The Big Idea: Josh Vogt

May. 29th, 2015 03:17 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

In today’s episode of The Big Idea, author Josh Vogt comes clean on his plan to integrate magic into the world in a useful and (usually) unobtrusive way, in his book Enter the Janitor.


One issue urban fantasy stories often deal with is: If magic is real in the modern world, how exactly have we not noticed this? Now, there many excuses (pardon me…rationales) as to why magic gets away with murder in today’s society. It could be anything from plain old human refusal to believe “the impossible” to supernatural beings protecting their own from discovery to realities where magic is entirely public knowledge, whatever the consequences of such.

In Enter the Janitor, the Big Idea was that magic is actually hiding in plain sight. It’s evolved alongside humanity and taken on quite a different role than it used to hold. Rather than a religious function or mystic mumbo-jumbo, magic could be connected to our history of sanitation and hygiene. Think about how many little health rituals we practice every day; at the same time, keeping things clean is often done on auto-pilot, meaning we may miss very obvious clues that something supernatural might be in the works. How many commercials and ads treat cleaning tools and chemicals as literally magical implements? Animated soap bubbles…talking sponges…even the genie-like Mr. Clean.

Magic also could have become more of a corporate affair, staffed with janitors, plumbers, maids, and more who dedicate their lives to the craft, much like ancient wizards and mages and witches would’ve. Rather than saving the world from eldritch towers, they began to do so in plain sight, one clean window and one mopped floor at a time. They swapped out wands and staffs for squeegees and mops and spray bottles.

And they’re everywhere. They work throughout practically all city buildings, including government and educational institutes. We hire them to clean our homes. Sanitation workers are so ubiquitous, but how often do we really pay attention to them?

In early drafts, I tried to write the story with a much more serious tone, but it ended up lacking a vital energy. When I first started playing around with the idea of a supernatural sanitation company, I couldn’t stop laughing to myself at how absurd it seemed—and yet the characters were taking everything oh-so-seriously.

The more I thought about this, the more I realized I needed to revel in exploring this ridiculous version of reality. And that’s when both the characters and the world they inhabited came fully to life in my mind. Janitor closets could be mystic portals. Garbage dumps could be repositories of power. Sewers could be…well…still sewers, but with stranger creatures slithering through them.

Ben, the titular janitor, has reached the point in his career where retirement seems to be swiftly approaching, but it’s not exactly the sort of work he can retire from. And so he’s on what feels like one last job, even if it does require using his magical powers to clean toilets at the local mall. After all, he takes pride in his work and knows even one stall left un-scrubbed could mean an innocent life getting flushed.

In the end, I had so much fun writing this story because no matter where I looked, it was already embedded in modern life in bizarre ways. And so the Cleaners were born.

Or maybe they’ve been here all along.


Enter the Janitor: Amazon | B&N | Kobo | iBookstore

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Posted by Alexander J Martin

Selling something to you, or selling you to something?

The VPN service Hola, which claims to have more than 9.7 million users, is now selling its access to users' machines as exit-nodes under the Luminati brand.

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Posted by Mark Valladares

…we should, perhaps, say goodbye and thank you to five of our Peers who have retired from the House of Lords in the past month under the terms of the House of Lords Reform Act 2014. In order of their declaration of retirement;

Lord (Colin) Sharman retired with effect from 30 April. A former Chairman of the ‘Big 4’ accountancy firm KPMG, he wasn’t terribly active in the House in recent years, but could be relied upon for critical votes.

Lord (Andrew) Phillips of Sudbury retired (again) with effect from 7 May. I say ‘again’ because he took leave of absence in 2006, intending never to return, but clearly realised that his annoyance at both Labour and Conservative efforts to reduce our civil liberties was good enough cause to return. Brave enough to disagree with even Paddy Ashdown on the floor of the House, Andrew spoke strongly against cuts to the legal aid budget and ID cards, and was an expert on charities and the law. Outside the chamber, he was probably most renowned for being Jimmy Young’s ‘Legal Eagle’ for more than a quarter of a century. Personally, I’ll miss him, although, as a near neighbour, I’m hoping that he won’t be a stranger.

