Sunday, October 02, 2005

Sense and nonsense in Nick Cohen

Aargh! I kind of like Nick Cohen. I sense that he's often abrasive in company, but so am I. And, not for the last time, the point he's arguing for is both valid and self-consistent. It's just that ... Aargh!

Take today's Hands off the NHS. I didn't read the title originally; I just plunged into the text. He seems to be going somewhere about luck and the July bombings. Is he going to do the atheist thing? Or about the solidity of British society and the feebleness of fanaticism against it? No. In sum, he says, the NHS handled the bomb victims very well.

But the strongest impression I got was of a sense of the unity of the NHS; how, when the chips are down, everyone is on the same side and shares the same public-service ethic.
It is this unity which the political class is trying to destroy.

It's not that that's wrong. Both sentences are true. The problem is that on 11 September, 2001, everyone behaved very well in New York. And most of their healthcare is private. Doctors in any sector have to obey the Hippocratic oath. Everyone "was on the same side" after the Twin Towers fell, whether or not they'd worked for rival companies. I think reforms of the NHS may very well be a bad thing; but I doubt that they will impede the unconscious decency of the vast majority of citizens.

It's a good rule never to trust a consensus. Unanimity takes years to form, and by the time everyone who is anyone is in agreement, the world they think they are confronting has moved on.

Again, Nick has a general truth -- "the world they think they are confronting has moved on" -- but this is true of every situation. It's a cliche in war, for example, that you always prepare to fight the last one. He does miss the fact that the consensus among "everyone who is anyone" is more a product of selective promotion that persuasion.

Still, Nick can produce an explosive paragraph.

If you go for half-measures, you end up with monstrosities such as John Birt's BBC, whose administrative costs shot up by £140 million as accountants tried to create an artificial price mechanism for his phoney internal market; or Railtrack, where shareholders' expectations that they could suck on the public teat forever became so ingrained they sued the government when it belatedly stopped the milking of the taxpayers.

His damning of the "assorted modernisers" "at the Labour conference in Brighton" is neat as well, but his conclusion just happens to be incorrect.

The smart business move for everyone will be to concentrate on simple surgery with guaranteed income flows, and keep away from complicated and unpredictable areas of medicine -- geriatrics, mental health and, indeed, accident and emergency.

But these things exist in the private sector in the US. I think the government will screw up massively, but these particular predictions will not come about.

Nick tries sarcasm in his second (filler?) piece -- It's good to see that the old class structure is alive and flourishing, but like everyone else who's written on this misses two possibly non-trivial factors.

1) Social class may be related to intelligence (we don't need a definition of intelligence, such as IQ for this). Before the 50s, there were bright people locked in the working class. In the 50s and 60s they went to university and got middle class jobs. They had smart children (just as their parents had). These didn't change class because they started middle class. There still is some social mobility, but there's less, because those who would move because of talent, largely have. (I'm not saying I believe this, merely that it's a possible explanation.)

2) The working class is now smaller than the middle class: in the pre-war years, there were far more blue-collar workers. Now there is a slight majority of white-collar workers. So in the old days, there was a large population who could move: and it only took a small percentage of them to make a difference to the middle classes. This is no longer the case.

His heart is in the right place, though.


Blogger The Rioja Kid said...

Looking at the actual article on the LSE website, there is actually one single causal factor; the expansion of the university system when the red-brick universitites were built has meant that nowadays basically every single child of a family in the top quintiles will go to university.
In the first place, this looks more like "levelling up" than genuine ossification; as with the Internet and such like, anything good comes to the rich first, but that doesn't mean it isn't good for everybody; some things really do trickle down.

In the second place, the complete univerisitisation of the middle class is something that has happened once and can't happen again; in fact the big further expansion of the university system in the 1990s (coming too late for most children born in the 1970s) would most likely mean that we will see an equally artificial "increase" in social mobility in 20 years' time.

10/02/2005 06:41:00 PM  

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