Tory Xenophobia – Again!

Cameron was again speaking recently about a “something for nothing culture”. As I believe I pointed out the last time he used that term, there is something deeply ironic about a Tory PM talking down to middle class or working class immigrants, the vast majority of whom are only here to work, earn a living and pay their taxes. Then turn around and allow an open door immigration policy for various mega-rich foreigner tax dodgers (who helped bankroll the Tory’s last election) into the country, suggesting that these people should be able to have all the benefits of living and working in the UK, but shouldn’t pay any tax at all! Or that banksters who wrecked the economy several years ago are in fact entitled to their ridiculous bonuses, and no we won’t be imposing any windfall tax on them either. That, Mr Prime Minster is what we call a “something for nothing culture”.

Of course David Cameron was merely reacting to Jitters within his own party regarding UKIP. While I am no fan of either the Tory’s nor UKIP, I might suggest that trying to out flank on the right an Ultra-right wing party is a loosing strategy, at least if you want to extend you’re voter net beyond Daily Mail bigot brigade come next election.

Indeed, the problem here for the PM is that the Daily Mail/UKIP policy on immigration is, as I pointed out in a previous post, completely divorced from reality, much like their policy on Europe. The PM is therefore merely shadow boxing against a phantom enemy and making himself look very silly in the process.

A British citizen is more likely to claim benefits than an someone from overseas (see report on this). Of the 2 million eastern Europeans who entered the UK over the last decade or so (many of whom have of course since gone home) only 13,000 actually tried to claim benefits.

The evidence doesn’t just contradict the UKIP position on immigration, it actually suggests the opposite conclusion – that bulk of immigrants are only here to work, pay their taxes or attend UK universities (and thus help subsidise UK eduction and the economy via their living expenses). As I’ve previously mentioned the problem isn’t so much “damn foreigners coming over here, stealing our jobs” its “foreigners staying at home and our jobs migrating overseas”. If anything the UK should be encouraging inward migration not the other way around.

While you could argue that certain parts of the country (notably around London) are overcrowded, this is a separate argument (While there is a shortage of council housing in the UK, immigrants or asylum seekers are not more likely to get a council house than a UK citizen). It means you need to encourage people and companies (foreign and domestic) to relocate out of London, not shut the door on everybody. And if you are going to advocate a reduction on inward migration than any sensible political party (there in lie the problem, UKIP are not a sensible political party, but extremists) has to be prepared to pay the economic costs of that policy, and we’re not talking small change here.

For example, the UKBA (who thankfully are now going to be disbanded), acting under Tory orders, having been cracking down on overseas students attending UK universities. This policy is clearly driven by the fact that they see “tier 4” overseas student as an easy target and reckon that by harassing them they can get inward migration numbers down and keep the Daily Mail brigade happy. But the overwhelming majority of those in the UK on a student visa, are only here to study. All the UKBA is doing is harassing law abiding people, creating a ton of paper work for university staff and generally discouraging future students from studying in the UK.

Now while I’d agree that UK universities are perhaps relying too heavily on “Tier 4” students for funding. But this is an inevitable consequence of the de-facto privatisation of UK universities by successive Tory and Labour governments, as I’ve discussed before in my uni blog. Obviously if the Tory’s plan on pulling the rug from underneath universities then it had better be prepared to pay the financial and political price for that. Without tier 4 students effectively subsidising the UK third level system the UK government will either have to spend a lot more than it currently does to fund UK education (so forget about deficit reduction or tax cuts), or risk seeing many universities in the country go bankrupt (which will basically cost them the next and several subsequent elections), reducing the number of university places in the country and destroying the UK’s knowledge based economy.

In a similar vein the UKBA are also harassing overseas professionals. I’ve seen situations now more than a few times where we, or a company the university works closely with, has tried to employ someone from overseas and run into protracted visa issues. There are many reasons why companies will hire someone from overseas. He may have specialist knowledge and we can’t find any suitable UK candidates. They might be a former student whose research a corporate sponsor now wishes to commercialize.

But inevitably we face the situation where, for example the person is already in the country, but no the UKBA insist he goes home, applies for a work permit and then drags their feet for months on end over it. In the interim the uni/corporation has to put a project on hold, or cancel it altogether. One cannot escape the conclusion the UKBA is doing this on purpose in the hope that if they make immigration to the UK so annoyingly inconvenient people won’t come (and again, it makes their numbers look good).

Of course the economic effects of this policy are considerable. Many of the new innovative ideas that will become major money spinners in future are inevitably now being developed by UK educated professionals outside of the UK. And hence the billions of revenue that will one day be generated will be made there and not here.

