Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Vaping in Bradford. Why the Council voted down a more liberal approach.

Last week Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors voted down a motion I submitted to Bradford Council calling for a 'vaping friendly city'. This motion set out how Public Health England and the Royal College of Physicians had described vaping as "at least 95%" safer than smoking and argued that we should be more positive about e-cigarettes as an effective aid to quitting smoking. The proposed resolution was to conduct a review of current policies with a view to being more open to vaping in public places.

Now the dust has settled I thought I'd share with you the main reasons given by those voting down the motion (other than the real reason for Labour's opposition - this was a Tory motion and we don't vote for Tory motions). This is from memory but I think captures the essence of the debate - supporters of vaping will be very familiar with the arguments.

1. "But 5% of something very harmful is still harmful"

2. "People don't like the smell of vaping - and what about asthmatics?"

3. "There isn't enough evidence that vaping isn't harmful."

4. "We've got used to people not smoking in offices, this is a step backwards."

5. "The flavours smell horrible and are targeted a children."

6. "Here's an opinion piece from the British Medical Journal that says vaping doesn't help people quit

7. "There's no evidence that liberalising rules on vaping encourages people to switch"

We then got three very specific arguments.

8. "It would confuse people because our neighbouring authorities have different policies."

9. "We don't have to lead, to fly the flag, all the time, we don't have to do this."

10. "Officers in public health* are too busy to conduct a review."

*Bradford spends best part of a million quid on smoking cessation.

And finally

11. "We should be talking about more important things for the District than vaping."

It was a pretty depressing episode. I've learnt that, even with a pretty modest motion asking that officers look at our approach to vaping, the controlling Labour group will vote stuff down - "Not-Invented-Here Syndrome" I call it and this combines with a knee-jerk tribalism ("must be a bad idea if the Tories are proposing it") to make it hard to make progress.

Where we go from here I'm not sure. Putting another motion to Council won't work and I'd already tried approaching public health and the council's HR department directly (they chose not to reply). We've made - and will continue to make - the case through the press. Maybe Bradford's vapers are happy to muddle through with a mish-mash of different attitudes towards what they do. And perhaps public health (and Labour councillors) are happy to conflate smoking and vaping because it suits their disdain for what seems like a decidedly working-class habit.

In the end any change will only come through the 20,000 or so Bradford vapers putting pressure on the Council to change. Right now I've gone as far as I can take it.


Tuesday, 25 October 2016

It's not a conspiracy, Donald Trump really is losing

Speaking as a marketing and market research professional, I could get offended by this sort of stuff:
It is not "wishful thinking" to distrust the polls. Nor is there a "natural tightening up" of the polls as election day approaches. The entire polling industry is an exercise in attempted manipulation of public opinion. That's why there is so much media attention focused on it.
Yes folks this is the "the polls are fixed" line we see from Corbynistas in the UK. Unsurprisingly this is from the World of Trump, a strange place filled with paranoia about the actions, motives and capabilities of anyone who questions - let alone presents evidence contradicting - the weird-haired one's march to supreme power.

The truth - there's no getting away from it - is that Donald Trump is crashing and burning. OK so there are glints and glimmers of hope as the odd poll shows Trump within the margin of error - this is like the Brexit polling but not in the way The Donald's fans want to believe. Polling in the run up to the EU Referendum didn't show a lead, let alone a big lead, to Remain but rather that it was 'too close to call' or a narrow lead for Leave. What Trump enthusiasts are doing is the same as Remain - believing their own propaganda.

So no, the polls ain't fixed. The voting machines ain't fixed. The 'mainstream media' isn't in secret cahoots with the Pentagon. The problem is that Donald Trump - the classic 'Republican in Name Only' - is an absolutely appalling candidate only made remotely credible by the happenstance of Hillary Clinton being an almost equally appalling candidate. What is sad here is that the fall out from Trump's candidacy will be the crippling of America's conservatives - embracing a warmed over, pig-ignorant version of 'know-nothing' nativism and mixing it with the gung-ho stupidity of Teddy Roosevelt's Progressives closes off any chance at all of Republicans ever getting back any support among the urban middle-class let alone the Hispanic Americans so carefully cultivated by Reagan and Bush father and son.

