Saturday, 24 September 2016

Scribblings VI: Old lags, metaphysics, arts funding, pubs and public health

Trying to keep up with assorted Scribblers is challenging and this is a selection that tries to avoid stuff about the US Presidential Elections, Brexit and the leadership of the Labour Party. Not that these things are unimportant but that they've a tendency to crowd out other stuff that's just as interesting (and maybe important).

On the latter point, this post from Anna Raccoon is definitely important - what do we do with elderly and ill (even terminally ill) prisoners?
The number of older prisoners in the UK has more than doubled in the last decade, with the greatest increases amongst those over 70. Around 40% of older prisoners are sex offenders, many of whom are in prison for the first time due to historic abuse. Longer sentences and more stringent release criteria mean that increasing numbers of ‘anticipated deaths’ in prison are predicted.
Fascinating - especially the issues with painkilling drugs (most of which are, from a different angle, narcotics).

Meanwhile the Flaxen Saxon is getting all metaphysical:

Philosophers as far back as Plato (see the allegory of the cave) have reasoned that what we perceive is not reality. With the advent of computers and especially the stupendous increase in computing power, we have to ask ourselves- are we part of a huge computer simulation? Sounds ludicrous, doesn't it? Perhaps, but there are serious professional physicists and philosophers out there who consider the concept not only plausible, but likely. And no, these folk are not inmates of a secure mental health facility, they are, in the main, tenured academics.

As I commented on the blog - all reminds me of Brian Aldiss's 'Report on Probability A'. Which rather takes us to that age old question as to whether we can, in the manner of Azimov's 'psychohistory' break everything down into equations, algorithms and metrics. As Demetrius asks in talking about arts funding:
So many of us ask for the arts to have some funding and support to ensure their survival and continuance in a difficult world. Now it seems that this can only be if extensive management is applied to the distribution and assessment of those which are being assisted.
Having just re-read Yevgeny Zamyatin's 'We' (written in 1921 as a critique of Taylorism but banned by the Soviets as it applies as well to Scientific Marxism) it's clear that this breaking down of everything into numbers and measurements remains a challenge to civilisation.

Indeed there's a part of this problem displayed in the endeavours of public health to use science to promote their rather joyless ideology of wellbeing. And both Frank Davis and Paul Barnes pick up on this. First Paul on Stop Smoking Services (SSS) and e-cigs:
This is where I begin to have a niggly problem with SSS. I don’t knock the work they do, but nine times out of ten when a positive article appears in the press there is always this cessation approach – the “they can help you quit smoking” – type line. Broadly speaking that statement is true, but e-cigarettes are substantially more than just a bloody quit aid.
And Frank on 'junk food':
My conclusion is that “junk food” is perfectly good food, but “disapproved food”. It’s food that’s been labelled as “junk”, and most likely libelled as “junk”. And there is no rhyme or reason for this disapproval, much like there is no rhyme or reason for the disapproval of everything else the disapprovers disapprove.
Only approved pleasures are allowed, citizen!

But we like pubs, of course. Pubs are about community - wholesome, clean, caring community. And we should save them. Old Mudgie takes issue with this simple mantra as promoted by Greg Mulholland MP:
Now, I recognise that pubs can have a value as community resources that transcends narrow financial considerations, and that ACV listings, if properly applied, can give them a valuable stay of execution if they are threatened. I’d also support pubs being given protection from being turned into shops or offices without needing planning permission, subject to a reasonable minimum time limit of trading as pub.

But it has to be accepted that society changes and moves on over time, and that most of the current issues around planning and redevelopment are symptoms of the general decline in the demand for pubs, not its cause.
The idea - as Mulholland has promoted in Otley - that every single pub (there are over 20 in Otley) merits protection is hard to defend. Helping locals save the only village pub is a great idea but using planning and regulation as a stick to beat PubCos really won't work if the pub isn't viable in the first place.

Perhaps, if we're concerned about community, we need to ask about how councils, police and fire services are stopping local events unless they pay up or provide their own security (at great cost). Here's Julia:
So....what's happened here is the council get to shrug their shoulders and say 'Toree cutz, mate, innit?' Because that's easier than changing the event into something more manageable.

Friday, 23 September 2016

We'd be a better world with a little more geography and a little less economics.

