Saturday, 13 August 2016

The American Presidential Election: The Two Party Dictatorship

James Dancey looks into the state of affairs in the US, and a electoral system that leaves a lot to be desired. 

When talking about the US Presidential race, the name Trump or Clinton immediately springs to mind, however, the question really beckons, why only Trump and Clinton? Why is there not a larger pool of candidates to choose from?

When speaking to a disgruntled American at his apartment gathering, he seemed disappointed, yet not surprised that it once again seemed a two-party choice, between two of the most undesirable nominees in recent memory. On one hand you have the corrupt, contrived, business-minded Hillary Clinton, so prone to going back on her word there’s a 14 minute YouTube video documenting it.
Then you have Trump, who doesn’t need or deserve description. More intent on reactionary policies and attacking individuals rather than creating actual constructive solutions to genuine working class concerns, you have a choice between an extreme ‘populist’ or a moderate elitist. Why can’t a more moderate option be on the table?

There’s no law against other parties running, and often many parties do, why do the media project it as a two-horse race? Well, the financial stranglehold that both of the main parties have is the real deciding factor with many other components to be considered (which I’ll explain later), once you have that sort of margin between the two major parties and any smaller parties, it’s hard to see the electoral system as ‘Democratic’.

 In the UK, that expenditure margin is low enough to allow other smaller parties to shoehorn in a presence, we are extremely lucky in that sense to have a political system that enables lesser parties to gain significant recognition, and subsequently allow them to hold a Government to a little more account than most, with the threat of taking away their voters.

The other big problem in the USA is this longing adoration of tradition; it has been Republican versus Democrat since the beginning of time, people feel comfortable with that vote, so despite being more than prepared to select someone extreme for a nomination, they wouldn’t endorse the same person if they weren’t affiliated with one of the biggest political forces of modern day, even if they had the same funds and momentum.

Which is why Donald Trump is running under the Republican name, he has no long-term attachment or commitment to the party, he was a democrat less than ten years ago, but he needs that household name behind him to lead his ego to victory.  

Then we talk about these other parties, there is a Green party in the US believe it or not, a little less surprisingly, they barely harness 0.5% of the total Presidential Votes. There’s the libertarian party, the constitution party, all very reasonable minority parties, but all have no look in how politics in the US is shaped.

The Electoral College doesn’t help, running on a system where a state elects, and considering some states are the size of countries, it means that a lot of votes are deemed completely irrelevant on a much larger scale than nearly every other country in the world. This can be emphasised by the 2000 result in which Al Gore actually received more votes than George Bush, yet George Bush won on states. How on earth a result like that can be upheld almost seems absolutely irrational, someone who had less of the popular vote won the election, think about that.

We live in a progressive world where every vote should be valued the same, however, in this instance Gore’s votes clearly equalled a lesser value than Bush’s, or else Gore would’ve won. When you have voting on such a large scale, there is this huge fear that their vote won’t mean anything, which is why most people are forced to vote tactically for Republican or Democrat, even if their views may align more with another party.

Tragically, many people would vote for different parties if they believed they had a decent chance of winning, however, they are held back by their inhibition, only to realise that if nobody voted tactically then smaller parties would have a lot more competitive share. However, people don’t trust those around them to not vote tactically, and they end up voting tactically as well. It’s this self-fulfilling circle of two party politics caused by a winner-takes-all attitude. People are too conscious to vote outside their comfort zone.

Another huge flaw in certain states is that the electors don’t even have to elect what the people in a district vote for, which means that the people in an area could vote Republican and the elector, decide that they’re all wrong and they want a democrat instead. Can people trust electors in the current political climate? Of course not.

Is congress any better? No. Plus there’s the additional issue that delegates can select the shapes of their own districts. This can often lead to tactical shapes when they are seeking their re-election. See below. 

In these instances Ohio and South Carolina voted for the democratic party on majority, yet Republicans won a much larger share of seats, because of a tactic called gerrymandering, where politicians can redraw district lines once new voter information has been released, as you can see, this is regularly abused.

When parties redraw the district lines, it is done to make sure their party has a clear majority, locking out the main opposition, any other smaller parties who want to compete, and other independent candidates.  Instead of voters choosing their representatives, representatives choose their voters.

Clinton and Trump aren’t the only two political figures running for President, but they are the only ones who have enough money, power and media coverage to propel them towards The White House. It’s a sad state of affairs when people have two choose the lesser of two great evils, but that’s the tragic story of political entrapment in the US.

Democracy is rigged in favour of whoever is in authority, which is why the USA can be considered to have a two-party dictatorship, and until someone comes along with enough money and enough positive vision to try and sway the electorate (nearly impossible as it may be), that’s the way it will remain.  

