Sunday, 28 October 2012

On good and evil in human behaviour

The BBC and some other large organisations in Britain are currently rocked by the Jimmy Savile scandal. Over many decades, Jimmy Savile, apparently restlessly working for charities to help disadvantaged children, was in fact preying on the very same kids he pretended to help. The police now think that he was a 'predatory pedophile' who abused more than 200 children.

I have not written about this since the scandal broke because words can only fail to express the horror and devastation felt by those he betrayed, the children he feigned to help, as well as those he actually abused sexually over such a long time.

There are however two issuees that got my attention beyond the sheer evil of his actions. The first is that Savile's behaviour was by no means secret. In fact it was widely known amongst his colleagues and perhaps even tolerated by management in the BBC and the NHS hospital he worked in. So the magnitude of this scandal only becomes clear when one thinks about the wall of silence that surrounded his actions, a wall not built by himself but created and maintained by others.

The second aspect relates to the relationship between good and evil in human behaviour. Savile's nephew recently expressed his sadness upon hearing about his uncle's crimes and he contrasted it with the enormous amount of charity work Savile has done over his life time. Yet when it comes to predatory pedophiles this may confuse motivation and behaviour. Savile may well have developed and nurtured his charity role in society exactly because this line of work ensured that he had access to young underage girls and boys.

For predatory pedophiles, contrasting the 'good' they are doing with the 'harm' is a common strategy of defence. In one of the biggest pedophile scandals in the US, the recently convicted rapist Jerry Sandusky (who worked as Penn State assistant football coach) used a similar strategy. In an interview with the New York Times he pointed to all the charity work he has done, arguing that he could not possibly have done any evil because he had done so much good.

We now know that Sandusky founded and developed his charity for disadvantaged boys exactly because it allowed him access to his victims and a perfect cover to groom them for his sexual abuse over a long period of time. It seems that people like Savile or Sandusky do not do good or evil, they do good in order to perpetrate evil.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

On Cook's journals

When I lived in Aberdeen I was a keen listener of the shipping forecast every night on BBC Radio. The broadcast exuded a sense of certainty and security while reporting gales and all sorts of weather all over the North Sea. I never found it tedious to listen to it.

This may be the reason why I had little apprehension when I bought James Cook published logbooks of his journeys into the South Sea a couple of years ago. Recently, I finally got round to reading them and I am absolutely gripped by the records of the events unfolding on Cook's three journeys around the world.

The diaries of the first two journeys are littered with weather and nautical information and it may be those that make them so soothing and re-assuring to me. Yet, the most fascinating aspect of his records lies in the way in which they reflect the novelty of Cook's endeavours and the fact that many of the islands he 'discovers' have actually had contact with European travellers already. I always assumed that Cook and his mates were somehow embarking on a journey into the unknown. But, in fact, time and again he notes carefully any previous visits to the islands by others. Although maps were often erroneous and geographical locations of these islands differed widely from one account to another, many of the islands had had contact with the outer world already when Cook arrived.

A real size replica of Cook's  Royal Navy Barque 'Endeavour' in Sydney Harbour

Interestingly, Cook also notes a phenomenon that we today may call collective memory. He often noticed on his second and third journey that, when re-visiting islands, he often does not recognise any single individual of the locals in the crowd. What he finds astonishing however is that they ask him and his team often detailed questions about incidences that reflect intimate knowledge about his previous visit. Cook was a good observer and he had often very close contact with locals sharing time and many adventures with them when on the islands.

While the fact that Cook does not recognise many of the faces may simply be because of the low life expectancy in the populations he visited, the fact that something like a memory of his previous visit remained alive amongst the people is difficult to explain. Cook's journals offer countless of these fascinating details about life outside the European culture and his records remains a worthwhile read even after so many years, with or without the nautical paraphernalia.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Universal benefits to go?

Britain has a long tradition of universal benefits. Whilst some of those are rightly celebrated as a means to lift some people out of poverty and provide a unifying thread across all sections of society, some of them have become a serious challenge to the public purse.