Lord (Michael) Sandberg retired with effect from 8 May. A former Chairman of HSBC, he added business acumen to the Parliamentary Party although, again, he was relatively inactive in recent years. Given that he is 87, that might well be excusable…

Lord (William) Goodhart retired with effect from 15 May. One of the original SDP grandees, he fought Kensington in the 1983 and 1987 General Elections, as well as in the 1988 by-election, and Oxford West and Abingdon in 1992, when he got within 3,500 votes of victory. He went on to hold a number of frontbench positions in the Lords, including that of Shadow Lord Chancellor.

And finally, Lord (John) Roper retired with effect from 23 May. A former Labour MP who defected to the SDP in 1991, he served as our Chief Whip in the Lords until 2005, before going on to be Principal Deputy Chairman and thus Chair of the House of Lords European Union Committee, in 2008. In recent years, he was a regular attender at ALDE Congresses, where his knowledge of how Europe works was very impressive, even if his skills were underused. In a situation where opinion is not necessarily supported by knowledge, his modesty regarding his own knowledge meant that it wasn’t utilised by our delegations to its best effect.

I am confident, however, that as far as is possible, they will not be lost to public life altogether. We should be grateful that they contributed as they did to both the Party and to Parliament.
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Posted by Tim Worstall

There’s a slightly unfortunate concatenation of events here over the calculation of GDP. Today we’ve the news that the second estimate of Q1 GDP 2015 has been revised downwards to a substantial contraction. And last week we had the news that Commerce, who calculate GDP, are about to change the way in which it is measured so as to not report Q1 2015 GDP as falling. That the revision in method probably did need to happen simply on entirely sensible grounds won’t stop some people arguing it is being done simply because that Q1 number was bad. The more important lesson for us all about this is the fragility, the weakness, of the economic numbers that we all do pore over. Wile they’re indicative, and trends can be seen, there’s absolutely no way at all that the numbers that we do get are accurate enough for us to be able to do anything but the most vague and general planning of the economy. Something of a blow to those who would do a great deal more planning than we currently do.

Here’s the actual GDP revision:

The U.S. economy shrank in the first quarter as the nation’s trade deficit widened and business stockpiling slowed.

Gross domestic product — the value of goods and services produced in the U.S. — contracted at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 0.7% in the January-March period, the Commerce Department said Friday. That’s well below the modest 0.2% growth the government initially estimated.

One thing to keep in mind. US GDP numbers are reported on an annualised basis, not quarter by quarter as, say, the UK ones are. So – 0.7% isn’t good but it’s nowhere near as bad as if the UK number was reported as such.

The U.S. economy shrank in the first quarter of the year. Again.

Gross domestic product contracted at a 0.7% seasonally adjusted annual rate, the Commerce Department said Friday. That’s the third time since the recession ended that first-quarter numbers have gone into reverse.

And that’s where that revision to the figures comes in. If we start to see the economy stumbling over in the same quarter each year we might start to think that it’s a result of how we’re figuring the numbers rather than an actual reflection of the economy. And thus:

The Commerce Department this summer will add to its gross domestic product calculations with two new sets of figures on economic output. The new numbers, available June 30, should give some new insight on the economy’s behavior–and offer new fodder for economists, politicians, journalists and any other observer who wants to argue over the country’s health.

Or as Zero Hedge puts it, with their tin foil hats firmly secured:

As Steve Liemsan hinted a few days ago, in what we thought was a very belated April fools joke, th eBEA has finally thrown in the towel on weak seasonally-adjusted US GDP data, and as a result has decided to officially proceed with a second seasonal adjustment: one which will take all the bad data, and replaced it with nice and sparkly, if totally fake and goalseeked, GDP numbers.

Not sure if that tin foil is working properly there guys. As a counter-weight, here’s how the BEA describes it:

The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) is working on a multi-pronged action plan to improve its estimates of gross domestic product (GDP) by identifying and mitigating potential sources of “residual” seasonality. That’s when seasonal patterns remain in data even after they are adjusted for seasonal variations.

Each spring, BEA conducts an extensive review–receiving updated seasonally adjusted data from the agencies that supply us with data used in our calculation of GDP. Most of the data the feeds into GDP is seasonally adjusted by the source agency, not BEA. At the same time, BEA examines its own seasonal factors for those series that BEA seasonally adjusts itself. All that work takes place in preparation for BEA’s annual revision to GDP and its major components, which will be released on July 30.

As a result of this ongoing work, BEA is aware of the potential for residual seasonality in GDP and its components, and the agency is looking for ways to minimize this phenomenon.