I’m not proposing an open door policy on immigration. There are some people who we want to sling out or stop coming in (e.g. Qatada, who thanks to the government’s previous support for torture in black sites, is now still here). But punishing law-abiding working and middle class people (while instituting an open door policy for wealthy supporters of the Tories), is a policy that is unfair, corrupt, unethical and in the long term, economic suicide. What I oppose is a immigration policy driven by bigotry and xenophobia.

The Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering

One thing the last few weeks I neglected to comment on was the newly introduced “Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering”, which its promoters hope will become the equivalent of a sort of “Nobel prize” for engineering.

This has been long needed. Chemists, Physicists and other sciences have the Nobel Peace prize, there’s even one for Economics (personally given the mess they’ve made of the world economy I’d argue that all Economics Nobel’s awarded since 1980 should be revoked and returned). Mathematicians have the Field’s Medal. But engineers, the people who take the abstract concepts the scientists come up with and turn it into something the general public can actually use, we’ve always been the unsung heroes of technology.

In short we take a mass of equations and graphs that most members of the public would sooner eat than try to understand and turn it into a jet airliner, or a mobile phone or a printed circuit board.

Take the first winners of the prize, the developers of the Internet. Again, the idea of mass communication and transmitting data long distance had long been discussed by scientists and egg heads. DARPA had long considered the idea of a distributed network, rather than one working around a central hub as a good idea (notably in the event of nuclear war!). But it took the action of engineers over several decades to actually turn these concepts into what you’re now reading this blog post via.

My only worry, is that given that this prize was the brainchild of various Engineering institutes in the UK (at least one of whom, the IMECHE, I’m a member of) they might adopt a bit too much of a “pro-British” stance. There were accusations in the early days of the Nobel committee doing just this towards Swedish & Norwegians. On the other hand thought, if this prize is to achieve the sort of recognition wanted (which will mean avoiding any national bias) then there were probably won’t be many British winners, given that the engineering industry has decanted (thanks to successive Tory governments) to either Europe or Asia.

University challenged, Part VI – Why students shouldn’t commit plagiarism

I mentioned in a previous posts on my University blog that the UK’s Universities are in the grip of a Plagiarism Epidemic). Statistics suggest nearly 17,000 attempts to cheat have been recorded by UK universities in a single year. Most worrying is the emergence of so called Essay Mills (online stores that sell generic courseworks) as well as so called “contract Cheating” (tailor written essay’s and courseworks that should in theory be very hard to spot).

However, I’m now going to explain to any student reading this (I know Google will spider the phrase “download thesis” or “buy essays” and some will end up here) why they are fooling themselves if they think using these services solves they’re problems.

(1) You’ll get caught eventually! – As I pointed out in my previous post, lecturers are getting quite coy at spotting plagiarism. We’re using increasingly sophisticated methods to detect it (notably “similarity Detection” software shared via a database with other universities worldwide) and while you might get away with it once or twice, sooner or later you’ll get tripped up.

Often thought, I find the easiest way of detecting plagiarism is to have some idea of student ability and writing style. Sometimes students must think were thick as a plank with the stuff they’ll submit (I remember one case where two students copied off someone, but the guy they’d chosen hadn’t a clue, I wrote in the margins a note suggesting that next time they were planning on cheating, find someone smarter to copy off! In another he submitted a word file which had a watermark with the ID of another student on it!).

If a student who was barely able to draw a straight line suddenly turns around and submits a piece of engineering drawing that would baffle Dyson, we’ll obviously that’s going to set off alarm bells and I’m going to dig a little further. Equally if I’m reading a text and the student’s dictation is terrible, only for him then to leap into perfect Oxford English, again, that’s suspicious.

While neither proves plagiarism, as a cop will tell you, figuring out who-dunnit is the hard part of detective work, finding the evidence to prove the case, is the easy part. If you downloaded something off the internet, a few google searches means, chances are, I can too. All sorts of online tools are also now available to help lecturers.

Furthermore we lecturers have a fool proof method of proving plagiarism – a Viva. This means we call you in, give you a pencil and paper and ask you to reproduce the work, or demonstrate that you know how to do it. Obviously if you can’t do it, we’ve got you bang to rights. Currently university rules restrict when and where we can implement a Viva but some lecturers are arguing we should slip a clause into every coursework giving us the right to Viva all coursework, even first year stuff.

Sooner or later I suspect this will become the norm and if you’ve gotten used to just downloading you’re courseworks you’ll either get caught or find yourself out of your depth with the sudden acceleration in work load.

