of Muslim women in India want a ban on “triple talaq” and polygamy in Muslim Personal Law. That is, the demand is made within the framework of codifying Muslim Personal Law, not in favour of a Uniform Civil Code, partly because there is no clarity on what a uniform code would look like, but also because the demand comes from clearly Hindutvavadi quarters which have shown that both women and minorities are expendable for them.
Lessons from the Goa experience

The only example of a uniform code in India is the Portuguese Civil Procedure Code (1939) of Goa, which is neither ‘uniform’ nor gender-just. Marriage laws differ for Catholics and people of other faiths, and if a marriage is solemnised in church, then Church law applies, permitting, for example, arbitrary annulment at the behest of one of the parties. The “customs and usages” of the Hindus of Goa are recognised, including “limited” polygamy for Hindus.
The positive aspect of Goa’s Civil Code is the Community Property Law, which guarantees each spouse 50 per cent of all assets owned and due to be inherited at the time of marriage. However, this provision can be sidestepped in practice, given the power relations in a marriage, and studies show that it has not made any impact on the incidence of domestic violence.
Clearly, if gender justice is not prioritised, both uniformity as well as its dilution can reinforce patriarchy and majoritarianism.
The woman at the centre of this recent round of debate on the Uniform Civil Code is Shayara Bano, who received talaq by post. Her lawyer, instead of using any of the three recourses available discussed above — the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986, or the citation of the Shamim Ara v. State of U.P. (2002) judgment — decided to file a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court challenging triple talaq on the grounds of violation of Fundamental Rights. Ms. Bano is now in the media spotlight, spiritedly criticising patriarchy in the Muslim community.
Revealingly, a recent interview with her in a national newspaper concluded with a startling question — “What about the ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ slogan controversy?” Ms. Bano replies, “I feel all Muslims should say Bharat Maa ki Jai.”
Does the question seem irrelevant in the context of Ms. Bano’s fight for personal justice? What does compulsory chanting of “Bharat Mata ki Jai” have to do with a woman fighting patriarchy?
But the question does not seem irrelevant at all; it seems to be at the heart of the interview. This alone should alert us to what the demand for a Uniform Civil Code is actually about.
Nivedita Menon, a feminist scholar, is a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University

Thursday, 14 July 2016

A vote for the Labour leader? That'll cost you £25 - even if you're a member. So much for anti-austerity politics

'The ridiculous charge is an attempt to keep the most working class, marginalised people from voting for Corbyn. It's an insult to anyone in a difficult financial situation and an attempt to stifle their political voice.' 

Kirsty Major in The Independent

According to the Labour Party website: “As a democratic, socialist party we welcome people to join… from all walks of life, to have their say and influence policy. We welcome membership applications from individuals, families, young people, students, workers, unemployed, older people – anyone with an interest in building a better Britain.”

It also states: “To newcomers, working out how everything fits together can seem a bit of a maze” - and they’re not wrong there. New members, including those young and unemployed supporters, have been left wondering why some members of the National Executive Committee (NEC) have voted to retrospectively disenfranchise them. Following a decision taken last night, the 130,000 members who joined in the last six months are no longer able to vote and will have to re-register and pay a whopping £25 registration fee if they wish to vote in the upcoming Labour leadership election.

£25 is an outstanding amount of money for the young, the unemployed, workers on low wages, and older people – the very groups the party purports to represent. A person looking for work, unable to work because of illness, or a person who is pregnant, a carer, or a single parent on low income and working less than 16 hours per week is given between £57.90 and £73.10 per week to live on. So if you are on benefits, becoming a supporter of the Labour Party will cost you between 34 per cent and 45 per cent of your weekly income. Being a member of the Labour Party then starts to look like an opportunity for the privileged few, rather than one available to all.

The move was supposedly an attempt to prevent a split in the party, but by bringing these measures in, members of the NEC who voted in favour of the motion have already ripped up their supporters’ trust. Many new members joined following Brexit, feeling motivated to engage with politics after seeing figures like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage exploit the concerns of working class communities worn down by years of Tory-led austerity. They joined Labour in the hope of becoming involved in their local branch and voting for a leader - be it Angela Eagle or Jeremy Corbyn - who would create a credible alternative to the Conservative Party.

Instead, the NEC have decided to financially and democratically exclude members, who they suspect are largely Corbyn supporters, to further their own party goals of winning at any cost. Furthermore, some in the NEC have been accused of gerrymandering after the vote was taken on the motion which was not included on the agenda, and after Corbyn and other pro-Corbyn members had left the room. So much for restoring trust in the Labour Party.

This move only serves to exacerbate the social exclusion of those who need more than ever to be given a voice within mainstream parties. If you needed proof of their anger, the damning protest vote against parliamentary politics during the EU referendum was pretty hard evidence. Amina Gichinga, 26, a recent Labour Party member and community organiser in Newham, told me recently, “The ridiculous £25 charge is an attempt to keep out the most working class marginalised people from voting because they know it'll amount to a landslide vote for Corbyn. £25 is some family's weekly shopping money - it is an insult to anyone in a difficult financial situation and an attempt to stifle their political voice.”

