Saturday, July 23, 2011

Why the state should butt out of our personal lives

It is a sign of the times that the only debate we seem to have about nudging is ‘does it work?’ rather than ‘what gives them the right?’.

This week, the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee published a report into behaviour change. It provides revealing insights into the limitations of the fashionable idea that we can be ‘nudged’ into changing our ways on a range of problems, from obesity to climate change. What the report doesn’t do, however, is challenge the idea that our behaviour needs to be changed in the first place, and that it is the role of government to do it.

The committee that prepared the report was chaired by Baroness Julia Neuberger and included such luminaries as former UK chief scientific adviser, Lord Robert May, and the first chairman of the Food Standards Agency, Lord John Krebs. In the course of their enquiry, they questioned a wide variety of academics, politicians, business leaders and representatives of NGOs. Their report thus provides an unusually wide survey of opinion from the movers and shakers of modern British society.

The thinking behind the enquiry is laid out in the opening paragraph. ‘Many of the goals to which governments aspire - such as bringing down levels of crime, reducing unemployment, increasing savings and meeting targets for carbon emissions - can be achieved only if people change their behaviour.’ This single sentence reveals how the politics of behaviour has become so central to political thought today. Clearly, crime is a form of behaviour, so no surprises there, though the causes of crime surely run much wider than individual choices. Unemployment has usually been seen in the past as an economic problem, not one of individual behaviour. Carbon emissions could more easily be reduced by major infrastructural investment rather than by badgering people to fiddle with their thermostats or to use the bus sometimes instead of the car. So why the obsession with personal behaviour?

The logic of this outlook, as the report says, is that ‘understanding how to change the behaviour of populations should be a concern for any government if it is to be successful’. Of course, governments have long had mechanisms to try to alter behaviour. The most obvious one is to use the criminal law to make something either illegal (like smoking in pubs) or compulsory (like wearing a seatbelt in cars). Slightly less draconian - but manipulative nonetheless - is the authorities’ attempts to influence behaviour in economic ways, by providing incentives (for example, generous subsidies to the middle classes to install solar panels and wind turbines) or disincentives (like setting a minimum price per unit of alcohol). If all else fails, the government can just spend hundreds of millions of pounds nagging us to lose weight, get fit, stop smoking or use a condom.

One problem with these kinds of mechanisms is that they look a bit authoritarian, or at the very least hectoring. It’s really rather obvious that the government is demanding that you behave in a different manner. New Labour clearly had absolutely no problem with stating this fairly openly, which is why Tony Blair and Gordon Brown famously oversaw the creation of over 3,000 new criminal offences, congestion charging in London, on-the-spot fines for not recycling, and so on.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, like to kid themselves that they are lovers of liberty - yet the truth is that they want to meddle in our lives just as much as New Labour did. So they put forward the idea of ‘non-regulatory and non-fiscal measures with relation to the individual’ that alter our ‘choice architecture’. Essentially, when we’re not really thinking about our behaviour or don’t really care very much what we do or how we do it in a particular situation, we can be subtly directed towards doing the right thing.

To use the definition provided by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in what the Lords report calls ‘the currently influential book, Nudge’, a nudge is ‘any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting the fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.’

There are situations in which such nudging is fairly benign. Laying out a sports stadium in such a manner that we naturally tend to walk in a certain direction, helping to reduce logjams and congestion, could be one. The most talked about one from Thaler and Sunstein’s book is giving men something to aim at when they urinate, the result being that more of the urine goes in the bowl and less on the floor. Or a nudge could simply be a case of making it as easy as possible for me to do the good thing I wanted to do anyway, like including a freepost envelope with a request for a donation or putting a tickbox on a driver’s licence form to agree to organ donation.

But these are pretty banal issues. Not pissing on the floor is hardly a massive societal concern. Solving unemployment or reducing obesity, however, are a different matter entirely. And that is where the Lords report is rather damning, because the other problem with this kind of behaviour change is that it doesn’t work for any issue where we stop and think about what we want to do. The committee notes that in the evidence it heard ‘although much was understood about human behaviour from basic research, there was relatively little evidence about how this understanding could be applied in practice to change the behaviour of populations’. It adds: ‘Our central finding is that non-regulatory measures used in isolation, including “nudges”, are less likely to be effective. Effective policies often use a range of interventions.’

It’s not just nudging that the committee is dismissive of. Lecturing people about their habits, in isolation, is also ineffective, it says. In fact, a major theme of the report is just how little hard evidence there is that many lifestyle interventions, short of simply forcing people not to do something, really work in changing the behaviour of populations. Even then, there’s another leap to be made from changing behaviour to having the ultimate desired effect, like improving health or reducing crime. So, for example, smoking has been very effectively banned in workplaces in the UK. In the past four years, I’ve barely seen anyone light up in a pub in England. But has this led to a reduction in the rates of smoking-related deaths? Despite various dubious attempts to prove otherwise, the answer is almost certainly ‘no’.

