Simple solutions to complex problems: target the hardcore criminals

The USA’s “black budget” – the part of security spending outside scrutiny, including the NSA’s spy-on-everyone programmes – is now an incredible $59bn. All of it unaccountable with the figure rising each year. There’s a much better way to achieve national security – one that preserves civil liberties for the law-abiding while creating half a million jobs for no net increase in cost. The solution: focus on the actual criminal.

Let’s look at some UK figures first. In England & Wales, a hardcore of 5000 people commit around half of all crime. Raise the set to 100,000, and you’ve basically covered all crime except the odd parking ticket. Assuming the same dynamic applies to the USA, that’s 25,000 people on the Most Dangerous List and half a million on the Watch List.

(The USA locks up a lot of people for life who’d merely be cautioned in the UK, so the actual figures might be higher, but the principle holds.)

The simple solution to this complex problem: for $59bn you could pay over a million people a decent salary to watch one person each.

That’s it: all these new employees do is follow one specific lawbreaker around, day in day out, reporting on what they do and who they’re doing it with. Infringement of civil liberties? These people are known criminals; they’ve already demonstrated their lack of interest in civil society. And the upside – no need to listen in to everyone in the world’s emails and calls – is a far greater prize.

Imagine: the ancient legal principles dating back to the Magna Carta – the right to be free of unreasonable search or seizure, to not be detained without reasonable suspicion – actually coming back into force, regaining the rights we’ve all lost since 9/11.  Big win for the honest citizen.

The cost structure is appealing, too. Many of those 0.5m offenders will be low-risk and nonviolent. (There are plenty of people in jail across the USA because they got caught with a joint at 18 or slept with a girlfriend aged 17.) So watching them like a hawk wouldn’t even be a full-time posting: the odd phone call and app check-in would suffice.

This means the hardcore ones could then be assigned up to a dozen Watchers each: experienced professionals whose sole job it is to stick closer to the offender than their own shadow. There’s an excellent career path for a young Watcher. In your first years on the job, you get Mildred Who Once Took a Bong Hit Near a Window. With a bit of seniority, you get assigned to Fred Who Repeatedly Drives Uninsured. Five years in, you’re into Boris the Bag Snatcher and Mohammed The Hate Preacher. Stay in the job long enough, you might even get the worst of the worst, a tax-and-spend socialist or something. (OK, but you get my point.)

That’s my simple solution: target the people who actually do crime. Civil liberties get respected once again: the lawbreakers earn credits based on how long they’ve stayed on the straight and narrow, giving both watched and Watcher aligned incentives. The jail population shrinks by two-thirds overnight; over a million people return to society within strict limits. It also erases the artificial distinction between criminal and civil law – which in the USA and UK doesn’t really exist in practice anyway, with 1% of the population in jail and white-collar crimes being charged under Terrorism legislation.

We don’t need a secret security apparatus watching our every move, where everyone is a suspect and your thoughts are used against you. We just need to do the sane thing – watch the criminals.



One Good Muslim

To donate to Help for Heroes, a UK military charity, all you have to do is text HERO to 70900.

To donate to Help for Heroes, a UK military charity, all you have to do is text HERO to 70900.

Here’s an idea. In the wake of a soldier’s murder by Islamic maniacs, two people have been arrested for a heinous crime: Tweeting. I’ve no idea what these two idiots Tweeted – presumably some racist claptrap – but it made me think.

Every day, in thousands of mosques and madrassas across Britain, imported Imams – often non-English-speaking and with no real conception of British society – spout sermons of hate containing the most incendiary anti-Western rhetoric imaginable. Much of it aimed at white people. Burn them, kill them, cut their heads off. The sort of stuff that’d see you down a cop shop before your feet touched the ground. If you said it in an open forum, instead of a semi-public space in a foreign tongue.

Perhaps someone – just one per mosque – could note such things down, translate it into English, make a complaint. Anonymously if necessary.

After all, these are the men providing the toxic narrative that turns under-employed young men into raging jihadis filled with hatred. Taking down the men they see as teachers is the first step towards bringing them productively into British society, instead of forever raging at its fringes. Perhaps they’ll never come all the way in – but that’s ok. One of the truly great things about Britain is the way it’s big enough for a great many cultures to live side-by-side, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

And no, this idea isn’t “racist”. If you think it is – I ask: what race is Islam, then?

