Tuesday, August 29, 2006

How can you only have another year of a perpetual attack?

In today's column, Polly Toynbee writes that:

Tipping the boat on one side, Stephen Byers' latest assault in the Times from the Blairite extreme is outrageously provocative, demanding to cement the future long after the leader has gone. [...]  Every word Byers wrote implied that Brown is some kind of old Labour warhorse waiting to hoist the red flag in Downing Street - even though Brown has already fixed the comprehensive spending review to fall as a percentage of GDP, which hardly signals profligacy or taxing the rich until the pips squeak.

I am puzzled by the reference to the "fixed" CSR.  Gordon Brown certainly expressed in his budget an intention to limit growth in public expenditure to 1.9% in real terms, below the expected rate of growth in GDP (see, for example, here), but this is not the same as "fixing" the CSR.  Why, only last week we were being told that it was not yet set and that there would be debates up and down the country precisely on taxation and expenditure:

The comprehensive spending review will set Labour's future in cement for the next election. Before next July's deadline, Gordon Brown promises a roadshow up and down the country to expound and debate the choices in taxing and spending.
[emphasis added]

Wrote, er, Polly Toynbee last week.

Friday, August 25, 2006

What is happiness, really?

In today's column, Polly Toynbee tells us that:

it [Sweden] tops the international happiness league

Which international happiness league?  Not this one, which asks about "life satisfaction", where it is Switzerland that tops the league table.  Not this one, which is the proportion of people saying they are happy less the proportion who say they are unhappy, where it is Iceland which comes out on top.  Balnchflower and Oswald's paper "Happiness and the Human Development Index: The Paradox of Australia" (pdf link here) has Mexico in prime position.


UPDATE: In the comments to the piece on Comment is Free, commenter Persian says:

Polly also repeats what seems to be one of her idees fixes, namely that unlike other Europeans, Swedish women have a lot of children. From the Council of Europe's website -

Sweden’s “roller-coaster” fertility rate has received international attention. In the 1980s fertility rates grew rapidly and reached 2.14 in 1990 – one of the highest fertility rates in Europe at the time. Since the early 1990s fertility is again declining rapidly. The economic recession, increased unemployment and and less generous family policies were contributing factors. In 1999 the total fertility rate reached an all time low of 1.5 and in 2002 the total fertility rate was 1.65.

So probably Polly's not updating her facts.

The link to the Council of Europe website is here

I'm shocked.  Is she really not updating her facts?  Well, she also writes:

Nor was the "scandal" of a minister using her official credit card to buy a bar of chocolate - but she had to resign.

Gosh.  You wouldn't think that actually happened in 1995 would you?


UPDATE 2: The case of the "minister using her official credit card to buy a bar of chocolate", as Polly described it, gets more and more interesting.  In a paper written by two academics at Lund University, called "Pack-hunt journalism – ruthless journalism as the norm in the media society" (pdf link here) comes this description of the scandal:

After the Social Democrats’ election victory in 1994 Mona Sahlin re-entered the Government on 7 October, this time as both Deputy Prime-Minister and Minister for Equality. Almost at once she began to use her official credit card for private purposes, first for three cash withdrawals, each of 2000 SEK, then for some clothes purchases and hiring a car, and then again further cash withdrawals. After officials had spoken to her about the matter she promised to put the card away, but she didn’t pay off the outstanding debt, which totalled 9,855 SEK. On 28 December 1994 she again used the card to pay a bill of 9,187 SEK for a hired car. It was not until 6 February that she paid the original 9,855 SEK, while the car-hire bill remained unpaid, and more cash withdrawals were made (Aftonbladet 1995).