But debating the effectiveness of such measures is really beside the point. What has received far too little discussion is whether it is morally and politically acceptable to have our choices manipulated on the basis that Government Knows Best. The report only briefly touches on this, acknowledging that ‘in some circumstances, changing behaviour will be considered controversial’, and adding later: ‘As a general point, we accept that regulatory interventions which restrict choice may be judged more acceptable if there is good evidence that they will be effective in tackling an urgent issue which is having significant detrimental effects on the population.’

That means that the authorities can decide what is good for us. As long as the government determines that an issue is urgent and having a detrimental effect, and that a particular intervention is effective to stop it - and frankly the evidence can always be spun to prove this beneficial effect - then the committee can see no good reason to oppose it. The individual’s choice to engage in that activity - like eating fatty food, smoking, drinking or refusing to recycle - is simply disregarded. The language of nudge seems a neat way to implement such behaviour change.

It is a testament to the low horizons of modern politics that the hottest idea around is changing our behaviour. It is alarming to note that the only discussion considered worth having is not about our rights or autonomy but about how successfully we can be manipulated.


Casual Hate: The Subtle Side of Christian Persecution

Earlier this month I participated in Coptic Solidarity's Second Annual Conference in Washington D.C., titled: "Will Religious and Ethnic Minorities Pay the Price of the 'Arab Spring'?" Panelists included Middle East specialists, prominent members of the Coptic community, and other minority leaders from the Muslim world, including Kurds, Berbers, and Sudanese animists.

Held at the U.S. Capitol, nine members of Congress made statements and showed their support, including Sue Myrick, Chris Smith, and Frank Wolf. Walid Phares, a Congressional advisor who also participated, asserted that their appearance is encouraging and indicates that at least some members of Congress "are aware about the plight of minorities in general and of Christian communities in the Arab and Muslim world, and are particularly concerned about the Islamist and jihadi threat to these communities."

Because the conference spanned two days, I spent lots of time surrounded by Christian minorities. The casual anecdotes I heard, spoken not with outrage—the province of the privileged—but simply as backdrops to more mundane stories, revealed how endemic anti-Christian sentiment is to the Muslim world, so much so that Christians themselves have almost become immune to it, expecting it, reserving their actual complaints for times of physical persecution (including but not limited to Islamist-inspired theft, kidnapping, rape, church attacks, etc.).

In other words, if the formal speeches held at the Capitol documented the hostility and discrimination Christians face under Islam, the informal conversations, held over food and drink, drove the point home.

Thus one Coptic businessman complaining about how he lost a legal case in Egypt, though he was clearly in the right, was quickly interrupted by the grinning fellow across him, who asked whether his opponent was Muslim or Christian; when the businessman, rather coyly, said Muslim, everyone laughed knowingly, some even suggesting he was a fool for even going to court.

A women discussing her baby's erratic sleeping habits revealed why: the mosque next door, which always blasts Koranic verses on the megaphone around 4 a.m., constantly wakes him up in terror and tears; and though the baby does not understand the words, the mother does, pointing out that most of the verses being blared are especially hostile to Christians, like 5: 17, 5:51, and 9:29.

Any number of Copts looked at me incredulously when I inquired why a well qualified Copt did not bother applying to an important post in Egypt that seemed almost tailor-made for him: I was duly informed—that is, reminded—that best jobs are reserved for Muslims.

One refined-looking woman expressed her resignation: though a Christian, she sometimes wears the burqa in Egypt, simply so she can go about her daily business without being sexually-harassed, molested, called derogatory names, or spat upon (this recent story certainly validates her reasoning).

Some anecdotes were spoken in jest: one rather colorful Copt I bumped into in the restroom told me—between fits of laughter—how he once tried to use a mosque bathroom in Egypt; when the Muslims discovered he was a Christian, they chased him out, throwing shoes at him and calling him a "son of a bitch."

Indeed, a resigned sense of humor seemed to pervade many of these stories—as if to say, "Since there's nothing we can do about it, let's make light of it."

Other stories were spoken with stoic reserve. I have in mind the cigarette-puffing Assyrian couple from Iraq, who had lost everything to the unloosed forces of jihad—their home, their relatives, their business, their savings—and are trying to begin anew in America. Interesting was the man's lament, that gone are the "good old days"—under Saddam—when Christians were afforded some protection.

As I listened to all these stories, I thought to myself, here is the great and unfathomable gap between the few formal reports on Christian persecution reaching a few American politicians, and the daily reality experienced by millions of Christians under Islam.


The law is an ass: Victim says wrong man being punished

Why are pedophiles a protected species? The public intererst is surely served by their identity and whereabouts being known

THE plug has been pulled on outspoken radio star Derryn Hinch by a magistrate who yesterday imposed an extraordinary gag order.

Hinch, who had a liver transplant just two weeks ago, could have been jailed after he pleaded guilty to four charges of deliberately breaching suppression orders that prohibited the identification of sex offenders.