And on the point of getting caught, there’s the snitch factor. This isn’t kindergarden and thus the rules of the playground no longer apply. Its quite probable that another student will rat you out, as after all its hardly fair on them to put in all the work and let someone else get by without doing any work. Some universities are promoting an honour system among students as an affront against plagiarism (which means students who engage in it had best keep that too themselves).

(2) the penalties are getting severe! – And the penalties for getting caught are getting quite harsh. Generally you’re at the very least going to fail one or more modules. Academic suspension is another punishment and having to repeat an entire year yet another. Serious or repeated acts of plagiarism will get you thrown out altogether. Obviously if that happens all the time you’ve invested in university will be for nothing. And getting accepted by another institution will be difficult.

(3) You won’t learn anything – The point of us issuing courseworks isn’t just to assess students but to promote the whole learning experience. Courseworks are also often tailored around the sort of projects you’ll get in the real world of work. Obviously if you cheat, then you’ll learn nothing, will struggle in the final exam (most likely fail it) and if you manage to get a job, you’ll be unable to do it as you’ve not got the experience.

(4) You’re marks will suffer – Even if you get away with plagiarism chances are you’ll be getting average marks or a scrappy pass. This applies particularly too these online essay mills. On the website they will have you believe that the individuals writing for you will be retired professors and other experts. However, in reality, 9 times out of 10 its another overworked poor student (possibly a world away in China or India) doing a few extra course works to pay the bills. Inevitably however he will prioritize his coursework over yours. Indeed in likelihood he’ll slap something together at the last minute. Jonathan Bailey discusses as much in a recent post on his site. Dan Ariely of Duke University reveals a host of howlers that have crossed his desk.

A couple of these “made to order courseworks” which I’ve caught in the last few years stuck out like a sore thumb. They were substandard (at best a narrow pass) and clearly written by someone from a different university (again by trying to fool a lecturer you’re trying to fool someone who knows the topic back to front). As lecturer’s you should remember, that we’ve a pretty good idea of what the end result of courseworks should look like. And the key to getting good grades is that we are looking for is evidence that you’ve attended lectures, read all the texts on you’re reading list and generally learnt something. If I spend an hour talking about Carbon fibre’s in a lecture months before and you submit a coursework which specifies Titanium, assuming I don’t tweak straight away that its plagiarism, I’ll probably award a lower mark, as I’ll see no evidence that you’ve studied the course material.

And of course you won’t have a leg to stand on in terms of challenging this mark. After all, the last thing you want is to give me the excuse for an impromptu viva, as the first question out of my mouth will be “why did you specify Titanium”. If I get lots of “um’s” and “ah’s” then the next question will be “what’s the Young’s modulus of Titanium” (if you’d actually written the coursework that would be on the tip of your tongue). Next I’d start pulling specific passages out of the coursework and saying words of doom “explain to me, in you’re own words, what this means” Pretty soon, I’m reaching for the phone to report another case.

Many of these essay mills will claim “guaranteed B’s or A’s”. I seriously doubt that. Even if you get lucky and we don’t tweak that its plagiarism, you’ll be lucky to scrap a pass and maybe the odd C. Indeed in my experience, on a number of occasions where students have been confronted as to the fact their work was plagiarism, I’ve heard reports of them admitting to have bought it. Largely I suspect because they were so incensed at the fact that they’d paid hundreds of pounds for something that, even if we’d not smelt a rat, would still have failed (nevermind the A they were promised).

I came across a blog a while ago, where a number of students were complaining bitterly about how they had submitted plagiarized work from essay mills, only for it to get bare C’s or D’s or fails. They were talking about asking for a refund….fat chance! That’s equivalent to someone who bought a dodgy knocked off watch from some back alley spiv going back to him for a refund when he realises the stolen Rolex is actually a fake.

(5) You won’t get a reference – I think students forget what the bottom line is. The point of going to university is indeed to earn a degree, but its not a simple case of taking you’re degree into an interview and waving it at the panel and expecting to be immediately given a job. Even to get an interview you’ll need to be short-listed and that will generally require you to have an academic reference (that is one of us the lecturing staff who’ll vouch for you).

As a junior member of staff I don’t get asked for references very often, but when I do I’ll only grant them to people I know (i.e. people who have turned up for class and applied themselves) as otherwise I don’t know you (other than having seen you’re name on a class list with lots of “absent” marks next to it). In essence you’re a stranger to me, and if a random stranger off the street asked me for a reference, I’d say no.

