Sunday, December 23, 2012

Mind the blue touchpaper

We must cherish the traditional celebrations on November 5th for I fear they will soon be no more. The decision to prosecute Geoffrey Counsell, the organiser of a fireworks display at Taunton Rugby Club in November 2011, with seven charges of manslaughter will, if he is convicted, mean that nobody will dare organise another. For it is claimed that it was the smoke from his display that drifted across the nearby M5 motorway and led to a multiple pile-up of vehicles in which seven people died. The Crown Prosecution Service, which authorised the charges, said with, it seemed to me, some reluctance that there was insufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction of the rugby club and, with rather less reluctance, that no driver would be charged.

The process of neutering such displays is, of course, already well under way. We used to have an excellent evening on our village playing field, always on the 5th regardless of the day of the week it fell on, with a vast bonfire on which much unwanted material such as old beds or matressses was piled during the morning by anyone who could drag it into position. The heat from the blaze was terrific but nobody ever got burned, children waved their sparklers, there was a collection to pay for the fireworks, hot dogs in the village hall and good business in the pub. Now there is a carefully monitored eco-bonfire, tickets are sold at the gate, sparklers are discouraged and a barrier keeps everyone so far from the bonfire that you can't get warm. The crowd gets smaller each year. The front page of the Oldie magazine ( summed it up admirably two years ago.

We have resorted to a DIY celebration: no bonfire because trees, both ours and our neighbours', are far too close, but a few fireworks, all the more special for being home-detonated. We have mastered the science of directing the rockets through the gaps in the trees, and this year had a new addition to the arsenal, a brightly coloured box about the size of a melon, marked TNT in garish letters. Oh, the anticipation. The instructions said to retreat to at least 25 metres after lighting the fuse at which, I am happy to say, my grandson, properly brought up in the sceptical tradition, snorted with derision. We watched from five or six yards, which was ample.

I have the impression that manslaughter charges of this type are on the increase. One could argue that this is right in that some shameless operators have been getting away with a lack of proper concern for people's safety for far too long, or that it is an insidious development of the blame and victimhood culture and our reluctance to accept that anything with a bad outcome might simply be an accident. There is often an unsavoury tinge of a desire for revenge in the behaviour of the families of the victims that must make it very difficult for a jury to reach a sound balance in its verdict and I would hate to have to decide where an unforeseeable circumstance, quite reasonably not provided for, ends and gross negligence, rightly to be punished, begins. I am developing a nasty feeling that the more such cases go to prosecution the further the boundary creeps towards assigning blame where it does not properly belong.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Soak the oldies

As an example of illiteracy in the presentation of 'statistics' a recent report by the Intergenerational Foundation would be hard to beat. It was used as the basis for an article in the Times (Think the Unthinkable About the Untouchables) by the paper's political columnist Rachel Sylvester, arguing that older citizens who are well off should be deprived of some of their traditional perks, such as free bus passes and the winter heating allowance, and that governments should summon up the courage to stop being swayed by the fact that most of them use their vote and to tackle this 'final taboo'.

It appears the Intergenerational Foundation (IF from now as I may have a good deal to say about it) has devised an Intergenerational Fairness Index, based on various indicators of, presumably, fairness and that the index is moving relentlessly in a direction that is less fair to the younger generation. This reminded me of the alcohol affordability index that I wrote about some time ago and I was similarly intrigued. My own position as an oldie entitled to a bus pass but not yet to a free TV licence, and very definitely not one of the 'almost 2 million people over 60 in households with assets above £1 million', might not make me a target of the initial attack but these things have a nasty habit of creeping once the initial breach has been made - airport departure tax being a glaring recent example.

So I looked up the IF's report presenting the index and read its 29 pages. Page 1 revealed that the IF is a charity, though it describes itself as a think tank. Oh how I would love to work for a think tank. After the contents list there is an entertaining foreword by one Professor Laurence J Kotlikoff, who asserts that intergenerational inequality is 'the moral issue of our day'. It involves a 'systematic Ponzi scheme' and 'accounting practices that would make Enron blush'. The developed economies have engaged in 'fiscal child abuse and . . . educational, health and environmental child abuse'. The index, it is claimed, makes this clear.

The meat of the report defines (well, describes) 16 measures of intergenerational fairness under nine headings that have been tracked retrospectively for a varying number of years, though with gaps in some cases, and been given a base value of 100 back in 2000. The values for the following years have then been calculated, anything over 100 representing an increase in unfairness. The headings with more than one measure have then been averaged to find a single measure for that heading and the nine headings themselves averaged to arrive at the latest available Index, which is apparently 128 for 2010. 

I found the report worryingly naive in its logic and alarmingly so in its statistics. The young are variously defined, to suit the available data, as under 25, under 29, under 60 in one case, or as the workforce or the employed. The proportion of those aged 25 to 34 voting in general elections, lower than for the population as a whole, is apparently a measure of unfairness. And there was I thinking it was up to them. The level of CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions is presented as a crime against the young when some might argue that the expensive steps being taken to deal with them, which will have minimal effect globally, are what is poisoning the economy and doing rather more harm to the young and their employment prospects.

Happily examination of the final table shows that only two of the measures, government debt and the cost of pension provision, both generally and for the public sector, have a significant effect on the index. Since these are well documented and widely accepted as problems - for all of us, not just the young - the IF index has added little to the debate. Maybe if the young voted in larger numbers, and they outnumber the old even now, they could influence policy in the way the greedy oldies are seen as doing. It seems to be starting to happen in America. 

Rachel Sylvester is of course welcome to advance her views but it is not such a good idea to rely on her readers' blind acceptance that a quoted source of information and research is a sound choice. As for a body such as the IF being a charity, that deserves separate discussion, shortly to be provided.