On 7 October 1995 Expressen revealed her cash withdrawals. In her defence Sahlin claimed that she had mixed up her cards. The following day she changed her story and instead claimed that it was an advance of salary. The then Prime Minister, Ingvar Carlsson, commented by noting that she had paid the money she owed. Not until 10 October did Sahlin pay the car-hire bill that had been outstanding since 1994. On 12 October it was revealed that she was still using the card, despite her promises not to use it for private purposes (Aftonbladet 1995). On the following four days all the Swedish daily and evening papers, as well as the radio and TV channels were filled to the brim with revelations about Sahlin’s various expenses and payment difficulties, including among other things that she had not paid a school bill on time. The leader columns of the Social Democratic papers criticised her, saying that she had damaged the Party.

On 16 October 1995 Mona Sahlin held a press conference [...] She made a long statement in which she accused the journalists of a witch-hunt against her. “You take pictures through the kitchen window and say she is hiding indoors […]You pry into the bedrooms with your tele-lenses. I feel dirty but I wonder how you feel, you who have been part of what I am describing […]” (Sahlin 1996: 295). [...]

At the same time the Public Prosecutor was making preliminary enquiries. And in the speculations about who should succeed Ingvar Carlsson, Mona Sahlin became more and more of an outsider. To get as far away as possible from all this fuss, she booked a holiday for herself and her family. In Mauritius. To be able to keep in touch with the Ministry, she took her secretary with her – whose stay was paid from public funds. When she came home her holiday destination was the main subject in all the headlines. In its leader on 6 November the evening paper Expressen wrote:

"The journey to Mauritius was for many yet another proof that the political classes now consider themselves above the people they represent. Not only is Sahlin behindhand in paying her bills at the play-school, while supplementing her pay with public funds, but she goes off to the millionaires’ island too. And she even has the cheek to take her secretary with her at the tax-payers’ expense."

On 10 November the pressure became too much and Mona Sahlin resigned. The Public Prosecutor then dropped his enquiry and she decided to give a first press conference. Erik Fichtelius was at the microphone. He asked whether she had now paid all her play-school bills. Yes, I think so, she replied. She thought wrong. Fichtelius said he had just checked up, and it seemed that there was still an unpaid school bill, and a reminder was on its way. Once again other media started to investigate, but eventually the media coverage died down. She returned to Government three years later and her political career seemed to pick up speed again. There the journalistic pack-hunt against Mona Sahlin might have ended. But history repeats itself.

In November 1999 it emerged that Mona Sahlin had received 98 parking-tickets in two years, of which 32 had gone to the public Debt Collector. Once again the pack-hunt set off. Scarcely a year later, in August 2000, came the next blow – the revelation that her file had been noted because she was three months late in paying a supplementary tax bill of 40,000 SEK. For Sahlin, who had launched a Social Democratic campaign under the motto “It’s great to pay taxe [sic]!”, this was yet another reminder that she didn’t practise what she preached. In case she had forgotten it, the media were only too ready to refresh her memory. In 2002 came the next media posse, when it was discovered that a double ban had been put on Sahlin’s Volvo, because she had neither put it in for its MOT test nor paid the annual vehicle tax (Molin 2002). In contrast to the first pack-hunt, however, none of the subsequent ones led to her resignation.

This was not about a chocolate bar, however much Mona Sahlin would like it to be.  From the same paper referenced above comes this quote:

She [Mona Sahlin] explained at a press conference long after the matter had been discovered that she had occasionally bought a Toblerone on her official credit card.

I think this is known as "playing it down".  It's a shame to see the gullible buying the line.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Mendacious figures? I'll give you mendacious figures.

In today's column, Polly Toynbee writes:

This week City dealers' bonuses soared higher than ever, to £21bn, dwarfing the £3.3bn tax take from all their inheritances.

No.  It's not just city dealers: "The ONS said the overall bonus figures cover the vast majority of Britain's companies, include [sic] bonuses to boardroom executives" says the, er, Guardian -- which also pegs the figure at £19bn.  The £21bn figure comes from this Evening Standard article, which is forecasting future bonuses and not talking about past ones.


Polly also writes:

Warren Buffett, giving away most of his £44bn, says: "A very rich person should leave his kids enough to do anything but not enough to do nothing."