There's no winning, however, with this sort of viewpoint:
The Podesta email doesn’t merely prove that the poll-doubters are right to be dubious about their credibility, but demonstrates, once more, that the conspiracy theory of history is the only one that can properly account for historical events.
For the record, I'm a firm and dedicated supporter of the 'Cock-up Theory of History':
Brazilian economist Luiz Carlos Bresser-Pereira suggests that the relevant variable in this case is incompetence. Incompetence is an independent explanatory variable; it cannot be explained in rational or historical terms.

Short lifetime careers (or why teaching should learn from football)

There are a selection of careers that have a shorter lifetime than those the rest of us pursue. And these careers are often the sexy ones we aspired to do when - as I did - you attend, at age eleven, the 'come dressed as what you want to do when you're grown up' party. Firemen, police officers, soldiers, sportsmen and women, models. And, of course, dancers:
Dancers are notoriously bad at planning for their second acts. They underestimate the age at which they'll retire (the average age of retirement is 34), overestimate the amount of money they'll earn, and misjudge the forces that will end their careers. More than one-third of the dancers in a 2004 survey were driven to retirement by an injury; only 5 percent left because they actually wanted a new career. When dancers enter the workforce in their thirties, many are woefully unprepared. Only 3 percent of current dancers say that teaching dance is their preferred post-retirement line of work, but it's the most common fate: 53 percent end up teaching dance in some capacity.
You could write this script for footballers - we look at the mega-star millionaires of the sport and assume that this goes for all the footballers. But only the most talented reach this height, most footballers - like most dancers - ply their trade in the lower leagues. And while the top Premier League stars earn £1,7m per year on average in lower leagues this plummets to between £40,000 and £70,000. These are good wages on the face of it but not if you reckon that most footballers' careers only last 20 years at most. And like the dancers, these retired footballers all end up earning a (not always very good) living from hanging about the game they played - coaching, physio, commentary.

The problem is that, for all the money in elite sport and arts, there really aren't enough jobs out there to maintain the income levels and living standards that retired and redundant dancers and players got used to. Yet we look at the money involved and howl with horror even though, compared to our economy, the money in football, opera or ballet is a drop in the ocean especially given the pleasure sport and art gives to us all.

This problem - in a related but different manner - also applies to careers such as teaching and social work:
In other words, after ten years or so, one cannot remain in the classroom, one must go either upwards, into management or else sideways into a specialist area … or out. The days of Mr. Chips were long gone. One must be perma-vibrant, relevant and up with the latest fad. Especially with Ofsted bureaucrats breathing down one’s neck.
Much of the reason for this is the idea of career progression and that being a classroom teacher in limiting - at least in financial terms. Even with 'career grade' systems in these professions there remains the pressure on the most experienced teachers to spend less time in the classroom and more time doing other important but non-teaching functions. Same goes for social workers meaning that the most capable and experienced end up trapped in an office managing other social workers. In our system - one that presumes the boss is paid more than the people she manages - the teacher or social worker (perhaps also the salesman and engineer too) ends up as a manager, a consultant or advisor rather than spending time doing the thing that person is trained to do.

And this sort of brings us back to football. In football - probably because it is driven by the needs of the tournament - the people paid the most are the ones delivering the product. That £1.7million wage for the average premier league player reflects two things - the transient nature of his career (every time he steps onto the field he knows it could end) and the essence of the game as a contest between teams of the best. And the best are a rare thing.

In this place no-one suggests to the 27 year-old midfield superstar that his only hope of getting more money is to become a coach or a manager. Yet that is precisely the measure we apply to teachers and social workers even while paying lip service to the idea of a career spent in front of a class or in the field. Perhaps we need to change the way in which we pay these vital public servants, to end the tyranny of the spinal column pay scale, national negotiations and a world where school administrators earn more than the best classroom teachers.