Is it South Asian? A lot of people in the deserts might dispute that. Is it Arab? I know plenty of Persians who’d take issue there. And there are millions of Muslims in the regions around Russia that gave their name to the term “Caucasian”. Islam isn’t a race, it’s a belief system. And thankfully in the UK we’re allowed to question, criticise, even insult a belief system without falling foul of the law. (There are many belief systems I criticise, including Nazi ideology, socialism, the tooth fairy and the Flying Spaghetti Monster.)

If you’re a mosque- or madrassa- going Muslim who speaks English, why not familiarise yourself with your local police station’s non-emergency number or its online equivalent today, record accurately any racist comment your Imam makes at his next sermon, and report it once you get outside? Include the name and address of the mosque and the name of the Imam in your complaint, plus the date and approximate time the comment was made.

Is there, in every Mosque in Britain, just one good Muslim who could help?

Simple Solutions to Complex Problems: take away their votes

According to The Economist, Britain now spends £175bn on welfare, mostly housing benefit and income support. In a country of 30m taxpayers. C’mon guys; every taxpayer paying £6000 a year of someone else’s rent isn’t sustainable.

So here’s another of my simple solutions to complex problems: if you rely principally on government assistance – say two-thirds or more of your household inflow – you don’t get to vote.

My simple solutions are all about making one change, then getting out of the way and letting second-order effects work. (Note they’re simple ideas, not simple to implement.) Let’s take a look at the effect this change would have.

First, the vast bloc of voters whose votes are essentially purchased rather than won are instantly out of the equation. (It wouldn’t be party political, either. Older voters tend Tory; younger claimants towards Labour.) Politicians can form policy with a much longer-term view.

For example, the great pensions problem affecting much of the developed world would disappear in 10-20 years. With upping state pensions no longer a vote-winner, it’d probably be replaced by something contributory and defined-benefit… perhaps not individual accounts, but “notional” accounts that show you how much you’ll get in retirement based on what you pay in. Everyone becomes responsible for their own retirement; these people don’t count as receiving government support, and retain their vote. Simple.

Then there’s welfare. If you want to vote for a party that puts money in your pocket… well, you’ve got to work. It’s the ultimate incentive, to a genuinely concerned citizen, to get a job and make sure their government assistance, if needed, comprises less than two-thirds of their household income. (It’d also make corporations behave better; wage structures are often cynically set to take advantage of availability of housing benefit rather than get workers off it.)

This works because it’s not a black or white policy. Plenty of people are genuine workers, but by circumstance or accident have to rely on a certain amount of help. They’ll continue to get that help. But if they want to affect policy in the most basic way, they have to do some level of meaningful economic activity. The two-thirds level doesn’t even affect that many people; probably less than two million.

And over a decade or two, policy will become less knee-jerk. Without a couple of million of society’s less useful to skew the ballot, the country’s financials will improve sustainably. Policy can be constructed from proper data rather than tabloid lobbying. And the UK will get back to work, driving economic activity from the right source: people’s hard work, not state spending.

It’s so simple. But like all my simple solutions to complex problems… somewhat harder to implement.

Simple answers 2: the US representational system

I’ve just realised why Obama can’t get anything done no matter how hard he tries: it’s the Senate. So it’s time for another simple solution to a complex problem.

The solution: give each Senator a vote equal to the percentage of the US population he or she represents.

(Note these are simple solutions, not simple implementations.)

The issue is that while the US Congress is basically representative – California has over 50 votes in the electoral college given its population of over 37m – the Senate is not. Two Senators from every State, each with an equal voice in the upper house. This is the complete antithesis of the most basic principle of democracy (one man, one vote.

In practical terms, this means barely 10% of the US population have a veto over all US legislation. That 10% is almost entirely in the Red States: the god, guns ‘n gays crowd. (Apparently they have certain views on abortion, too.)

Worldly-wise, internationally aware (sort of) California and New York, with over 56 million people, have no louder voice in the Senate than … North Dakota and Kansas.

Now there’s nothing wrong with North Dakota or Kansas (or indeed with voting Republican if you’re into that sort of thing) but should the interests of a few hardscrabble villages really outweigh the greater good of cities with economies larger than most countries?

I mean, it’s hardly unique to the USA (the UK’s electoral boundaries favour the Labour Party, whose parliamentary seats require fewer votes on average to win) but nothing in Europe gets anywhere near the situation in Washington.

Odd that the world’s strongest democracy is ultimately overseen by a couple of farmers in the vast flat states inland. But the solution, at least, is simple.

Simple solutions

It’s amazing how many of the Big Problems could be solved simply. But those in the position to make those decisions don’t do simplicity. Unless, perhaps, the solution (once found) is so simple and obvious everyone adopts it immediately.

