General Election: Balancing The Budget Edition

Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne is dead keen on balancing the budget.

For the past 5 years, he has been standing in the middle of his office at 11 Downing Street with the red Budget Box perched atop his head, trying to get it to balance.

George Osborne Balancing Budget

It’s taken poor George longer than he thought. There have been times when he’s thought he’s finally got it in a perfect equipoise, only for it to overreach and fall off.

Sometimes, there aren’t as many tax receipts as he’d like, tilting it to the right. At other times, the bills for government spending are a bit heftier than expected, tilting it to the left

The pressure is on, as he has promised to balance the budget by 2018. His detractors worry that all the time spent campaigning over the last few weeks has distracted George from this vital task. But no worry, for campaigning purposes he has been replaced by a cassette player that repeats ‘long-term economic plan’ incessantly.

Ghetto Blaster

Long-term economic plan … Long-term economic plan … Long-term economic plan …

The election campaign hasn’t been kind to George. With both main parties neck and neck in the polls, politicians have resorted the traditional electoral ploy of trying to bribe the electorate with its own money.

The Tories have decided to shower money left, right and centre to get that elusive majority. Discounted council houses. Discounted shares. A cut in income tax to show it pays to work hard.  And even if you don’t work hard, a cut in inheritance tax to show it pays to have elderly, wealthy relatives.

Balancing the budget has seen taxes rise, benefits cut, and public services reduced – proving that this act has been a pain in the neck for the great British public as well as for Mr. Osborne.

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P.S. I can’t take the credit for the joke about the Treasury minister balancing the budget on his head. It can be found in Roald Dahl‘s Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator – sequel to the more famous Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It is contained in one of the funniest chapters committed to print.

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General Election: Manifestos Editions

Manifesto

The two main parties have released their Manifestos, outlining what they set out to do if they win power. Bearing in mind that either is likely to govern in a coalition with smaller parties, and so will have to make compromises; it’s still a good indicator of the choice before the electorate.

In a spirit of public-spiritedness, I am presenting the manifestos here for your perusal. I may well present the manifestos of the smaller parties at another point in time.

Conservatives

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Labour

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I can’t say I have any great enthusiasm for any party’s offering. I will read the manifestos much as a women reads the Kama Sutra – in order to choose which way to get screwed. But oh well. At least I’ll get a say.

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The A – Z Of Music: S

Passing over many excellent choices, I’ve decided to try another genre – also an S, ska.

This is a great song, Ghost Town by The Specials. Its very much of its era, redolent of the mass unemployment and racial unrest of early 80s Britain.

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People Respond To Incentives

I remember sitting in a bible study where one member, an elderly ex-Lord Mayor*, said that if there was one thing that would make the world a better place, it would be that everyone followed the Ten Commandments.

My bible study group

The elderly, ex-Lord Mayor holds forth at bible study

Now, it’s hard to disagree with many of the commandments. I disapprove on the whole of people going around killing each other, stealing, lying and all that sort of thing; although I’d be rather flattered if anyone coveted my ass.

I think he wanted the commandments to be drummed into everyone’s ear at school, and then for people to be constantly exhorted to behave better. It’s a nice thought, but I’d doubt it’d work. People tend not to like being told what to do.

There is another school of thought out there. I have recently been re-reading Steven Landsburg‘s The Armchair Economist: Economics and Everday Life.

Armchair EconomistThe first sentence goes:

Most of economics can be summarized in four words: “People respond to incentives.” The rest is commentary.

And in economics, incentives tend to work through the price system.

There has recently been an experiment** comparing these two approaches – (i) appealing to morality to change behaviour (called moral suasion), and (ii) using economic incentives. It had nothing to do with any of the commandments, but to do with discouraging people using electricity during peak hours***.