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Case Study: ‘Voldemort – From Orphanage to Oligarch’

In the social sciences, we all love a good case study. So what better way to round off this series of articles and draw together our economic musings on the Potterverse than with a study of (arguably) its greatest economic success story? Now, before there is a furore over the implication that Voldemort is ‘good’, let me define my criteria for success. I’m talking about success in the strictly economic sense, which we could define as the ability to better your socio-economic position against difficult odds and institutional bias. Voldemort was able to do that; he was born in an orphanage, and by the end of his career he was the most powerful wizard in the world, effectively in charge of the Potterverse.

For the record, I also think the Weasley Twins are economically successful too, through the development of their joke shop (discussed in Article 3). And undeniably Harry is perhaps the epitome of ‘all-round’ success; magically competent, slayer of Voldemort (no ‘biggie’) and from what we know of his later life, professionally esteemed too.

So there are clearly economic lessons to be learnt from the rise of Voldemort, despite his manifest evilness. How did he make it? How did he gain support? How did he game the system? All these questions, despite his evident evilness, can help teach us about how we can build a society that encourages social mobility, maintains freedom of speech and prevents tyranny. These are key questions in today’s society as much as they have ever been.

Why the Dark Lord, and not Barty Crouch?

Voldemort was a talented wizard. We learn this in the Half-Blood Prince (Book 6) when Dumbledore recounts a visit to the orphanage where young Voldemort (real name, Tom Riddle) lived. The future mass-murderer is able to move objects without needing a wand and to command animate beings, such as small animals, as he wishes; things which your average wand-toting student can’t do.

So Voldemort was gifted, and he presumably could have pursued that gift in any direction (although in the books, Rowling implies an ingrained malevolence in Tom Riddle, which probably makes the future Dark Lord more credible). As we discussed in Article 3, though, the Potterverse is skewed against outsiders through the active preservation of the societal status-quo. In part this is due to pre-existing prejudices; wizards seem generally afraid of socio-economic change and so are not too concerned with economic growth or the emancipation of minorities such as house elves.

The chief consequence of a static society is that it reduces the pobability that fresh talent and ideas will come to the fore. Logically if it is not encouraged, and is in some cases actively repressed (witness Hermione’s Elf-right’s campaign), it will not grow. This means that there is less competition at the top; to break through and be talented, you don’t need to do very much. In other words you just need to be marginally better than everyone else, in an area where you have a comparative advantage (thanks Ricardo!).

The implication here is that Voldemort wasn’t actually the greatest wizard of all time; rather that he was marginally better than his peers during that particular period, and had the capability to ‘cash in’ on his magical comparative advantage without requiring societal support. There’s no reason why Barty Crouch, or anyone else for that matter, couldn’t have been as talented; it’s simply that the social structure they required to discover their skills was inadequately equipped to enable this.

Expelliarmus – disarming the system

So having looked at how Voldemort was a bit better on average than everyone else; how did he manoeuver his way to the top?

By definition he wasn’t one of the elites, like Minister Fudge or the Malfoys. He had no apparent economic power, and the financial system didn’t offer adequate funding (in part due to wizards’ distrust of finance, but you’d also hope that Gringotts had robust KYC policies!). This meant he needed to recruit acolytes, preferably rich and powerful ones. This he did with success; the Death Eaters are a rich and privileged gang, ranging from the mercenary Lucius Malfoy to the die-hard Bellatrix L’Estrange. All have a vested interest in preserving the status quo.

With powerful retainers comes access to power and capital, we see Lucius bribing Fudge in the Order of the Phoenix (Book 5). These are things that would ‘grease the wheels’ of Voldemort’s takeover bid, as even the Dark Lord couldn’t do it with just a big wand and ego.**

Voldemort also benefitted from a stagnant government, which was unable to counter a significant internal rebellion due to its unclear decision-making and review powers (Article 4). The general feeling of terror that swept the wizarding community upon Voldemort’s return is in part a comment on the trust people place in their government to address threats to society.

What’s next for the wizarding world?

There are laudable aspects of the Potterverse economy; universal, high-quality education for example. However much remains unresolved, stagnant economic growth, an underdeveloped financial system and lack of effective debate both in society and government to name a few. All this contributed to an unacceptable period of social instability, culminating in a terrorist’s successful seizure of power which need not have happened. Voldemort was un-exceptional; yet it was the un-exceptionalness of wizarding society that allowed him to flourish.

This series has taken a (hopefully) tongue-in-cheek look at the economics and sociology underpinning the Potterverse. Of course, we couldn’t examine everything in depth, and it is still a fascinating world with many similarities to our own that could be explored further. Thank you for reading this far, now time for me to disapparate!