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Billionaires bought Brexit – they are controlling our venal political system

We may be told donors do not influence policy, but anywhere else our setup would be seen as corruption

Illustration by Bill Bragg

George Monbiot inThe Guardian

Is this a democracy or is it a plutocracy? Between people and power is a filter through which decisions are made, a filter made of money. In the European referendum, remain won 46% of the money given and lent to the two sides(£20.4m) and 48% of the vote; leave won 54% of the money and 52% of the vote. This fearful symmetry should worry anyone who values democracy. Did the vote follow the money? Had the spending been the other way round, would the result have reflected that? These should not be questions you need to ask in a democracy.

If spending has no impact, no one told the people running the campaigns: both sides worked furiously at raising funds, sometimes from gruesome people. The top donor was the stockbroker Peter Hargreaves, who gave £3.2m to Heexplained his enthusiasm for leaving the EU thus: “It would be the biggest stimulus to get our butts in gear that we have ever had … We will get out there and we will be become incredibly successful because we will be insecure again. And insecurity is fantastic.”

No one voted for such people, yet they are granted power over our lives. It is partly because the political system is widely perceived to be on sale that people have become so alienated. Paradoxically, political alienation appears to have boosted the leave vote. The leave campaign thrived on the public disgust generated by the system that helped it to win.

If politics in Britain no longer serves the people, our funding system has a lot to do with it. While in most other European nations, political parties and campaigns are largely financed by the state, in Britain they are largely funded by millionaires, corporations and trade unions. Most people are not fools, and they rightly perceive that meaningful choices are being made in private, without democratic consent. Where there is meaning, there is no choice; where there is choice, there is no meaning.

Politicians insist that donors have no influence on policy, but you would have to be daft to believe it. The fear of losing money is a constant anxiety, and consciously or subconsciously people with an instinct for self-preservation will adapt their policies to suit those most likely to fund them. Nor does it matter whether policies follow the money or money follows the policies: those whose proposals appeal to the purse-holders will find it easier to raise funds.

David Cameron with Ruby Wax at the Conservatives’ Black and White Ball, 2006. ‘You get the access you pay for: £5,000 buys you the company of a junior minister; £15,000, a cabinet minister.’ Photograph: Richard Young / Rex Features

Sometimes the relationship appears to be immediate. Before the last general election, 27 of the 59 richest hedge fund managers in Britain sponsored the Conservatives. Perhaps these donations had nothing to do with the special exemption from stamp duty on stock market transactions the chancellor granted to hedge funds, depriving the public sector of about £145m a year. But that doesn’t seem likely.

At the Conservatives’ annual Black and White Ball, you get the access you pay for: £5,000 buys you the company of a junior minister; £15,000, a cabinet minister. Politicians insist that there’s no relationship between donations and appointments to the House of Lords, but a study at Oxford University found that the probability of this being true is “approximately equivalent to entering the national lottery and winning the jackpot five times in a row”.

We might not have had a say in the choice of the new prime minister, but I bet there was a lively conversation between Conservative MPs and their major funders.

Among the many reasons for the crisis in the Labour party is the desertion of its large private donors. One of them, the corporate lawyer Ian Rosenblatt,complains: “I don’t think Jeremy Corbyn or anyone around him is remotely interested in whether people like me support the party or not.” Why should the leader of the Labour party have to worry about the support of one person ahead of the votes of millions?

The former Labour adviser Ayesha Hazarika urged Corbyn to overcome his scruples: “Meeting rich people and asking for money is not exactly part of the brand that has been so successful among his party faithful. But … sometimes you just have to suck it up and do things you don’t like.”

Under our current system she might be right, not least because the Conservatives have cut Labour’s other sources of funding: trade union fees and public money. But what an indictment of the system that is. During the five years before the last election, 41% of the private donations made to political parties came from just 76 people. This is what plutocracy looks like.

Stand back from this system and marvel at what we have come to accept. If we saw it anywhere else, we would immediately recognise it as corruption. Why should parties have to grovel to oligarchs to win elections? Or, for that matter, trade unions?

The political system should be owned by everyone, not by a subset. But the corruption at its heart has become so normalised that we can scarcely see it.

Two-fifths of British political donations made by just 76 people

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Here is one way in which we could reform our politics. Each party would be allowed to charge the same fee for membership – a modest amount, perhaps £20. The state would then match this money, at a fixed ratio. And that would be it. There would be no other funding for political parties. The system would be simple, transparent and entirely dependent on the enthusiasm politicians could generate. They would have a powerful incentive to burst their bubbles and promote people’s re-engagement with politics. The funding of referendums would be even simpler: the state would provide an equal amount for each side.

The commonest argument against such arrangements is that we can’t afford them. Really? We can’t afford, say, £50m for a general election, but we can afford the crises caused by the corruption of politics? We could afford the financial crisis, which arose from politicians’ unwillingness to regulate their paymasters. We can afford the costs of Brexit, which might have been bought by a handful of millionaires.

Those who urged us to leave the EU promised that we would take back control. Well, this is where it should begin.