Generous estimates of Buffet's (pre-donation) wealth do go as high as $44bn (e.g. the sometimes excitable Accra Daily Mail), though this is still comfortably below Polly's figure.  More conservative estimates have put it at around $37bn (e.g. the, er, Guardian) or about £20bn.  Not £44bn.


Polly also writes:

Very few ever pay inheritance tax. Just 37,000 estates paid it last year, out of 600,000 deaths. Byers bandied about the mendacious figure of 1.5 million people now caught by it, arriving at this by crudely adding up the homes of the living worth over the £285,000 inheritance tax threshold

The casual lumping together of a flow figure (37,000 per year) and a stock figure (1.5m) is disingenuous at best.  He also didn't talk about "people" but rather "properties" (source), but that's a distraction.  To see the relevance of the stock/flow issue, consider this.  If homeowners are distributed evenly across the age range of, say, 30 to 70, and they all die at 70 (yes, yes, I know I am simplifying hugely). This would mean that every year, one fortieth of homeowners would die, thereby making one fortieth of the roughly 1.5m estates with homes valued over the tax threshold liable to the tax.    One fortieth of 1.5m is about 37,500, i.e. not far off the actual figure.

Now, I am not saying that the above figures are true -- I am ignoring a lot (e.g. age distribution, particularly for ownership of expensive properties may not be even, not everyone dies at 70, etc...) deliberately -- but they do show that to compare stock and flow data you do have to understand the difference.

Calling someone mendacious for citing facts which are actually true but merely hard for the intellectually incurious to understand is a little harsh.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

A little trifle for the weekend

Polly Toynbee has been given awards and honorary degrees over the course of her career.  I read a couple of the pieces celebrating these, including this when the Political Studies Association made her Political Journalist of the Year for 2003, this when Loughborough University made her Honorary Graduand in 2004 and this when Essex University made her a Doctor of the University.

There at least two things that they all agree on.  One is that her work has "detailed presentation of fact, with careful attention to accuracy" (PSA), is "informed" (Loughborough) and "invariably well-informed" (Essex).  The second is that they all agree that she left the BBC in 1995.

How strange, then, to find her writing in 2003 that "I left the BBC 10 years ago".

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Polly maths

WARNING: this post is lengthy and detailed, and does not relate to a recent column.

Polly Toynbee appeared on Radio 4's Any Questions on the 14th July, 2006 (transcript). I would have blogged about it at the time, but I couldn't find the transcript immediately and I didn't want to rely on my memory to criticise. I did, however, stumble across the transcript on the web the other day, and discovered that she distorted as badly as I remembered. Take, for example, this exchange:

LAWSON ...The facts are these: That certainly there's been a great deal - there's been a great increase in carbon emissions over the past centenary as a result of mankind and carbon emissions - carbon - CO2, carbon dioxide, is not a pollutant, it is what plants need to grow on, it is actually a life force like oxygen. The - but the nevertheless there has been a big increase. What has happened to the world's temperature so far - over the past 100 years - and this is not in dispute, this is accepted on all sides - the temperature of - the average temperature of the world has increased by two thirds of one degree centigrade... Nevertheless, there's always a risk that carbon dioxide emissions may contribute more, they've contributed something to this two thirds of a degree and therefore it is sensible to take out an insurance policy and may be nuclear power is a sensible insurance policy to take out.

CLARKE Polly Toynbee.

TOYNBEE Well I find that very interesting I think Lord Lawson is one of the last of a very rare breed that perhaps we ought to be protecting. He is a climate change denier. And there are almost none of them left. I used to get loads of e-mails and loads of correspondence on this from various scientists all over the world and they have all shut up and gone away, except for Lord Lawson. There is virtually nobody and certainly no reputable scientist left and even George Bush has had to face up to the unpalatable truth that global warming is certainly happening and we are to blame.