I appreciate that when there are special interests, lobbyists, and campaign contributors to satisfy, simple problems are the hardest to come up with… and in the USA in particular, cross-party alliances for the greater good seem to have died with Roosevelt. But when it comes to simple solutions, competing interests aren’t the biggest blockage.

The bigger problem with simple solutions is that you’ve got to make one change… and then not interfere with what happens next. And for today’s politicians, not interfering is the hardest thing of all.

However, executional factors aside, I believe that despite the multiplicity of complex drivers, every Big Problem has a simple solution. There’s ONE enabling factor that would release pent-up potential and open the gates for all related problems to be solved…. key word: ‘enabling‘.

In some cases, the simple solution is obvious. For example, take Israel vs Palestine: it’s All About Jerusalem. Sharing a couple of mouldering rocks in the Old Town; that’s what this thousand-year-old problem is ultimately all about. For others, the simple solution is buried in behaviour or legislation sometimes centuries old.

Here’s my list. The principle: make the change, then let go.

Iran. A solution to “the Iran problem” is exceptionally simple: show some respect. Persian culture is ancient and fascinating; this huge and deep nation just wants us to take it seriously, with Ahmedinejad the (somewhat deranged) voice of this ‘tude. I thought Obama was the man that’d do this, but he’s got off to a bad start. You don’t have to like someone to respect him.

The financial crisis. The solution here is deep – but simple. The Bank of England (and its counterparts elsewhere) has few instruments to influence the economy: interest rates, quant easing. Let’s add one more: a rolling ability to set banks’ required capital ratio. When the economy starts overheating, turn up the ratio. When it starts sloping downward, ease up. This simple solution (nominally free of political interference, like Gordon Brown’s one good idea of letting the BoE set interest rates) would smooth peaks and troughs in the economic cycle and put bankers in their place.

American healthcare. The solution here is brilliantly simple: kill the tax perk attached to health insurance. This distorting tax break, originally designed to encourage employers to provide insurance, takes $250bn a year out of the US Treasury – not far off the entire cost of Medicare per year at present. The resulting effects, as fewer employers provide insurance, would be to increase incentives for insurers to offer affordable personal plans, currently out of reach for anyone earning below $50K. In turn, more insured people would reduce the distortions of uninsured people arriving in emergency rooms, encouraging preventive treatment and earlier, cheaper interventions. The total cost savings would enable the only national health solution palatable to US voters: a cheap government-backed insurance for the unemployed. Costs down, revenues up, a raft of new business opportunities, and 100% population coverage. Simple.

Closer to home, Scottish independence. The solution for Scotland is simple. Just let them do it! Seriously: give ’em their share of the debt (Hellooo, RBS!) and cut the apron strings that shower endless English taxpayers’ money onto Edinburgh. This nation of five million people contains perhaps 150,000 actual taxpayers; it has serious self-inflicted health issues and is almost entirely reliant on Westminster’s largesse. Take that largesse away, give Scotland independence, and what’s the betting they’ll be on their knees wanting to rejoin the Union within a decade. Problem solved.

British education suffers two Big Problems: crap schools and underfunded universities. As usual, both caused by Labour governments. (Socialists never understand the Law of Unintended Consequences, not being capable of seeing further than their own noses.) Both can be solved with one simple solution: the International Baccaleareate.

The English school curriculum is cluttered and prescriptive: telling teachers what to do, yet preventing them actually doing it. It focusses far too much on top-of-Maslow’s-Pyramid stuff like self-actualisation and diversity, before the basics of reading and writing are embedded. Employers constantly complain of remedial maths and English for supposedly bright candidates. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of British kids are missing a university place this year, since providing such an education costs more than the £3K/yr the universities are allowed to charge. While all universities remain open to ‘international’ students able to pay a market rate.

The IB is a general qualification covering a range of subjects taken at 18 – a ‘real’ education, instead of the politically-correct GSCE (where being unable to reach the correct answers does not deny you a pass) and the over-simplified ‘A’ Level (now offered in subjects including Photography and Hairdressing.) The teenage holder of an IB is a Decent Citizen, capable of writing a plain declarative sentence and solving a simultaneous equation with a working knowledge of history and the great stories across cultures. A sense of ‘place’, lacking in so many young Britons today (and responsible for their poor social skills.)

Equipped with an IB, British students would compete as ‘internationals’ (nothing’s more racist than denying a place based on passport not ability) and would get offered places based entirely on their abilities, as it should be. They get charged the same rates as international students; paying for it is their problem. (This solution is about improving education, NOT improving ‘access’ – another New Labour straw man put up to cover their hatred of the middle class.) The simple solution here is to make the IB the basis of schooling in the UK.

