• Is the summer campaign an admission of failure?
  • Are mandarins the problem?
  • Crossing boundaries
  • The Liberal Democrats and DRIP

http://www.alexsarchives.org/5844/

Shredded, the RBS saga and banking reform

shreddedI’ve just finishing reading Ian Fraser’s Shredded. I started it when I was up in Edinburgh last month, appropriately enough. But other things intervened and it was only over the bank holiday weekend that I got the time to sit down and read the second half.

The book tells the fascinating story of the growth and subsequent implosion of the Royal Bank of Scotland. Fraser has produced a genuine page turner from material that is, on the face of it, pretty dry.

Quite a few elements of the story are now reasonably familiar – particularly relating to the Fred Goodwin era. I have to admit that I am only an intermittent watcher of what’s going on in the world of banking and finance, so it was good to have the developments laid out systematically and largely chronologically. It was particular interesting to learn what has been happening in more recent years, after the bank found itself pretty much nationalised. Like anyone who pays attention to the news I am aware of the massive fines regularly being handed to the bank for past crimes and regulatory infringements, but I wasn’t entirely up to speed with what was happening in terms of its restructuring or the way in which it has interacted with government.

The story of the rapid growth of RBS after 2000 is pretty hair-raising. But I found the story of what happened after 2008 under Stephen Hester, with the aim of bringing the bank back to profitability, no less alarming, in the sense that behaviour did not change dramatically as a result of lessons learnt the hard way. Indeed, there is the suggestion – although disputed by the bank – that aspects of its behaviour deteriorated after 2008 as it attempted to improve its own financial position at its customers’ expense. Entirely coincidentally, but almost as if to underline the point, RBS finds itself in the news again this week accused of selling mortgages without doing the necessary affordability checks, long after it was supposed to be cleaning up its act. [Read more...]

Do political parties make any difference?

To the politically obsessed this might seem like an odd question. Of course political parties matter.

On the other hand, there are plenty of people who take a more jaundiced view of politics: they’d argue that “they’re all as bad as each other” and it doesn’t matter who you elect the government always get in. The more recent revival of that argument would be that all the main political parties are signed up to some version of hegemonic neoliberalism, so it doesn’t really make much difference who forms the government – you’re going to get some version of the same marketising, privatising, deregulating and impoverishing agenda.

Among those who study politics and policy rather more theoretically there is a somewhat more nuanced debate on the topic. You can find views on a spectrum running from accounts of great leaders rising above their circumstances to reshape the world for the better to those who believe that politics is simply an epiphenomenon that does no more than deliver the policy agenda functional to deeper, dominant socio-economic interests. And most points in between. If you’re not careful you soon find yourself entangled in the thicket of state theory, reflecting on whether social institutions are objective, subjective or entirely discursive, or scratching your head over where to strike the explanatory balance between structure and agency.

A paper by Hampshire and Bale, published in West European Politics, has recently appeared online. It offers another take on these issues using coalition policy on immigration as the case study. [Read more...]

The miraculous power of welfare reform

5078082286_61e24d05dd_nThe international news is pretty grim at the moment. This doesn’t really fit well with the traditional idea that we’re in silly season, when Prime Ministers travel to holiday destinations to point at fish.

Yet something that fits entirely comfortably with silly season is another self-justificatory speech by Iain Duncan-Smith. And today we were treated to a corker. It would be silly, if it weren’t so alarming.

I blogged about IDS’s last big speech back in January. Then I noted:

We have a fine smattering of slogans and soundbites.

There are some extraordinarily sweeping claims about the attitudes, lifestyles and behaviours of those who receive assistance from the state.

If you are looking for simplistic binary understandings of the world – those who work hard and those who are “trapped” in a lifetime on benefit – and implausible generalisations about the moral laxity or weakness of will of those who require state support then you’ve come to the right place.

We have an interpretation of the impacts of welfare reform that can only be sustained as long as we make little or no effort to understand what is actually happening on the ground. There’s a little statistical chicanery of the type that will be familiar to seasoned IDS watchers.

