Pensions

There’s a very interesting wee article in The Economist this week.

It lists how big pensions are in different countries compared to earnings before retirement. Denmark is slightly above average, but Britain is at the very bottom, with pensions averaging only around 30% of pre-retirement earning.

It’s appalling, to be honest. In effect it means people in this country can only have a comfortable retirement if they’ve paid off their mortgage and have some additional savings, but with rising house prices more and more people aren’t going to have that.

Scottish Six


BBC Scotland
Originally uploaded by Stephen Strowes

Iain Macwhirter has a really interesting article in the Sunday Herald about how the BBC made a Scottish news bulletin pilot three years ago (but kept it quiet because it was too good), and why a Scottish news programme is needed.

As he writes, “[…] MSPs and ministers were finding their constituents complaining about the state of their local hospitals’ finances even though they were doing fine. This was because they were watching the stories about bankrupt English health trusts on the Six O’Clock news.”

The same newspaper also has a good article about how Alex Salmond will open up the independence conversation to include other options for more powers for Scotland in order to get support from other parties. He’s really showing himself to be a very clever politician, furthering his cause by changing his immediate objectives in such a way that his opponents can’t afford to disagree. He’s achieved so much in just a few months – I’m deeply impressed.

Types of democracy

The Economist Intelligence Unit has produced a really interesting survey of democracy in the world (in PDF format).

It confirms my worry that political participation is horribly low in the UK, much lower than in any similar country. I suspect Denmark’s score is dragged down by the lack of separation of church and state.

The survey splits democracy into five separate categories:

  1. Electoral process and pluralism
  2. Functioning of government
  3. Political participation
  4. Political culture
  5. Civil liberties

I extracted the data and did some analysis of my own. The strongest correlation seems to be between (1) and (5) – that is, electoral process and pluralism are closely tied to civil liberties. A somewhat less strong correlation is found between (2), (3) and (4) – that is, the functioning of government, political participation and political culture are all linked together.

On the other hand, the weakest correlation is between (1) and (4) – that is, electoral process and pluralism are fairly independent of political culture.

This means that one can very roughly split the world’s governments into four groups, based on two axes, (1)+(5) vs. (2)+(3)+(4):

  1. Countries like Angola, Central Africa, Chad, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Libya, Myanmar, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Togo, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan which score low in all regards.
  2. Countries like Bosnia and Hercegovina, Dom Rep, Ecuador, Georgia, Ghana, Haiti, Liberia, Malawi, Nicaragua, Niger and Russia which technically are democracies and have some civil liberties, but where there are big problems with the functioning of government and with political participation and culture.
  3. Countries like Cambodia, China, Ethiopia, Gambia, Kenya, Madagascar and Mozambique which are very far from being pluralistic democracies and are low on civil liberties, but which nevertheless have functioning governments and a certain degree of political participation and culture.
  4. Countries like Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland which do well in all respects.

Djøficracy

The title of this posting is somewhat weird, but I couldn’t think of a better word, because the word bureaucracy already exists in English with a different meaning, and I was looking for a word for a society run by bureaucrats. In Danish, I would have coined a new word, djøfikrati, for it (based on DJØF, the Danish Union of Lawyers and Economists), but I know of no English word that similarly covers the bureaucrat professions (law, economics and political science), so I allowed myself to make an impromptu borrowing from Danish.

But enough about the title! What really concerns me is how democracy is being abused and slowly eroded by professional politicians with a bureaucrat background and mindset. A generation or two ago, politicians would to a much larger extent come from all swathes of life, but these days, my impression is that most have studied a DJØF subject at university and have then spent time before parliament working for their party or somewhere in the administration.

The problem is that they are very good at what they do, and that makes it difficult for other people to be successful in politics. For instance, I yesterday read an article in a Danish newspaper complaining about the fact that the Danish state budget is now so complex that a university degree in economics is almost needed to understand it – just ten years ago, most members of parliament could still make sense of it, but since then it has been extended with more and more detail.

Also, as the old saying goes, “when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. Michael Portillo had an interesting article in The Times today, where he points out that “[i]n place of ‘ethos’ it brought plans and targets geared to bonuses, performance depending not on consumer satisfaction or local accountability but on obeying instructions. […] The idea that a dentist or a social worker or a civil servant might be motivated by duty was to them unimaginable”. In other words, bureaucrats tend to assume that all others think as bureaucrats too, and they swamp us all in oceans of red tape.

Finally, the modern obsession with opinion polls is also a consequence of the djøficracy. In old days, most politicians had strong opinions, a moral compass and extensive connexions with their voters, which meant that they could and would intuitively take decisions in line with what was expected of them. But many modern bureaucrats seem to have picked their party more or less at random, and they want power for power’s sake, so they let their policies be determined by the latest opinion poll, with the result that more and more voters cannot see the difference between the parties and become apathic.

What can be done? I think the answer is to get more non-bureaucrats into politics. It requires recruiting more people from diverse backgrounds into political parties, but it also requires voters to stop voting for bureaucrats when they have a choice. If that doesn’t work, perhaps short-lists, like the ones used to increase the number of female and non-white politicians, could even be used.

The truth about flying

The Economist had a great article recently (“Welcome aboard”, subscribers only) about flying, in the form of a welcome-aboard announcement that airlines should really be making. A few quotes:

“[Y]our safety is our first priority. Actually, that is not quite true: if it were, our seats would be rear-facing, like those in military aircraft, since they are safer in the event of an emergency landing.”

Life jacket“Your life-jacket can be found under your seat, but please do not remove it now. In fact, do not bother to look for it at all. In the event of a landing on water, an unprecedented miracle will have occurred, because in the history of aviation the number of wide-bodied aircraft that have made successful landings on water is zero.”

“Please switch off all mobile phones, since they can interfere with the aircraft’s navigation systems. At least, that’s what you’ve always been told. The real reason to switch them off is because they interfere with mobile networks on the ground, but somehow that doesn’t sound quite so good.”

In the most recent issue, there were some letters to the editor elaborating on this article. I quote:

“[A]t today’s cruising altitudes passengers are exposed to a considerable amount of radiation, especially on transatlantic flights close to the pole.”

“The bright-yellow life-jackets are not intended to act as flotation devices. They are there to make it easier for the recovery services to spot the bodies strewn across rough terrain. […] And the advice to adopt a head-down fetal position in the event of a crash landing does nothing to preserve life […] However, the position does tend to preserve dental data, useful for identifying dilapidated corpses.”

Political Compass

I just found a site called the Political Compass, which lets you fill in a questionnaire and then places you on a grid with both a economically left/right axis and an authoritarian/libertarian (it’s an American website, so that would be socially liberal here) one. I got values of -3.38 for the former and -7.08 for the latter – in other words, a bit to the left, but strongly liberal.