Saturday night polls

May. 27th, 2017 04:46 pm
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Posted by Anthony Wells

We should have a truckload of polls tonight. There is a new Opinium, a new ComRes for the Indy & Sunday Mirror, YouGov for the Sunday Times, probably an ORB and perhaps an ICM for the Sun on Sunday. I’ve seen rumours of Survation too (they normally poll for the Mail on Sunday) and we’re overdue a Panelbase poll. The thing to look for is whether polls continue to show a narrowing of the Conservative lead – keep an eye on the fieldwork dates, more recent polls could be showing an impact from reactions to the bombing (or, indeed, the effects of the dementia tax row fading). Also remember the house effects I wrote about earlier – ICM and ComRes tend to show larger Tory leads anyway, so even if they show a significant movement towards Labour it may still leave the Tories with a good lead.

The first poll we actually have figures for is Opinium, who have topline figures of CON 45%(-1), LAB 35%(+2), LDEM 7%(-1), UKIP 5%(nc). Changes are from the previous week and fieldwork was on Tuesday and Wednesday, so just after the Manchester bombing but before political campaigning had resumed. We have movement towards Labour, but the Conservatives still managing to cling onto a double-digit lead. Tabs are here.

ComRes for the Sunday Mirror and Independent have topline figures of CON 46%(-2), LAB 34%(+4), LDEM 8%(-2), UKIP 5%(nc). Changes are from a fortnight ago, and fieldwork was between Wednesday and Friday. The Tory lead has dropped by six points, but ComRes tends to give the Conservatives some of their better figures, so this still leaves them with a twelve point lead. Tabs are here.

ORB for the Telegraph have topline figures of CON 44%(-2), LAB 38%(+4), LDEM 7%(nc), UKIP 5%(-2). Changes are from a week ago and fieldwork was Wednesday to Thursday. Once again, we have a narrowing of the Tory lead, in this case down to six points.

YouGov for the Sunday Times have topline figures of CON 43%(nc), LAB 36%(-2), LDEM 9%(-1), UKIP 4%(nc). Changes are from the Times poll earlier in the week and fieldwork was Thursday to Friday. This is the most recent of the polls we’ve seen so far tonight, and it has Labour falling back a bit from the YouGov poll in the week. That said, it is only one poll, so don’t read too much into that unless we see other polls showing a similar pattern.

ICM for the Sun on Sunday has toplines of CON 46%(-1), LAB 32%(-1), LDEM 8%(-1), UKIP 5%(+1). Fieldwork was on Wednesday to Friday, and changes are since the ICM/Guardian poll conducted over last weekend. Changes here seem quite steady (ICM’s previous poll already showed a sharp narrowing of the lead). As I said earlier, ICM and ComRes tend to show the largest Tory leads because of their demographic based turnout model.

I’ll update this post through the evening as other polls appear.

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How the polls have changed since 2015

May. 27th, 2017 11:27 am
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Posted by Anthony Wells

Yesterday the British Polling Council had an event talking about how the polls had changed since 2015. This included collecting up data from all the companies on what they’ve done to correct the error and what they are now doing differently – all those summaries are collected here.

In looking at what’s changed it’s probably best to start with what actually went wrong and what problem the pollsters are trying to solve. As all readers will know, the polls in 2015 wrongly overstated Labour support and understated the Conservatives. The BPC/MRS inquiry under Pat Sturgis concluded this was down to unrepresentative samples.

Specially, it looked as if polls had too many younger people who were too engaged and too interested in politics. The effect of this was that while in reality there was a big difference between the high turnout among old people and the low turnout among young people, among the sort of people who took part in polls this gap was too small. In short, the sort of young people who took part in polls went out and voted Labour; the sort of young people who weren’t interested and stayed at home didn’t take part in polls either.

So, what have polling companies done to correct the problems? There is a summary for each individual company here.

There have been a wide variety of changes (including YouGov interlocking past vote & region, ICM changing how they reallocate don’t knows, ICM and ComRes now both doing only online polls during the campaign). However, the core changes seem to boil down to two approaches: some companies have focused on improving the sample itself, trying to include more people who aren’t interested in politics, who are less well educated and don’t usually vote. Other companies have focused on correcting the problems caused by less than representative samples, changing their turnout model so it is based more on demographics, and forcing it to more accurately reflect turnout patterns in the real world. Some companies have done a bit of both.