Two things happened recently that reminded me of how we have pushed geography to the margins of learning. And that this is pretty much a disaster.

The first is a comment on my blog from by sister, Frances Coppola:
On a larger scale, the same thing is happening in the EU periphery. Whole countries are becoming ghettos of the elderly, sick, disabled and those trapped by low skills and lack of money, while the young and skilled migrate to the core in search of better-paid work. I wrote about this a few years ago. I won't post the links here, but if you want to look the posts up they are called "the creeping desert", and (rather more upbeat) "in the countries of the old". You might also like to look up Paul Krugman's work on social geography. He won a Nobel for it, if I recall correctly.
The point Frances makes isn't relevant to what I'm saying here as what interests me is the last two sentences. Paul Krugman is, of course, a Nobel Prize winning economist. There are no Nobel Prizes for geography.

Mr. Krugman received the award for his work on international trade and economic geography. In particular, the prize committee lauded his work for “having shown the effects of economies of scale on trade patterns and on the location of economic activity.” He has developed models that explain observed patterns of trade between countries, as well as what goods are produced where and why.

Now I'm not going to start an argument about what is geography and what is economics but I spent my childhood reading (well more than was healthy) Stamp's Commercial Geography - the 1935 edition. And it was and I guess still is about "the location of economic activity". These days, however, it's so much sexier to call yourself an economist even if what you're doing is geography.

The second event was a visit to a book shop. Indeed to perhaps the best looking book shop anywhere in the world, Waterstone's Bradford:

Filling in some spare time usefully by wandering around this wonderful shop I noticed that while there's a politics section, a history section and a social science section there's no geography section. OK there's some shelves labelled travel but these are almost entirely guides. What there isn't is any attempt to bring together books about geography - the modern day descendants of that Stamp's Commercial Geography.

Our problem is that, while we festishise history and drool over economics, geography's mainly treated as either shopping studies or quiz questions. And the result of this is that it's not taught enough (and perhaps not well enough):
The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and National Geographic have commissioned a survey to gauge what young people educated in American colleges and universities know about geography, the environment, demographics, U.S. foreign policy, recent international events, and economics. The survey, conducted in May 2016 among 1,203 respondents aged eighteen to twenty-six, revealed significant gaps between what young people understand about today’s world and what they need to know to successfully navigate and compete in it. The average score on the survey’s knowledge questions was only 55 percent correct, and just 29 percent of respondents earned a minimal pass—66 percent correct or better.
In know this is America, famous for not knowing any geography, but I'm pretty sure we'd find a similar ignorance were we to survey students in European universities. We gleefully proclaim the importance of 'location' (even 'location, location, location') but then allow children to leave school knowing next to nothing about their world, barely able to comprehend a map, and incapable of seeing the connection between culture, economics and the physical world.

There's nothing new in this - the first edition of the National Geographic (published 128 years ago today) included this grumble:
Davis also takes time to bemoan the lack of geographic knowledge among the public: "It makes one grieve to think of the opportunity for mental enjoyment that is lost because of the failure of education in this respect."
I remain of the view that we'd be a better world if we focused a little more on geography and a little less on economics.


Marches and rallies are professions of faith not mere political acts

In his novel 'Necromancer', Gordon Dickson explored the differing traits in human personality. The book acts as a prequal to Dickson's best known work, the Dorsai trilogy. One of the traits or types - alongside military, spiritual and scientific - was one based on faith. In 'Soldier, Ask Not' the second in the Dorsai trilogy, Dickson casts this 'trait of faith' in the manner of a sombre, puritan religion and explores ideas of unquestioning loyalty, community and conformity to rules.

But the origins of these 'Friendlies' that Dickson sets out in ' Necromancer' were what he called marching societies a group of cults whose typical modus operandi was to march through the streets chanting slogans. Now while the book paints these marchers as religious in motivation, Dickson is clear that the link is faith - undoubting belief that something is true regardless of criticism, evidence or argument:

“Let me attest as if it were only for myself. Suppose that you could give me proof that all our Elders lied, that our very Covenant was false. Suppose that you could prove to me”—his face lifted to mine and his voice drove at me—“that all was perversion and falsehood, and nowhere among the Chosen, not even in the house of my father, was there faith or hope! If you could prove to me that no miracle could save me, that no soul stood with me, and that opposed were all the legions of the universe, still I, I alone, Mr. Olyn, would go forward as I have been commanded, to the end of the universe, to the culmination of eternity. For without my faith I am but common earth. But with my faith, there is no power can stay me!”