And indeed if you’re the sort of student whose been living fast and loose plagiarising courseworks any reference I would give isn’t the sort you’d be showing to an employer:

“Despite three year’s of being on my technical drawing course I never really knew Joey. However I got to know him well during his appearance at the academic practice committee during that plagiarism case, where I must admit he argued his case quite forcefully and we only failed him in one module as a result”

(6) You won’t get past an interview – It is also worth remembering that employers aren’t stupid. They are well aware of the problem of plagiarism and that some uni’s, even those with good reputations, are now churning out the odd bad apple with questionable skills. Thus they have developed their own techniques for weeding out the strays. Obviously not having an academic reference and low marks will automatically set off alarm bells and the chances of you being short listed for interview are slim.

One method for detecting those who cruised through uni without learning anything, is to give applicants a technical interview before the main interview. This will consist of a panel of experts in a particular field (generally the field you hope to be working in) asking you a long series of quick fire and probing technical questions (think “what is the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow” sort of stuff which goes on for 30-45 minutes). I’ve been through one of these myself and as I was caught unawares by it (long train journey and a headache to boot). I don’t think I did very well, and I never committed plagiarism in uni.

Obviously if I can screw up any student whose plagiarised his way to a degree hasn’t got a chance. In all probability they’ll flunk it, the panel will mumble some excuses about being in touch (they won’t!), escort you out of the room and start howling with laughter as soon as you’re down the hall.

A degree not worth the paper its printed on

So even if a student by some miracle skips through university by plagiarism, chances are he’ll find that the degree he’s essentially got to the trouble of buying at great expense, won’t be worth the paper its printed on. His grades will be poor, he’ll have no academic reference, won’t be able to get an interview let alone a job. And would find that job too difficult to hold down if he gets one (again one of the point of courseworks is to get used to the pressure of work on assignments and multi-tasking with project deadlines before you hit the real world of work).

In essence the student who cheats will have wasted several years of his time, a pile of cash and gained very little in the process. As Richard Nordquist points out in his article Three Good Reasons Not to Buy an Online Essay don’t fool yourself. Yes a degree is a lot of hard work, but its all the more satisfying when its over, knowing you’ve earned it. And the point of that hard work is to build up a portfolio of experience that can be used as the foundation of your future career. If a degree was merely some product that you could purchase we’d be selling them in vending machines out front!

Cyprus update

As I suspected would happen, the IMF/German bailout deal was (quite understandably) rejected by the Cypriot parliament, with no votes in favour. My guess is that a naive president of the country (he was in the job just a couple of weeks) went to Brussels and the Germans and IMF tried to strong arm him into signing extremely harsh bailout terms, that he then had no chance of ever getting passed by parliament.

Again, as with Greece, I see a cultural issue at play. While the Germans might well have assumed the Cypriots would just roll over an accept it (as Germans would) that’s not how things work in Mediterranean countries. Now there is a risk of Cyprus crashing out of the Euro and setting a dangerous precedent.

Of course one could argue that the Germans are deliberately trying to make Cyprus go bankrupt. i.e. they knew damn well those terms would never be accepted and as they see it a bankruptcy of Cyprus might serve to scare the Spanish, Greek’s and Italians straight. However, if that is their game plan they are again seriously miscalculating.

There seems to be an assumption that if any country enters into default that they will calmly leave the Eurozone, no fuss, walk outside and commit hara-kiri. But will they? Opinion polls show that the majority of Cypriots, Greeks and other troubled economies what to stay in the euro. And as no exit mechanism exists, it would take sometime for them to be forced out. If Cyprus opted to simply renege on all its government’s debts and basically coming up with ways of inventing money (something they seem to be doing with plans to issue bonds with regard to as of yet unproven possible gas reserves off their shore) that would not be good for the eurozone. In all likelihood even states like Germany could loose their triple A credit rating. Furthermore, the dangerous uncertainty it would inject into the eurozone would be most unhelpful

Further as I highlighted with regard to Ireland, once a country exits the eurozone, most likely issuing a new currency, devaluing it drastically almost straight away (or allowing inflation to do its worst, so-called “soft default”) then you basically turn a sovereign debt or banking crisis into a much larger problem. For this will mean that savings and debts in private hands (i.e. everyone’s mortgages, pensions and savings) are also devalued (and effectively defaulted on).

To give you some idea of the impact of that, consider that while Ireland’s public debts are around 200 Billion euros or so, our private debts (i.e. everyone’s mortgages, car / student / business loans) works out at about 1.7 trillion euro’s, about 100 billion of that owed to British banks. A default of Ireland, with us exiting the eurozone could thus create a 100 billion euro hole in the finances of British banks (it took just a 40 billion pound hole to bring down RBS!).

So the danger is, that a messy bankruptcy of Cyprus could easily spread a contagion of debt to other vulnerable economies, one of those coincidentally being the UK (thanks to Osborne and Cameron), as the markets will be no doubt wondering who is next. This could set off a chain reaction where several other economies also collapse.