And now here’s the dirty little secret that doesn’t usually get shouted from the rooftops. The quarterly (and even more the monthly) economic figures are all over the place and they normally are. Unemployment, for example, booms in January. All those people who had temporary jobs for the holiday season appear on the unemployment rolls again. Consumer spending, a major if not the major, part of GDP, booms massively in the run up to those holidays. The summer months see a very definite slow down in all economic activity. No one at all records the economy as it actually happens. Or rather, no one announces those figures nor would anyone pay attention to them if they did.

Simply because we know that the economy is subject to enormous seasonal variation. Some of it’s to do with the weather, other parts to our own behaviour (holiday season, vacations) and so on but there are those variations. In my native UK for example a bank holiday (akin say to Memorial Day, or Labor Day) causes a fall in GDP. Because everyone is taking that day off. And when we had an extra such holiday in one quarter (I think it was for the Royal Wedding most recently) then we can actually see that in the next quarterly GDP figures.

But we’re not really interested in such minor variations: we’re much more interested in getting an idea of what trend is than the impact of known seasonal variations. So, a certain amount of smoothing is done to the announced figures. We know about those January layoffs, we know about summer vacations. So, all of our numbers take account of them. The unemployment numbers are smoothed, the GDP numbers are too.

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Posted by Caron Lindsay

The Liberal Democrats may no longer be in government but laws we made are still being implemented. Earlier this week, Vince Cable’s ban on exclusivity contracts in zero hours contracts came into force.

It was pretty ridiculous that a company could both have no obligation to provide work and to require that their employees didn’t work for anyone else.

The CIPD, the organisation for HR professionals, wrote about the change on their blog;

Legislation proposed by former business secretary comes into force today

Employers who do not guarantee staff any hours of work, but prevent them from working for another employer, could face legal ramifications from today under a provision in the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act.

The ban on the use of exclusivity clauses in zero-hours contracts, which was first proposed by the outgoing coalition government, comes into force after a lengthy public consultation.

Before today employers were not prohibited from seeking exclusivity from an individual as this was considered a contractual matter between the employer and individual.

However, after 83 per cent of respondents to the government’s consultation voted in favour of a ban on exclusivity clauses, it is now a legal offence to prevent staff on zero-hour contracts from seeking other employment.

Nick Boles, minister of state for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills said: “Exclusivity clauses in zero hours contracts prevent people from boosting their income when they have no guarantee of work.

“Banning these clauses will give working people the freedom to take other work opportunities and more control over their work hours and income. It brings financial security one step closer for lots of families.”

It is quite galling to see the announcement coming from a Conservative when Vince had to fight them to get it through. We need to make sure that the public are aware that these sorts of changes came from us.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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Posted by Mike Smithson


The three challenges for those who want a NO vote

It has been generally accepted that the ‘Out’ side currently face an uphill fight to try and win the referendum which will be held at some point over the next two or so years. Whilst there is overwhelming support in the country for reform of the EU and strong, but minority, support for leaving, unless the ‘Out’ side can produce a convincing argument as to why life will be better outside, they are not going to turn around the 25% or so of public opinion they need to convince in order to achieve their aims.

So what steps should ‘Out’ be taking over the next few months to try and maximise their vote?

Firstly – and perhaps most obviously – they need to actually start working together as an organised campaign. There are dozens of different groups and organisations, all of which are committed to leaving the EU, which could play an important part in the campaign. The trouble is that at the moment there is no single campaign organisation, no clear leadership and not even the start of a move to create these basic structures. Someone needs to sit down and start making phone calls to create an umbrella body which will coordinate and run the Out campaign with as wide a support base as possible. If this is not done soon then the natural result is that this task will default to the one political party that has consistently campaigned for Out – UKIP. And at that point I am afraid I believe the battle will already have been lost.

Which brings us to the second step: A credible leader. Whilst many in UKIP believe this is the task that Nigel Farage was created for, this is certainly not a view that is universally held, even within the ‘Out’ movement. Moreover, it has to be recognised that for every voter for whom Farage is an attraction there are probably at least two or three more for whom he is a definite turnoff. Although UKIP gained four million votes at the General Election this is a tiny number compared to what will be needed to win a referendum and a ‘core vote’ strategy in this instance is obviously a non starter. So the question is how do the ‘Out’ side reach out to the non-UKIP Eurosceptics and the undecided?