So, Lawson says that there has been a rise in CO2 emissions, says that there has been a rise in temperature and that the CO2 emissions have "contributed something to this two thirds of a degree", and he is branded a "climate change denier"? What? It almost feels like a prepared rant rather than a reply to what Lawson actually said.


But that's not what I wanted to write about. On Any Questions, Polly made the following claim:

[T]he figures show that if you take a very clever very poor child at the age of 22 months and you compare them with a very dim but well off child at 22 months, there they are at opposite ends of the spectrum, by the time they're six years old they will have crossed over and their trajectories will go in opposite directions.

It was a claim which intrigued me at the time, and I was reminded of it when I re-read the transcript. So I did a little bit of digging. Polly wrote this on 22 January, 2003:

Take babies tested for attainment at the age of 22 months: at one end of the scale is a very bright child from a poor home and at the other end is a dim but rich baby. At just under two years old, the bright child scores 85 points on the scale while the dim one scores only 10. But the two children are already on a steep trajectory in the opposite directions, the poor/bright one travelling fast downwards, the rich/dim one moving up, as their social backgrounds counteract their inborn abilities.

By the time they hit nursery school, at the age of three, they have nearly converged - (poor/bright scores only 55 now, while dim/rich has risen up to 45). At the age of six the children's lines cross, and then diverge for ever more as they head off into opposite futures. Anything that happens by the time they reach school is only remedial, seeking to pull up the poor child's scores to where it began.

On 3 June, 2003, she wrote this (and some of this may seem familiar):

Take babies tested for attainment at the age of 22 months: at one end of the scale is a very bright child from a poor home and at the other end is a dim but rich baby. At just under two years old, the bright child scores 85 points on the scale while the dim one scores only 10. But the two children are already on a steep trajectory in opposite directions: the poor/bright one travelling fast downwards; the rich/dim one moving up, as their social backgrounds counteract their inborn abilities. By the time they hit nursery school aged three, they have nearly converged - poor/bright scores only 55 now, while dim/rich has risen to 45. At the age of six the children's lines cross, and then diverge for ever more as they head off into opposite futures.

So anything that happens by the time they reach school is only remedial, seeking to pull up the poor child's scores to where it began.

On 3 September, 2003, worried that her readers may still not have tired of the wonders of the copy-and-paste function of her word processor, she writes:

He [David Bell, chief inspector of schools] quotes influential research from Dr Leon Feinstein of the LSE, whose findings electrified the education ministers. Testing babies for attainment at the age of 22 months, their progress was followed according to social class. It found very bright children from poor homes and dim but rich babies at the other end of the scale were already on a steep trajectory in the opposite directions, the poor/bright travelling fast downwards, the rich/dim moving up. By nursery school at three, they have nearly converged. At the age of six, the children's lines cross and then diverge for evermore as they head off into opposite futures.

So the rest of school is just remedial to repair early damage already done.

We're given a bit of a respite until 2 April, 2004 when, the meme is shortened down to:

A baby's fate is virtually fixed at 22 months: school is too late.

These have all been from the Guardian, which at least has the merit of a voluntarily paying readership who can stop buying the paper if they tire of buying endlessly recycled prose. That is not true in the case of a pamphlet she wrote for the Mayor of London (pdf link here), where she wrote:

Take a very bright poor child at the top end of the ability scale and a very dim well-off child at the bottom end of the scale at the age of 22 months and test them again as they both reach nursery school at the age of three: the poor/bright child will have slipped far down the ability scale while the rich/dim kid will have risen up it. They are both on a steep trajectory in opposite directions, the bright/poor downwards, the dim/rich upwards. At the nursery school gates their scores converge. By the time they reach the age of six in primary school the children’s lines cross, with the rich/dim heading on upwards and the poor/bright one falling back as they head off into opposite futures for ever more. Any schooling thereafter will only offer remedial help for the damage done to the poor child in the earliest years.