But then no one would mistake IDS for a member of the reality-based community.

Yet, mostly we have a great confused jumble of incoherent fragments of thought and inconsistent lines of argument.

Many of the same ingredients were very much in evidence today. But they were given some new twists and combined with some new ingredients. [Read more...]

Borismania

I can sort of see the appeal. But, then again, I really can’t. Is Boris the saviour of the Conservative party?

Back at the beginning of last year I saw him give an after dinner speech. At one point he was stood within two metres of me, but I didn’t manage to touch the hem of his cloak. He was speaking to an audience that wasn’t, I wouldn’t have thought, his natural constituency. Yet not long after he’d got going pretty much everyone in the room seemed to be on his side.

He clearly has buckets of charisma. He started off with a topical joke at the Liberal Democrats’ expense – “As Chris Huhne said to his wife over the breakfast table this morning, there are just three points I’d like to get over to you today …”. He then went on to make a speech that was rather incongruous in its interventionist tone – it advocated a more active policy stance on the topic than anything the Labour party has proposed in years. That particular audience loved it.

All this seems both characteristic and symptomatic.

Boris is a good showman. We know this. He’s smarter than he looks. He knows how to press an audience’s buttons. Likely as not he’ll say what needs to be said to ingratiate himself to them.

And now we will no doubt be hearing plenty more from him, and about him, over the next nine months. He only made his big announcement a couple of days ago and already Borismania seems to have broken out in sections of the commentariat. [Read more...]

Academic economics, institutions and incentives

Economics economistsAn interesting discussion about academic economics and its role in public life has sparked into life while I’ve been away (eg Simon here and here; Chris here and here). This discussion touches on many of the things that are closest to my academic interests – in particular, thinking about economics as a set of social practices as much as bodies of knowledge.

Just before I disappeared for a few days I finished Lanteri and Vromen’s recently published edited collection The economics of economists: institutional setting, individual incentives, and future prospects. It’s a volume that speaks to many of the same issues, particularly with respect to the incentives facing economists individually and collectively. The contributors approach the issues from a range of social scientific perspectives.

I’d been looking forward to reading the book because it includes several economists who I’d go out of my way to read – Arjo Klamer, David Colander, Deirdre McCloskey, Robert Frank.

And there is plenty of interesting material here, touching on diverse aspects of economics. Topics include understanding economics as an academic discipline in which to build a career; how the discipline can be taught most effectively; the risk of European economics losing its strengths and distinctiveness as it seeks to ape US economics; and some challenges regarding the way the economy should be understood. The collection is eclectic; there is little offered by way of unifying themes.

Whether you’ll find the volume of particular interest depends on how familiar you are with the debates. [Read more...]

Serial bloggage

One of the most intriguing characteristics of blogging is its flexibility. You can find plenty of people willing to offer their views on how you should go about blogging if you want to maximize your audience and the like. But, while some of these hints and tips may well be of value, I’m not sure there is a formula for success.

While the received wisdom might be that posts of around 500-600 words will hit the spot most effectively, there are hugely effective bloggers who have mastered the art of the meaningful single paragraph or, indeed, single sentence post. Or bloggers who intersperse textual posts with images or videos that are left to speak for themselves.

Then again there are windbags like me who can barely say anything sensible in less than a thousand words. Occasionally – and more commonly when I started out – I have published posts of 2,500 to 3,000 words. These days I’m more likely to bung something of that length on to Scribd and use a blogpost to signpost to it.

Another distinctive blogging format is the thematic series. I don’t suppose there is any technical reason why series of thematic posts could not feature more regularly in the mainstream media. But I guess they are perceived to require a degree of commitment from the publisher, the author, and the audience. That is probably sufficient to discourage some publishers. When you’re pushing the publish button yourself it isn’t so much of an issue. [Read more...]

Attitudes towards new development soften

There is a broad consensus among politicians, analysts and commentators that Britain needs to build more housing. You can encounter dissent from that view, but it tends to be on the fringes – in deep UKIP anti-migrant territory or the paramilitary wing of the rural lobby.

