Politicians & Petitions

Where I live in London it is free for someone to park a car on the street. My local council however, has recently been debating whether or not they should start charging people for this privilege. A couple of months ago a man knocked on my door. He was asking people to sign his petition to say “No” to paid parking. I didn’t sign it. I will explain why but not immediately. I never explain myself immediately. First I want to philosophise.

Democracy is the worst form of government. Except for all the others that have been tried.

I don’t know who said that but it’s quite good and I hope they gave themselves a big pat on the back afterwards.

I haven’t bothered looking up the definition of democracy but I suspect that if I did it would say something about everyone’s opinions being equal. If that’s the case then no country should really consider themselves a true democracy. The United States, for example, markets itself as the greatest democracy in the world. It isn’t though. It is sort of a democracy in that everyone is allowed to vote but are their opinions really equal? No. They’re not even close.

We can see a good example of this by looking at the US sugar subsidy. The US government guarantees American sugar producers a minimum price for sugar. This guaranteed price is way above prices on the world market. Why can’t people just buy sugar from overseas producers? The US slaps a big import tariff on imported sugar to ensure it can’t be cheaper than the home grown alternative. This means that US citizens pay much more for sugar than they should. A 2006 Department of Commerce study estimated the cost to US consumers was about $2bn per year. This is great if you own a sugar manufacturer in the US but bad if you live in the US and don’t own a sugar manufacturer (that’s most people who live in the US).

This subsidy gives benefits to a few at a cost to many. So why is it in place? The reason is fairly simple – the people who stand to gain from this are a well-organised group who will gain a lot each. The people who stand to lose (the American public) are a much bigger but less well-organised group who will lose a small amount each.

The well-organised people lobby the government, fund political campaigns and offer block-votes from their unions. A presidential candidate would be a bit silly to say they were going to repeal the subsidies if it meant that their opponent got lots of extra funding to their campaign plus some block votes from a few thousand union members in a swing state like Florida.

A democratic approach would be to ask Americans if they wanted to pay twice as much for sugar as everyone else does. I suspect the outcome would be different.

We can therefore see that even in the world’s largest economy, a true superpower which prides itself on the democratic basis of its constitution, people do not get an equal say in things. Their voting system is completely manipulated by organisations. I use the word “organisations” here because the real problem is that an organised group of people wield far more power than a disorganised group of people. It’s essentially how trade unions unfairly skew things in their own favour at the cost of everyone else.

Dave “Web” Cameron’s new policy of e-petitions is very susceptible to this problem. Get 100,000 signatures on a petition and it will automatically be considered for debate in the House of Commons. Does this make it the will of the people?

100,000 is equal to 0.16% of the UK population. That’s right – get 0.16% of the UK population behind you and suddenly your cause is being debated in Westmister’s highest echelons. A petition is often considered to be a reflection of public opinion but it is nothing of the sort. Petitioners have already decided the opinion they want their petition to reflect and therefore they:

  • Only reflect one side of the argument when asking people to sign it
  • Discard opinions of people who disagree with them

There are in fact very few proposals for which you could not get 100,000 signatures if you are organised. You just need to ask enough people and you’ll get there. If you want to save time by asking fewer people you can certainly help yourself along the way.

Do you remember when I proved a correlation between people who like jazz and people who like sushi? As I subsequently admitted, I had in fact proved nothing at all. Although my data appeared to show a statistically significant correlation, I had in fact achieved this brilliant result by violating some simple survey rules:

  • I did not have a random sample
  • I influenced the results of voters by telling them what I hoped to achieve.

I achieved a statistically significant correlation from a couple of hundred responses, just by violating these rules. I didn’t discard votes that went against my favoured result though so it was still better than a petition.

The government though, by promoting e-petitions, think that they are somehow opening a channel to hear the voice of the people. Petitions don’t do that though. A successful petition has little to do with the will of the people and a lot to do with the strength of the organisation behind the campaign. To get 100,000 votes (0.16% of the UK population) on your petition you could have a good argument but you could very easily obtain this with a bad argument as long as you knocked on enough doors.