It's important that, in understanding politics, we appreciate that this faith is as important as the measured, supposedly rational debate that we pretend motivates the politically active. It has, for me at least, been a matter of curiosity why thousands of people who are otherwise pretty normal feel the need to gather in rallies, to stage protests and to march - like Dickson's cults - along the streets waving banners while shouting slogans. When we look back at the Labour leadership campaign, we see the clash of these two approaches to politics - cynical triangulation set against a cult-like certainty of the truth in those chanted slogans. As Nick Cohen argues in this week's Spectator:

Utopias are always banal. Corbyn's Utopia allows his supporters to wallow in the warmth of self-righteousness. They want to end austerity. Stop greed. Bring peace. How they do it is not their concern. Practicalities are dangerous. They take you away from Utopia and back into the messy, Blairite realm of compromises and second-bests.

The problem is (and Cohen - along with many others - misses this) that the Blairite realm has no appeal to the political. It is essentially anti-politics at least in how it deals with the traditional certainties of the left's world view. Those traditional certainties - capitalism exploits workers, socialism is good, businessmen are greedy, Tories are uncaring - are a mantra, exclamations of faith and without them the thing that drives the activist is gone. Without them the left has no purpose and is simply a pale imitation of the cynical, corrupt Tory Party.

If this mantra of socialism, so the left believes, is shouted loudly enough and often enough its message will be heard and the workers' Utopia will come to pass. And, just as in the quote above from 'Soldier, Ask Not', it doesn't matter how often the terrible truth of that Utopia is shown the marchers simply march more and shout louder. The mounds of dead in Soviet Russia and Maoist China make no difference. The warning words in '1984', 'We' and 'Brave new World' don't dent the commitment of the faithful. Riots and bread queues in Caracas merely result in a renewed condemnation of the rich and the greedy.

The rally and the march - things that seem strange and even sinister to most people - serve the same purpose as the Sunday service does to the evangelical. They are shared proclamations of faith, occasions when the believers gather to affirm that belief. These events are as much about this shared experience as they are about changing anything - the 'Save the NHS' march doesn't do anything to achieve that aim but instead brings together the faithful in publicly professing their faith.

Today, with what's called the 'populist' right, we're seeing similar attitudes emerging blinking and unpolished from the right. This isn't really that new - the extreme right has always been a twisted reflection of the far left - except in that there's numbers and momentum. Trump, Le Pen - even Nigel Farage - use that same rhythm of repeated slogans to provide a catechism for the faithful to use. And they use the same targets as the left too - greedy bankers, corrupt politicians, the rich elites and globalisation. There's an appetite for this because the processes of democracy became the realm of marketing rather than debate or discussion. And marketing suits the simple slogans of the faithful far more than the nuanced ideas of the intellectual.


Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Why London dominates (or how the London problem isn't really a London problem)

Aaron Renn picks up on how tech superstar, Peter Thiel sort of accidently exposed the truth about Chicago (in Chicago):
“If you are a very talented person, you have a choice: You either go to New York or you go to Silicon Valley.”

The problem for Thiel was that he said this while speaking at an event in Chicago. No surprise, it didn’t go over well. An enquiring questioner wanted to know, “Who comes to Chicago if first-rate people go to New York or Silicon Valley?”
Now leaving aside the responses from miffed Chicago fans (the city that is not the band) Renn raises and explores an interesting point about the USA. Here he borrows from Charles Murray to make his point:
[I]t is difficult to hold a nationally influential job in politics, public policy, finance, business, academia, information technology, or the media and not live in the areas surrounding New York, Washington, Los Angeles, or San Francisco. In a few cases, it can be done by living in Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, Dallas, or Houston—and Bentonville, Arkansas—but not many other places.
For those not up on US billionaires, Bentonville in the HQ of Walmart.