There are two possibilities here. The first would be to go with a politician from another party – with all respect to Douglas Carswell, for whom I have a huge amount of time, his membership of UKIP carries with it similar baggage to Nigel Farage. When looking at possible candidates there are three who particularly spring to mind. The first two are from Labour; Frank Field and Kate Hoey. Both are very well respected long serving Labour MPs who have appeal far beyond their party and are known to be independent thinkers. With either of them in charge of the Out campaign there would be a great chance to attract left of centre Eurosceptics who might otherwise be put off by an apparent right of centre leader. Both do however have potential issues – Frank Field has had health problems recently whilst Kate Hoey is on record as saying that, whilst she might support Out, she would prefer if possible to stay in a reformed EU. That sort of mixed messaging could provide a hostage to fortune. The other alternative from politics is the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan. A long time advocate of leaving the EU he is articulate and supremely well informed about the EU and its failings. But again, it has to be recognised that he too has potential issues, not least his comments about the NHS made in the USA a few years ago.

That then leaves possible leaders from outside politics. The appointment of a business leader such as James Dyson or the JCB chairman Lord Bamford would send a message that businesses need not be afraid of Britain leaving the EU. These and many other hugely successful business leaders are advocates of leaving the EU and it is their voice that should be heard to counter the myths about millions of jobs lost or companies leaving the UK.

Once the organisation and leadership are in place the emphasis needs to be on looking forward not back. As has been pointed out many times on here, Out will only win if they can present a unified and credible prospect for Britain’s future outside the EU. This means a future that ensures a continuation of trade links without the political interference that characterises our current relationship with our European neighbours. For me the only sensible alternative is membership of EFTA and through it the EEA. This would allow people to understand simply what the relationship with our European neighbours and the rest of the World would be after we left the EU. It would go a long way to negating the scaremongering about isolation and loss of business and would provide a solid platform on which to build the rest of the ‘Better Off Out’ message.

The most obvious and oft cited argument against this is that it will not deal with the issue of immigration. This is a challenge that needs to be addressed head on. Yes there is free movement of peoples in the EEA but in that case, on this narrow issue, it is no different to our current EU membership. Whilst there may be a significant minority of people for whom immigration is the main driver of Euroscepticism, I believe that many of those would, in the end, vote to leave anyway and that therefore the numbers who would vote against leaving because the alternative still allowed for free movement is very small. That is not to say this would not be a challenge but it is one that would have to be dealt with early on in formulating the Out campaign so that the position in favour of EFTA membership, for all that some may not see it as perfect, is the one that is presented to the public during the debate.

Obviously there are many issues and external events that could derail either side of the debate over the next 12 -24 months. But the ‘Out’ side has to ensure that it does not make the task of winning the referendum any more difficult than it already is by establishing these three key points – organisation, leadership and message – as quickly and as effectively as possible.

Richard Tyndall

The Brailsfordian road to socialism

May. 29th, 2015 01:53 pm
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Posted by chris

One problem with the Labour party is that it has too many Brownites and Blairites and not enough Brailsfordites.

I mean, of course, Sir Dave Brailsford. He has explained how he made British cyclists into world-beaters by aggregating marginal gains:

If you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.

This is echoed by Esther Duflo and  Abhijit Banerjee in Poor Economics:

It is possible to make significant progress against the biggest problem in the world through the accumulation of a set of small steps.

Labour should apply this philosophy to the public services. And it should do so in combination with Hayek's insight that knowledge of where these gains are to found lies not in any contral body but rather is fragmentary and dispersed across all individuals.

What Labour should do, then, is ask everyone connected to the public services as client or worker: what concrete steps can we take to improve this Job Centre, this hospital, this school? Many of the suggestions will - I'd hope - be utterly mundane and apparently trivial: they'll consist in slight tweaks to how wards are cleaned, minor changes to procurement or teaching. And they'll vary from place to place. But as Sir Dave said, if you add together thousands of tiny improvements, you get a big improvement.

Liz Kendall, among others, has spoken - rightly - of the need for decentralization. But this should not merely be the end of the policy process, but the beginning.

What I'm calling for is for Labour to "connect" to people and to "listen" not in any abstract focus group sense, nor as a kowtowing to prejudice, but rather to use genuine but local and specific knowledge of how to improve the public sector.  

