Friday, 20 December 2013

Income is meaningless

The analysis of political issues in terms of “income” quartiles can get pretty misleading. A married couple where dad earns £65,000 a year and mum works part time bringing home £15,000 a year is in the fourth quartile of the income distribution. A 70 year-old widower whose £2 million in savings bring him an annual income of approximately £80,000 is also in the fourth quartile. But their policy-relevant economic interests are unlikely to have very much in common since in reality their financial situations are entirely dissimilar.

Let us take this a step further.

Suppose the old guy with £2 million earned £200,000/year for 40 years, and was a high saver. Suppose his twin brother had the exact same income, but spent all his money. The twin brother lives on Social Security. Who is better off? Neither. Both had the same lifetime wage income, and hence equal resources.  Economists take a “lifetime consumption” perspective. The only difference between these brothers is one chose to spend the money when young and the other chose to spend it when old. It is as if one lived by himself in a house and the other lived with roommates in an apartment. No sensible person would say you are better off [than someone who chooses to live alone] because you share an apartment with others and thus pay less rent. These are consumption CHOICES.

The guy with £2 million has already been fully taxed on that wealth, and should of course pay no tax on his capital income. That is why smart progressives like an American called Yglesias favour progressive consumption taxes, at least where it’s possible to clearly identify and separate wage and capital income, as with someone surviving on their 401k mutual funds.

In all probability the guy with £80,000 in retirement income earned far more wage income when younger than the hypothetical family discussed by Yglesias, where each member made an average of £40,000/year. So on utilitarian grounds he should have paid a higher rate of wage tax during his earning years than the hypothetical family making a total of £80,000 in wage income.

So how does a government decide on taxes?

Thursday, 19 December 2013


Vince Cable has said he does not think banning zero hour contracts is a solution.

"A growing number of employers and individuals today are using zero hour contracts," Cable said. While for many people they offer a welcome flexibility to accommodate childcare or top up monthly earnings, for others it is clear that there has been evidence of abuse around this type of employment which can offer limited employment rights and job security.

He went on to say  "Our research this summer gave us a much needed insight into both the positive and negative aspects of zero hours contracts. Our consultation will now focus on tackling the key concerns that were raised, such as exclusivity clauses and how to provide workers with more protection.”

Employers need flexible workforces and people should have the choice in how they work. But this should not be at the expense of fairness and transparency.

John Wastnage, head of employment at the British Chambers of Commerce, said: "Zero hours contracts are valued by many workers and employers, but there is not a clear definition of what they are or how they should work.”

Alexander Ehmann of the Institute of Directors, said: "The IoD is pleased that the Government has recognised the important contribution that zero hours contracts have made in keeping people in employment and offering flexible ways for employers to manage fluctuations in demand.”

However, the growth of zero hours contracts is one of the reasons why so many hard-working people are fearful for their jobs and struggling to make ends meet, in spite of the recovery. But while the Government has identified some of the problems faced by those with zero job security, it is desperately short on solutions to curb the use of these contracts. It is regrettable that the Government is not outlawing the use of zero hour contracts even though it admits there is abuse.

this blog might stop as Google has fucked up connectivity again...

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Food banks are not getting enough coverage

Cuts to benefits have pushed thousands of families to the edge, not just a few, thousands! Welfare needs to be paid on the basis of need, not within some artificial limit.

Food bank use in south east England, the region known for its wealth and relative prosperity, my home, is up over 60% this year and thousands of families face the prospect of relying on emergency food handouts this Christmas. A decade ago, food banks were almost unheard of in this area but there are now 59 across the region.

We know this thanks to a report from Green MEP Keith Taylor, who’s released ‘Hungry Christmas‘, a report into the spread of food banks in his region. The report is published ahead of a debate on food banks in Parliament on Thursday, which came after the public demonstrated its understanding of the issue, with more than 100,000 people signing a petition on the subject within four days, possibly a record for the official government site. A group of public health experts have concluded that the rate of food poverty in Britain should be classed as a medical emergency.

As this report highlights, three new food banks are set up every week to help meet demand. Cuts to benefits such as housing benefit, child benefit and council tax benefit have pushed people to the edge. Increasing use of unreasonable sanctions that leave already desperate households with no income at all, force them to turn to charity. But the rise of food banks is not just a result of government’s welfare policies, but it does show how welfare cuts are a critical part of the process, and that’s certainly what Keith’s report demonstrates for this one region.

A living wage is a salary people can live on, feed themselves and their children. It would give people back some control over their lives and the ability to plan for the future rather than live a hand to mouth existence. Now that really would be a Merry Christmas.