So in short whatever chess game Merkel and the IMF are playing it is a fairly dangerous game. As I mentioned in a prior post, this could prove to be Europe’s “Lehman Brothers moment”.

The Enron Budget Fudge

This week’s budget showed an element of ENRON-esque voodoo economics at play. Predictions from numerous bodies had suggested that the chancellor would be forced to concede that borrowing had gone up along with the deficit. But instead he suggested the government had miraculously managed to limbo under the bar.

However, a closer look at the budget figures suggested that inexplicably many government departments had simply stopped spending for the last few months before the budget. Normally you expect the opposite to happen – where departments spend like a sailor on shore leave just before the budget. This is especially true when you’ve got an axe wielding maniac cutting everything that moves loose in No. 11. As the last thing any minister wants to do is identify more money to be cut.

Indeed it is becoming clear that all sorts of tricks were pulled by the government to create the illusion of “on course”. Various payments to the EU or IMF were delayed till just after the budget (something that doesn’t look good normally, as it could lead to accusations of the UK being in a state of “default” by paying late). All told a whopping £11 Billion underspend was recorded with approximately £5 billion scheduled to be spent in the next few months.

All in all it looks like the government was playing a standard trick of market traders, where they will park funds overnight between tax years in an appropriate account offshore and thus avoid a big whack of tax. It was also a favourite tactic of ENRON to push payments (money out the door) long into the future, but book future profits (i.e. money that would theoretically come in the door at some ill defined future date) immediately on the balance sheet. This meant that the economic numbers for the company always look great….until someone added up all those debts!

One gets the impression that sometime around Christmas it dawned on Osborne that he was going to overshoot his own figures by a significant margin. Consequently he and his sidekick Danny “Dire”, with one assumes the PM’s permission, when door to door between government departments and basically shook down ministers like a pair of back alley loan sharks, scaring them into delaying payments (this would explain the panic heard over the last few weeks as various departments sought to defend their budget) and pulling all sorts of creative accounting tricks to make the budget look more rosy – or more to the point, slightly less gloomy!

And for good reason, because as it was the budget wasn’t that upbeat. It more or less confirmed what we already know – the austerity measures are increasing the deficit. Indeed the tax cuts in beer and fuel duty announced will hardly help the government’s finances (while I drink and drive (not at the same time mind!) I don’t want the government going bankrupt allowing me to do so!), nor will this home buying scheme (which I would argue misses the mark, first time buyers like me aren’t buying because many people are afraid of loosing their jobs in the next round of cuts and being stuck with a mortgage!). While at first glance it wasn’t quite the rich man’s budget of last year (e.g. no pastie tax). But hidden within the fine print, it was more of the same.

Had that -£11 Billion appeared on the balance sheet tho, then one assumes that Ed Miliband’s response would have been to get up, pull out a pack of cards and stand in silence playing solitaire from the dispatches box. When the speaker inquired what he was doing he would have replied that he was now so confident of winning the next election that he saw no reason to dignify Osborne’s statement with a reply. And in lieu of the fact that the government had just wasted several years of Parliamentary time pursuing this policy of austerity, he felt entitled to waste thirty minutes of Parliament’s time playing cards.

In short we say a budget that may as well have been concocted by Hogwarts school of Magic and Wizardry than any real life economics. It simply demonstrates the desperate lengths the government is going to in an effort to hide the fact (badly!) that their policies has put the economy into a tailspin.

The coming euro bank run?

It was with shock over the weekend that many in Cyprus learnt of a plan to impose on them a tax on savers deposits as part of the price for a eurozone bailout. This is wrong on so many levels one scarcely knows where to start.

First of all there is the principle of it all. The IMF/Germans are proposing that those Cypriot’s who were careful and prudent with their money by saving for a rainy day should be subjected to collective punishment, not for their own crimes, but the reckless spending of others. Its the equivalent of arguing that drivers who happened to be sharing the road as another driver was caught speeding should be given points on their license instead of the guy who was speeding.

As Robert Peston points out this plan violates two of the important principles that have underlined the Eurozones bailout policy. Firstly that the deposits of ordinary savers would be protected at all costs. Secondly, that it is international lenders who should bare the brunt of any losses in the event of, as the Irish put it “a hair cut”. This is only fair, as ordinary savers cannot afford to take such losses, but international banks and the bond market can. Plus its the job of the banks to properly assess the loans they have going out the door and make sure they are not lending money recklessly.