Transfer this observation out of the USA and we have the elements of a thesis about why London dominates the UK - indeed, why London is so dominant in Europe. It seems likely that, just as Peter Thiel says, smart people head to one or two places - Renn reports that a quarter of HPY (Harvard, Princeton, Yale) graduates live in or around New York. I've no data for the UK but does anyone want to bet against Oxbridge graduates overwhelmingly living in and around London? We know it's true of tertiary education in general:
Given that most persons aged 30–34 will have completed their tertiary education prior to the age of 30, this indicator may be used to assess the attractiveness (or ‘pull effects’) of regions with respect to the employment opportunities they offer graduates. Map 5 shows tertiary educational attainment by NUTS level 2 region for 2015: the darkest shade of orange highlights those regions where at least half of the population aged 30–34 had attained a tertiary level of education. By far the highest share was recorded in one of the two capital city regions of the United Kingdom — Inner London - West — where more than four fifths (80.8 %) of the population aged 30–34 possessed a tertiary level of educational attainment. The second, third and fourth highest shares were also recorded in the United Kingdom, namely in: Outer London - South (69.3 %), the other capital city region of Inner London - East (68.2 %), and North Eastern Scotland (66.1 %); note that all four regions in Scotland recorded shares above 50%.
The three regions in Europe with the highest concentrations of graduates are all in London which seems to repeat what we've seen from the USA where New York, Boston, Washington and San Francisco dominate. And it means that the UK, by defining its regional achievement through comparison with London, has created an economic development problem. The city's success creates a virtuous circle - the clever, ambitious people are in London doing clever ambitious things meaning that clever ambitious people from elsewhere in the UK - perhaps even in Europe - head to London because that's where clever, ambitious people go to be clever and ambitious. With the obvious result that, the occasional Bentonville or Omaha proving the rule, places elsewhere have to make do with less clever, less ambitious people and as a consequence slower economic growth.

The European data on tertiary education tells us that this supercharged agglomeration effect is pretty consistent - everywhere capital cities and places with a lot of research infrastructure suck up the graduates leaving other places with less of the talent needed to achieve that aim of 'closing the gap' between successful places and less successful places. The problem with London, New York and San Francisco (and, no doubt, were we to look: Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai) is that their agglomeration effect sucks the brightest and most able from places that, of themselves, are seen as relatively successful. Clever and ambitious Parisians head to London, just as the brightest in Chicago switch to San Francisco, Washington or New York.

For London - regardless of Brexit - this process is likely to continue and, in doing so, for the problems of London (expensive housing, the occasional late train, crime, air pollution and so forth) inevitably become the problems of the UK. Planning policies are adapted to fit London's housing crisis, health policies to reflect the worries of a thirty- and forty-something population, and transport policies designed for the needs of big city commuters. The dominance of London - The London Problem - doesn't just skew the UK's economy but it also profoundly influences the complete range of national government policies. That London Problem isn't really a London problem but results in a national policy programme suited to the clever and ambitious who have - because that's where the opportunities are - headed to London.


Tuesday, 20 September 2016

On efficient farming (and driverless tractors)

This really does matter (although it will cause palpitations in all the locavores, organic food nuts and pseudo-environmentalists):

Globally, therefore, adoption of American farming techniques could increase agricultural productivity so much that a landmass the size of India could be returned to nature, without compromising the food supply to our apparently “peaking” global population – the world’s population is likely to peak at 8.7 billion in 2055 and then start to decline. Last, but not least, tens of millions of agricultural laborers in Africa and Asia will be freed from back-breaking labor, migrate to the cities and create wealth in other ways.

If you are truly concerned about the future of humanity in general, and hunger, poverty and equality in particular, forget about The Hunger Games and embrace the driverless tractor instead.

Absolutely. The problem is that the wealthy do-gooders of the developed West are intent on destroying agricultural efficiency in a mad belief that this results in both a healthier world and a planet saved. Since neither of these things are true, it's time we recognised the benefits of industrial agriculture.


Monday, 19 September 2016

Is it Our NHS or Their NHS?

I'll start with a little celebration. A senior finance officer from our local NHS presented to Bradford's Health and Wellbeing Board. Now if you'd made a habit of reading Twitter or The Guardian you'd be very worried at the content of this presentation - the pain, the stress, the cuts....AUSTERITY!