Changes to make samples less politically engaged…

  • ICM and YouGov have both added a weight by respondents level of interest or attention to politics, based upon the British Election Study probability survey. YouGov have also added weights by level of educational qualification.
  • Ipsos MORI haven’t added political interest weights directly, but have added education weights and newspaper readership weights, which correlate with political interest.
  • Kantar have added education weighting, and also weight down turnout to the level they project it to be as a way of reducing the overall level of political engagement in their sample.

Changes to base turnout on demographics…

  • ComRes have changed their turnout model, so it is based more on respondents’ demographics rather than how likely they claim they are to vote. The effect of this is essentially to downweight people who are younger and more working class on the assumption that the pattern of turnout that we’ve seen at past elections remains pretty steady. ICM have a method that seems very similar in its aim (I’m not sure of the technicalities) – weighting the data so that the pattern of turnout by age & social grade is the same as in 2015.
  • Kantar (TNS) have a turnout model that is partially based on respondents age (so again, assuming that younger people are less likely to vote) and partially on their self-reported likelihood.
  • ORB weight their data by education and age so that it matches not the electorate as a whole, but the profile of people who the 2015 British Election Study who actually voted (they also use the usual self-reported likelihood to vote weighting on top of this).
  • Opinium, MORI and YouGov still base their turnout models on people’s answers rather than their demographics, but they have all made changes. YouGov and MORI now weight down people who didn’t vote in the past, Opinium downweight people who say they will vote for a party but disapprove of its leader.
  • Panelbase and Survation haven’t currently made any radical changes since 2015, but Panelbase say they are considering using BES data to estimate likelihood to vote in their final poll (which sounds to me as if they are considering something along the lines of what ICM are doing with their turnout model)

In terms of actual outcomes, the pollsters who have adopted demographic turnout-models (ComRes, ICM and Kantar) tend to show larger Conservative leads than companies who have tried to address the problem only through sampling and weighting changes. We cannot really tell which is more likely to be right until June 8th. In short, for companies who have concentrated only on making samples more representative, the risk is that it hasn’t worked well enough, and that there are still too many of the sort of young engaged voters who are attracted to Jeremy Corbyn in their samples. For companies who have instead concentrated on demographic-based turnout models, the risk is that the pattern of turnout in 2017 differs from that in 2015, and that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour really does manage to get more young people to come out to vote than Ed Miliband did. We will see what happens and, I expect, the industry will learn from whatever is seen to work this time round.

10.5 Oxygen

May. 27th, 2017 12:44 pm
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Posted by Andrew Rilstone

Good Doctor Who stories are all very much alike. Each bad Doctor Who story is bad in its own way. 

I really don’t ask very much. I am aware that Doctor Who is a children’s TV show about a dotty old man and his little friends going to different planets and saving the world from space monsters. I am very happy to curl up with a cup of Earl Grey and a crumpet (with Marmite) and say “injecting micro clones into yourself to defeat a giant prawn, who would have thought it” or “Loch Ness monster swims up the Thames and threatens Big Ben, now there’s a thing.” Doctor Who has to work really, really hard to draw attention to its own stupidity before I stop believing in it. Very rarely have you heard me say “but that’s not what the word ‘galaxy’ even means, you bumbling old duffer.”

Spacemen and monsters, for a start. Spacemen that look a bit like Apollo spacesuits, which is what spacesuits are meant to look like. I guess there is a reason they have to be dome shaped, something to do with pressure, I shouldn’t wonder. I had a space helmet for my fourth or fifth birthday, a plastic one with a visor and a NASA sticker. I think the dome-shaped hats is probably the main reason space is exciting. A big space station, wheel shaped, that makes you think of the Blue Danube waltz and salt and vinegar crisps. There’s an aesthetic which says that space ships are all white and gleaming like a very posh kitchen owned by someone who doesn’t really like to cook; but there’s also a space aesthetic which is all bare wires and metal, like an oil rig, like the distilled essence of a machine. (The question, indeed, is about whether the doors should go shush-shush or budda-budda-budda.) And the idea of space-walking, or just being in space, with nothing between you and the stars, which is both incredibly fun and incredibly dangerous. Give us a ghoulish description of what actually happens to a person’s body in a vacuum, like watching film of surgery or seeing waxworks being tortured in the Madame Tussuad's. 