So, why didn’t I sign the petition for free parking that the nice man brought to my door? He didn’t provide enough information. I asked how much the council would raise through this proposed initiative. He didn’t know. If the council raises money through the scheme then it might mean a lower council tax or better services for me. How could I possibly sign such a petition? I would have no idea whether it was good or bad for me.

It didn’t matter though. In his survey, people who wanted parking charges, people who didn’t know whether they wanted parking charges and people who were not at home on the day they called were all treated in the same way – ignored.

Please don’t misunderstand me. There are many very worthwhile campaigns which petitions help to promote. My argument is simply that I have a lot of trouble taking a petition’s argument into account because, when relying on petitions, I have no way to distinguish a worthwhile campaign from a non-worthwhile campaign. Petitions simply don’t provide enough information for me to tell if it is the will of the people or not.

If, as the government would like, we all decide to put our faith into e-petitions then all we are doing is putting our faith into the best organised purveyors of public campaigns. You already know who they are – the tabloids. And when do they ever give you a balanced argument? If The Sun did a ‘Death to Peados’ petition it would get 100,000 signatures. If the Daily Mail did a ‘No Jobs for Foreigners’ petition it would get 100,000 signatures. If the Daily Express made a ‘Clone Diana from her DNA’ petition, it would get 100,000 signatures.

The promotion of e-petitions as the voice of the people is not a vote for democracy; it is quite the opposite – a transfer of power from the people to small organised groups with an agenda. All this is doing is putting our faith into The Sun, The Express and the Daily Mail to make our arguments for us.

If you think that’s a good idea then please – don’t sign here.



Maths & Sport

I like sport. I like maths. I like sport and I like maths. This book therefore looks very interesting indeed.

The Hidden Mathematics of Sport

The Hidden Mathematics of Sport

There is an awful lot of interesting mathematics within sport. For example, I love all of the statistics that are available in cricket. I like browsing batting averages, bowling averages, run rates and strike rates. In football these days, they track things like number of passes attempted and their success rates for every player in every game. They even track things like how far each player has run – I absolutely love this kind of thing.

As well as statistics there are the mechanics – the speed of a tennis player’s serve, the maths behind the spin that they put on the ball when they hit a top spin or a back spin. What are the physics behind backspin on a snooker ball or reverse swing in cricket?

Recently, during a game of badminton, I smashed the shuttlecock and it hit @Biltawulf on the shoulder. Within a few seconds a massive red lump sprung up. A shuttlecock weighs about 5 grams. How fast must it have been travelling to cause such an injury? To demonstrate how much of a geek I am, that was the exact thing going through my head while he sat on the floor and blubbed.

Anyway, maths within sport is interesting to me so I’m going to buy this book. I suspect I’ll either love it or hate it. Why might I hate it when it’s about two things I love? Well, just because it combines two subjects I like doesn’t necessarily mean it will combine them well.

The book appears to cover many aspects of the mathematics behind sport but the BBC have reduced it to this on their website:

Can you calculate the world’s greatest sports person?

This makes me more than a bit suspicious. It reminds me a bit of when the Daily Mail does a story like “Scientists find the formula for perfect apple pie” and the equation is something like:

Tastiness of Apple Pie = {[(Colour of apples) + (Temperature of oven)] / (Butteriness of Pastry)} + (Pie Tin)

And it makes no sense to anyone who has ever done a sum in their life. I mean, in what units would the result of the above equation be measured?

When these things come out in the press, Ben Goldacre investigates and finds out that the story was created by some nobody who had been paid by an apple pie manufacturer’s PR company to come up with an equation for their marketing.

The story about making a formula for the world’s greatest sportsman is suspicious for similar reasons. I don’t really see how mathematically you could compare Sachin Tendulkar with Tiger Woods. The sports of cricket and golf are too different to simply make a sum that says one of these great sportsman scores 97/100 and the other scores 96/100.

I would go further and say that even within a sport it is very difficult to make a sum that accurately ranks all competitors.