As one Economists put it “you couldn’t come up with a better way to undermine confidence in the eurozone if you tried”. For it isn’t just for moral issues that these principles have been applied but to offset the very real danger of avoiding the sort of bank run that brought down Northern Rock and the Icelandic banks in 2007.

The danger is the Cypriot government will fail to get this bill passed before the banks reopen in Cyprus. There is only so long the government can keep them closed without bringing the entire economy to a halt and creating dangerous uncertainty (as if there wasn’t enough of that on the Island already!). There’s also the risk of someone getting a judge to agree this proposal might be illegal and getting an injunction to stop it being implemented.

Obviously it is very probable that if the banks open with this sort of speculation going on, the bulk of Cypriots will show up at 9am at their local branch and withdraw all their money. Banks only ever hold a small fraction of deposits in ready cash (as George Bailey in “its a wonderful life” correctly points out the bank doesn’t have you’re money, its in Bill’s house and Jill’s flower shops, etc.). thus it would only take a small number of such withdrawals (noting its the bigger deposit holders who will have the incentive to be first in the queue) to destabilise even a healthy bank.

Even if by some miracle, the Cypriot government gets this bill passed it may not stem the rot. Bank runs have a habit of taking on a life of their own. Many of those who queued outside Northern Rock, or who began withdrawing money from Irish banks had actually little to fear, as even if the bank when bankrupt, they’d still likely get back the bulk of their cash (of course it could take many months for that to happen!). However, inevitably many concluded a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Thus the second risk is that even if the bill gets successfully passed, many ordinary savers, not just in Cyprus but in other Eurozone countries also, will conclude their money is no longer safe in a euro bank account and withdraw it. And again it would only take a small queue outside a few branches in Nicosia or Athens to have other passers by worried that a bank run is in progress (and thus their money is no longer safe) and also join the queue until you have a full scale series of bank runs in progress across the Eurozone. And as we learnt in the 1920’s, once a bank run starts, stopping it is very difficult…and expensive (as we Irish learnt the hard way with Anglo Irish Bank!)

Furthermore, the very fact that the Germans agreed or even pushed for this ridiculous deal is also troubling. This seems to have been driven by rumours in German tabloids that most of the money in Cypriot banks came from the Russian mafia (actually, while a sizeable amount of Russian money is in Cypriot banks, the bulk of the cash in the banks comes from ordinary Cypriot saversor British pensioners!, Russian money is probably at between 10-20% in all probability).

Naturally this will only pour fuel on the fire of public anger. Any such tax will be labelled a “German Tax” by Cypriots, and will provide very useful ammunition to euroskeptic and far right parties. If it weren’t for the flap in the UK regarding press regulation, no doubt the Daily Mail would be running headlines about “Merkel picking the pockets of British pensioners”. Perhaps sensing their miscalculation the Germans have spend the last 24 hrs back pedalling more furiously than Lance Armstrong.

As I’ve been saying from the beginning of this crisis much of this eurozone crisis is as much a crisis of leadership (or lack thereof) and cooperation than anything intrinsically wrong with the EU economy itself. A fact clearly highlighted by this situation where it appears that the economic policy of the EU in Cyprus is being set by Der Spiegel and a bunch of Supermarket tabloids in Germany.

Cameron and Press regulation

Earlier this week Cameron and the Tories tried to derail the outcome of the Leveson inquiry by walking out of negotiations of the future of the UK press. However, the cooperation of Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg appears to have forced them back to the table.

At the time of writing, pressure from Labour and the lib dems has ensured that some meaningful deal has been struck, but the major flaw in the proposed system is that it appears (at first reading) to be voluntary. Naturally that is a fairly obvious flaw. I would again argue the solution is more to simply break up the major press empires, as smaller newspaper outlets will not have the ability to weather such scandals as the Murdoch’s did and are thus unlikely to engage in such unethical practices.

Casing point, Private Eye, not the sort of publication afraid to push the boundaries of press freedom, has not been caught engaging in phone hacking or bribing police officers. No doubt because Ian Hislop (its editor) knows that he, unlike Murdoch, cannot afford to buy his way out of such a scandal.

At every turn the Tories have been showing themselves as Murdoch’s lap dogs. Firstly, Cameron hired Andy Coulson as his spin doctor. Next when it seemed Vince Cable would derail the merger of BSkyB, the Tories, with a little help from their allies the Barclay brothers, got him shuffled aside and the “tory minster for Murdoch arse licking” aka Jeremy Hunt…sorry Cu&t :)) in his place. Even when the phone hacking scandal broke, the attitude of the government has being sympathetic to the Murdoch’s. Inexplicably Rupert and his spawn were ruled “fit and proper”.