Politicians who question the usefulness or wisdom of universal benefits, such as free bus passes for all pensioners, run into two problems. First, they sound as if they grudge some of the poorest in society the most minimal types of support. And, second, they need to explain how universal benefits can be re-designed in such a way that they are targeted at the most in need. Means testing, the conventional form of targeting benefits to particular social groups, is an expensive bureaucratic exercise whose cost often exceeds the potential savings.

Whilst universal benefits are only minor expenditure items in large budgets (such as that of Central government or England's), for the devolved administrations in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast some universal benefits constitute a major item of expenditure simply because their devolved budgets are smaller and predominantly in those areas that 'host' universal benefits such as bus passes or prescription charges.

The former Scottish Auditor General has now raised some serious concerns about the culture of 'freebies' from devolved governments. In a BBC interview he argues that the demographic changes over the last 2 decades makes a strong case for reviewing some universal benefits. future projections of the costs of universal benefits support his argument. In the long term, some of the universal benefits are simply unsustainable and it appear also morally questionable why millionaires in Wales or Scotland should receive free prescriptions for medication.

The Scottish Labour leader has also floated some controversial ideas about universal benefits, the first time a Labour leader has ventured into this territory. The Welsh government under Carwin Jones has strongly rejected her argument and insists that universal benefits are here (in Wales) to stay. Yet, the Welsh government's case is even weaker than that of the other devolved governments. With a yawning gap in the budget for the NHS (this year alone about £240 million need to be found to save NHS health boards from bankruptcy), and no new funding settlement for Wales in sight, Carwin Jones hopes for a balanced budget are fast disappearing. So far, he has managed to lay all blame on everyone else but the profligacy and mismanagement of his own government, but he wont be able to do this much longer.

Revisiting the extent and usefulness of universal benefits may just be a starting point to reduce the gap in the Welsh budget. The biggest hurdle for this however may not have anything to do with the number crunching, but with Carwin Jones' character. Looking at universal benefits takes political courage and that is not something the Welsh Labour leader is known for.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Balls' conference freebies

As the Labour Party conference in Manchester draws closer to the highlight of the party leader’s speech, the Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls has tried to steal the limelight from his namesake by proposing a stamp duty holiday for first time buyers. 

Balls undoubtedly will want to repeat the trick of his Conservative colleague George Osborne four years ago, who, with the Conservatives enjoying mainly ‘soft’ support in the polls, proposed a raise in the inheritance tax allowance for families to £250,000. Post-conference polling showed that the support for the Conservatives firmed up and Cameron was on his way to 10 Downing Street.

Yet, Balls may struggle to repeat this feat under current circumstances. In fact, his proposal may turn out to be a grave mistake for two reasons, one strategic, one tactical. 

The first reason why Balls may have miscalculated is that the country is in a different position now then it was in 2008. For the last two years, the public debate has been about how to pay down the debt in the best possible way, rather than about how to spend more. Although the writing was already on the wall in 2008, Osborne still operated under the impression of generous spending limits and the British public was equally thinking that there was still something to give away. Now, this has changed and the polls indicate clearly that voters expect the main battle ground to be over what and where to cut, rather than to make uncosted promises of additional spending. 

Yet, the second (tactical) mistake Balls may have made is one that resonates in particular with Labour voters. As spending is being squeezed, the Labour Party leadership is pushed hard to come up with suggestions about what they would do differently to the coalition. So far, there is a big yawning black hole (or a plethora of policy committees which may or may not report some time in the future) where there should be policies. This arguably leaves Balls and Miliband with little choice but to offer some little nuggets instead a coherent programme of reform. 

The stamp duty holiday fits into this tactic. It looks like short termism when Labour should instead strive to formulate a coherent programme to re-focus public services. Commentators have already noted how much Balls’ proposal smacks of Gordon Brown’s attitude to policy, echoing the lack of grand narrative and purpose of the last two years of Labour in power. 

So, there we are. As Balls reverts back to his old paymaster’s tactics, he may just come to regret his proposal as the country has moved on, for better or worse, to a time of spending reductions. The argument about what to cut and what not, is the harder one to have, but running away from it wont help Labour.