If you look at Formula 1 statistics then Michael Schumacher is top in most of them. I think Ayrton Senna was better than him though and I think Jim Clark was better than both of them. Schumacher’s stats are relatively inflated due to the fact that he had a very long career and he spent most of it in a faster car than his rivals. Also, he was dominant in a period which featured no other truly great drivers. Senna died just before the start of Schumacher’s period of dominance and Hamilton and Vettel got their chance just after he retired. Mika Hakkinen was a very good driver but it wasn’t exactly the same as having Prost, Piquet and Mansell lining up on the grid next to you. If an equation to measure just the skill of a Formula 1 driver existed it would already be massively complicated just to take into account how good their car was and how good the people they were racing against were.

Let’s now have a look at football and that Man United team who won the treble in 1999. What formula would you use to compare the performances of Peter Schmeichel with those of Eric Cantona? It’s in the same sport, in the same team, in the same year and against the same opposition and it’s still hard to conceive of how one would go about making an equation which would accurately measure their relative performances.

Maths is a fantastic tool for some things but not for all things. “Who is the best sportsman?” is a topic of conversation to be had subjectively over a few beers. Maths cannot solve subjective problems and we shouldn’t expect it to.

Someone could try to make an equation to do just this and the first time they ran it, it might say Phil Neville were better than Paul Scholes. “Bollocks”, they’d think, “I must have got something wrong,” and they’d adjust it until Paul Scholes came out better than Gary Neville. That’s not using maths to solve a problem – that’s knowing that outcome and fitting bad maths around it. After the first round of tinkering, the new equation might say that Audley Harrison were better at boxing than my mum and then it would have to be reworked again.

They’d then continually rework it until at last it fitted perfectly with their opinions. Hoorah!

No, not hoorah. All that has been done in this exercise is trying to manipulate maths to fit with opinions and if that’s all we are doing we should just use our opinions as a basis and leave the maths out.

If this book understands when to apply maths and when not to it could be very good indeed.

Either way, it’s now in the post, so I’ll let you know.


Debt, Deficit, Default and Bugatti Veyrons

The other day @WH1SKS tried to bully me into writing a blog post. Normally I don’t give
in to cyber-terrorism but he has big muscles and he could snap me like a twig so I’ve broken the rules a bit.

I have forgotten exactly what the brief said but I think it was something like, “what would happen if the US and Europe didn’t repay their debt?” I couldn’t write it at the time as I had a hangover (because I am cool.)

I don’t have a hangover at the moment (I am still cool though) so I’ve briefly written down my thoughts. I should state that I don’t really know much about this and wouldn’t even have attempted it if @WH1SKS hadn’t made me, so it might be nonsense – these are really just my uneducated thoughts. I do think the US and Europe are very different though so I will look at each in turn….

The United States

The USA has about $14.6 trillion of debt. A number like that is impossible for the brain to comprehend so I’ll tell you what it looks like. The world’s most expensive road car is the Bugatti Veyron Super Sport (BVSS), which costs $2.4m and is 1.19m tall (that’s about $2,000 per millimetre). If you bought $14.6 trillion of BVSSs and stacked them on top of each other they would form a tower 818 times the height of Mount Everest.

(If you then drove them all forwards at the same time the one on top would probably achieve 30 or 40 million miles per hour which would be pretty cool. Still, it would almost certainly end in a nasty accident, so please don’t try this.)

I’ve forgotten my point. Oh, yes. The amount of money they owe is very big. So what would happen if they decided not to pay it back?

Firstly, the US would find it pretty tricky to borrow any money ever again because no one would trust them. You might wonder why this is a problem – they just became better off by $14.6 trillion so who cares? It’s a problem because even with the debt cleared off they would still have the deficit. The deficit is the amount by which their spending exceeds their income and last year the US added 95 Mount Everests worth of BVSSs onto their pile of debt. This means that if no one would lend them any money any more they couldn’t finance their deficit and would therefore need to take immediate action to make the books balance. You are all aware of Labour’s “too much too soon” argument against Conservative spending cuts. Labour’s position is that we are trying to reduce our deficit too quickly and by doing so harming economic growth thus costing us more overall.