Take by contrast the consequences to the BBC of the David Kelly affair. The facts that the BBC presented were in fact entirely correct (it would seem the government’s 45 minute claim was based on 3rd hand hearsay, if not just plain made up). What got the BEEB in hot water was the fact that they may not have been able to verify these facts at the time they were reported. Many leading members of the BBC board paid for this failing with their jobs, while by contrast Murdoch got a slap on the wrist along with a wink from the head master to indicate he was only doing it because he had too.

The Tories and the press have tried to argue that any regulation of the press would be censorship and an attack on press freedom. Again, as always right wingers try to blur the lines between “freedom” and “regulation”. For example, the government allows us the freedom to drive on roads. But it is considered prudent to have some regulations on the road to protect everyone’s safety (speed limits, drive on the left, drink driving limits, etc.). so unless you believe that people should be allowed to drive drunk at speed down the wrong side of the road, one has to accept that some reasonable regulations are necessary and not necessarily an attack on freedom. as always the devil is in the detail.

Tory Vampire Killers
Similarly, there is nothing wrong with regulating an industry more closely, the devil is in the detail.

For example let us suppose that a Guardian journalist printed an article claiming that David Cameron was a blood sucking vampire who prayed on the poor of London. Would printing such a story be legal? Well if the journalist came up with the evidence through a careful process of investigation (e.g. catching Cameron in mirror) then, yes it would be legal (and Ed Milband would be around the next morning with a wooden stake!).

If the author simply made the story up, labeling it as fact rather than a polemic opinion piece, then that would be going too far. If he got the evidence by hacking phones or bribing a policeman to tell him what he wanted to hear (true or otherwise) then again that would be illegal.

Of course Cameron protection of the Murdoch’s is perhaps entirely rational, given that he will need the Murdoch’s to win the next election, as the key winner of this affair appears to be Ed Miliband, who will no doubt use this to great advantage in the next election.

And speaking of Argie’s…..

Of course another little news story this week was the referendum in the Falklands on the case of British sovereignty. It will come as a surprise to few that the result was 99.8% in favour of staying part of the UK….which leads me to wonder who were the 0.2% (apparently all of 3 votes) who voted against.

In an unrelated story MI5 (not 9 till 5…more like 10 till 3:30 ) have “credible intelligence” that there are three Argie spies on the Falklands :))

Although again, as I’ve discussed before the Falklands are a bunch of small wind sweep, midge infested bogs in the South Atlantic, inhabited by a bunch of quaint weirdoes more Barmy British than Boris Johnson, who have this strange thing for Penguins… and Maggie Thatcher! I do not know why it even gets so much attention.

While I think the Islanders rights should be respected, consider that I’d say the same thing about the loon’s lining up at speakers corner on an idle Saturday.

Hamaium Popa …. or whatever it is in latin

As many of you might be aware we now have a new Pope (New improved Pope with it would seem 20% less saturated Germanic Zealotry 🙂 ). Of course technically we now have two Popes (buy one, get one free!), the new guy and old man Ratzinger holed up in some Italian seminary.

The new pope (Francis after St Francis of Xavier…not the professor!) is the first from the Americas and the first outside Europe since Byzantium. He is also the first Jesuit to be elected Pope. For those who don’t come from a Catholic country and don’t know what the hell a Jesuit is, they are basically a throw back to the counter reformation. If they had a motto it would be “Christianity without the contradictions”.

The Jesuits don’t go in for all that folklorists crap in the bible (Jesus doing this and that before crucifix, all that sacred heart mumbo jumbo, then having a big long natter on the cross, etc.). They tend to point out the fact that you can’t really call yourself Christian and go around flaunting you’re wealth. Casing point, after getting the job, the new Pope turned his nose up at the Pope-mobile, went in a bus to his hotel, packed his own bags, even paid his bill on the way out!

Similarly Jesuits tend to be “pro-live”, but unlike the Tea Party or Republicans they extend this belief not just to unborn embryos or stem cells, but also to the living as well (e.g. anti-gun, anti-death penalty, anti-war, etc.). Consequently they tend to be into peace love and harmony, etc…..but not between members of the same sex mind!

So in short if you’re a Republican or a Tory (or Mr Bunga, Bunga himself!), one can scarcely think of a worse choice for a Pope. No doubt next time a politician gets caught with his pants down or his fingers in the cookie jar, or when bankers bonus time rolls around, we can expect an earful of preaching from the papacy.

Unfortunately, for anyone looking for a church that’s going to reform and modernise, forget it! Now I suspect that was always an outside chance no matter who they picked, but with Pope Francis its pretty unlikely.

