Episode 13: Nudge, Nudge

The Nudge Unit

The Nudge Unit

In the world of apparatchiks and backroom boys where the political parties find their leaders, there is usually a hot idea or ideas. These come in waves, obviously. Not long ago, nudging was a big thing. The idea came from Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s book Nudge. Downing Street set up an in-house nudge unit. Don’t laugh – even if you’re old enough to imagine Frankie Howerd apologising for having nudged your unit. The nudge unit, whose official title is the Behavioural Insights Team, was so successful that it attracted the highest, most meaningful, most irrevocable honour in our modern democracy: it was privatised. More »

Our NHS (not yours)

The UK has introduced a healthcare surcharge for immigrants from non-EEA areas. Adults have to pay £200 a year for access to the NHS whether or not they make use of it; students have to pay £150. UK citizens who want to bring their partner to the country must apply for a 30-month residency visa: the NHS surcharge on this is £500, almost doubling the previous cost of the visa (£601). Skilled migrants can be stuck with bills of more than £1000. An applicant with a dependent spouse and three children could be charged £5000. More »

Risk Assessments

I woke yesterday morning to the news that the vice chancellor’s office at Queen’s University in Belfast had cancelled a symposium, due to take place in June at the Institute for Collaborative Research in the Humanities, on contemporary citizenship after Charlie Hebdo. ‘Incomplete risk assessment’ was the reason given. All day yesterday I kept schtum. Too busy working. At least I convinced myself that was the reason. When I woke in the early hours of this morning I wondered if I hadn’t actually been carrying out a bit of risk assessment of my own. More »

Bear Markets

bears

Sanctions and low oil prices are forcing Russia to give some serious thought to China. On a recent trip to Shanghai, the owner of a Russian pipeline fittings business was surprised to find three Chinese suppliers of 48-inch ball valves able to withstand 250 bar and 370ºC. ‘I have been lazy for too long,’ he told me. ‘The valves I’ve been buying from Germany, the Czech Republic and Finland were actually made in China: the only difference is that these ones come with a Chinese logo; and they’re 60 per cent cheaper.’ More »

Episode 12: Severe Amnesia

So the Tories believe they have finally found a theme which can ‘cut through’ on the doorstep: the peril of Scottish nationalism. Sir John Major was wheeled out yesterday to stress the danger we all face. In Major’s words, ‘this is a recipe for mayhem. At the very moment that our country needs a strong and stable government, we risk a weak and unstable government, pushed to the left by its allies and open to a daily dose of blackmail.’

If that was all he’d said, it would be fair enough as an expression of opinion. The trouble came earlier in his speech:

The SNP have offered to support Labour in an anti-Conservative alliance. And of course, as you know, the Scot Nats are deeply socialist. And by support I don’t necessarily mean a formal partnership but an informal understanding, perhaps even an unacknowledged understanding, to keep Labour in power. Labour would be in hock to a party that pushed them slowly but surely ever further to the left.

There is a difficulty with that statement: it assumes that everybody in Scotland has severe amnesia. More »

Where is Ukraine?

One of the problems with Ukraine is that no one really knows where it is. For many people, not least Vladimir Putin, it’s an extension of neo-tsarist Russia. For others it’s a Central European state of frustrated blood-and-language nationalism which just needs the chance to build strong institutions to express its essence. The Nestor Group, a collection of Ukrainian thinktanks and intellectuals, has meanwhile concluded that Ukrainian value systems reject both the Russian model (deification of paternalistic authority) and the language-and-bureaucracy-makes-a-state logic of Central Europe. Instead, Ukrainians lean towards horizontal civil society bonds: the ‘sotni’ who made up the revolution on the Maidan, the volunteers who fund and feed the army, church congregations and small business associations, criminal gangs and football hooligans. According to Yevhen Hlibovitsky, a member of the Nestor Group who was involved in both the Orange Revolution in 2004 and Maidan in 2014, this puts Ukraine in the same bracket as Mediterranean countries such as Italy or Greece.
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How to get into Harvard

The director of Harvard admissions has said that being a ‘Harvard legacy’ – the child of a Harvard graduate – is just one of many ‘tips’ in the college’s admissions process, such as coming from an ‘under-represented state’ (Harvard likes to have students from all 50), or being on the ‘wish list’ of an athletic coach. For most applicants to Harvard, the acceptance rate is around 5 per cent; for applicants with a parent who attended Harvard, it’s around 30 per cent. (One survey found that 16 per cent of Harvard undergraduates have a parent who went to Harvard.) A Harvard study from a few years ago shows that after controlling for other factors that might influence admission (such as, say, grades), legacies are more than 45 per cent more likely to be admitted to the 30 most selective American colleges than non-legacies. More »

Episode 11: The T-Shirt Cannon

David Cameron

David Cameron

At sporting events in the US, the organisers sometimes set up a fun thing called a T-shirt cannon. This is what it sounds like: a cannon, or rather a bazooka, which emits a thud and sends a T-shirt across the arena where it softly thwacks into one of the punters. Who doesn’t want to be hit in the face by a free T-shirt?

The T-shirt cannon was brought to mind by the latest round of policy announcements from the Tories. More »

Iran’s Deep State

Tikrit 2015

Tikrit, 2015

At the beginning of March a photo emerged of Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force (the extraterritorial element of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard), smiling as he despatched troops into Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s birthplace and now a front line in the fight against Isis. Ben De Pear, the editor of Channel 4 News, tweeted it alongside a similar photo, of a dozen men in desert fatigues and with smiles as wide as Suleimani’s, making victory signs to the camera. They were US marines in Tikrit in April 2003. More »

The Mandela Complex

In December 2013, a group of people living in shack settlements in Newlands West, Durban, entered and squatted a development of 16 nearly complete apartment blocks on Castle Hill, about ten miles north-west of the city centre. They stayed for more than a year before they were evicted on 17 December 2014. The developer calls the site Hilldale; the squatters called it the Mandela Complex. More »

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