The debate opens up when we start to examine why Britain is plagued with a relatively unresponsive housing supply system. On the political right and among many economists the problem is seen to lie with the planning system. Full stop. Economists with a more subtle understanding of the issues will argue it is the mismatch between the underlying spatial dynamics of economic growth and the planning system. For the more institutionally inclined, the analysis has to be broadened to encompass not just the planning system but also industrial structure of housebuilding and the concentrated nature of the market for land. Weakening the planning system without attending to the other components of the housing supply system won’t get you very far. It is very likely to lead to anger in local communities as their areas are trampled over by insensitive volume housebuilders throwing up unsympathetic developments which place additional strain on under-resourced local infrastructure.

The attitudes of local communities towards new development in their area is an important part of the equation in encouraging new supply. Because when we refer to “the planning system” it should be seen as a short hand for the way local political preferences are embedded in the systems for controlling spatial development. NIMBYism isn’t such a huge problem unless it has an institutional outlet and can affect what happens on the ground.

The publication today of the results of the 2013 British Social Attitudes survey evidence on attitudes towards new development suggest that things may be changing. [Read more...]

Why? Five-oh-oh

This is the five hundredth post on this blog. It is, of course, an entirely arbitrary milestone, but it nonetheless causes you to reflect on why you do it. Five hundred posts translates into well over half a million words, at a rate of ten or so posts a month over nearly four years. That’s a lot of words, taking up a lot of time.

I have written before about why I blog. I have blogged on how I got started, and how I reconcile being a political blogger with my other identity as a senior academic. What I wrote then still holds true, although I’m conscious that in recent months my posts have tended not to roam quite so widely as in the past. I have concentrated more on topics that are close to my academic interests and my politics. So I have cycled through posts on housing policy, welfare reform and the tribulations of the Liberal Democrats. I’m not entirely sure why that is, except that when you’re busy elsewhere it is less intellectually demanding to blog on topics you know well.

I’m sure I’ll be looking further afield again some time pretty soon. [Read more...]

Liberal Democrat travails over the bedroom tax

Well, well, well. It turns out that the bedroom tax isn’t such a good idea after all.

Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander have U-turned on the policy, ostensibly in the light of the (delayed) publication of interim report of the DWP evaluation. The report indicates that the policy largely isn’t achieving the objectives set for it.

Early tabloid headlines announcing that the Liberal Democrats were calling for abolition were misleading. Instead, what Clegg and Alexander would appear to have done is withdraw support for the policy in its current form and adopt a position broadly in line with the motion critical of the bedroom tax passed by Liberal Democrat conference last autumn in Glasgow. To be fair to NC he did state at the time of the Glasgow conference that the independent evaluation would be important in shaping support for the policy. And so, it would appear, it has proved to be. [Read more...]

Are Mandarins the problem?

The relationship between politicians and civil servants is back in the spotlight. Janan Ganesh in the FT, for example, has argued that civil servants need to be brought to heel more effectively by their political masters. Cries of ‘politicisation’, whenever the prized independence of the civil service is threatened, should be recognized for what they are – an attempt by civil servants to maintain their capacity to undermine democracy by frustrating the will of elected governments.

Giles Wilkes, in contrast, argues that the machinations of a Mandarinate intent on frustrating the will of the people are much less of an issue than this suggests. There are many reasons why Ministers’ pet ideas do not translate into policy. He argues that the independent testing of the feasibility and desirability of proposals delivers better policy. It is rushed policy, that civil servants fail to question or refine sufficiently, that often provides the most egregious examples of policy failure:

… ministers and their advisers frequently do not understand the implications of their policy spasms. Such spasms often stem from a pitifully thin evidence base, and are only subject to scrutiny from a generally tame bunch of close commentator-friends, who will naturally be told, and repeat back to their readers, that the policy idea is sheer, radical genius.

No it isn’t.

I find myself with greater sympathy for the view Giles sets out. [Read more...]