And, of course, there’s an obvious one for Africa.

Big Problems, simple solutions. There are plenty of them; I think I’ll add to this post over the coming weeks.

How to save Africa

OK, hand me some wraparound shades and teach me an Irish accent. As Live8 prepares to divert yet more millions into a few Swiss bank accounts, and the continent itself lurches from drama to crisis in a hundred hotspots, I’ve come up with a plan that’d make Africa a peaceful, economically strong continent in less than a generation. It’s so simple in principle it’s bound to work.

Here’s the plan – the whole plan – put women in charge of the African continent.

That’s it. That’s all of it. NATO does some artful bargaining to get China and India on its side, then says ‘enough’ to this festering scab on the globe and points some nuclear-tipped bargaining chips south. It gets written into every constitution from Cairo to Cape Town: any African leader must be a woman; all MPs, senior civil servants, and village elders must be female; girls get first dibs on schooling, healthcare, access to credit, and control over household income.

Men aren’t deleted from the plan; they just can’t assume certain roles. They’re put under control of the women, which is where they belong. Africa’s men have failed their continent so spectacularly they can hardly expect any more privileges.

Putting women in charge would be illegal, presumptive, and against every human right you can think of. In other words, it’s about as justifiable as… Iraq. So definitely do-able. And unlike Iraq, it’d bring solid advantages on a short timescale. Just think:

Everybody would eat. Women, particularly African women, have a relationship with food and the earth that men don’t share. Women in Africa already do the work of getting good food to come out of the harsh ground; put them in charge, and they’d make sure it got to the tables too.

All wars would stop tomorrow. Mothers don’t wage war. (When you’ve experienced a human being actually leaving your body, you have a somewhat different perspective on sending anyone else’s kid to die.) The rivers of blood in the Congo would dry up; Ethiopians and Eritreans would stop glaring at each other across the freshly-drawn border and go home.

Africa would stop running deficits. If there’s one thing women with families know how to do, it’s balance a budget. With no war, the guns and bombs that swallow what little GDP is left over from the kickbacks would stop. $40bn in debt relief is nothing compared to what half a billion women could do in a year.

Men would learn to behave. Across vast tracts of Africa, it’s the women who hold communities together while their feckless menfolk drink hooch and play cards. These men have given up. But women have greater depth of resolve when they’re absolutely at rock-bottom; they’re more capable of pulling themselves up from nothing. And if women had the power to enforce simple policies of their own – withholding sex without fear, withholding beer money, imposing curfews and requiring work – the worst half of the African population would get its act together.

The era of the Raybanned dictator would be over. Even moderate African leaders get the ‘Big Man of Africa’ disease when they seize power – instantly they’re driving around in motorcades and building million-dollar haciendas out of government funds. Can you imagine any woman doing that? I can’t. For all the power she wielded, Margaret Thatcher remained a public servant, unlike El Presidente Tony Blair.

The corruption would nosedive. Let’s face it, it can’t get any worse: in Nigeria corruption has reached 100%. You simply can’t get anything done without cash under the table. And it bleeds opportunity, lets investment slide away, lets infrastructure crumble into dust. But women have understandings. They make – and expect – agreements to be honoured. An African man sees a pipeline heading over the border, and thinks of his Swiss bank account. An African woman looks at that pipeline, and wants to know why everyone’s forced to buy imported oil.

The money would start working. In the poorest parts of Africa, women are the breadwinners. The most developmentally successful financial institutions are those making ‘microloans’ of less than $100, often to buy a single cow that can bring livelihood – and the most successful of these banks lends only to women. The endless gorging of misdirected billions that’s a signature of this disastrous continent would stop.

The borders would start healing. Let’s face it, much of Africa is a map of convenience drawn up by Europeans. Somalia should be 2 nations, Kenya at least 4, and it’s anyone’s guess how many nations really exist within Nigeria. (20 at min?) Conversely, plenty of little patches west and centre have no basis for independent existence. Women would redraw Africa’s borders to where they really were all along: linguistic, cultural, and tribal groups except where there’s a mountain in the way. And because it’s being done by women, it’d be peaceful all the way.

So that’s my plan. And once on track, there’s no limit to what Africa could achieve. The big projects would get a lot easier if political and economic stability could be achieved: : a tiny fraction of the Sahara paved with solar panels would supply all Earth’s energy needs, without pollution, forever. And that’d just be the start.