Monday, 1 August 2016

How Can Apple Save The iPod?

Is it time for the device that kickstarted Apple's tech kingdom to be laid to rest, or is there still some life left?
The current Apple iPod lineup (Left to right: Shuffle, Nano, Touch)
The iPod has lost the magic that it had when Steve Jobs was CEO.
In October 2001, when the first iPod was unveiled, few people had expected that in just 3 years it would capture over 70% of the music player market. And back then in 2004, it's likely that no one would have expected the iPod to be in the state it is now in 2016: the group of seemingly unwanted children of Apple, not even warranting their own link on the banner of the Californian tech giant's own website.

And while Apple's other devices, such as the iPhone and the Mac lineup, have been receiving much boasted about yearly updates, the iPod range has been neglected. Until last July, the big brother, the iPod touch, hadn't been updated for 3 years. The iPod nano has stayed the same since 2012, with no sign of any upcoming changes. And the iPod shuffle, well, the current version is 6 years old, ancient by Apple's standards.

iPod sales from 2006-2014 (Statista)
Apple doesn't just go nuts and neglect a cash cow product- all of this is due to the fact that the iPod range has been declining in popularity for some years now. Sales have fallen to the extent that perhaps Apple now considers them negligible, and doesn't bother to report iPod sales in quarterly reports any more.

So, why have iPod sales fallen?

It's interesting to note that the peak of iPod sales in 2008 coincides with the introduction of the iPhone 3G in 2008. The immense popularity of the iPhone, and more broadly all smartphones, has undoubtedly been a root cause of the iPod's demise. The iPhone 3G offered pretty much all the media functionality of an iPod, plus the incredibly useful functions of a phone, presenting an ideal combination to those Apple's customers who could afford it. After all, why would you carry around a phone and an iPod with you, when you could carry something that does the job of both?

But still, iPod sales remained relatively stable for a few years after the iPhone, because it still had some advantages. For example, the iPod shuffle and nano appealed to those who wanted music while they were exercising, because they were far lighter and more convenient to carry than the lumpy iPhone. They were far cheaper, too, making it more ideal for people on tight budgets and parents looking to buy something for their kids.

However, in recent years the iPhone has narrowed, and overcome, many of these advantages and effectively cannibalised a lot of the iPod's sales. Only a stick man would consider the current iPhone 6S to be too heavy or inconvenient to carry on a morning jog. Apple's recent strategy of selling upgraded versions of older generation iPhones as cheaper variants means that while they are still quite pricey, they are far more accessible than the iPhone of 7 or 8 years ago.

It's not just iPhones that have killed iPod sales, but smartphones in general. We have experienced a fascinating evolution as a society, becoming people who want things to be multifunctional. For example, people nowadays are not happy with a basic car that just does the job of travelling. We want massage seats, heated cupholders, umbrellas in the doors (yes, really a thing). It's this desire for multi, not uni, functional objects that have manifested in things like fridges that play music (again, this is a thing), and in the ever increasing list of things our smartphones can do.

Give a 5 year old today an iPod shuffle, and they will see virtually no appeal in it. There's no screen, just some buttons and no function other than to play music. You can't even chose which song to play, for it is eternally stuck in shuffle mode, thus rendering shuffle users eternally pressing the skip button to find the track they want.

An iPod nano has a touch screen, yes, but again, it bests today's smartphones in few areas, if any.

Both of these devices lack wi-fi, too- meaning the millions who make use of music streaming services such as Apple Music and Spotify will be left unwelcomed on these devices.

Only the iPod touch remains of some appeal to our ever more demanding tastes- but again, in a world where most people are used to carrying one device that can do everything, and phones are so important, why would an iPod touch appeal to anyone over the age of 15?

So, what should Apple do about it?

Well, the iPod shuffle would be a firm candidate for the next death of the iPod family. It no longer fits in with the rest of Apple's lineup, and due to the strengths of other devices on the market, the shuffle is now in an incredibly small niche of insect-sized people and those who are too lazy to carry a 130 gram phone. Those who may find appeal in the low price of the shuffle can, and do, easily find better iPod touch-style alternatives from competitors for the same price.

The iPod nano is not as obsolete. It is far more user-friendly than the shuffle when it comes to music, and more versatile when it comes to features. The smaller form factor remains one advantage it holds over a smartphone, but still- it's likely that even a second-hand iPod touch bought for the same £129 price will appeal more to buyers, given things like its access to the massive world of apps and camera.