According to Ken Livingstone, this article cost about £7,000 -- and the tendering was not competitive (source). The next time Ken decides to spend tax money I contributed towards to copy and paste bits of old Guardian articles together, I will undercut £7,000 as a fee. But then again, I don't write things like:

This week Ken Livingstone has shown how real bravery in the face of near-universal attack and predictions of disaster is winning through on London's congestion charge.

in a national newspaper, so maybe my back doesn't need scratching quite as much as hers.


But what of the actual research? Well, it is inaccurate précis of an article by Leon Feinstein published in the Feburary 2003 issue of Economica, entitled: "Inequality in the Early Cognitive Development of British Children in the 1970 Cohort". I haven't found a free copy online, but it can be purchased through the Social Science Research Network (www.ssrn.com). [UPDATE: See comments for a link to a free version of the pdf. Thanks, Chris.]

Here is figure 2 from the article, which is what Polly is trying to summarise:

Where "High SES" means that the child's parents had high socio-economic status (i.e. "father was professional/managerial and mother was similar or registered housewife") at the time of birth, "Low SES" means the parents had low socio-economic status (i.e. "father in semi-skilled or unskilled manual occupation and mother similar or housewife") and "Q at 22m" refers to the child's quartile in tests carried out at 22 months. "High Q", then, means that the child was in the top quarter of children tested at 22 months.

On the face of it, then, you can see why Toynbee characterises it the way she does -- it does appear to suggest that "rich/dim" kids do overtake "poor/bright" ones at between six and seven years (assuming the trend lines are indeed linear).

However, here are four big things that Polly does not tell you about the resarch.

ONE It is carried out on children born in 1970. That's right -- it is measuring what happened over thirty years ago.

TWO When she talks about dim and bright kids at 22 months, she doesn't tell you what is being measured. I will. Here is the questionnaire (pdf link, sorry) that was used in the research. Here are some of the things that were measured:

  • Can he balance on one foot for one second?
  • Can he jump in one place?
  • Can he put on his pants?
  • Can he draw a vertical line?

Now, I'm not for one second suggesting that these are not broadly reliable indicators of general development but to call a kid who cannot balance on one foot for one second at the age of 22 months "dim" is pretty hypocritical of someone who complains that failing the 11+ made her feel that:

I was judged on that day and I was found stupid. And I was very lucky, I was middle class for a start which meant that I was likely to get a leg up in life, unlike lots of children who were dammed forever by that exam, quite unfairly and quite wrongly. [source]

THREE Polly shortens the comparison of socio-economic status to "rich" versus "poor". In fact, it is not clear that it is the socio-economic status which is making the difference. In fact, Table 3 in the Feinstein article shows that the background variables at birth (parents' socio-economic status, parents' schooling, number of siblings, sex, and mother's age) account for only 25% of a child's ranking in tests carried out at 10 years of age.

Furthermore, socio-economic status is quite a small part of that. If you were born in 1970 and your father's socio-economic status was low (3, 4 or 5), this cost you -7.2 percentiles in your test score ranking at age ten. Having an older sibling would have cost you -8.9 percentiles and two older siblings would have cost you -13.9 percentiles.

In other words, having two older siblings damages your test score results at age ten almost twice as much as having a father of lower socio-economic status.

Oh, and the single biggest thing that makes a difference is having a mother with a degree. This boosts your test score results at the age of ten by +25.2 percentiles.

Why is this important? Well, let's not forget that Polly argues for specific policies and uses the "facts" that she cites to support these. In the her article of 2 April, 2004, for example, she uses it to argue for an "increase in the top rate of tax", because poverty causes poor school results. That this might have been true thirty years ago, and that even then the explanatory power of parent's socio-economic status was relatively low is actually quite helpful context to allow us to judge the quality of her policy prescriptions.

FOUR Polly wrote that:

A baby's fate is virtually fixed at 22 months: school is too late.