The officer opened with this (I paraphrase from my notes but it's close enough):

"The NHS has £800 million to spend across the three CCGs. This number is not going down but is rising. However, it's not growing at the pace we think we need to meet demand."
This, dear reader, is the truth about the NHS. When you see parades of nurses waving banners about 'saving the NHS', you're led to believe - it's implicit in the protest - that the health service is suffering draconian cuts when the truth is that the rate of growth for the NHS simply doesn't keep up with the growing pressures. And every report, each presentation we see from the officials of the NHS repeats the need for system change - words like co-production, self-care and prevention dominate the pages of PowerPoint flashing up on the screens. And this is great.

There is, however, another theme and it is this that explains the 'Save Our NHS' campaigns and the heartrending tales of cuts and awful austerity. It cropped up in today's presentation - the first three lines in the list of economies to be made were all about workforce efficiency, pay restraint and savings in administrative staff. It's not 'Our NHS' we're saving, it's 'Their NHS' - the anger about cuts and austerity is mostly a response to the NHS applying the same cost management practices that private business and, latterly, local government have used.

This isn't to say that all is rosy in the NHS or even that it is grossly overmanned but rather that a system predicated on annual increases in costs significantly above inflation is simply unsustainable. It's not a solution - as some seem to think - to create a hypothecated tax unless you plan on making the rate of that tax increase by 5% each and every year. The solution lies in stabilising the cost base and this, whatever those banner-waving NHS employees may say, means cost controls. And the NHS's biggest cost is wages.

What we're seeing with the NHS Action Party, with the doctors' strikes and with the sanctifying of all NHS employees, is an endeavour aimed at drawing the public into defending the interests of the health service's employees. For many this is right - these are deeply caring, highly skilled people - but it covers up the truth. The reality is that, without different ways of working including those involving fewer staff, the NHS is not sustainable. None of this is about privatisation, market forces or some sort of dark and evil Tory conspiracy to destroy 'Our NHS' - it's simply a necessary process aimed at ensuring that, so far is practical and possible, we retain that central idea of a health service free to all without favour at the time they need that service.

Here in Bradford the forward look at NHS finances tell us that, without changes to the way we work, there will be a deficit of over £200m by 2022/23 - this scales up to a national deficit of £20 billion. It doesn't require much analysis to conclude that this simply can't be met. So the result is that we have to make these cost savings and since over 75% of NHS costs are wage related, the biggest chunk of those savings has to come from staffing. The impact of strikes, protests and campaigns won't be that these reductions don't take place but rather - as with almost every campaign of this sort in recent history - with the resultant cuts being more extensive, more painful and more damaging.

If you want it to really be Our NHS then you need to start by rejecting the militant 'Save the NHS' campaigns and instead support a considered, rational and planned approach to reforming the NHS. This means better use of technology, it means partnership with the private, charitable and voluntary sector, it mean promoting the idea of healthy ageing and it means working with local councils to improve case - at home and in the community - for the elderly and disabled. It cannot mean supporting current structures, systems and staffing levels - if we do that we will be the losers as the NHS fails to meet our needs and the needs of our neighbours.


Sunday, 18 September 2016

How Jaywick and West Texas tell us the Intergenerational Foundation's research doesn't say what they think it says

The Intergenerational Foundation has done some research - it's pretty good and you can read the full report (pdf) here. The IF look at 'intergenerational segregation' - the extent to which people of different ages tend to concentrate in the same areas. And both the IF and also the media has focused on how the increasing geographical segregation of young and old in England is a consequence of housing problems such as lack of choice and affordability.

Here's the BBC's 'OMG this is terrible' report on the research:

Young families are being "ghettoised" in inner city areas by the housing crisis while older homeowners become isolated in the suburbs, a report says.

The Intergenerational Foundation study says the number of areas dominated by over-50s has risen sevenfold since 1991 as young people move into the cities.

Even within urban areas, older people, children and young adults are living increasingly separate lives, it adds.

I'm sure this pattern will be repeated across other media and will be reflected in reports on similar research in the USA and continental Europe. And the argument that it's all about housing costs will be repeated again and again without question or criticism. Put simply we are more age segregated as a result of older people being unable to move to more 'age appropriate' accommodation because there isn't enough of that housing so young people aren't able to cycle out from the cities into the suburbs. And young people are renting in the city because they can't afford to buy the limited number of houses that come available in those desirable suburbs.