As for what institutional form this listening should take, it varies. It might be as simple as using Labour's website as a suggestion box, or getting local parties to ask local workers for concrete ideas about how they can work better. Or, as Paul says, local trades councils or their successors could propose locally agreed action plans for school improvement instead of Ofsted-type special measures. Just as the improvements shouldn't be centrally-directed, so the institutional forms through which they are articulated should be diverse.  

All this might sound like low-level cheeseparing - not that there's anything wrong with that. But it might not be. It's what I've called a building-block policy - an apparently small initiative that leads onto others. Smallish forms of civic engagement can lead to others - in effect, we're putting learned helplessness into reverse. Giving people a little bit of power will encourage them to demand more. They might ask: if we're coming up with all these ideas for improving public services, why is some guy getting a six-figure salary for sitting in an office? Eventually, this might lead to a transformation in politics - to forms of sociocracy rather than hierarchy. Politics will no longer about what men in Westminster do for (or more often to) us, but what we do for ourselves. As Tocqueville wrote:

Democracy does not provide people with the most skilful of governments, but it does that which the most skilful government often cannot do; it spreads throughout the body social a restless activity, a superabundant force, and energy never found elsewhere, which, however little favoured by circumstance, can do wonders.

"Small changes can have big effects" wrote Duflo and Banerjee. The transition to socialism will not happen by protesting, emoting or even perhaps by voting. It'll come instead by small and individually innocuous steps.

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Posted by Guy Burton

February 15th 2003 - Iraq war demo in LondonThe other week I asked whether the Lib Dems were a party of government or a party of protest.  Many welcome comments were made, including a good one pointing out that a political party can be both: that to reach government it needs to be a vehicle of protest, to identify what’s wrong so that it can offer change.

As I thought about that point, I read Ben Marguiles’ blog on Liberal/Lib Dem electoral performance in relation to other parties.  Whether Lib Dems like it or not, his observations highlight the contingent relationship between the party and the politics of protest.

Marguiles observes that previous analysis shows that when the party system is polarised – i.e. the two main parties diverge from the centre, the Liberals and their successors have done well.  This was the case between 1945 and 2010 when Britain had a two-and-a-half party system.  But where the political party system as a whole is polarised, the Lib Dems suffer.  Marguiles puts this down to the rise of other political parties, like the Greens, SNP and UKIP, which all drew votes away from both the centre and both Labour and the Tories.  The result?  The Lib Dems saw their share of the vote drop.  Marguiles does add a rider to this; that the party’s in government may also have made it vulnerable, but that may be due to insufficient data analysis having been done on that specific topic.

What does this mean in terms of future Lib Dem strategy?  It suggests that the Lib Dems will need to rebuild with at least one eye towards the other parties.  The new leadership will need to emphasise how different it is from both Labour and the Tories as well as the smaller ‘protest’ parties.  While it distinguishes itself from the two main ‘business as usual’ parties it will also need to make a positive European case against UKIP, show up the disparity between the SNP’s anti-austerity rhetoric in Westminster and fiscally conservatism at home, and demonstrate greater competence and effectiveness than the Greens would ever be able to offer.

However, the party starts with a disadvantage.  Given its tiny parliamentary size it will struggle to gain media attention (which we faced with a far larger number of MPs last time we were in opposition).  Therefore the party will need to connect with the public in different ways, including outside of election times.  It will mean more year-round work, locally and nationally – the latter focusing on other ‘non-political’ campaigns like protection for workers’ rights, decent pay and benefits.  As well as reclaiming the party’s commitment for social justice it would also place it at the centre of people’s concerns and awareness.  Here it could do worse than to borrow a leaf from the Occupy movement and its slogan of ‘We are the 99%,’ which both expressed its activists’ sentiments and offered a vehicle for inclusion.

* Guy Burton is Assistant Professor in the School of Politics, History and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, Malaysia Campus. Between 2010 and 2012 he was a researcher at Birzeit University in the West Bank. Previously he was a researcher for the Liberal Democrats in Parliament and was a GLA candidate for the party in 2004.

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Posted by Phil Plait

I’m not gonna lie to you: This is the best cold open of any episode we’ve done so far. I made myself laugh writing it.

Before you comment, PLEASE READ THE FOOTNOTE ON THIS ARTICLE. And if you still feel the need to comment, remember, neither you nor I is funnier than Futurama.

About that pronunciation, this may help as well.

I’ve also written about those giant storms that erupted in Uranus’ atmosphere, an odd hypothesis about why the planet is tipped over, and an interesting claim that Herschel may have seen the rings of Uranus!

