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.


Facts Evasion

When I’m not tweeting or blogging, I sometimes have to do some real work. Last year, I was asked to put together a report to analyse the performance of a particular strategy my company was pursuing and then present it to my CEO and the board.

“That sounds well important,” I thought. So I did this:

  • I clearly set out what I was going to measure and why
  • I gathered as much information as possible and analysed it
  • I accounted for any uncertainties in my measurements
  • I accounted for any external factors which could have influenced the results
  • I summarised how the strategy was performing based on these factors and tied it back to the things I said originally that I would measure
  • I made recommendations as to how we should proceed based on the gathered evidence and uncertainties

While I would like to think I was the first to think of this nice structured way of doing things, in fact I wasn’t. This is just, at a high level, the way you approach changing anything important, even if you’re doing it subconsciously.

If for example you were buying a house, you would not do it this way:

  • Buy a house
  • Gather as much information about houses as possible
  • Selectively discard any evidence which suggested you’d bought the wrong house
  • Selectively include any evidence which suggested you’d bought the right house
  • Set out what your house buying criteria were based on the bits of evidence you had not discarded

Well, you wouldn’t do it this way unless of course, you were a politician. Politicians, you see, work in the opposite way to everyone else. Let me explain with an example.

At the moment, the government is proposing a reform of the NHS. This is the evidence they are putting forward for why such radical changes are necessary:

Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, speaking on PM:

You are twice as likely to die of a heart attack in the UK as you are in France.

Prime Minister, David Cameron, on the same day:

We’ve fallen behind the rest of Europe. We spend similar amounts of money but we’re more likely to die of cancer or heart disease. I don’t think we should put up with a second rate… errrr… with coming second best.

Note he actually almost called the NHS a second rate health service but thought better of it.

Well it all sounds extremely scary. But is it?

John Appleby, Chief Economist at the Kings Fund, London thinks things aren’t quite as bleak as the government is making out and writing in the British Medical Journal he explained why.

Although statistics from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) confirm that in 2006 the age standardised death rate for acute myocardial infarction was around 19/100 000 in France and 41/100 000 in the United Kingdom, comparing just one year—and with a country with the lowest death rate for myocardial infarction in Europe—reveals only part of the story. Not only has the UK had the largest fall in death rates from myocardial infarction between 1980 and 2006 of any European country, if trends over the past 30 years continue, it will have a lower death rate than France as soon as 2012.

You see, the government selectively chose one data point on the graph and discarded the rest of the data. This is what the data looks like if you don’t discard the rest of it:

Heart Disease MortalityThis doesn’t look quite so scary, does it? You see, when you look at all the available data, you get a very different picture. The UK’s death rates from heart disease have been plummeting and if the trends shown in the graph continue, argues Appleby, then we will have a lower rate than France by 2012.

This looks to me, (and John Appleby) like things are going in the right direction with our current system. Also, as Appleby points out, Lansley and Cameron chose quite a tough comparison. France has the lowest death rate from heart disease in all of Europe. A lucky choice, or cherry-picking a number to support an argument?

Either way – good for France, right? Well, not yet. Something Lansley and Cameron didn’t take into account which is absolutely massively important is this:

Are France and the UK using the same criteria to determine their causes of death?

As it turns out, possibly not. Speaking on More or Less on Radio 4 on 21st January*, Dr. Pete Scarborough, a Senior Researcher at the British Heart Foundation Health Promotion Research Group at Oxford University (get a shorter job title) noted that in the UK, if a person with a record of high cholesterol or high blood pressure dies, the coroners are much more likely to record the cause of death as a heart attack in comparison to France where the cause of such a death unless a heart attack is clearly shown to have happened, is generally recorded as “unknown”.

An additional point which Lansley and Cameron failed to mention is death from heart disease has a lot to do with lifestyle. The best way of avoiding death from heart disease is to avoid getting heart disease in the first place. Diet, smoking rates and exercise were all omitted from their conclusion.

Appleby in his article stated:

The trajectory for many causes of death swoops up and down over decades—often linked to changes in lifestyle behaviours rather than spending on healthcare.

Which makes perfect sense. Perhaps due to lifestyle, a higher proportion of people in the UK turn up for treatment for heart disease than they do in France. If that’s the case we should hardly be blaming the NHS.

You’ll recall, David Cameron also brought cancer death rates into the equation. On that, Appleby noted this:

As Cancer Research UK has pointed out, although the Eurocare data often feed headlines that the UK is the “sick man of Europe” for many cancers, trends from Eurocare actually show improvements in survival rates for the UK. These are confirmed by the Office for National Statistics, which last year reported improvements in five year survival rates between 2001-6 and 2003-7 for nearly all cancers. But Eurocare is problematic; the latest study includes diagnoses only up to 2002, and coverage is patchy (French data cover around 10-15% of people with cancer, the UK, 100%). Furthermore, differences in survival rates may reflect variations in how early diagnoses are made, not the state of healthcare in different countries.

Overall, I think again, this doesn’t seem quite as clear cut as we were led to believe but there is yet another important statistic they failed to mention. If our substandard healthcare is really causing a significantly higher death rate then shouldn’t our life expectancy be significantly lower than France’s? I went to the World Health Organisation’s website to check this out and found this:

The most recent figures for average life expectancy they have are for 2008. In France it was 83 for women and 81 for men. In the UK it was 82 for women and 80 for men. Irrespective of what people are finally dying of, the average life expectancy between the two countries is extremely close.

The WHO also conveniently shows average life expectancy by global region and here we can see whether we are lagging behind the rest of Europe, as claimed by David Cameron:

Oh. As you can see, the average for Europe for 2008 was 79 for women and 71 for men.

So much for us lagging behind the rest of Europe but, anyway, if we truly are experiencing significantly higher death rates from heart disease and cancer than the rest of Europe it is a bit puzzling. If they aren’t dying of that but have lower life expectancy then what exactly is it that they are all dying of? Rabies?

My conclusion based on this data (which was by no means all of it but a lot more than Lansley or Cameron used) would be that we are doing well and heading in the right direction. So where is the big problem? Where is the big need for a radical NHS reform?

Let me move back to my initial example of the report I had to do at work. If I had made a conclusion in advance, backed it up with one or two pieces of cherry-picked data and gone in front of the board with it, my audience would have torn me to shreds.
My report was important to me but compared with the importance of the NHS to the UK it was really nothing at all. This is the NHS we’re talking about – people’s lives.

My audience wouldn’t have accepted such a poor analysis of the data for my crappy report – so don’t you dare do it either. You are the audience now and this is really important. Don’t accept these arguments as the complete story – understand them for what they are. A couple of cherry-picked, airbrushed, bullshit numbers selected to back up a plan that the government wanted to do anyway, regardless of the what the actual evidence suggested.

If I couldn’t get away with such behaviour in front of my board then why should the government get away with it in front of the British public?

Pulling basic information from the British Medical Journal and the World Health Organisation is not hard to do – I did it with no trouble at all. The government’s position is nothing more than pure deception and when we look at the real evidence – their position fucking stinks.


*More or Less’s excellent piece on this same subject helped a lot with putting this post together. It’s available as a free Podcast so have a look for it.