Obviously, monsters, which are frightening, but not too frightening, but not trying too hard to not be too frightening. If you can come up with something that hasn’t been done before, or not recently, that’s good too. Zombies are good. Spacemen versus zombies. Dead bodies of dead astronauts still walking around in their suits after they have suffocated trying to kill the living ones. Living space men space walking around the outside of the space station in space suits and being confronted by the space walking dead. Very good. 

The Doctor, of course: he’s what it’s really all about; and a grown up human lady to scream and get rescued (although this is the 21st century so she shouldn't scream and get rescued too much.) But she mustn’t have been with the Doctor too long. If she's hung around and got the hang of time and space and became the most impossible person in the universe and the Doctor’s girlfriend, that would stop being much fun. Better for her to be a bit wide eyed and surprised, partly because when she looks through the space ship window and says “wow this is a proper space ship” we can look through her eyes and be all wide-eyed and surprised as well, but mostly so we can shrug and say “oh, yes, the Doctor has shown us space ships before”, a bit like Piglet. But the Doctor being brilliant and the pretty lady being wide-eyed can get a bit much, so it’s even better if you can give the Doctor another friend, maybe say a bald alien man, who is a bit more cynical and on the Doctor’s wavelength and keeps telling everyone to go back to the TARDIS where it’s safe.

(Maybe the bald cynical alien man should be taken to one side and asked not to act quite so much? Maybe he could sometimes just read the line “Let’s go back to the TARDIS” without turning it into “Letttts… GO. Back tooooooooo ther TAR DIS”?) 

Now obviously we’re not kids any more so it’s probably not good enough to just have spacemen and zombies; there probably has to be some reason for it, and there probably has to be some ideas for us to think about. Some good Doctor Who stories took something ordinary and made it frightening (what if your mobile phone turned into a plastic daffodil?), but nowadays they mostly try to be a bit more subtle. Ever one of us checks his mobile phone to see how much battery he’s got left dozens of times a day, so what if that little battery marker was counting down not just your battery-life, but your actual life. Maye the spacemen have to pay for their own oxygen? Very good. How often have you heard grown ups saying “Next they are going to charge us for the air we breath?”  I feel a metaphor coming on. Doctor Who always did incorporate little moral lectures about the true nature of courage and how chess would be better if the black pawns and the white pawns fought the vampires together. 

I’d leave in the joke about workers getting together to fight “the suits”, but drop the bit about  how the Doctor rescuing the spacemen from the zombies accidentally precipitated the fall of capitalism. Grimy industrial futures where everything is ruled by The Company are just as much a Thing as space men and corridors and zombies. 

There has to be a bit where you want to hide behind the sofa only not really. Dead bodies are bit macabre: the space zombies will need to be nasty enough to be scary, but not nasty enough to be really scary. Heads lolled on one side is a good start, and we should definitely see the grown up human lady freaking out when she first sees a dead person standing up. But the properly scary stuff needs to be a bad thing happening to one of the characters and imagining that it might be happening to you. So if you’ve told us all the icky things which happen to a human body in a vacuum, you have to follow through and show us the grown up human lady being stuck in the air lock without a helmet, with ice forming on her face, mostly from her point of view, everything going blurry and fragmented. If you are not careful, that could come out a bit too nasty and scary and gripping for Doctor Who, but that’s okay, because the best bits of Doctor Who always are. 

Maybe, though, don’t go through the whole thing again and try to convince us that grown up companion lady is dead the second time, because we all know perfectly well she won’t be. 

And of course, the Doctor has to save the day in the end because he’s the Doctor and saving the day in the end is what he does. Almost the most important thing in a Good Doctor Who story is that the Doctor should suddenly understand what is going on, and make a plan to defeat the baddies, and not quite tell us what it is, but when at the last minute it works we see how clever the Doctor has been being all the way through and remember why we love him so much. It could involve using scarecrows to make the evil alien robber baron think the castle is better defended than it really is, or it could involve setting up a suicide bomb so that the space zombies can’t kill the surviving humans without blowing up their own spaceship as well. It just has to be clever and a bit mad. And not, in any way, a big red button or a giant haddock that just makes the space zombies go away by magic.