Tory Xenophobia

One of the big distractions for the right wing press the last few weeks has been the impending lapse of travel restrictions for Romanians, Bulgarians and Hungarians. Naturally this has sent the likes of the Daily Mail and Express into a complete tizzy. Why those sneaky workshy types will soon be over here to live off our generous benefits system.

….or will they?

It is constantly suggested by the right wing press that the UK benefits system is one of the world’s most generous. However, official statistics tell a different story., do a review of this claim based on various sets of official statistics, including the EU’s Eurobarometer Series, the ESRC’s and the OECD. These statistics all put the UK mid table as far as its welfare state goes, as compared to other Western democracies. Indeed within the EU the UK is actually towards the bottom end of the scale.

For example the OECD wage replacement rate in the event of unemployment averages 65.8% (across all OECD countries, 2007) but the UK rate is just 57.1%, while its 66.5% in Germany, 70% in France, 73.2% in Hungary and 87.6% in Luxembourg.

As Richard Excell of points out:

“The notion that Eastern Europeans are traveling across Germany and France, ignoring Scandinavia and the low countries to get at our benefits system is, frankly, bonkers”

So the Romanian gypsies can’t add or subtract, but the Tory will still claim that such people are only here to scrounge off our benefits system. Again look at this one. They point out that:

“As at February 2011, 16.6% of working age UK nationals were claiming a DWP working age benefit compared to 6.6% of working age non-UK nationals…”

I would for the record note that the Romanian economy (and many other Eastern European economies) are currently growing with a lower unemployment rate than the UK (7.7% against 7.1%) and less households below the poverty line (12% in Romania and 14% in the UK, although it’s worth noting that these figures predate the Tory cuts consequently there’s likely many more times this number in the UK now), as a quick thrall through Eurostat’s will show you.

All in all it is difficult to escape the conclusion that not only do the statistics and facts not support the Tory’s or their right wing allies in BNP, UKIP and other elements of the “bigot brigade”. But actually, if anything the facts suggest a completely opposite conclusion – that the overwhelming majority of migrants to the UK are here to work (paying taxes while they do so) or study (contributing to the British economy by paying tuition, accommodation and living expenses) and otherwise make a positive contribution to the UK economy.

It is also a fact of history that whenever a new country has joined the EU, many of its young people have taken the opportunity to travel to other EU countries, live and work for a few years before going back home to settle down for good. Sure some settled in their newly adopted state, but for the vast bulk went back. Recall the many UK builders and other tradesmen who sought work in the 80’s in Germany (largely to escape Thatcher’s recession), as dramatized by the TV series “Auf Wiedersehen, Pet”. Indeed the Tory’s triple dip recession has sent another wave of British workers off the Germany in recent years.

Now if Der Spiegel brought out an article claim the Brits were only in Germany to scrounge off the German state’s generous benefits system (which doesn’t include the “welfare chain gangs” or other vanity schemes of the UK system…and pays out more to boot!), or that the Brits just sat around all day drinking and fighting (over football) or regularly cheated on their taxes (which is admittedly true as far as certain Tory’s are concerned…or comedians!). I suspect there would be an outcry by the UK media and government.

So you can understand why the Romanian government and people are rather upset at this bigotry directed at them by the UK tabloid press (a nice counter point from, of all people, one of the Cheeky girls, here). Indeed the Romanian government has pointed out that the bulk of those Romanians who would want to move to the UK have probably already done so.

Indeed the danger isn’t so much “Romanians coming over here taking our jobs” but the opposite, Romanians staying at home and our jobs migrating to Romanian instead. Transnational corporations will relocate to where they can find an appropriate workforce and that means companies upping stakes and moving East, if they can’t find the workforce here.

I also have to point out the hypocrisy of it all. We have the super-rich buddies of the Tory party, most of whom come from the Middle East, Russia or various tax haven states, swanning around London in their Bentley’s and Ferraris. The Tory’s will wring their hands about the thought of god forbid, making them pay the same taxes the rest of us have to pay (even council tax!).

But then a load of working and middle class Eastern Europeans come into the country, many with the expressed intention of getting jobs, starting businesses and paying taxes. And the Tory’s go all Enoch Powell on them.

Now I’m not suggesting an open door policy on emigration. I don’t agree for example with Councils paying for translation services (if you’re moving to another country to live the least you can be expected to do is learn the local lingo!), I don’t see why the UK should compromise its food standards to accommodate Halal foods (as recent events have shown those food standards rules exist for a reason!). I believe that immigrants need to, as the saying goes “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”.

But hidden within the rhetoric of the Right wing’s attitude towards immigrants is an element of bigotry, racism and xenophobia, and this must be opposed and challenged.