Friday, December 13, 2019

Electoral disenfranchisement

There are reports that significant numbers of students were turned away from polling stations due to administrative errors.

In fact, one of my colleagues - someone with a PhD in Politics - was also denied the vote, due to an apparent mix up over registration. Not good.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Publication: Upsetting the Balance on Sex Selection

This piece has been online since July, but I'm pleased to see it made it into print in the November issue of Bioethics, as it's actually my first research publication of 2019...

It is widely assumed that the strongest case for permitting non‐medical sex selection is where parents aim at family balance. This piece criticizes one representative attempt to justify sex selection for family balance. Kluge (2007) assumes that some couples may seek sex selection because they hold discriminatory values, but this need not impugn those who merely have preferences, without evaluative commitments, for a particular sex. This is disputed by those who see any sex selection as inherently sexist because it upholds stereotypes about the sexes. This article takes an alternative approach. I argue that, even if we accept that preference‐based selection is unobjectionable, a policy permitting selection for family balancing does a poor job of distinguishing between value‐based and preference‐based selection. If we wish to permit only preference‐based sex selection we should seek to identify parents’ motives. If we wish to justify a family balancing policy, other arguments are needed.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

How NOT to present stats...

I don't teach stats, but this Youtube video provides a good example of how NOT to present survey results...

No photo description available.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Liveblogging Brexit #4: Not Dead

PM Johnson's Brexit legislation passed through the second reading stage, only for MPs to vote against his proposed timetable. Apparently it is now not dead but inert. I wonder whether it is also pining for the fjords, for I couldn't help being reminded of the dead parrot sketch.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Liveblogging Brexit #3: Federal union?

I'm not sure whether this link will work - it's intended to go to comment 300 on this story. In case it doesn't, or ceases to in future, here is the relevant comment:

The relevant part, corrected for better English, is:

"How can the Brexit referendum result be to leave, if three countries voted against leaving and only one voted to leave? It's really not democracy, if three countries are held to ransom by one."

First, this is factually inaccurate, as Leave won in Wales and England so, on a country by country basis, it's actually two apiece, not three-to-one.

Suppose, however, the facts were as 'gerry' suggested and only England had voted to leave. Would this be democratic?

The referendum was a UK-wide one. There were over 28m votes cast in England (plus Gibraltar), compared to around 5m from Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Or, in terms of potential electorates, 39m to 7.5m. Thus, a large enough majority in England would be able to outvote the other countries on a 'one person, one vote' basis. That's how most people normally understand democracy.

There are some countries where major constitutional decisions would have to be ratified by a majority of constituent federal units or similar. I'm sympathetic to the idea that a major constitutional decision should not be left to a simple majority process. However, I'm not sure whether treating the UK as a four-country federal system is the answer.

Suppose it had been specified, in advance of the referendum, that Brexit would only happen if at least two of the four countries voted to leave the EU. In that case, just 4m people (majorities in Wales, Scotland, and N.I.) would have been able to block Brexit, even if over 40m others (the whole population of England plus the minority in each of those three countries) had voted to leave. Surely, that would be undemocratic...

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Liveblogging Brexit #2

Update from the BBC:

Boris Johnson says Jeremy Corbyn "has become the first leader of the opposition in the democratic history of our country to refuse the invitation of an election".

My comment:

Prior to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, the PM could call an election whenever (s)he wanted, so there was no need to invite the opposition to vote for one. It's therefore not so surprising that the 'democratic history of our country' has never previously need the leader of the opposition refuse such an invitation, because I doubt there's ever really been one...

If the Fixed-term Parliaments Act continues, then such refusals may be more common than one might expect, given that the point of the Act was to prevent PMs from calling elections at opportune moments.

Liveblogging Brexit #1

 I'm going to start a series of small blog entries that I'll call 'Liveblogging Brexit'. Obviously, I don't actually plan to live blog the whole Brexit process, but the current political crisis is throwing up many snippets that may be useful for classroom discussion, so I want to preserve some of them for posterity... Here's the first.

From the BBC:

Conservative MP Nigel Evans says, "the British people have voted to leave the European Union [in the 2016 referendum]. If this Parliament decides we are not going to leave the European Union, then the British people ought to have an opportunity to change their Parliament."

My comment:

This argument may have been all very well in late 2016 or early 2017, but the current parliament was elected more recently than the referendum - that is, voters have already had one chance to change their parliament.

If the outcome of the 2017 election seems to conflict with that of the 2016 referendum, then perhaps the more recent should take precedence. At the very least, there's as much case for re-running the 2016 referendum as there is for re-running the 2017 general election.

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Diet and Nutrition

There was a sad story in the news today about a teenager who went blind due to living on a diet of junkfood - chips, crisps, bread, and no fruit or vegetables.

Even the BBC article, linked to in the previous sentence, takes this opportunity to 'lecture' on how vegans can get vitamin B12, although the problem in this case was clearly nothing to do with a vegan diet (it mentions that he had occasional ham or sauage).

This piece at The Conversation goes even further, with the gratuitous statement that "Without nutrient supplements or fortified foods, strict veganism can lead to irreversible blindness." This is true, but the case supposedly under discussion shows that a non-vegan diet can also lead to irreversible blindness, if lacking essential nutrients.