691 households in Japan were assigned into three groups, and their electricity consumption was monitored each day over a period of peak-demand:

  1. One group was told that it was important to save electricity, and would receive day-ahead and same-day messages asking them to, please, reduce their electricity consumption. (Moral suasion).
  2. A second group were also given messages, but they were told that electricity prices would be between 2-4 times higher during off-peak hours. (Economic incentives).
  3. A third group had smart meters installed, but received no messages. (Control group).

Guess which method worked best?

Electricity ExperimentThe blue line (moral suasion) is lower than the green line (control group) – so asking people to behave differently has some effect. But clearly the red line (economic incentive) is lowest of all. When people have to pay more for doing something, they do less of it.

God had a hard time with the stiff-necked Israelites, and wasn’t averse to using incentives himself. Pretty big ones. A plague here. Dropping some manna from Heaven there. But they were a little too irregular to have any real effect. Maybe he should have used some economics?

Ten Commandments

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Helfie

Helfie

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A Picture Of The Future

In my last post, I worried about pictures of the future that might not come to pass.

One picture of the future I’m glad has not come to pass is that shown in George Orwell‘s 1984 – with its vision of a totalitarian Britain under the heel of Big Brother.

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.

What has come to pass is less terrifying, but perhaps a little depressing…

Pouting Selfie

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a phone camera pointing at a pouting human face – for ever.

The horror!

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The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be

Yesterday, I went to see the re-release of the classic sci-fi film Blade Runner* at the cinema.

Blade Runner Poster

The plot goes a little something like this… A technologically advanced mankind has reached the level where it has built robots, called Replicants, so life-like that only specialised tests can tell them apart from humans**. These robots are used to do hazardous jobs on off-world planets.

The trouble is, the Replicants have become so ‘human’ that they are asking deep, existential questions of themselves. Why should they only be used as short-lived slaves? Why can’t they have a more fulfilling, self-determined existence? Some have even gone so far as to rebel, with Sparticist uprisings taking place. Replicants have killed their human masters and made a bid for freedom.

As a reaction, all Replicants on Earth are illegal. Any that are found are tracked down and murdered retired by the ‘Blade Runners’, special assassins devoted to tracking down the robots.

The film follows one Blade Runner, Deckard (played by Harrison Ford), called out of retirement to track down four Replicants who have made their way back to Earth.

It is a visually stunning film; strange, moving and thought-provoking. While it has some great action set-pieces, nerve-tangling tension and some shocking violence, it’s quite a slow-paced philosophical film. The Replicants are set out as the villains of the piece, and indeed they commit do commit two murders in the film. But it is hard to condemn them – they’ve merely returned to Earth to find their creator, to see if their measly, pre-programmed four years of life can be extended. For this crime, they must be ruthlessly hunted down and shot.

In fact, the arch-villain, brilliantly portrayed by Rutger Hauer, emerges as the real moral hero of the film. Despite having seen his loved ones killed like animals at Deckard’s hands, he takes mercy on Deckard in the film’s climax after beating him in a thrilling to-the-death chase.

Here he delivers his wonderful last lines – written by Hauer himself – just as his life comes to a natural(?) end:

Roy Batty

“I’ve… seen things you people wouldn’t believe… Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those… moments… will be lost in time, like tears… in… rain. Time… to die…”

One thing I did find quite shocking was that the film was set in 2019 – only 4 years away now! Flying cars***, space travel, colonies on other worlds, human-like robots – they all feature in the film, but I doubt we’ll see them in the next few years.

Despite this, what I sometimes worry about is not the pace of technological development, but whether we will allow them to have the transformational effects they could potentially have. While our forebears took a rather laissez-faire attitude to technological change – allowing steam engines, cars, electricity and the like to transform our world within a few generations – we seem much more cautious.

We have invented driverless cars, but we are being very slow in allowing them on our roads. Similarly, unmanned aerial drones also present a challenge for our regulators.

Blade Runner City

I doubt the sprawling cityscape depicted in the film, with giant skyscrapers, electronic billboards the sizes of football pitches and motorway lanes extending miles upwards, would get planning permission. Are we in danger of regulating the futuristic future out of existence?****

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