Cliff hangers are good. We don’t get as many of those as we used to in the olden days because there are less serial stories. Arcs and “big bads” are all very well, but really all they do is tantalize us about the final episode, and frankly, we've all worked out why the words “Bad Wolf” are scrawled on the secret vault already. (It has the Doctor himself locked in it. Duh!) The best cliff hangers aren’t the “how will he get out of that” kind, or the “is he going to die” kind, they are the “That changes everything” kind. The Doctor sustained a permanent damage rescuing his little friend from the vacuum? But he won’t tell her about it? Provided you don’t just cop right out next week, that’s just the kind of thing we’re looking for. 

All of which leaves us with not very much to talk about. It is a strange thing, but stories which are good to have watched are easily reviewed, and the reviewers are not much to read; while stories that are illogical, inconsistent and even ridiculous may make a good review, and take a deal of reviewing anyway. 

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K: Wait, I thought Charlemagne was the Pope.

Me: Huh, no, Charlemagne was the Holy Roman Emperor. The Pope was the Pope.

K: Yeah, but I heard they were in cahoots, which I figured doesn’t really happen in this world unless you’re the same person.

K: I’m fine with you mocking my understanding of history…

Me: I’m not mocking your understanding of history, I’m mocking your understanding of cahoots!

K: I understand you can be in cahoots now, it’s just historical cahoots.

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K: Wait, I thought Charlemagne was the Pope.

Me: Huh, no, Charlemagne was the Holy Roman Emperor. The Pope was the Pope.

K: Yeah, but I heard they were in cahoots, which I figured doesn’t really happen in this world unless you’re the same person.

It Was Fifty Years Ago Today…

May. 27th, 2017 12:19 am
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Posted by Andrew Hickey

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is an album about which it is, I think, impossible to talk sensibly or objectively.

For the generation for whom it was created — those a few years younger than the Beatles themselves, people in their teens and early twenties on May 26, 1967 — it was self-evidently the greatest album ever made. This is something that couldn’t even be questioned by a surprising number of people — I certainly remember when I was a child, as the twentieth and twenty-fifth anniversaries of the album’s release were massive media events, seeing multiple documentaries on TV which simply took this as an objective fact. Sgt. Pepper was The Greatest Album Ever Made was a fact in the same way that it was a fact that the battle of Hastings was in 1066.

However, it was an equally objective fact to almost everyone I know who was around my age — at least among those of us forty or younger who have engaged at all with the Beatles’ music, which is a smaller proportion than many Boomers might think — that Sgt. Pepper wasn’t actually all that great. I mean, it’s a nice album, but frankly not even the best album the Beatles released in 1967 (assuming one counts Magical Mystery Tour as an album rather than an EP and a few singles).

I think there’s a parallel here with another cultural icon, which was released one day before Pepper‘s tenth anniversary — Star Wars. People only a few years older than me, who saw that film in the cinema, were convinced (and many still are) that it was the greatest film ever made. I’ve tried watching it on several occasions, but could only *guarantee* having sat through the whole thing once, when I watched it a couple of months back. Like Sgt. Pepper it’s an enormous technical achievement, but it does very little for me.

(Pepper does more for me — I love about half the album and wouldn’t be without even the half I don’t love. But same principle.)

In both cases, I think you have to have been the right age for the work. Not when you first experience it, but when it first came out. No-one now can watch Star Wars in its cultural context, and the same goes for Sgt. Pepper — both in fact destroyed, even as they were destroyed *by*, the cultural context they were created in.

In the case of Sgt. Pepper, when it came out, when it was first heard, it was an album that signified an inescapable progression, a forward momentum, a glorious future. People were capable of *this* now. What would it be like tomorrow?! Music was progressing faster than ever, and this was the New Exciting Sound, but tomorrow would have another New Exciting Sound.

But within a few months, it became apparent that, like all exponential curves encountered in reality, the “progress” of rock music was a sigmoid curve, and rather than being a point on an upward curve headed to infinity, Sgt. Pepper was a turning point. By early 1968 the watchword was simplicity, people were “going back to our roots” and “getting our heads together in the country”. There would, of course, be progress and innovation in rock music — that didn’t really stop altogether in the mainstream until the mid-90s, and may even continue to this day in some of the niche subgenres — but the idea of a mass of artists, all headed in roughly the same direction, racing each other to be the latest people on the charts with the new sound… that idea died with the summer of 1967.