The problem here is that this really doesn't match what the IF's research is saying. Here's a chunk of those findings:

...places with the highest median ages are predominantly in rural parts of the country, particularly around coastal areas, while urban MSOAs stand out for being more youthful.There is also evidence of a north-south divide, as the broader south east surrounding London contains a number of lighter MSOAs – which represent comparatively youthful smaller towns and cities in the region such as Watford, Milton Keynes and Cambridge – whereas the MSOAs which are outside the large northern cities appear to be shaded darker. This pattern supports the finding from previous studies that there is a substantial net inflow of internal migrants who are in their 20s from northern towns and cities to London, while the out-flow of former London residents in their 20s and 30s tends to be to other towns in the south east.

I'm not arguing that there isn't a problem with housing supply (in general or specific to particular needs or demands) but rather that the IF research doesn't really provide an argument supporting the typical description of that housing crisis - young people unable to afford to buy property and, therefore, trapped in rented accommodation. Nor does the work really tell us that these affordability and supply issues are the reasons for England's 'age segregation'.

To understand this, we should note that the highest median ages are 'around coastal areas'. Other than for parts of the South Coast like Brighton and Bournemouth, England's coastal towns are pretty affordable and characterised by high levels of multiple deprivation:

An Essex seaside village is the most deprived neighbourhood in England, according to official statistics.

The community east of Jaywick near Clacton-on-Sea has again topped a list that measured deprivation in 32,844 areas across the country, the government report found.

But all of the local authorities with the highest proportion of deprived neighbourhoods are in the north - Middlesbrough, Knowsley, Hull, Liverpool and Manchester.

And of the top 10 neighbourhoods, Blackpool, the ‘Vegas of the North’, has five in the list, and eight in the top 20.

We see this pattern repeated in other seaside towns - Great Yarmouth, Skegness, Bridlington, Minehead - where an ageing population doesn't have the sort of characteristics popularised by those who want to blame all our problems on 'Baby Boomers'.

John Byford, 48, councillor for Skegness South, said: “Opportunities around here are few and far between. There’s no industry. People like it that we don’t have the fast motorways, but that’s also a problem because it means we don’t get the industry.”

The recently released movie 'Hell and High Water' features two brothers robbing banks so they can pay off the debts on their late mother's ranch. Based in West Texas the film is a contemporary Western nodding to the themes and storylines we're so familiar with from the traditional genre. One thing that strikes you watching is the utter, abject poverty of West Texas with shacks and shuttered shops frequented by tired, old people. These are dying communities without young people and kept going only by the fortune of oil and gas, at least until that runs out too.

So where have those young Texans gone? To the cities:

Texas’s spectacular growth is largely a story of its cities—especially of Austin, Dallas–Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio. These Big Four metropolitan areas, arranged in a layout known as the “Texas Triangle,” contain two-thirds of the state’s population and an even higher share of its jobs. Nationally, the four metros, which combined make up less than 6 percent of the American population, posted job growth equivalent to 30 percent of the United States’ total since the financial crash in 2007. Within Texas, they’ve accounted for almost 80 percent of the state’s population growth since 2000 and over 75 percent of its job growth. Meantime, a third of Texas counties, mostly rural, have actually been losing population.

Why would you stay in a dusty, isolated West Texas town like Post or Brownfield when there's no work and no prospect of work? Same goes - perhaps a little less starkly - for England. Young people are leaving what might be called secondary communities in the North - places like Oldham and Burnley as well as those coastal towns we've already mentioned. And if you've made up your mind to head elsewhere for work you're going to go where those prospects are best which in England means you head to London. It's this pattern of migration that the IF are picking up in their research not merely the consequences of England's failing planning and housing policies.

And the problem is that, while we can do something to make London less age segregated by housing policies, we'll struggle to respond to the desire of older people to live somewhere slower, quieter and more communal than a great big city. Or for that matter the wish of single, fun-loving young folk to live in big cities with great nightlife and loads of other young people. The problems IF identify are as much a consequence of wealth and choice as they are of sclerotic housing policies.