If Apple wants to make something of the iPod nano, it could try to take inspiration from the Apple Watch and change the direction of the nano to be something like an Apple Watch you can keep in your pocket. This means opening the nano to the Apple Watch app environment, and adding extra hardware features such as a heartbeat sensor.

So the iPod nano could be seeing its end, but there remains some potential for Apple to evolve the product into something more up to date and coherent with the rest of its lineup.

Could the iPod touch represent the single future of the
iPod lineup?
While the iPod touch may not be currently setting the tech world on fire, it remains the best selling iPod. But what matters even more than this is the fact that it is probably the most popular gateway to the Apple lineup, especially when it comes to teens and pre-teens. The iPod touch is that present a parent might give to their kid for their 12th birthday, because it shares so many features with the iPhone, other than the massive price tag. You can play games, take photos, text (thanks to iMessage) on an iPod, which is pretty much all a kid wants these days, right?

Then, once the 12 year old becomes a 15 or 16 or 17 year old, and the iPod touch is getting old, the time comes around to get a phone. Having been integrated into the iOS ecosystem over the past years, it's likely that they will want a phone they can identify with immediately- likely to be an iPhone. This then extends into buying a Mac for college, an Apple Watch to pair with the iPhone, and so on. Apple thus arguably benefits far more from the possibilities an iPod touch opens up than the sales of the device itself, so the iPod touch should remain and continue serving this role.

If the iPod touch is chosen to be the last iPod standing, rebranding it as simply the 'iPod' may be a wise move. Being a touchscreen device is no longer worthy of note as it was almost a decade ago, and the rebranding will represent the type of streamlining, simplification that Apple is so well known for. It may even add a nostalgic touch for those who were around for the launch of the original iPod.

Something must happen with the iPod lineup- the past few years haven't been exactly disastrous, but they have lacked the kind of success that Apple is used to with all their other products. Apple must decide whether it wants to revive the iPod that we all know and love, or chop off this appendix of the Apple body. 

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Why You Should Be Studying Abroad

Britain’s education system isn’t improving any time soon; James Dancey explains why studying abroad is a much more preferable option.

Ridiculous tuition fees, unbelievably low contact hours, and a receding level of international achievement. British students have suffered over the last few years. Whoever is to blame is irrelevant, but grudgingly attending is no longer a reasonable option if they want to carry on down the lines of placing profit before education. Recent Governments have seen the University system as a money machine, made more for exploiting the students who attend there by emphasising a necessity of University education as a key to all paths of life, manipulating that Freshers excitement that most prospective students have and then slapping on a nice whopping 9,000 pound (soon to increase) price tag.

I’m a professional cynic, and add Universities to a list of things that I don’t really like, my view is that University doesn’t make you smart, it just makes you qualified. If it genuinely did make you smart, then the ‘Qualified’ people in the House of Parliament wouldn’t have screwed up this country so much. Yet, it’s something that I’m having to make do with, another 3 years down the pan to be taught something that I could learn on my own merit. Just for a piece of paper to let everyone know that I did it ‘Officially’. Woop.

I’ve been conned, but not as much as others.  Because at the end of my education, I’ll come out around £10,000 in debt. Which admittedly is an irritant, but a fifth of what many people will leave a British University with. It has been estimated that around half of the students will not ever be able to pay the money back, and many of the smartest people emigrate to countries like Australia to avoid paying them back altogether. I won’t be bugged by that burden, and it’s not because I’ve received a gratuitous grant or found a loophole. It’s simply because I’ve decided to accept an offer from an overseas University, that University being Amsterdam.

Amsterdam is ranked just outside the top 50 Universities in the world, higher than many of the Russell Group prestige, including Warwick, Durham, Bath, Exeter, Bristol and I could go on. Many of the courses provided at Amsterdam barely break 1,000 a year, the course I’m partaking in is marginally more expensive due to the nature of it but it’s still a gulfing class difference of expenditure.  Nearly all of the courses are taught in English, they’re all just as valuable as any British degree and it really does look impressive on your curriculum vitae.

Most people I tell I’m going abroad to study react more excitedly than I do, as if there is something particularly exotic, and I can respect that. Employers are looking for staff that can go the extra mile, so why not go the extra mile for University, for more than half the price. The cost-benefit analysis is heavily slanted in favour of studying abroad. So why don’t more people do it?

Well I believe it’s a lack of knowledge of how beneficial it really can be and how it can truly aid your future prospects, that’s why I’m writing this article, not just because the head editor will fire me otherwise, but because studying abroad is the smarter option, short-term and long-term.

The British University system is failing this generation of students. And in my opinion, the only way to make them take notice is to let your wallets do the talking. Call me a miserable sceptic but the only way they’ll ever start to change their ridiculous policy is when you stop them from making money off it. Money makes a Tory Government go round, and it’s time to stop the hamster wheel of greedy politicians’ continuous exploitation of students’ lack of political engagement. 