As for Neptune, some articles that might interest you: a new moon found by Hubble, a celebration of the completion of one Neptunian orbit since it was discovered in 1846 (including some lovely Hubble pictures), that time the New Horizons Pluto probe saw Neptune and Triton, and what I consider the single finest picture of Neptune that exists.

Also? Neptune is really far away.

kafj: headshot of KAFJ looking over right shoulder (Default)

More on Cambridge

May. 29th, 2015 01:25 pm
[personal profile] kafj
In the latest round of the never-ending quest to sort my head out, I have been going through old diaries, and I found this, from about eighteen months ago:

Cambridge is cold and windy, and beautiful in the winter light, and a little bit aloof.

That was when I was living in Guildford and going up to Cambridge once or twice a month to see Tony, and wondering whether I would ever actually be able to live there. I found the city terribly intimidating: it’s so old, and so full of terrifyingly clever people. In all fairness, I was intimidated by Guildford when I first moved there: so full of terrifyingly rich people.

I’ve been in Cambridge a year now, and we are beginning to become acquainted. There are some parts – my cycle ride to and from the station; the section of the Cam from the Green Dragon in Chesterton up to Baits Bite Lock – that I pass through daily or weekly. I can find my way around the city centre without a map now. I’ve been doing lots of walking – I always explore a new place on foot, if I can. But there’s still an awful lot that I haven’t discovered. There’s probably a lot that I’ll never discover.

One of the loveliest things has been discovering Cambridge with other people. One of them has known Cambridge longer than I’ve been alive, and dragged me off to Fitzbillies for the best Chelsea bun in the world. One grew up in Cambridge – and gave me a long list of pleasant places to eat and wander in. One had never visited before – and we downloaded a walk from the internet and found all the colleges. My father came to stay and went for a drink in the Mitre – where, he casually mentioned, his grandfather had almost certainly drunk before him.
That made it better.

I like Cambridge. I like the cherry blossom and the pale yellow stone and the rowers. I like the way that everybody cycles and how ridiculously easy it is to get to London. I like the college arms that line the staircase in Boots. I like the Te Deum windows in Great St Mary’s. I like the Renoirs in the Fitzwilliam and the Chelsea buns in Fitzbillies. I like the charity shops on Burleigh Street.

There are probably all sorts of other things I like, but I haven’t got round to them yet. No matter. There’s plenty of time.
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Posted by Mark Pack

Liberal Democrat HQ - Great George Street - preamble to party constitution

One of the most well-received previous attempts to set out what the Liberal Democrats believe was the It’s About Freedom policy paper from a few years back. As this is a topic now very much being discussed again, now seems a good time to blog it:

Download this document

Oh, and of course this poster is still rather relevant.

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Posted by Tim Worstall

This is really rather fascinating. We can view it in a number of ways. Perhaps as a study in how economic research becomes co-opted to support a particular political line. How we tend to get told the details of what people are proposing. We might even gain insight into why the country is in fact so badly governed. For we’ve now got intriguing evidence that the study used to justify higher minimum wages doesn’t think that LA’s $15 minimum wage is going to work. On the grounds that $15 an hour is simply much too large a sum to actually work.

As I have been pointing out for some time now the general consensus is that modest increases (or even modest levels) of the minimum wage don’t have all that much effect on employment or unemployment. And I’ve also been saying, for several years now, the the level of “modest” seems to be around 45 to 50% of the median wage.

Our problem is that some people have been taking the statement “modest increases don’t have much effect” and dropping the qualifiers to get to “increases have no effect”. There’s even a slightly strange group out there that, ludicrously, insists that raising the minimum wage increases the number of people in employment. At which point of course we should just raise it to $50 an hour and everyone can work! Or, as people will say when you do suggest that, of course it does depend upon the level. Which brings us back to 45-50% of the median wage which is why the EPI and researchers like Andrajit Dube suggest exactly that 50% of median level.

And we see Jared Bernstein saying this here. He quotes a major study:

That does not mean, however, that we should give up on the question of the impact of minimum wage increases. In fact, we can tap the benefits of a newly published volume on this question called “What Does the Minimum Wage Do?,” by economists Dale Belman and Paul Wolfson. How do we know they don’t have a thumb on the scale? Well, Cornell University recently named their book the book of the month, calling it (my bold): “the most comprehensive, analytical, and unbiased assessment of the effects of minimum wage increases that has ever been produced.” (The book also won the prestigious William G. Bowen Award, annually awarded by Princeton University “to the book making the most important contribution toward understanding public policy related to industrial relations and the operation of labor markets.”)