The case in question involves a 'picky eater' who may even qualify as having an eating disorder, but the more important general lessons are probably those about nutritional education and the dangers of food poverty.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

An end to smoking?

The big news of the day was the announcement of Boris Johnson as the new Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister. In light of this, much may change regarding future priorities. However, what caught my eye was the announcement that the (current) government intends to end smoking in England by 2030.

That's a rather bold move. It's probably misleading for the BBC to describe this as a 'pledge' though, given that it's only a green paper for consultation. The end of the article says this consultation runs until 14th October, with a government response due in spring (2020). I can't help thinking they might have other priorities, perhaps even including an early election...

Monday, July 22, 2019

Universal Credit and Prostitution

I've been reading some stuff on prostitution lately, for my Ethics of Public Policy module. Predictably, much of it focuses on whether prostitutes have any free choice over engaging in sex work or whether they are coerced, for instance by poverty and a lack of acceptable alternatives.

This piece on the BBC is therefore timely. It reports that a number of women, particularly single mothers, are forced into 'survival sex' as a result of changes to universal credit. Unfortunately the deadline for submitting evidence has now passed, but this was a concern of the DWP.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Vegan-Friendly Cities?

I've seen a couple of people sharing this ranking of vegan-friendly cities, which has also been picked up by some news sources, such as The Metro.

You wouldn't know the methodology from the news reports but, if you go to the original source, it seems to be based entirely on total population divided by the number of vegan/veggie-only restaurants. It takes no account of things like quality of restaurants or how accommodating other restaurants are for vegans (which I'd say is pretty important in branding a city 'vegan-friendly').

 Indeed, despite labelling the table 'most vegan friendly cities' it doesn't even seem to distinguish vegan from vegetarian. Theoretically, somewhere could top this list based on having a lot of vegetarian restaurants without any vegan dishes.

I'm also curious as to how this ranking would compare with one of total restaurants per person. While I'd expect some places to have a higher proportion of vegan/vegetarian restaurants than others, it seems this methodology will simply favour places with more restaurants per head (assuming some will be vegetarian/vegan).

It's a pretty meaningless ranking I'd say.

Friday, June 07, 2019

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Plain packaging for sugar

We already tax sugary drink. Now, this BBC column suggests going further, adopting 'plain packaging' requirements that have been used for regulating cigarettes. The idea apparently comes from this IPPR report (press release), which is mentioned but seemingly not linked to by the BBC.

I'll be running an undergraduate version of my ethics of public policy module in the autumn, so topical discussions like this are useful - expect to see more links posted here as I stumble across them.

Thursday, April 04, 2019

David Davis on Referendums

Back in 2002:

"Referendums should be held when the electorate are in the best possible position to make a judgment. They should be held when people can view all the arguments for and against and when those arguments have been rigorously tested. In short, referendums should be held when people know exactly what they are getting. So legislation should be debated by Members of Parliament on the Floor of the House, and then put to the electorate for the voters to judge.
We should not ask people to vote on a blank sheet of paper and tell them to trust us to fill in the details afterwards. For referendums to be fair and compatible with our parliamentary process, we need the electors to be as well informed as possible and to know exactly what they are voting for. Referendums need to be treated as an addition to the parliamentary process, not as a substitute for it."


Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Which 'constituency' should MPs be responsive to?

According to Edmund Burke, MPs should exercise their own judgement, rather than being beholden to what 'the people' want. Many disagree. But even if we accept that MPs should do what 'the people' tell them, it is still an open question which people they should listen to.

I'm getting to Burke in my lectures in a couple of weeks, but this is such a good example that I may have to save it for then...

Gerard McMullan says: "The DUP are representing their constituents, their constituents told them, 'We want to Remain.' The DUP don't represent the UK, they represent Northern Ireland. And Northern Ireland say they want to stay."
Adam Petticrew says: "People voted to leave so we have to leave.... I think it's a joke that the DUP get to decide [what's going to happen] because the people decided already what's to happen. The DUP should be doing what the people said - they want to leave. Northern Ireland is part of the UK and on the whole the UK wanted to leave."
This touches on another point, namely whether MPs should pursue the national interest or the interests of their constituents. Burke thought that MPs should pursue what they think is in the national interest, but one might disagree on both points or only on one of them. This gives at least four options:
A. MPs should make their own independent judgement of the national interest.
B. MPs should make their own independent judgement of their constituents' interests.
C. MPs should accept the people's view of the national interest.
D. MPs should accept their constituents' view of their local interests.
(Obviously, this could be further complicated. I assume that if MPs are to promote the national interest, but not exercise their own judgement, then they should respond to the national vote. But, in principle, they could do what their constituents think is in the national interest.)

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

The Difficulty of Targetting Junk Food (Advertising)

It's often suggested that the state should ban the advertising of junk food, particularly to children. Saqiq Khan's (long proposed) ban on such advertising on London public transplant recently came into force. (This, of course, comes on top of the recent sugar tax.)

This Spectator article neatly summarises one problem with these proposals though. There is no agreed definition of junk food. What's actually banned is the advertising of food high in fat, sugar, or salt, but this includes (amongst other things) many tinned fruits, cereals, and jams. (Another blow for our post-Brexit economy, based on jam and biscuits.)

A lot of foods people might think of as 'healthy' could fall foul of these restrictions on supposedly 'unhealthy' food. For instance, fruit smoothies are high in sugar.