Monday, 16 December 2013

British Aid

There have been several instances recently where who we give aid to has risen the odd eyebrow, however, the Daily Mail has shown that we are still giving China millions of pounds every year in aid when we also see they have just successfully landed a spaceship on the surface of the moon.

While I have no reason to dampen the achievement they have made, I am surprised that we feel we NEED to continue to send millions of pounds required by Britons half way across the world to China which currently happens to be the second largest power in the world.

Are our politicians really that fucking stupid?

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Solving game problems

In 1913 French mathematician Émile Borel proposed the infinite monkey theorem: A monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare. Now while there is a certain resemblance to the internet :), collective problem solving on the internet works in fact much better than randomly hitting keys. While an individual player might be solving a problem in a game by trial and error, he can then exchange the results with others via various internet platforms, either in written or video form. With many people collaborating to solve a game problem by exchanging what works and doesn't work, the speed of problem solving becomes a lot faster than infinite.

That does have repercussions on game design. If you have a puzzle in your game, you not only need to think about how different players might have different skills to solve your puzzle, but also take into account that some will tend to try to solve it alone, while others will look up the solution before even having seen the puzzle. But even more striking is the effect of collaborative problem solving on game balance. If your game has an optimum path, players will find it through collaboration.

I was thinking about it when reading various blog posts about Hearthstone. I played a lot of Magic the Gathering in paper and online form in its time, and Magic the Gathering was reasonably well balanced: While at any given expansion a certain deck might be found to be "the best" of a specific play style, there was always a stone-paper-scissors meta-game in which one play style would do well against another, but lose against a third. And I am not certain that Hearthstone has that stone-paper-scissors meta-game, because the little I have watched of it so far shows it to be a much simpler game than Magic. It is also a CCG [collectable card game] not a TCG [trading card game].

Now of course it is hard to judge from excited blog posts about one deck being completely overpowered to judge the actual state of the game. But to me it seems that Hearthstone is more likely to "get solved", that is an optimum deck found for any given set of cards. While every expansion or nerf then changes that optimum, once the fundamentals are understood, the collective problem solving will find the new optimum while the changes are still on the test server. It is quite likely that the release version of Hearthstone will "get solved" before even leaving the beta. That will affect the game's longevity.

At the very least some cards will be found to be better than other cards. So while the game pretends to have a certain number of different cards, those in the know will work with a much smaller card pool. And those who absolutely want to win will have to spend more money to get sufficient numbers of that smaller, better card pool, because suboptimal cards keep popping up in the booster packs they open. It is not possible to have 600+ cards all with the same power, and I hope that too much tinkering does not spoil the final game.

Friday, 13 December 2013


Is this a civilised society?

Kim Jong Un's Uncle Jang Song Thaek has been 'Executed By Machine Gun Fire' In North Korea apparently.

He is believed to have been accused of plotting against the regime, as well as partaking in gambling and womanising.

North Korea said in a statement via the state news agency on Thursday night that a military tribunal had ordered the execution of Jang Song Thaek, the first public killing of a senior official in many years.

In a message displayed on billboards and played in metro stations, Pyongyang declared the bespectacled man once considered the second most powerful official in North Korea "a traitor to the nation for all ages who perpetrated anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional acts in a bid to overthrow the leadership of our party and state and the socialist system."

South Korean President Park Geun-Hye said the South feared a wave of purges would follow, as 30-year-old Kim seeks to further cement his leadership.

"North Korea is now engaged in a reign of terror while carrying out a massive purge to consolidate the power of Kim Jong-Un," she told a cabinet meeting.

I am not surprised that she is worried...

Thursday, 12 December 2013

University gender segregation

There was a piece on the Today programme concerning this topic that I was not aware off.

Apparently universities have been advised by legal teams that they must enforce gender regulation when certain speakers are on campus. Whatever happened to human rights I hear you ask.

In a statement, UUK [Universities UK] said: "The guidance was approved by senior legal counsel as properly reflecting the law. It is not prescriptive. Universities are independent institutions and will make decisions on a case by case basis.”

Their new guidance to universities on external speakers states that the segregation of the sexes at universities is not discriminatory as long as both men and women are segregated side by side rather than women being made to sit in the back. Would racial apartheid have been non-discriminatory if white and black people had been segregated in the same manner? In fact that is the very argument the apartheid regime of South Africa used when faced with criticism: separate but equal.

This just smacks off taking the point too far and hopefully they will see the folly of their ways and retract this enforcement.