When considering the size of the cuts being implemented by the Conservatives this point is debatable. But the Conservatives are not proposing to eradicate the deficit overnight or anything even close.

In our fictional scenario, the US would need to reduce it by 100% with immediate effect. They could do this by massively reducing spending or massively increasing taxes. Either way this would send their economy into a devastating recession, 100 times worse than the last one and they wouldn’t come out of it for a long time. Because the US is so important in the global economy we’d all be back in recession too and again it would be much worse than the last one.

So although paying back 818 Mount Everests of BVSSs it not pleasant it is actually much better than the alternative, so we could therefore say that if a country can pay off their debt then they will do. And in reality the US can afford its debt at the moment without any major risks. It’s a lot of debt but it is a very large economy and the markets are happy to lend it a lot more before they start to worry about its solvency. What the markets were concerned about (and what led to the S&P downgrade) was more a plausible situation in which the US made some interest payments late because its politicians were too incompetent to govern the country properly. The effects of this would have been far less severe than the situation described above where the US outright could not repay any of its debt.

That said it would still cause a major problem. Lenders would be much more nervous about lending going forward, so would require a higher interest rate to compensate for this. More expensive borrowing would slow down the US’s recovery further that alone might not actually be much a disaster were it not for the fact that markets always over-react to everything. The markets would see late payment as bad news and when bad news happens, people in the financial sector all turn into Beaker from the muppets and panic and make everything a thousand times worse.

A banker dealing with bad news
A banker dealing with bad news

So yes, it would be bad for the US to miss a payment but maybe the biggest problems would be caused indirectly by the market’s reaction, rather than from the direct problems of the person who didn’t receive the cash.

That’s America. Let’s move on….


Everyone has been talking about Greece. Greece’s situation is, I think, a lot worse than what’s going on in the US. Greece’s debt is only (!?) 19 Mount Everests of BVSSs but its economy is tiny in comparison with that of the US and there is a very real possibility of Greece not being able to make its debt repayments. The market realises this and unlike the US no one really wants to lend Greece any more money. This is why they are continually asking for bailouts to keep things going.

If Greece defaults on its debt then it will have serious implications for the rest of Europe. The Greek banks would all fail overnight but it’s worse than that. Most of the major European financial institutions have also lent a lot of money to Greece and some of them will most likely be in trouble. As we saw in 2008 when Lehman’s went bust, a major default causes the banks to completely lose trust in each other. As soon as they lose trust in each other, interbank lending stops and then they get into even more trouble:

  • Bank#1 needs to borrow some money from Bank#2 to pay back a loan to Bank#3.
  • Bank#2 has the cash available but doesn’t know if Bank#1 is ok or not so won’t lend it any money.
  • Bank#1 therefore can’t pay #Bank3
  • Bank#1 goes bust
  • Bank#3 didn’t receive their cash! Are they in trouble now too?
  • No one lends to Bank#3
  • etc etc etc

The other very shaky economies, Portugal, Spain, Ireland and Italy would be hit quickly afterwards because no one is going to risk pumping further money in there.

The European Central Bank would effectively be left holding the bomb when the ticking stopped and would only be able to stop those countries collapsing by printing lots of money (thus screwing the Euro) or by taking significant funding from the more healthy economies (Germany and France) which would screw them up quite a lot too.

The UK would probably be happy that it didn’t join the Euro but its banks would be severely hit and additionally, the EU is the UK’s biggest trading partner, so the UK economy would take a big hit too. I have no idea by how much but it wouldn’t be good.

Markets would react by everyone turning into Beaker from the muppets again.

So, in summary, I think the US is actually ok financially and its problems are caused more by its crazy politicians than by its debt. I am much more worried by Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Italy, a situation where there I think there is a significant risk of a second global financial crisis.

And if that happens we are not all going to be driving Bugatti Veyron Super Sports any time soon.