Friday, December 19, 2003

Privet Sea

The great British spokespaper for the suburban insane, the Daily Mail (or rather its Sunday sibling) is having to pay vast sums of money to a senior police officer who is gay: the Mail on Sunday undertook an extraordinary intrusion into his privacy and ended up making a number of allegations which they now admit are false.

I recently found out that a former colleague of mine in Cambridge (though not in my department) was "exposed" by the dear old Mail on Sunday in pretty revolting circumstances. On the one hand, my colleague seems (if the story is true, and I do not think it has been denied) to have been using his college rooms to undertake a part-time activity as a sort of quality control officer for new recruits to a local escort agency, and writing anonymous "reviews" thereof for the escort agency's website. (Anyone worried about maintaining one's anonymity while blogging?) This is of course pretty icky, although I think entirely legal, and I don't recall restraints on such activity ever having been mentioned or implied in any of my employment contracts, so they presumably weren't in his. I don't want to exaggerate my former colleague's victimhood here, but I also find it hard to see that there is any non-prurient point to publishing this article. There are in all probability a reasonable number of middle-aged men who pay for sex (otherwise there would be no escort agency); why single out my former colleague? I can see why his wife might want to throw something heavy at him - frankly I might hand her a suitable object myself - but not why the world at large has an interest.

The Mail on Sunday has a couple of goes at finding a public-interest concern. Firstly, it says that his college job was a 30000GBP a year job (which is out by a factor of about fifteen - in Cambridge, most college fellowships are essentially hobbies for those employed by the university), and that he was able to wear a calf-length gown and drink excellent (true), highly subsidised (false) wines from the college cellar. I'm not sure what the relevance of these facts is, to be quite honest. Secondly, it mentions that he conducted one-to-one "supervisions" in the same college room. There might be an argument about potential sexual harrassment here, but presumably the paper tried and failed to get my colleague's students to say anything bad about him (and I have no reason at all to believe that he was any more likely than anyone else to engage in sexual harrassment of students). Thirdly, and this is the bit that makes me sit up and really take notice, it argues that a position at the "pinnacle of academia", of "academic cachet", is something "achieved only by those who produce first-rate academic work and have reputations of the utmost moral rectitude".

That last phrase, of course, reveals that the Mail on Sunday is really giving us what you might call a Dirty Vicar story. I find it deeply worrying that academics might be counted as Vicars in the Mail on Sunday's morality. I thought academics were appointed on the basis of academic achievement and potential (and, you know, corrupt feudal relations between intellectual baronies); it's rather disappointing to think that the Mail on Sunday thinks it ought to be on the basis of chastity, fidelity, obedience and the rest of it. I think I end up feeling more disgust towards the journalists involved than towards the perpetrator of evil in their story.


Mark A. R. Kleiman has an interesting post on encouraging innovation in the public sector. This brings back all kinds of happy memories of writing politics essays on Osborne and Gaebler's "Reinventing Government", a book the publication of which may have been the greatest of all possible gifts to snarky, cynical PPE undergraduates in the early 90s.

So two brief thoughts on this:

Firstly, while it is often true that government is a monopoly supplier of some good, it's also often not true - healthcare, pensions, education, can of course all be provided outwith the public sector. Moreover, even where the government is the monopoly provider, as with say defence or foreign policy (contra the Geneva accords, I suppose), then there will often be other forms of competition because of divisions or incoherences within bureaucratic structures; between the various branches of the armed forces, for example, or between the multiple agencies responsible for US homeland security intelligence. It's easy but very misleading to think of bureaucratic life as its Weberian ideal rather than as its somewhat messier, more complex, more competitive reality.

Secondly - and this always seemed to me like the knockdown blow to poor old Osborne and Gaebler - there really isn't convincing evidence that we actually want, or even should want, highly innovative bureaucracies, because innovation necessarily increases exposure to risk. Citizens in most liberal democracies seem to be reasonably happy with risk-taking by most, if not all, private enterprises; but they are not at all happy with risk-taking by public bodies. Where the risks pay off (as with the London motor car charging), then political careers do all right; it's the downside that's the problem. Even where the government attempts to shift risk to the private sector, the public may not be at all willing to put up with that (a la Railtrack); where the government cheerfully takes on risks of its own through following industrial best practice, as with HMG deciding to use "just in time" techniques for the delivery of body armour and chemical warfare suits to HM Forces en route to Iraq, errors can damage or bring down a government. It's customary at this point, then, to blame politicians as well as bureaucrats for being excessively rule-bound and risk-averse. But politicians wouldn't be like that if they didn't get such hefty punishment when innovations go sour; and the punishment they get is from voters, who (I think) want government to be reliable (and honest, and coherent, and so on) ahead of petty preferences about outcomes and policy.

So down with radical public sector innovation! Let's carry on doing things the way we've always done them, or maybe just a little bit better than that.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003


The following is somewhat hypotheticalised:

A former student X, now doing a graduate degree at a very prestigious research university in the United States wrote to me, to say that i) he has decided to apply for a doctoral programme at a very prestigious research university in the United States and ii) one of his professors (who is actually in a different department) said that she would be happy to write him a letter of recommendation, but would he be kind enough to produce a draft which she could edit and sign?

I wrote to a couple of friends in the US to ask: is it a common practice to have students write their own references/letters of recommendation? They replied to the effect that it was not, and was pretty disgraceful - but neither is a current or former member of that university. When I told the former student that this was a pretty appalling thing, he did a little research and discovered a lot of people saying this was OK, this was perfectly normal, etc.

I am in a state of deep appalledness (chew on that one, Professor Kleiman). It seems, firstly, professionally unfortunate since it undermines the reliability of letters of recommendation and references; my trust in references and recommendations from that institution has been seriously damaged, especially since the implication of the student's further research is that this is a widespread activity at least at that institution. I also think it's a pretty dreadful way to treat a student who will be dependent on a reference and who doesn't have the faintest idea how to write a good reference, having never, in all probability, seen one before. But I'm not sure if I'm out on a limb here; since I don't want to go calling every person I know in the United States to ask for further insights, I really need to work out from the blogosphere whether or not it is widely regarded as acceptable for students to write their own references.

So all thoughts would be much appreciated. Thanks!

Monday, December 15, 2003


A sympathetic critic, on my preferred research methods:

It seems to me you tread a difficult middle path between stories and sums

That's the best defense of what I do that I've ever seen...

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