14 December 2004

 

email:oldgrumpy.mike@virgin.net

 

Know your own mind

It was my good fortune to be introduced at a fairly early age to the famous series of experiments on the human tendency to obey authority and bend to peer-group pressure, conducted in the 1960s by the Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram.
I think I can say with some confidence that, since then, I have never done anything simply because somebody else told me to (Old Grumpette and, more recently, the grandchildren, excepted).
For those not familiar with Milgram's work, the extract below; downloaded from the Internet, gives a flavour of what it is all about

Obedience and Individual Responsibility

Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, conducted a study focusing on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience. He examined justifications for acts of genocide offered by those accused at the World War II, Nuremberg War Criminal trials. Their defense often was based on "obedience" - - that they were just following orders of their superiors.
In the experiment, so-called "teachers" (who were actually the unknowing subjects of the experiment) were recruited by Milgram. They were asked
[by the white-coated experimenter] to administer an electric shock of increasing intensity to a "learner" for each mistake he made during the experiment. The fictitious story given to these "teachers" was that the experiment was exploring effects of punishment (for incorrect responses) on learning behavior. The "teacher" was not aware that the "learner" in the study was actually an actor - - merely faking discomfort as the "teacher" increased the [ non-existent] electric shocks.

When the "teacher" asked whether increased shocks should be given he/she was verbally encouraged to continue. Sixty percent of the "teachers" obeyed orders to punish the learner to the very end of the [potentially lethal] 450-volt scale! No subject stopped before reaching 300 volts!

At times, the worried "teachers" questioned the experimenter, asking who was responsible for any harmful effects resulting from shocking the learner at such a high level. Upon receiving the answer that the experimenter assumed full responsibility, teachers seemed to accept the response and continue shocking, even though some were obviously extremely uncomfortable in doing so.

Milgram's work has been repeated, worldwide, with chillingly consistent results.
I had first-hand experience of the phenomena revealed by Milgram's studies when I asked a member of the Independent Political Party why he had voted against an amendment I had tabled at the county council meeting in October.
"I agreed with you", he explained, "but I felt I had to support the Group."
A comprehensive account of these and similar experiments can be found by typing "Stanley Milgram" into Google.

Change of mind

I read in the Daily Telegraph that my one-time philosophy tutor, Prof Anthony Flew, has given up his life-long atheism and turned to God.
Prof Flew told the Telegraph that he wanted to apologise to all those who had been persuaded to turn away from God because of his influence.
Old Grumpy was already an unbeliever when I first met Flew but I must admit that finding my views on religion shared by the country's youngest and brightest professor of philosophy went a long way to removing any lingering doubts I may have had.
I notice that Prof Flew is 81 so it is not impossible that this late change of mind is a case of "Pascal's wager" named after the great French mathematician Blaise Pascal.
According to Pascal, belief in God is the rational choice because it has a better chance of producing a beneficial outcome than disbelief.
Pascal's wager can be represented in the following table, which shows disbelief to be a no-win option.

   Right  Wrong
 Belief in God  Go to heaven  Makes no difference
 Reject God  Makes no difference  Go to hell.

However, Professor Flew will be well aware of the objections to Pascal's wager the most obvious of which is that, with a multitude of Gods to choose from, it is more than likely you will pick the wrong one.
And, of course, an all-knowing, all-seeing God will know what you are up to and will surely not be impressed if your belief is based on nothing more profound than a calculation of your own selfish interest.
I hope old Flew isn't hedgeing his bets.
He would be better emulating Voltaire, who, on his deathbed, was invited by a priest to renounce the Devil.
"Nay Sir!" the great man exclaimed, "This is no time for making new enemies."