Most short term careers have worked pretty hard at making sure there's a life after playing - for public sector ones like policing, fire and soldiering there's a pension and extensive investment in retraining and support. This doesn't stop many of those leaving these uniformed, regimented roles finding civilian life tricky but it shows someone's thinking about the issue even if perhaps not hard enough. In sports like football there's a lot of financial advice and support but just as we saw with the dancers, too many ex-players end up like so many Ghosts of Football Past earning a not especially good income from clutching onto past glories.

But the brightest sportsmen do end up in coaching and management but this is done in a situation where they can't do what got them there - play 90 minutes of high-intensity football. For the other careers we've touched on such as teaching there's really no excuse - we should be begging the best to stay in front of a class.


Friday, 21 October 2016

Friday Fungus: On fungal economics - yeast or mushroom?

Or rather fungal metaphors in economics:
Arnold Harberger offered a nice metaphor thinking about this difference in his Presidential Address to the American Economic Association back in 1998, entitled "A Vision of the Growth Process" and published in the March 1998 issue of the American Economic Review. Harberger discusses whether economic growth is more likely to be like "mushrooms," in the sense that certain parts of a growing economy will take off much faster than others, or more like "yeast," in the sense that economy overall expands fairly smoothly overall. He argues that "mushroom"-type growth is more common.
Of course both yeast and mushrooms are fungus but the metaphor in question is made better still if we understand what's happening in the two processes. Harberger sees only the fruiting heads of the mushrooms - the visible manifestation of a symbiotic growing system:
Mycorrhizal partnerships are symbiotic, or mutually beneficial, relationships between plants and fungi, which take place around the plant's roots. While there are many species of fungus which do not form these partnerships, the vast majority of land plants have mycorrhizas (from the Greek mykes: fungus and rhiza: root), and many plants could not survive without them. Fossil records show that roots evolved alongside fungal partners and that fungi may have been crucial in helping plants evolve to colonise the land, hundreds of millions of years ago.

Broadly speaking, there are two main kinds of mycorrhiza: Arbuscular mycorrhizas penetrate the cells of their host's roots, and most plants develop this type. Ectomycorrhizas surround the roots without penetrating them. Trees may form either type, and some form both. In each case there is cell-to-cell contact between the plant and the fungus, allowing nutrient transfer to take place.
So not only is Harberger's view of growth correct - it's unpredictable in its location, mushroom-like - but when we look closer he has a fascinating metaphor for the way in which that unpredictable growth affects the wider economy (extending mycorrhizas) and the society that economy feeds (the tree symbiote of the mushroom).

The yeast analogy, on the other hand, is a managed, planned and controlled system. That yeast converts the sugars in the dough into carbon dioxide and alcohol making the bread rise (and rise again as we bake off the alcohol). When it's baked the yeast is dead and we must start again if we want more bread. There is no beneficial system - everything is the result of external intervention.


Thursday, 20 October 2016

A reminder that economics and accountancy are not the same thing

Too much of the debate about economics - particularly macroeconomics - is nothing of the sort. I've described it as 'national accounts arithmetic' - a form of accountancy rather than the application, assessment and testing of economic theory.

Here's Don Boudreax quoting Fritz Machlup from back in 1964:
Definitely “out,” relegated to the scrap heap, is the notion that there is such a thing as “the” balance of payments. Even if full and accurate information were available about each and every transaction, “the” balance would always be an arbitrary number. There are many ways of entering the many items into the various accounts, of organizing the accounts, of interpreting the resulting figures; and there is no way of arranging the data so that they can tell a true story of the causal interrelations.
This doesn't stop people doing just what Fritz rails against. Indeed some economists and most pundits routinely confuse accountancy with economics. But as Don points out:
Most people who fret over, say, the U.S. trade deficit don’t know what it is – and far too many of the few who do know what it is treat the conventional manner in which various economic transactions are recorded in international accounts as possessing an economic significance that they simply do not possess.
The thing is that, if we didn't spend millions gathering incomplete data, loading it into inaccurate models of the economy and claiming the resulting answer is 'truth', then the economy would poddle along just fine. What all this modelling, the act of national accountancy, is perpetuate the lie that government can "run the economy". This is the worst sort of lie - the lie of those taking on the mantle of gods, hubris.

But then, as Longfellow said - "those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad."