I’ve not read the study so cannot say whether I agree with it or not. I mention it here simply to call into evidence the source that Bernstein is using to justify his position. And the quote is:

“…increases in the minimum wage raise the hourly wage and earnings of workers in the lower part of the wage distribution and have very modest or no effects on employment, hours, and other labor market outcomes. The minimum wage can then, as originally intended, be used to improve the conditions of those working in the least remunerative sectors of the labor market. While not a full solution to the issues of low-wage work, it is a useful instrument of policy that has low social costs and clear benefits.”

OK. But those same researchers, when asked about the $15 level in LA, say:

In a 2014 book, “What Does the Minimum Wage Do?” economists Dale Belman of Michigan State University and Paul Wolfson of Dartmouth College reviewed more than 200 minimum-wage studies. Most increases “had little or no effect on employment or hours.” Higher minimums seem a painless choice. We can raise the low-income workers’ pay without killing their jobs.

Well, maybe not.

There are two caveats. The first involves the size of the proposed increases. As Belman and Wolfson note, most increases in the minimum since the 1960s have been “moderate.” They’ve been infrequent and in the 10 to 15 percent range, Wolfson said in an interview. The rapid increases now being advocated dwarf this, as Los Angeles shows. “Our suspicion is that large increases could touch off . . . disemployment,” wrote Belman and Wolfson in their study.

We’re back to our distinction between modest and large increases in that minimum wage.

Just so that we’re all clear here. I think a minimum wage of anything other than $0.00 an hour is a bad idea. For, obviously, that is what the real minimum wage is as anyone without a job will tell you. I’m also in agreement with the New York Times of the 1970s there. After all, it isn’t actually necessary to have a minimum wage to make sure that people gain good wages. Currently the minimum wage covers perhaps 4% of the US workforce. That means that 96% of people working get more than the minimum wage. That in itself means that there must be something else that determines wages other than whatever the minimum is. My suspicion would be supply and demand but then I’m a free market zealot so what do I know? And if supply and demand works for 96% of the population it’s difficult to see why it won’t for 100%.

But, if everyone wants to think that government price fixing is a good idea (even with the example of Venezuela in front of us) then so be it: this is a democracy after all. But we should at least, if price fixing we’re going to have, fix them somewhere close to the real price. That is, $15 an hour is too high, something more like 50% of median is going to be a lot less damaging. Or something more like $9.50 an hour (if we take median hourly wage) or perhaps $12 (if median hourly wage for full year full time workers).

$15 an hour is just a fight too far. No good will come of it. Except, of course, as I’ve mentioned before, that the next generation of studies on the effect of the minimum wage isn’t going to be about how modest raises have modest effects, it’s going to be about how immodest raises cause unemployment.

miss_s_b: Vince Cable's happy face (Politics: Vince - happy face)

On the political use of wording.

May. 29th, 2015 12:17 pm
[personal profile] miss_s_b
One of the big successes the Labour party had in the last government was the creation of the term "bedroom tax" for something which is not even a tax, and the blaming of the coalition government for it when it is something they started*. Labour are really good at blaming other people for things they started and/or wholeheartedly embraced - tuition fees, privatising the NHS, etc. - but what I'm really interested in is the use of language to fight a perceived injustice.

One of the most consistent trends of the last ten years (again, started by Labour) is the punishment of the poor for being poor. Benefit caps, having to jump through arbitrary hoops to continue receiving a meagre JSA, ridiculous work capability assessments, all of these are equally embraced by both Labservative parties. I was working at the CAB under Blair, and a huge amount of time was taken up by appealing disability benefit decisions, etc. And part of the reason these things are accepted by the general public is that they have swallowed the Kool Aid that people on benefits are scroungers - to the extent that even people on benefits, while they assert their own right to receive benefits, will none-the-less think everyone else on benefits is a scrounger.

The problem is that most benefits don't actually benefit the person in nominal receipt of them. The claimant doesn't see any gain from soaring housing benefit because it goes into their landlord's pocket, not theirs. Tax credits mainly help employers who either can't or won't pay decent wages. JSA conditional on workfare benefits all those employers who get subsidised to "employ" a free workforce rather than people they actually have to pay and train. So I propose a change of wording.