All of one mind

On Thursday the county council is set to debate my notice of motion calling for the publication of the Director of Finance, Mark Lewis', statement to the police regarding Cllr Brian Hall's, by now, infamous travelling expense claim.
True to form, the majority Independent party is recommending that the statement should remain concealed from view.
What we already know about this affair is that Cllr Hall claimed £63 for a 130mile journey from Pembroke Dock - Penllergaer - Pembroke Dock that he couldn't possibly have made (see Time Traveller).
If you are not convinced by the arithmetic, you might wonder why, despite these allegations being repeated to the point of tedium on this website, the usually litigious Cllr Hall hasn't sent his lawyers into battle.
In fact, it is not quite true to say that lawyers have not been involved because, after the Mercury had the temerity to report that I had complained to the police about Cllr Hall's wanderings on 1 February 2001, his solicitors dashed off a letter, dated 19 October 2001, to the paper's head office in Newport accusing me of "...pursuing some sort of 'Jihad' or Holy War, against one man and his family."
Cllr Hall's solicitors also claimed that he was "... a man of exemplary character..." and that "We can assure you that these allegations are wholly and absolutely unfounded and that our client can provide evidence to prove it if necessary."
As this was less than six weeks after 9/11, I took umbrage at these allegations of 'Jihad' and issued a writ for defamation.
At that point, you may think, Cllr Hall might have taken the opportunity to provide the proof that my allegations were "wholly and absolutely unfounded" but, instead, having had his bluff called, he settled my action by paying £200 into court and coughing up more than three grand to cover my legal costs.
The reason for this climbdown, I suspect, was not that I had a particularly strong case but that someone advised him that allowing his expense claims, and other related matters, to be minutely examined by the High Court would not be terribly clever.
One of these other matters is the response of the, then, Chairman of council, Rosemary Hayes, to written questions about Cllr Hall's expenses submitted by Cllr Joyce Watson.
Rather than answer the questions, Cllr Hayes; in a manner reminiscent of a U2 pilot shot down over North Korea, stood up an read a prepared statement in which, among other things, she said: "The relevant facts are that Cllr Hall undertook approved duties and can establish that he actually made the journeys for which he claimed travelling allowances."
Now, I am perfectly prepared to accept that, at the time, having been presented with the statement by a senior council officer, Cllr Hayes genuinely believed in the truth of what she said.
However, since then, both myself and Cllr Watson have written to her with information that demonstrates that Cllr Hall couldn't have "actually made the journeys for which he claimed" (see Time Traveller).
Unfortunately, all our attempts to persuade her to set the record straight have fallen on deaf ears.
I have also repeatedly asked Cllr Hayes whether she wrote the statement herself and if not who did but she has, point blank ,refused to answer.
Who is she trying to protect?
What I also know is that, following my complaint, the police went to see the council's Director of Finance, Mark Lewis, who gave a statement in which, according to what the police told me on the telephone, he said that Cllr Hall had permission to travel from Magor to Penllergaer via Pembroke Dock in order to put an "Irish inward investor" on the ferry.
The police also told me that: "Under the law we need a complaint from the party that has been aggrieved against" and "In this scenario the aggrieved person is the council."
In a letter, Chief Inspector Roger Hughes informed me: "I can now confirm that we have received a formal statement from a senior member of Pembrokeshire County Council [Mr Mark Lewis]. The statement states that in their opinion, no criminal act has been committed and that they are the injured party in this case."
So far as I am concerned, Mr Lewis' statement was given on behalf of the council of which I am now a member and, in view of all the other things that have gone on, especially Cllr Hayes patently false statement to the council in December 2001, I feel it is my duty to ensure that his part in all this is above reproach.
The only way that can be established is by the publication of his statement.
The Independent Party majority on the Corporate Governance Committee has recommended to full council that Mr Lewis' statement should be kept under wraps.
All in aid of the Leader's commitment to "honest, open, accountable local government" that I read about in last week's Mercury, I suppose.

Great minds

It seems I hit on a rather good wheeze when I decided that the best way to move things on in the County Council was to submit Notices of Motion to full council which are then debated at the Corporate Governance Committee (CGC) .
At the first council meeting in July, I had the NoM field to myself but now several other members have cottoned on and there are no fewer than 17 on the agenda for Thursday's meeting.
Should help to enliven the dark days of January.
One NoM that caught my eye is that submitted jointly by two of the Independent Party's leading thinkers; Cllr Tom Richards (chairman of economic development) and Michael Evans (deputy cabinet minister for small business).
This is concerned with the council tax rebanding which, as I said last week, is being lined up to take the blame for any increases in next year's council tax.
Cllrs Richards and Evans are proposing that the county council should petition the Welsh Assembly "for special financial support... to alleviate the effects of this unfair increase."
There are perfectly good reasons to criticise council tax on grounds of unfairness because it bears no relationship to the ability to pay,but I cannot for the life of me see why it should be unfair that a tax based on property values shouldn't be rebalanced from time to time to reflect changes in those values.
And I speak as one whose banding has gone up from B-E.
As Machiavelli said, change is always difficult to bring about because, while those adversely affected shout their disapproval from the rooftops, the beneficiaries quietly pocket their gains and move on.
The situation is that 36% of properties in Pembrokeshire have moved into a higher band and their owners will be liable to pay more tax.
But the converse is that the other 64% have moved down, or stayed the same, and, all other things being equal, they should pay less.
It is true, as the Director of Finance told last week's cabinet, that council tax on a band E property (11/9 of band D) is 22% greater than that on a band D (9/9 = 1)
But, because of the way council tax works, anyone finding themselves moved up from D to E will not necessarily have to pay 22% more.
At this point we should distinguish carefully between two entirely separate things: rises in council tax caused by increased expenditure and those brought about through rebanding.
Suppose, for instance that we have a hypothetical council which has 12 band D properties in its area (the arithmetical principles are precisely the same whether there are 12 or 120,000 properties).
As each band D property counts as nine ninths = 1, the council will have a tax base of 12.
So, if it needs to raise £6000, say, from council tax, the owners of these properties will each have to fork out £500.
Now, suppose, as the Leader indicated to the Cabinet on Monday, 36% of these properties are rebanded into band E.
That would leave the authority with eight band D and four band E resulting in a tax base of 8 x 9/9 + 4 x 11/9 = 13 (approx).
To raise £6000 (remember no budget increase) from this revised tax base requires a band D rate of £461 leaving a band E householder to pay £564 (£461 x eleven ninths), an increase on what they previously paid of 13%.
The good news is that the eight band D householders will only be charged £461 - £39 (8%) less than before.
What you lose on the swings...
To move from the hypothetical to the concrete: following the rebanding exercise, the county council's tax base for 2005/06 is 48,943 compared to 45,512 for the current year.
This means that if the council wishes to raise the same amount of money next year as in the current year (£24,664,490) then band D council tax would need to be set at £503.94 compared to £541.93 this year; a fall of £38 (7%).
The other side of the coin is that, under the new arrangements, anyone whose property has moved from D to E will have to pay £614.77 - a rise of £74 (14%).

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