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. 
Unknown Editor

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!

Unknown Editor

Friday 15 July 2016

The Unsurprising Truth Of Blair's Toxic Legacy

Tony Blair thought that Iraq would be Labour's Falklands.

I’ve never liked Tony Blair. Never have, never will. I guess to me, Tony Blair is a bit like a British Hillary Clinton, minus the breasts, of course. He just gives me this feeling that something just isn’t quite right about him. The smile, the gestures, the character. He just seems a bit off. And I’m not doubting that in his time he was a very credible politician, his charisma, his charm, it clearly won a lot of people over. But during the time I was old enough to actually have an opinion on him, it was never favourable.  

I’m not saying that everything he did was bad, no, he passed a lot of highly constructive legislation. However, I never had the feeling that what he did was out of principle, more out of faux pas attempt to appease the masses, I’ve never liked that, never have never will.

Yes, it’s better than having someone who is principally a bad person. But saying Tony Blair is better than, say, George Osborne, is like saying the common cold is better than swine flu: they’re still both illnesses you really don’t want to deal with.

Then came Chilcot, and everything most people knew about the Iraq War was confirmed. Blair had manipulated and been rather uninformed, I don’t have enough free time to read thousands of pages unless someone’s paying. Which, unfortunately, they’re not.

Tony Blair and plenty of his allies came out and said that there were ‘no lies’ however, I’d like to quote Piers Morgan: “If I sell you my car and claim it's perfectly safe, but don't show you existing paperwork suggesting the brakes might be faulty, that's not technically a 'lie' either. But it's a serious, wilful omission of detail which can have catastrophic, lethal consequences.”

Tony Blair knew he was uninformed, but acted like he wasn’t and completely knew what he was doing, with the backing of the Tories and my all time favourite media mogul: Murdoch, all creating this image that he was the missionary to rescue the Iraqi people.  He wasn’t. Hussein’s army was finished in barely any time at all, we were left with no exit strategy and pretty much deserted them with an anarchy and a scattershot army. This subsequently provided the roots for numerous groups who have spread terror across the Eastern world.

There’s no doubting that Saddam was an evil dictator who had committed some awful atrocities, but compare it to the chaos today… nothing like it. Not even close. Why would we rush in? Well, in my opinion, it was Blair’s own narcissistic ploy to have himself written into the history books, much aligned to Thatcher’s  affair with the Falklands, just with a very different result. He wanted to be this Great British patriot, but patriotism begins at home, Tony Blair went out into Iraq with his armies, artillery and false pride, however, all he returned with was an increased terror threat on our own soil. 

A ridiculous idea in hindsight, but with all his allies and friends to tell him he was in the right who was to say otherwise? That 1.5 million strong march was ‘fatuous’ in his view. He was floating on his own cloud of self-appointed sanctity, I’m relieved we’ve finally brought him back down to earth.
What now? He’ll probably skulk his way through a few interviews and fade into the background, only time will tell. I’d be very surprised if he was actually reprimanded for his actions, politicians work on a different level than the law. That’s the sad truth.

But what can we do? He’s made enough wealth to cover for all this and he I doubt he will ever pay the full price for what he’s done, one can only hope that lessons are learned from this very sobering disaster of an intervention. 
Unknown Editor

Saturday 2 July 2016

Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes Trumps The Pack – social stratification and innovation in Harry Potter

The wizarding world is a divided society. Rowling is clear about this from the start of her seven book narrative, when Hermione is bullied by Slytherin students for being a muggle (someone who has no wizard blood). The existence in the Potterverse of social stratification and its ugly offshoots, discrimination and prejudice, give the books a darker element than simple ‘goodies and baddies’. Certainly, one of Rowling’s aims was to make us question the existence of a status quo that permits arbitrary discrimination, suppresses meritocracy and distorts justice. After all, although Voldemort imposes a new rule of law, it is undeniably founded on preexisting prejudices that were already latent in the wizarding world.

Why do wizards, an educated breed, allow this system to be maintained? Why do they seem ignorant of the economic consequences of social stratification; wealth inequality, suboptimal investment, rent-seeking and cronyism? What impact do these issues have on the wizarding world if left unaddressed, Voldemort or no Voldemort?