So the album became canonised, not because of its own qualities (though again, it sounds like I’m saying it’s a bad album — it’s not. It’s an album I like a lot) but as a symbol of The Lost Time When Things Were Getting Better.

But being canonised as a never-to-be-bettered artifact of a mythical Golden Age is, of course, exactly the opposite of those things Sgt. Pepper stood for at the time. And now it’s been reissued in three different versions for the fiftieth anniversary (a single CD, a double CD, and a six-disc box set) it’s all too easy for those of my generation to see in it all the *worst* aspects of the generation it defined. Fetishism of the military, Empire nostalgia, an obsession with the past, appropriation of non-European cultures, casual sexism… they’re all here, present and accounted for. There’s been a fashion in the last twenty years or so to dismiss it as worthless (something I’ve been guilty of myself in younger, more reactionary, days).

But yet, that’s no more an objective judgment of the album than the one that says “Greatest EVAR!!!”, is it? It’s all cultural context stuff, too, and from a context that will, right now, only see the worst in the boomer generation that loved this album, because right now most of the social and political problems we’re going through are caused by them growing old resentfully.

The new reissue gives as good an opportunity as possible to judge the album *as an album* as we’re going to get. It’s now being presented in a new remix by Giles Martin (and I wonder if the 1967 stereo mix is now being deleted altogether, like the original Star Wars?). I’ve bought the two-disc version (I don’t have the money for the six-disc version, though if anyone wanted to spend a hundred and ten quid buying me a copy I’d gladly review it…), and it’s definitely worth doing.

The two-disc version contains the full album, along with outtake versions of every song on the album, and of Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane, both of which are also presented in new stereo remixes.

The remix is a genuine, subtle, improvement, at least over the original stereo mix. The 1967 stereo mix of Sgt. Pepper was, frankly, a mess. It had a song at the wrong speed, it had songs where the mix had all the instruments in one channel and all the vocals in the other… it was generally sloppy, as most mid-sixties stereo mixes were.

So Giles Martin has gone for a stereo mix which replicates the original mono mix in terms of instrument balance, but which has a modern stereo spectrum. He’s also gone back to the original multitracks before they were bounced down, so the sound quality is several generations better. It’s possible to hear details I’ve never heard before — for example in “Fixing A Hole” it’s possible to make out a tiny fluffed guitar note right at the end of the fade. But it’s *also* possible to tell that the harpsichord on the same track is doubled, thanks to the stereo separation.

This can be a double-edged sword — for example, listening with headphones to “Getting Better”, the tamboura pops out and resonates in a way it simply doesn’t on earlier versions. But at the same time, it’s also easier to notice the change in ambience when it drops out again. Listening to it in this way draws attention to the music as a made thing, as a result of technologies and choices, as an artifact, rather than as a whole thing in itself as the slightly muddier-sounding mono mix invites.

(Though again, this may be at least in part because I’m listening to it in those terms in the first place because of the presentation).

I don’t think this will ever become my preferred listening experience for Sgt. Pepper — that will remain the 2009 reissue of the original mono mix — but it’s a good, interesting, one. Some may, of course, regard it as blasphemous to have the album available in a new mix, but given that the band and George Martin’s *intended* mix has been unavailable for most of the last fifty years (except, latterly, as part of an expensive CD box set of all the mono albums) to my mind it’s better to have a good unintended mix out there than a bad one.

The outtakes are less interesting. George Harrison often spoke of how the recording process for Sgt. Pepper wasn’t very organic, and didn’t allow for experimentation by the band, as opposed to the relevant songwriter. “A lot of the time it ended up with just Paul playing the piano and Ringo keeping the tempo, and we weren’t allowed to play as a band as much.”

That’s borne out by the outtakes here. Other than the two full versions of “Strawberry Fields Forever” which were spliced together to form the final single version (one of which was already available on Anthology 2 anyway) this is mostly just sparse recordings of backing tracks without the overdubs, sometimes with guide vocals. It’s fun enough to hear, but there are none of the revelatory outtakes here that one gets in something like the similar reissues of Kind of Blue or Pet Sounds — when arrangements stop being worked out by a live band, full alternate versions don’t exist in the same way.