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

In case you wondered what we do at Council meetings in Bradford

This is cross-posted from the Bradford Council Conservative Group's Facebook page. It's an illustration of the nonsense we get up to at our Council meetings. Most of the time we spend hours debating motions before resolving to write a letter to a minister. We spend very little time discussing things that we actually control like empltying bins, fixing the roads, looking after children and caring for the elderly. And when we do propose that the Council actually does something, the leadership arrange for it to be voted down.


Yesterday Bradford Council met. All ninety of us gathered to, in theory, make decisions about the things that matter to the residents or Bradford. So what did we do?

The first part of the meeting was fine. We received five petitions asking for the Council to act on various matters and these were referred to committees for further consideration. We asked questions of the leader and received financial and corporate planning documents. From a four pm start we’d concluded this process by about ten to six.

The meeting however finished over three hours later during which time we:

1.       Agreed to write letters to the Home Secretary, the Education Secretary, and the Boundary Commission. In the last case the letter concerns issues not within the remit of the commission as it simply criticises the criteria given to that Commission by Parliament and Government.

2.       Rejected proposals to recognise and support e-cigarettes as an effective smoking cessation method that is used by 20-30,000 Bradfordians

3.       Turned down taking positive action against dangerous and anti-social driving

4.       Had an hour long debate about education that resolved nothing at all (except that a majority of Councillors don’t agree with grammar schools)

5.       Voted down the opportunity for the Executive to lead on Bradford Council’s response to the flooding in December 2015. Instead Council decided it was fine for an update to go to a scrutiny committee in six months time

6.       Agreed the salary packages of two senior officers 

We spent a whole evening failing to act on things that actually matter to the Bradford public like dangerous driving, smoking deaths and flooding. Instead the Controlling Labour group preferred to spend time debating a 1984 mass picket in South Yorkshire, moaning about national education policy, and moralising about refugees.

It is difficult to justify keeping Councillors in the meeting for hours when all we do is pass motions instructing the Chief Executive to write letters to people. Yet this is all the current Labour leadership seem to want to do. This year we’ve written letters to a host of government ministers all of which are carefully crafted by officers and all of which receive carefully word answers that change nothing.

But when it comes to taking real action – doing things as a Council – the Labour leadership consistently vote down proposals. As a result, the Council is clear that it isn’t interested in reducing the harm from smoking, developing a more active road safety strategy and treating the risk of flood as a priority."


Monday, 17 October 2016

Hard or soft, eggs is eggs...the Brexit question

Except of course, just like your egg, there's not a clear line between hard and soft, a big range from barely cooked at all (very runny) to something you could use as a weapon (very hard). And everyone has an opinion - from grand economists and lawyers through to the last taxi driver you spoke with and the lady at the Co-op.

This is Simon's guide to making this decision. It's not definitive but it has the merits of being brief and information light.

1. You can make the egg harder, you can't make it softer. If a harder Brexit means removing ourselves from more of the entanglements we have with the EU then going back when we realise such a removal wasn't the best idea is more difficult.

2. The softest of soft eggs is still a cooked egg. The public voted to leave the EU - to put the egg into the boiling water. So barely cooked at all - the EEA option or similar - is still leaving the EU. And if we want it harder, we can always boil it a little more

So the logic here is to start soft - to step across the line that says "EU membership". This changes little (which is why some Brexit Ultras are opposed) but it has the merits of only ruling out things that are directly related to EU membership such as joining the Euro. Everything else remains available - from the 'semi-detached' situation inherent in being an EEA member through to the hardest of hard scenarios where our trade is determined by WTO rules alone and we have whopping great tariffs on imports (this is a really dumb idea and is why John Redwood shouldn't be allowed anywhere near trade policy).

What depresses me most is the persistence of Remain Absolutists who want to overturn the referendum result because "the people are stupid and lawyers are clever" (I summarise their position here but this is close enough - you can replace lawyers with academics, Guardian writers, bloggers, pundits or blokes who used to work at a bank). It would be rather more helpful if such folk accepted the result - ended the dreadful sophistry about it being 'advisory' - and argued for an initially soft Brexit achieved by stepping across that line.
... .