Vol. 43 No. 8 · 22 April 2021

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Snakes and Ladders

Stefan Collini refers to the ‘unaccountable power of the distant executives of a for-profit academy chain’ (LRB, 1 April). But no such entity as a ‘for-profit academy chain’ exists – indeed legislation specifically excludes for-profit organisations from the academy programme. (Much to the chagrin of companies such as Cognita, which would like to have been involved in this Labour-initiated scheme). Multi-Academy Trusts are charitable foundations funded by and accountable to central government through the Education and Skills Funding Agency. The process is further overseen by Regional Schools Commissioners, themselves supported by elected boards of local head teachers, who scrutinise the formation and performance of academies in their area. The system is imperfect, but it is untrue to describe it as one in which ‘private capital, seizing opportunities created by central government, extracts profit by providing what had been a community service, using corporate power to take over more and more schools, and in some cases legally appropriating public assets and property for private gain.’ While the transfer of local authority assets such as buildings and playing fields to charitable trusts may be distasteful to local politicians and bureaucrats who see their fiefdoms diminished, the assets remain in trust and continue to operate in the service of their communities.

Lawrence Denholm
Airton, North Yorkshire

Stefan Collini writes: I agree with Lawrence Denholm’s account of the legal position of academies, but the phrase which he, quite understandably, challenges on these grounds was an (overly condensed) attempt to capture the reality of their activities. As with many of the colleges and universities that have sprung up in recent years, the category of ‘not for profit’ proves, on closer inspection, to be more porous than the official description would suggest. For example, an inquiry by the National Audit Office in 2014 revealed that 43 per cent of academy trusts had engaged in ‘related party transactions’, where public money was directed to the private businesses of directors, trustees and their relatives (in 2013 £71 million of academies’ expenditure went on such transactions). At the time, Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee concluded that it could have ‘little confidence’ in the Education Funding Agency that was notionally responsible for overseeing such financial arrangements. Indeed, this was such a recognised feature of some academy chains in the 2010s that in 2019 the government felt obliged to try to place tighter controls on such transactions.

The question of the transfer of assets is murkier, but what is undeniable is that academisation meant that local authorities lost control of assets built up by public investment over many decades. Formerly public property that was assigned to academy trusts then became available for redevelopment, subject to central government oversight. The Department for Education urged the sector to ‘think about the school estate as a flexible asset’. LocatED, the private company set up by the DfE in 2016, recommended a policy of ‘site optimisation’ under which some school land could, for example, be sold for housing with the proceeds accruing to the trust (and the profits from the contracts going to the private sector). Given the opacity of some trusts’ finances, and the extraordinarily high salaries paid to some of their ‘executive heads’, there was understandable concern that these policies might amount to a form of ‘asset-stripping’. The revelation in 2016 that the then head of the Durand Academy had added a private leisure centre to his school portfolio and registered a dating agency at the school address helps to explain why not everyone has felt as confident as Mr Denholm that ‘the assets … continue to operate in the service of their communities.’

Analytic v. Continental

Kieran Setiya explains Frank Ramsey’s method for measuring degrees of belief as follows: ‘If you are neutral about the truth of a given proposition, p, and you are indifferent between a bet that gives you an n per cent chance of winning a prize and a bet in which you win the prize if p is true, your degree of belief in p is n’ (LRB, 18 February).

While what is described here is certainly a way to measure degrees of belief, it is not Ramsey’s. Rather, it was popularised in the paper ‘A Definition of Subjective Probability’ by the economist Robert Aumann and the statistician Frank Anscombe in 1963. In the procedure Setiya describes, we are comparing two bets: a bet in which you win a prize if p is true and another bet which gives you an n per cent chance of winning the prize. Note that the second bet makes reference to objective chance, a kind of probability. If we define degrees of belief in terms of objective chance, it seems as if we are presupposing something very close to what we want to define. To define one kind of probability in terms of a different kind of probability is not very exciting. In contrast, Ramsey’s key innovation was to describe a way to measure degrees of belief without presupposing anything about objective chances.

Ramsey achieves this remarkable feat by first showing how to derive a person’s utility function from their preferences without presupposing any knowledge of either subjective probabilities or objective chances. In a second step, the utility function is used to measure degrees of belief. Ramsey’s final definition of degrees of belief looks roughly as follows. If you are neutral about the truth of a given proposition, p, and you are indifferent between a bet in which you win a prize x with utility u(x) if p is true but nothing otherwise, and getting another prize y with utility u(y) for certain, then your degree of belief in p is u(y) divided by u(x). As a simple example, if your utility is equal to monetary value and you are indifferent between a bet which pays £1 if it rains but nothing otherwise, and getting 50 pence for certain, your degree of belief in rain is 50 per cent. Note that the two options we are comparing make no reference whatever to objective chances.

This is more than a technicality. It is precisely in avoiding any reference to objective chances and showing, for the first time, how to construct a purely subjective theory of probability that Ramsey’s great contribution to decision theory, formal epistemology and Bayesian statistics lies.