No. Table 4 of Feinstein's article shows that of the children who were in the bottom quartile of test results at age 22 months, 32.3% went on to get A-levels or higher qualifications, compared to 43.3% from the top quartile. Doing badly in a test of jumping in one place aged 22 months is not tantamount to failure.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


Today's Polly Toynbee column has lots of broad assertions of opinion rather than poorly-researched facts.  However, this sentence is particularly troubling:

A new Commission on Integration and Cohesion, launching this month, will be worthless unless its first recommendation is to end religious and ethnic segregation in schools.

The commission is anything but new.  Charles Clarke announced it in September 2005 (source), at which time there was a lot of detail.  It would have public meetings round the country, chaired by a government minister.  A report was promised in July 2006.  Clarke wrote to "faith leaders" to ask their opinions.  The CRE published a response to the consultation in October 2005 (source).  By May of 2006, however, a commenter on Comment is Free was wondering what had happened to it (source, comment 32002).

And now (well, in June 2006) it is re-launched (source).  It may now have a chair, but new it is certainly not.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Allergic even to the word 'research'

In today's column, Polly Toynbee writes:

The Institute for Public Policy Studies says migrants are profitable: for every £100 in taxes paid by the average British-born person, the average new immigrant pays £112. Migrants make up only 8.7% of the UK's population but pay 10.2% of its income tax.

I think she means the Institute for Public Policy Research -- their press release with these figures is here.  I have often chided Polly for failing to source facts and figures she uses.  It is encouraging to see her try to do so here, but it remains a case of high marks for effort; low marks for accuracy.

A recurring theme of Polly's piece is that migrants pull down wages.  So, for example, she argues that:

Even if GDP grows, migration can make the rich richer and the poor poorer. London, where migration is greatest, also has the highest unemployment, especially among British-born ethnic minorities. Poor families in this most expensive city can't pay for childcare, and compete for jobs with single migrants willing to take less than a living wage. But the rich prosper: restaurants, cleaners and all other services are cheaper because wages are low.

The argument suffers a little, as the IPPR figures on tax make clear that migrants tend to earn more than the average British-born person, and not less.  Indeed, the IPPR report behind the press release (pdf available here) shows that in 2003/4, the average gross weekly earnings from main job of working-age migrants was £405.83, compared with £355.06 for someone born in the UK.  To quote at length from page 7 of the IPPR report:

UK and foreign-born populations have slightly differing distributions of income. Immigrants are overrepresented at the upper end of the income spectrum. For example, some 4.7 per cent of the foreign-born working age population earn more than £1000 weekly compared to only 2.6 per cent of the UK-born. At the other end of the wage spectrum, where both immigrants and non-immigrants are more concentrated, there is a slight difference in the relative distribution. For example, at the very bottom end of the distribution, 12.8 per cent of UK-born earn less than £100 a week compared to 9.7 per cent of foreign-born. It is also worth mentioning that employment rates amongst immigrants are lower than those of non-immigrants (due in part to the fact that many foreign-born are students at British educational institutions)...

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

New terms

In today's column, Polly Toynbee writes:

He [Blair] has upped Britain's pledge in a tougher carbon trading regime for the second EU round. But since 1997 UK emissions are up 3%.

If you look at National Statistics' Environmental Accounts Spring 2006 (pdf link here), and in particular table 2.3, you'll see that in 1997, the UK's total emissions of greenhouse gasses were 754,793 thousand tonnes, and in 2004 731,915 thousand tonnes. 

A, ahem, fall of 3%.


She also writes that:

We have the dirtiest cars and the most expensive public transport.

Compare that to this quote, from a Friends of the Earth press release (source):

According to the RL Polk data, the UK has the fourth highest average emissions from new cars in the 15 member states covered by the agreement. The highest average emissions are in Sweden (193.7 g/km CO2) and the lowest in Portugal (145.1 g/km CO2). UK emissions are slightly lower than those in Germany (170.8 g/km CO2) and substantially higher than those in France (151.9 g/km CO2).
[emphasis added]