Thursday, June 23, 2016

One Person, One Vote?

Today the UK held a referendum on whether to remain in the EU or leave. There's an awful lot that could be said and written about this issue and the referendum campaigns, though I haven't felt the need to comment because of so many others already doing so.

As I tune in to follow the results, however, I was struck by this explanation on the BBC:

"Although the results are declared by local authority area, a referendum is different to a general election in that every individual vote across the UK counts equally towards the final result."

This does acknowledge, in passing, that this is not true in General Elections - so much, perhaps, for the argument that a vote to leave is a vote for democracy...

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Saturday, June 18, 2016

MPs as Trustees

One topic covered in my u/g Democratic Theory module is the nature of representation, starting with the delegate vs. trustee argument. At least since Burke, it's been argued that MPs should exercise their own judgement, rather than simply being a voice for whatever their constituents want. But delegates are also representatives. A point seemingly missed here, when it says: "Members of Parliament are representatives, not delegates, the difference being they are there to decide what in their judgment is good for us and the country, not  simply to do what we say."

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Friday, April 15, 2016

University Rankings

Top universities, as rated by their students at, here. A few select highlights:

1. Harper Adams University.
2. Loughborough.
13. Falmouth
22. University Campus Suffolk
34. York
35. St Andrews
36. Birmingham
37. Aston
38. Edinburgh
39. Royal Agricultural University (Cirencester)
40. Southampton
41. Liverpool
42. Essex
43. Cardiff
46. Cambridge
49. Warwick
50. Oxford
61. LSE
77. Bristol
78. Stirling
81. UCL
82. Queen Mary
83. KCL

On the one hand, it's nice to see Southampton ranked ahead of Oxbridge and most London rivals but, on the other, one can't help thinking that the whole list looks very random. Maybe it's, in part, down to the way that this 'overall table' covers a wide variety of factors ("accommodation, city life, clubs and societies, courses and lecturers, job prospects, student union, facilities, support services and an overall rating"), but perhaps it also demonstrates the folly of ranking universities based on the reviews of students who a) arguably have some vested interest and b) generally know nothing of what other universities are like to compare.

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Saturday, February 13, 2016

Pensions Crisis?

A friend posted this Telegraph piece on Facebook and I felt the urge to comment. According to the article, George Osborne is at least considering replacing current tax relief on pensions contributions and replacing it with a flat rate for all. The Telegraph takes a scaremongering tone, arguing that this will discourage the middle classes from saving, when many already face a pensions shortfall.

However, the idea that the government should not be giving an effectively larger subsidy to higher earners actually strikes me as one of the more reasonable things to come from this government. Here is where the article actually sets out, in concrete terms, the implications of the change:

"At present basic-rate taxpayers receive a £20 top-up from the Government for every £80 they pay into a pension.

Higher rate taxpayers, classed as those earning more than £42,385, receive £40 for every £60, while top-rate taxpayers receive £45 for every £55.
Under plans being considered by Mr Osborne for a flat rate relief of 20 per cent for all, savers will receive £25 for every £75 they contribute."

Since tax relief is worth more to those who pay more tax, higher earners currently enjoy a bigger rebate on their pension savings. Proposing a flat rate for all is actually a progressive measure - though one might even argue that lower earners should get a bigger rebate.

The Telegraph suggests that it would be the poor middle classes getting hit:

"It found that 69 per cent of those paying the 40p rate of tax are unlikely to have enough income when they retire. Basic rate taxpayers are also struggling to save enough for their retirement, with 62 per cent failing to put enough aside."

Those figures make it sound as if higher rate tax payers are less likely to have enough savings than basic rate tax payers. That's surprising. It turns out, however, that the goalpost (of adequate savings) is a moving one:

"Under official measures, the majority of higher rate taxpayers are considered to have an "inadequate" level of savings if their income in their retirement is less than half the salary they enjoyed when they were working."

In other words, higher rate tax payers are only more likely to have inadequate pension savings than basic rate tax payers because what counts as 'adequate' for them is higher. Someone currently earning £60k/yr is deemed to have inadequate savings if they will only have a £25k/yr pension. But someone earning £25k/yr has adequate savings if they will have a £13k/yr pension.

I'm no tax expert, but these proposals sound surprisingly progressive to me.

Disclaimer: I'm a higher rate tax payer.

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Thursday, February 04, 2016

Sortition and the House of Lords

I know that the idea of using random selection to reform/replace the House of Lords is not exactly new - see, for instance, this book - but there was a recent-ish column on the BBC website, which proposes a hybrid chamber one-third of which made up of ordinary citizens chosen at random (the other thirds being party representatives based on proportional representation and independents chosen for their expertise). Nice to see such ideas getting more public exposure.

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Thursday, January 14, 2016

More Liberal Alcohol Guidelines

Following my recent comments on the government's new alcohol guidelines, I have a blog post on The Conversation in which I consider them from a Millian liberal perspective.

In short, I argue that there's nothing objectionable about warning people of the dangers of alcohol, but that the guidelines would better respect individual autonomy if they simply presented the risks of different levels of consumption, allowing people to decide for themselves how much risk to accept. In other words, I think it's somewhat objectionable for the government to take it upon themselves to decide for everyone that 14 units per week is the right trade off between benefits and risk, even though the guidelines aren't actually coercive.

There's a slightly longer version of much the same argument, but with a bit more Mill in it, over on my department's blog.

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Friday, January 08, 2016

Alcohol Guidelines (Again)

I already mentioned the new government guidelines last week (here), but now that they're out some further comment...

Recommended limits are indeed reduced to 14 units per week. One thing that I found interesting is that, aside from the reduction in the limit, the way that it is communicated has also changed.

At one point, the recommendation was 21 units per week for men. There was a worry that people would 'save this up' and consume all 21 units on a Friday night. Consequently, the advice was changed to 3-4 units per day, to underline that it couldn't be 'saved up'. Now, however, the worry is that people are drinking every day and not allowing their body 'recovery days' and so we're back to weekly guidelines (with an explicit recommendation not to drink every day).

I guess this is just another case that highlights the difficulty of imparting nuanced advice - based on scientific findings - in simple guidelines. That said, an older piece from Lee Jones - here - questions to the extent to which the policy really is evidence-based. He suggests that politicians have a moralistic agenda and cherry-pick evidence (and ignore counter evidence) in order to serve their purposes.

Clearly not all politicians take this view though. I wouldn't normally approve of Nigel Farage's pronouncements, but he's suggested that we all have a glass of something to protest against this state nannying.

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