Magistrate Charlie Rozencwajg told a pale and breathless Hinch that he would have had no hesitation in jailing him but for his poor health.

Instead, he ordered that the 67-year-old broadcaster be confined to his home for five months, and placed strict conditions on what he can say and to whom he can say it.

Last night, a victim of a shocking paedophile attack called Hinch a hero for sacrificing his freedom to name and shame sex offenders.

Andrew Taylor, who was tortured, sexually abused and starved by one of the named offenders, said the law had punished the wrong man.

"Derryn has taken a stand and been punished for it. And I'm behind him 100 per cent," Mr Taylor said. "He is a hero to victims. He is a god to us. He will get up and fight for what he believes in. "What's wrong with a law that put's someone like Derryn Hinch away but lets sex offenders walk the streets? "Derryn was prepared to stand up for us. "A paedophile can get away with a slap on the wrist but the moment you name them for being what they are, you get charged, you get locked up."

Mr Taylor, who waived his right to anonymity, said it was a constant thought that his attacker could be living in the next street and he would not be told.

Mr Rozencwajg told Hinch he had five previous breaches of the law in various "name and shame" campaigns over the years. "It is clear that the offences were committed in a deliberate fashion, you being fully conscious that your actions were prohibited by law," Mr Rozencwajg said.


Court kicks out frivolous discrimination claim‏

TITLE IX: "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance..."

What happens when two cheerleaders get into a lengthy feud over a boy, then the younger is left off the varsity squad the following season? In Texas, a lawsuit happens, with said suit being laughed out of an appeals court upon its official review date.

As first reported by the Dallas Observer, the Title IX lawsuit filed by Liz Laningham -- the mother of former Carrollton (Texas) Creekview High cheerleader Sami Sanches (who is not pictured among the most recent group of Creekview cheerleaders below) -- was thrown out of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals with the legal equivalent of a good, forceful kick to the rear end.

The following passage comes directly from the legal opinion given in the Laningham-Sanches case. In fact, it's the statement that starts off the lengthy court opinion, which you can read in full at the bottom of this Deadspin post right here.
Reduced to its essentials, this is nothing more than a dispute, fueled by a disgruntled cheerleader mom, over whether her daughter should have made the squad. It is a petty squabble, masquerading as a civil rights matter, that has no place in federal court or any other court. We find no error [with the lower court's judgement] and affirm.

Now, one might wonder how the mother of a high school cheerleader could possibly be delusional enough to think that a claim of a vast school conspiracy against her daughter would be validated by a federal court. In fact, one might also wonder what made her feel entitled enough to cite prior legal decisions that found proof of sexual harassment and discrimination against rape victims and students who happened to bear an unfortunate likeness with Monica Lewinsky, in that aforementioned court claim.

The answer, it seems, is that Ms. Laningham was quite delusional indeed. Among a serial list of issues raised in her original legal writ, the Dallas Observer pulled out the following salient complaints … none of which, one could argue, have absolutely anything to do with the kind of systematic discrimination Title IX and sexual harassment laws are intended to protect against:
1. The school did not remove the freshman cheerleading squad captain after she told Sanches she'd kissed her boyfriend.

2 The way the squad chose jump sequences at homecoming was patently unfair.

3. Rank favoritism.

4. The scheduling of the end-of-year banquet for cheerleaders was too favorable to senior girls.

5. Laningham was threatened with a lawsuit by other parents because she failed to return cheerleading videos.

Ladies and gentlemen, there is a test case in when you know a lawsuit is extraordinarily frivolous. The fact that other parents had to file a suit against Laningham just to get her to return cheerleading squad videos is proof enough that she didn't have the greatest track record of responsible "cheerleading stewardship," for lack of a better term.

Still, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals wasn't yet finished in its criticism of Laningham's irresponsible legal advocacy. In fact, it went so far as to criticize the grammar of the original filed brief in its footnotes, which it did with the following piece of exceptional intra-documentary referencing:
"Usually we do not comment on technical and grammatical errors, because anyone can make such an occasional mistake, but here the miscues are so egregious and obvious that an average fourth grader would have avoided most of them. …

"And finally, the sentence containing the word 'incompetence' makes no sense as a matter of standard English prose, so it is not reasonably possible to understand the thought, if any, that is being conveyed. It is ironic that the term 'incompetence' is used here, because the only thing that is incompetent is the passage itself."

Ouch. Laningham just got served ... a really nasty court decision.

Thus concluded what Prep Rally can only consider to be the greatest review of a frivolous high school athletics lawsuit of all time. It's a legal opinion that may be incredibly difficult to top in the future, too, given its brash handling of the case and willingness to try and set a precedent for how such future frivolous lawsuits will be handled.



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN (Note that EYE ON BRITAIN has regular posts on the reality of socialized medicine). My Home Pages are here or here or here or Email me (John Ray) here. For readers in China or for times when is playing up, there is a mirror of this site here.


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