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Mischief Managed?... The role of government in the Potterverse

Towards the ‘business end’ of the Potter series, Rowling greatly expands upon both the institutions and actors involved in the whole good versus evil thing. We are introduced to functionaries at the Ministry of Magic, robber barons in Voldemort’s Death Eaters, and lackeys aplenty on both sides. The existence of developed institutions, with their nuances and inconsistencies, begs us to consider the impact of these institutions on the denizens of the Potterverse. This is part of what makes the Harry Potter story interesting from a socioeconomic perspective; that a well-developed society with long standing (albeit not democratic) institutions is essentially subverted by terrorists.

So how does the Ministry of Magic interact with the wizard economy? And how does the government’s failure aid and abet Voldemort’s rise to power? Let’s look at these issues in more depth…using something like a Pensieve, of course.

It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are.

Public Choice theory is the branch of economics charged with assessing the impact of large institutions on the economy and its actors. The underlying concept of public choice is that an institution paid for by the state is required when the private sector underprovides or fails to provide this service adequately and competitively to individuals. A commonly cited example of this is national defence; it would be unreasonable (not to mention medieval) for individuals to run their own armies. The rich would dominate, presumably using their armies in self-interest, and they could charge extortionate prices for ‘defence services’.

Other areas of the economy are also managed by the government to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the above assessment. Of course, such government intervention is also inevitably informed by political beliefs on the level of state economic activity. We will try to avoid such pitfalls here!

In the Potterverse the Ministry is a significant player in the economy, employing a large number of the workforce in a variety of roles. Its area of largest impact that we know of is education, as Hogwarts is state-funded, however there also appear to be a myriad of government departments such as the Muggle Liaison Office and the Regulation of Magical Creatures Department. It therefore seems likely that the Ministry feels the need for greater state intervention in the economy. Perhaps this is because, as we discussed in article 3 (Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes), there appears to be a distinct lack of competitive market activity in the wizarding economy, something which should generate a level of self-regulation through appropriate pricing. For example, there would be presumably higher prices for dangerous dragons.

However, although we said the Potter economy was stagnant due to a lack of innovation, we can’t say that it is uncompetitive. For example, the Ministry felt the need to regulate cauldron thickness due to an influx of cheaper foreign equivalents, thus leading to higher leakages (Percy Weasley oversees this in Book 4). This is an example of the wizarding government intervening in a competitive market to ensure fair standards and hence the public good. Conversely, an entrepreneur is barred from importing magic carpets as an alternative to brooms as transportation in an attempt to reduce the cost of flying (Book 4). The Ministry prohibits this as carpets are deemed to be too similar to ordinary Muggle carpets, however this clearly has a distorting effect on the market for transport. Similar to real-world governments then, the Ministry engages in direct economic management with varying degrees of success.

The Office of Magical Debates?

Yet over and above basic economic intervention, the Ministry undoubtedly fails in a key area, that being defence against external threats. The menace of Voldemort is so great that eventually vigilantes, in the form of Harry and chums, are required to dispatch the Dark Lord, the latter having neutralized the government’s effectiveness.

Part of this is pure obstinacy; the government refuses to recognizes Voldemort’s return until very late in the day. The Ministry has the tools and resources to at least mount an effective resistance against the Dark Lord, despite the latter being ‘the most dangerous wizard of all time’. After all, it employs a good proportion of the population and (we assume) must levy taxes either directly or indirectly to finance its activities. Given the vast resources at its disposal, it seems hard to believe that it was rendered completely incompetent.

The Ministry could perhaps benefit from a dose of internal review and separation of powers, something for which there is no spell that we know of. The wizarding government has no body charged with independent scrutiny, either elected or unelected, such as a House of Lords or a Senate. Additionally, its legal system is intertwined with government through the Wizengamot, whose judges both make and exercise the law in a pre-modern mishmash of the judicial and legislative functions. This means that there is no effective debate of current and proposed policies, something that even your average totalitarian state does a bit of nowadays, even if it is just between the oligarchs. A capacity for debate increases the likelihood of effective decision-making, even if it is achieved through a more protracted process. The argument that a unified judiciary, executive and legislature would achieve a policy response to a crisis more quickly than a separated equivalent is flawed, as the Ministry demonstrates through its stasis when confronted with Voldemort.

So had the ministry been more accountable to wizarding society, Fudge and his successors might not have needed Harry to do battle with Voldemort, and the 'Boy Who Lived' could get down to some actual schooling in sixth form!