This fiftieth anniversary set (in whatever form) likely marks the last moment that Sgt. Pepper has any real cultural currency. By the time it’s sixty-four, the majority of the generation who canonised it will, sadly, have died out. I suspect — though I can’t know — that the Beatles will remain listened to for as long as any recorded sound is, though in the same way we now listen to Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong or Bix Beiderbecke. And I think that in fifty years’ time, their legacy will look very different. It seems likely that Revolver or Rubber Soul will be viewed as their true masterwork, though I wouldn’t bet against Please Please Me, the White Album, or Abbey Road either. I think the further we get from 1967, the more Pepper will fade.

But it’ll never fade away completely. This is still the album with “A Day in the Life”, with “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, with “She’s Leaving Home”. As long as any music from the last century is listened to, people will still be discovering and loving those.

It’s been going in and out of style, but it’s guaranteed to raise a smile.

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Posted by Bruce Schneier

The excellent Montreal chef Marc-Olivier Frappier, of Joe Beef fame, has created a squid and chips dish for Brit & Chips restaurant.

As usual, you can also use this squid post to talk about the security stories in the news that I haven't covered.

Read my blog posting guidelines here.

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Posted by Nick

And we’re back.

One thing that I’ve been thinking about with this election is whether there are any other elections it resembles and if those give us a clue to what the final result would be. Political scientists like finding things that are broadly comparable for two reasons: first, we can use different outcomes to measure the effects of small changes in other variables, and second, we get to pretend that all that reading about previous elections that we’ve done was of important academic significance, not just indulging in a psephological hobby. So, here are three other elections that this one may or may not resemble. Bonus points for guessing which one it’s most like before we get to see the answers of June 9th.

(And a reminder that the prediction competition is still open, if you’re interested in scoring meaningless points)

My favourite Liberal slogan made its appearance in 1974.

February 1974: Never ask the electorate a question you don’t already know the answer to

This was the last time a Prime Minister decided to call a snap election, and unlike this one, Edward Heath went for a very quick one with just three weeks between him telegraphing the Queen (she was in New Zealand) to ask for a dissolution of Parliament and the election date. Heath called the election in the midst of a series of industrial disputes and the three-day week to ask the electorate to decide ‘who governs Britain?’ He wanted a strong majority and electoral mandate to take on the unions and thought he could get the people to rally round him. When it came to the crunch the electorate’s answer to the question was more on the lines of ‘not sure, but probably not you’. Heath had over a year left before he had to call an election, but wanted to get a new mandate to take on a difficult task – will May’s search for one lead to the same result.

1983: The closest thing to khaki

An economy coming out of recession. An election a year after the UK was at the centre of a major world event. A female Conservative Prime Minister ready to decisively shift her party in a new direction versus a Labour Party led by a veteran left-winger despised by the press. So far, so similar, except for the bit that’s missing. This time we didn’t get the proclaimed moderate wing of the Labour Party splitting off under a leader recently returned from a high-profile foreign role, and the Labour Party has remained vaguely united and on-message during the campaign. (There has been some sniping, but it’s equivalent to the attacks from within May faced over the dementia tax) It’s not identical to 1983, but is the best chance we’re going to get to have an idea of what might have happened there without the SDP? When things look like they’re shaping up into a classic two-party fight, what happens to the centrist voters when they’re the ones who get squeezed?

2004: The blame game

Not a British election this time, but one in Spain, which was the last time a major terrorist incident (the Atocha bombings) happened during a European election campaign. Before the bombings, the incumbent right-wing government had a comfortable polling lead over their left-wing opponents but by the time the election came around three days later, they were defeated and the left won a surprise victory. One of the principal factors behind that was the Aznar government completely mishandling the response to the bombings, by insisting the Basque separatist movement ETA was behind it when it was eventually revealed to have been done by Islamists. However, it does show that the electorate won’t necessarily rally round the government in a time of crisis, and the shift in voting behaviour caused by a major event isn’t easily predictable.

So, three previous elections, three possible scenarios that we could be playing out right now, or something entirely new and different might be happening. Thirteen days till we find out.