Sven Neth
University of California, Berkeley

Lenin at the Library

Ingólfur Gíslason writes that an Icelander called Jón Stefánsson, who was researching in the British Library at the same time as Lenin, recounted that Lenin pronounced the ‘th’ in ‘thanks’ as if he was German (Letters, 4 March). More likely, it was a Hiberno-English pronunciation, where the ‘th’ sound is similar to the German. According to Roddy Connolly, the son of the Irish socialist James Connolly, who was in Moscow in 1921, Lenin spoke English with a Dublin accent. Connolly’s recollection is confirmed by H.G. Wells, who met Lenin in Moscow in 1920 and noticed his Irish accent. When Lenin lived in London, his English teacher was a man from Ireland.

Paul O’Brien

Not All Puritans

Malcolm Gaskill condemns the Puritans of New England – who numbered very few slaveowners and whose descendants were largely abolitionists – for trading horses, timber and food with the owners of sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean (LRB, 18 March). Nearly everything about the distant past seems unjust, when viewed from the present day. In light of the current global effort to vaccinate people against Covid-19, perhaps this is a good moment to recall the risky move proposed by Cotton Mather to his fellow Puritans in New England three hundred years ago.

In April 1721, an epidemic of smallpox spread through Boston and its neighbouring towns; by June it had infected nearly 5900 people and caused 844 deaths. Mather, a leading minister, had read about the favourable outcome of inoculation as reported in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. What’s more, his slave Onesimus claimed to have recovered from smallpox after similar treatment in Africa. Mather spoke with some Boston physicians about an inoculation trial, but only Zabdiel Boylston was interested. Having survived smallpox some years before, Boylston could not experiment on himself, so tried the procedure instead on his willing children and servants.

The people of Boston were horrified. A pamphlet war started, with Increase and Cotton Mather on one side, joined by Boylston and Benjamin Colman, and the physician William Douglass on the other. But the beneficial effect of smallpox inoculation became clear when of the 248 persons treated, only six died, with the rest being protected against the disease. A bill introduced in the legislature aiming to forbid inoculation by law failed to pass, and the first clinical treatise ever written on the subject of smallpox inoculation was sent by Cotton Mather to the Royal Society and published in the Transactions.

Carol Maibach
Menlo Park, California

Make your own concrete

In her excellent Diary about building regulations, Arianne Shahvisi says she learned as a child that the ‘cheapest way to make strong mortar is to add washing-up liquid’ (LRB, 18 March). When I worked on building sites in London in the 1960s, brickies wouldn’t work without mortar plasticiser in their mix. Washing-up liquid was a recognised substitute for the proper stuff. Received wisdom, however, was that too much plasticiser was worse than too little, especially when it was washing-up liquid. As my workmates showed me, washing-up liquid made the mortar weak even after it had cured: you could rub it away with your fingers.

Stephen Ackroyd
London W6

Bacon’s Shadow

Michael Kuczynski is correct in stating that Francis Bacon hated illustration, and criticises Colm Tóibín’s reading of Triptych May-June 1973 accordingly (Letters, 1 April). Yet Kuczynski repeats the error in his own interpretation: ‘It is likely that the shadow is nothing more – or less – than the shadow of death.’ For Bacon, it was not ‘the shadow of death’ and not necessarily a shadow as such: rather it was a non-illustrational (non-referential) form from the subconscious, referring to nothing but its own nebulousness. It has ‘a life of its own’, as Bacon remarked to David Sylvester:

What has never yet been analysed is why this particular way of painting is more poignant than illustration. I suppose because it has a life completely of its own. It lives on its own, like the image one’s trying to trap; it lives on its own, and therefore transfers the essence of the image more poignantly. So that the artist may be able to open up or rather, should I say, unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently.

Alexander Verney-Elliott
London WC1


Cole Porter’s rhymes in ‘I get a kick out of you’ were not originally if-whiff-terrif, as Michael Wood has it (LRB, 1 April), but if-sniff-terrif: ‘perfume from Spain’ had to be substituted for ‘cocaine’ in the film version of Anything Goes in order to avoid trouble with the censors. As first written by Porter, and as sung on Broadway, the lines in question went: ‘Some get a kick from cocaine/I’m certain if/I had even one sniff/It would bore me terrif/Ically too’ – much better, don’t you think?

Evelyn Toynton
Sidestrand, Norfolk

The Supreme Law

Neal Ascherson refers to constitutional origins before the 18th century (LRB, 1 April). He might have added one more: Salus populi, suprema lex (‘The safety of the people is the supreme law’). Those were the words on the battle standard of Major William Rainsborowe in the English Civil War, complete with a picture of the severed head of Charles I. As a Leveller, Rainsborowe made no secret of his view about what he thought should be the outcome of the struggle.

Robert Gifford
Stony Stratford, Buckinghamshire

Goodbye to Europe

To describe Ian Lee, ‘director-general of operational policy’ at the Ministry of Defence in 2002-3, as preparing for the war in Iraq isn’t an absurd insinuation, but a statement of plain fact, though he may prefer it forgotten. 

To reassure Martin Westlake, a glass of wine, sufficient to dispel a terminological confusion, normally accompanies rather than precludes a meal. 

Perry Anderson
London N1

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