The Potterstrata

Wizarding society is a semi-market driven, semi-liberal society. ‘Sort of but not quite there’ would probably be the assessment of its liberal democratic peers if it were a real country today. Indeed, given recent events in Europe, consequences of the Potterverse’s divisions seem particularly pertinent to us. So let us begin.

There are three main classes of economic participant; wizards, goblins and elves. Wizards are primus inter pares, Goblins are essentially second-class finance managers with no real political power, and Elves exist as a type of servant underclass with no autonomy. Added to this, there are squibs and muggles; wizard-born persons who have no magical ability, and human-born persons who do respectively.

There is active discrimination against elves through indentured labour laws, and against Goblins through regulatory oversight from the Ministry of Magic. The status quo in regards to these social groups is so embedded such that any agitation for change is resisted even by supposedly liberal wizards, a prominent example being Mr. Weasley’s advice to Hermione to abandon her Elf Rights campaign.

It’s difficult to levitate your position

Unfortunately we can’t learn much from looking at cases where social discrimination is codified in law, aside from a general observation that of course Goblins and Elves have skills of benefit to the wizarding society that would be fully realized under a more liberal regime. Both are talented magical beings in their own rights, with unique skills such a financial acumen and home management skills that wizards have chosen not to develop.

Instead, we can look at the economic impact of discrimination against those unofficially marginalized; lower-class wizards, muggles and squibs.

The salient point of labour economics in the Potterverse is that upward mobility seems very hard. There are few examples of people ‘moving up the ladder’. Notable examples are the successes of Voldemort and the Weasley twins, albeit via very different strategies (a naked power-grab and a joke shop enterprise respectively). The difficulty of upward mobility in the wizarding world is strange, given that there is universal provision of standardized education through Hogwarts.

Education is generally considered a ‘human capital enabler’; in other words it allows those who put the effort in to develop life-long skills of innovative thinking and analytical rigour, to generate ideas and to challenge them. The logic then follows that any wizard, muggle or squib who attends Hogwarts (and they are all permitted to enroll) is capable of developing themselves and achieving their long-term aims, regardless of their socio-economic background. In turn such personal development, known in the jargon as ‘human capital accretion’, should stimulate the overall economy by encouraging investment through the application of creative thinking; witness Fred and George’s joke shop.

The wizarding education system fails in this regard, given that the above examples are exceptions rather than the rule. Hogwarts seems calcified, the syllabus unchanged for centuries and, aside from some maverick analytical training imparted by Dumbledore to Harry, focused on rote-learning for academic achievement. Harry’s poor results in certain academic subjects, for example, significantly impede his chances of pursuing a career as an auror, a type of wizarding detective.

This does not benefit those who fall outside of the system; squibs and more practically-minded students. If you can’t do the spells, then the system rejects you. No spells means no job in the ministry, viewed as the pinnacle of professional achievement, and it’s not as if start-ups are commonplace as a fallback option; Mr. Weasley considers Fred and George’s endeavour highly risky.

Wingardium Leviosa – raise that economy?

Between the Philosopher’s Stone and the Goblet of Fire (4 years), the price of a Daily Prophet newspaper remains 1 Knut. This tells us something interesting about the wizarding economy; it is stagnant. Textbook economic consensus generally states that an economy should grow at roughly 2% per year, evidenced by a 2% growth in the money supply (i.e. inflation). This is why most Central Banks target an inflation rate of 2%.**

You don’t need to be an economist to conclude that if, all things being equal, the Daily Prophet has earned the same total revenue for 4 years on the trot; they can’t possibly have improved anything at all. Where would the extra money come from? And if they haven’t improved anything, how would they entice more customers, and thus raise revenues.

A dose of innovation would help the Prophet, and the economy, recover from its torpor. Innovation boosts productivity by raising the number of outputs per unit of input, which in turn reduces the price of goods. This makes everyone better off and simultaneously frees up more cash for future productive investments. But innovation comes through encouraging creative and analytical thinking… sounds like a job for Hogwarts! 

**I know, I know, current economic growth theories are open to a great deal of debate! I’m just using the consensus here as a yardstick.
Unknown Editor