Housing benefit is easy. Housing benefit is Landlord's benefit. When you refer to it as Landlord's benefit you are calling it what it is. Tax credits, I propose, should be called "Exploitative wage top up". There's a whole raft of disability benefits which should be called things like "paltry amount grudgingly given to try and keep you out of hospital" or something similar.

What benefits do you think should be renamed?

* yes, I am aware that the LHA has some differences from the private sector version, but it's the same concept.

Opinion: Lib Dems take power in York

May. 29th, 2015 10:55 am
[syndicated profile] lib_dem_voice_feed

Posted by Keith Aspden

York swimming pool successThe last few weeks have been an intense time for all Liberal Democrats not least here in York.

After a gruelling campaign and against the national trend, we made gains in the city’s ‘all up’ local elections increasing our seats from the 8 won in 2011 to 12 this time.

These results were down to the hard work and dedication of our candidates and volunteers, such as Local Party Chair Stephen (now Councillor) Fenton, Print Room Supremo Richard Hill, Citywide Agent Derek Wann, along with countless others.

It was also down to a local party which (as I wrote on this website back in June 2013) was forced into a “period of serious self-reflection” following disappointing losses in the 2011 local elections.

What eventually sprung from this was a very localised campaign. Street-based issues filled our Focus, glossy leaflets and target letters with ‘Stronger Economy, Fairer Society’ perhaps getting less of a mention.

The key factor was being relevant to local voters. On salient issues such as the threat to York’s historic Yearsley Swimming Pool and youth services at the Castlegate Centre we campaigned hand-in-hand with local residents (aided by welcome visits from Baroness Walmsley and Sir Malcolm Bruce respectively).

We took this approach into the elections, building our campaign on the issues that mattered to local residents, with thanks to our North Yorkshire peers Baroness Harris and Lord Willis for their support.

No doubt we were helped in this by York’s Labour Council, which had spent 4 years ignoring and alienating residents with bridge closures, cuts to services and flawed Local Plans.

On May 8th our gains and Labour losses meant York had a hung council, with Labour on 15 seats, the Conservatives on 14, us on 12, the Greens on 4 and the Independents on 2.

After initially backing a ‘rainbow coalition’, it soon became clear that neither Labour nor the Conservatives favoured this option. After much discussion, we eventually hammered out a deal and agreed to enter a joint-administration with the Conservatives.

The agreement we struck with the Conservatives has produced some real wins for local residents: vital counselling for young people protected, a new plan for housing to be produced, and the return of local decision-making Ward Committees.

Yearsley Pool will also stay open and I was delighted that one of my first jobs as Deputy Leader of City of York Council was to celebrate this with local campaigners. The photograph above shows us celebrating the announcement.

We are also introducing new cross-party committees, enabling all opposition councillors to have their say on policy whilst it is being developed. This will be based on a model currently used in Wandsworth.

We are told that the new joint-administration means York has become only the third council in the north to be partly or fully run by the Lib Dems. No one is underestimating the challenge that this brings, particularly as we are sharing power with the Conservatives.

Going forward, it is crucial that we deliver at the council in the face of ongoing government cuts, continue the doorstep campaigning, and most importantly stay relevant and distinct to local voters. If we become detached from the communities we represent then the gains made this time will soon be lost.

Instead, we are determined that May’s results will be a springboard for the future. In order to fulfil this (and after only a brief pause for breath!) the campaign and ward targeting strategy for 2019 has already begun in earnest.

To find out more or to join us campaigning in York, please visit: or email

* Keith Aspden has been the Councillor for Fulford Ward in York since 2003. He was elected Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group in May 2013 and is now Deputy Leader of York City Council

matgb: Artwork of 19th century upper class anarchist, text: MatGB (Default)

British Liberal, house husband, school play leader and stepdad. Campaigner, atheistic feminist, amateur baker. Male.

Known to post items of interest on occasions. More likely to link to interesting stuff. Sometimes talks about stuff he's done. Occasionally posts recipes for good food. Planning to get married, at some point. Enjoying life in Yorkshire.

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Mat Bowles

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I'm the Chair of the Brighouse branch of the Liberal Democrats & the membership secretary for Calderdale Lib Dems and run the web campaign for the local candidates. I have a job, a stepdaughter and a life.

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