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Posted by Bruce Schneier

It was easy:

The hackers took a medium range photo of their subject with a digital camera's night mode, and printed the infrared image. Then, presumably to give the image some depth, the hackers placed a contact lens on top of the printed picture.

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Posted by Tim Harford

Undercover Economist

The UK election has thrown up an intriguing idea. In a modern twist on the old offer of bread and circuses, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party has proposed four new public holidays — nearly a full working week’s worth. Since England and Wales currently have only eight such holidays, it would be a dramatic expansion in mandatory fun.

I like a holiday as much as the person in the next deckchair, but such days off are not costless. As any freelancer can attest, if you work less you earn less. Having a steady job with a monthly salary will hide that cost, but it’s going to pop up somewhere. Perhaps workers will receive lower pay rises. Or perhaps jobs will be lost. (Robots demand no holidays.)

But maybe these holidays would pay for themselves. A popular conceit is that many of us work inefficiently long hours, and that more vacations or shorter shifts would actually raise productivity. We can call this the “work smarter, not harder” theory of labour.

Exhibit A: The French. We British scoff at the French work ethic of four-day weekends and four-hour lunches, but the joke is on us, since the French get more done in less time. Nor are the French unique in this respect. Broadly speaking, countries with a culture of long hours are also countries with a record of low productivity per hour. According to the OECD, the Paris-based club of mostly rich nations, the longest hours in Europe are worked in Greece, closely followed by Poland, Latvia and Portugal. At the other end of the spectrum are the Danes, Dutch, Norwegians and French. Laziest of all? The Germans.

The most likely explanation for this pattern is that people in richer nations can afford the luxury of working fewer hours per year. But it’s tempting to speculate that causation runs the other way, and that short shifts and long breaks are a route to high productivity. No wonder that from time to time some think-tank or pundit proposes a six-hour working day — or a pilot scheme goes well and gets some buzz. On the face of it, it is not absurd to suggest that the British could enhance their lacklustre productivity by taking a few extra days off.

But there is an obvious objection to the idea. If a four-day week is just as productive as a five-day week, or a six-hour day beats an eight-hour day, then why don’t more employers embrace shorter hours? If it was such a good idea there would be no need for the government to impose it on anyone. It’s not impossible that the Labour party knows more than British managers about how best to run British businesses, but nor is it likely.

There is an alternative argument for the government to introduce more holidays: the hockey helmet problem. Nobel laureate economist Thomas Schelling pointed out in his 1978 book Micromotives and Macrobehavior (US) (UK) that ice hockey pros wouldn’t voluntarily wear helmets, despite the risk of horrendous injuries, because the helmets reduced visibility and put them at a disadvantage. Yet many were happy when the helmets became compulsory, offering safety without a loss of competitive edge.

Perhaps public holidays are like hockey helmets — we could usefully take time off but dare not, for fear of losing ground on our rivals. In 1998, economists Sara Solnick and David Hemenway surveyed Harvard students and found they would rather have $50,000 in a society where others were poorer than $100,000 in a society where others were richer. Students felt that money was a positional good, where what mattered was not how rich you were, but whether you were richer than others.

The Solnick/Hemenway study reached different conclusions about vacation time. The positional view — that what really matters is not how long your holiday is, but that your holiday is longer than other people’s — seems absurd. But if we’re competitive about money but not competitive about holidays, no wonder we work hard. A mandatory holiday gives every rat in the rat race a chance to catch its breath.

Even if you believe this argument for obligatory holidays — I am not sure I do myself — a final question awaits any government bold enough to introduce them. Why name a particular date? Holidays are easier and cheaper to take if other people are still working. But the Labour proposal actively emphasises national unity: we’re all to take the day off at the same time. The Scots will holiday alongside the English on St George’s day while the English return the compliment with a holiday on St Andrew’s day. Well, it might work.

But perhaps we should use holidays not to unite us, but to keep us at a safe distance from each other. We could introduce a patchwork of new holidays. Remainers could go on mini-breaks to Paris every June 22, while the Brexiters would gather on the white cliffs of Dover with warm bitter and ploughman’s lunches each June 24. A similar system in the US would spare liberals and conservatives from having to talk to each other. It seems to be the way we’re all heading, anyway — and it would be much easier to get some space on the beach.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 28 April 2017.

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