Monday, 20 October 2014

There are more drunks in Blackpool than Barton-le-Clay


Apparently it's a shocking discovery. There are huge regional variations in the incidence of liver disease:

The study uncovered a stark north-south divide, with more than four times as many male adults dying from the disease in Blackpool (58.4 per 100,000) than central Bedfordshire (13 per 100,000).

Predictably this has resulted in a call for more controls over alcohol - doubtless we'll get the familiar set of prescribed solutions: minimum unit pricing, advertising controls, bans on 'super-strength' beer and plain packaging or graphic health warnings. But look again at those figures and ask two questions.

Does it really surprise you that there are a lot more problem drinkers in Blackpool? It really doesn't surprise me and, without wishing to do down Blackpool, it is entirely in line with the town's demographics. I suspect you'll see more street drinkers in a day on Blackpool front than you will over half a year in Dunstable or Flitwick. And this is because Blackpool is where those people go. The town doesn't breed those street drinkers but it's where too many of them end up.

Secondly, we need to ask whether the rise in liver disease really is down to drinking - check out the figures:

The report, Deaths from Liver Disease – Implications for End of Life Care in England, showed that the north-west region had the highest liver disease death rate – 24 per 100,000, with 11.4 from alcohol complications. It was followed by the north-east with 21.9 and 10.1. The east of England had the lowest rate, 12.9 and 4.9, followed by the south-west, 14.3 and 6.4, and the south-east,14.8 and 5.8.

Nearly 60% of deaths from liver disease aren't due to alcohol. But whenever the statistics are quoted we get a splurge of anti-alcohol campaigning. I've noted before that there has been a rise in viral hepatitis cases and there has also been an increase in morbid obesity. And a good chunk of Blackpool's problem will be down to drug use rather than alcohol.

To put the problem in context, 0.0114% of the Blackpool population die as a result of liver disease caused by alcohol abuse. This is a big problem for those sixty or so people in Blackpool and we need to get better at dealing with this issue but it really isn't a massive public health problem.

But then, when the Guardian journalist starts with a blatant untruth there really isn't much hope is there:

The changes in pub opening hours and higher levels of alcohol consumption are directly linked to the “rapid and shocking” increase in death rates, according to Prof Julia Verne, who led the research for PHE.

Alcohol consumption has fallen by around 18% over the past decade and this decline matches (although I'm not saying it was caused by the change) the liberalising of licensing.


Sunday, 19 October 2014

A very brief comment about Rochester and Strood...


In the 2005 general election 20, 315 people voted Labour in the Harwich constituency in north Essex. Almost all of this constituency - everything but the town of Harwich itself - now makes up the Clacton constituency so spectacularly caputured by UKIP defector Douglas Carswell. In 2010 Labour still took 25% of the vote - which if you've been to Jaywick or St Osyth shouldn't really be a surprise. Yet Labour made no effort at all to fight the recent by-election with the result that its vote sunk to less than 4,000.

It seems to me that Labour is about to repeat this approach in Rochester and Strood - a place that had a Labour MP up to 2010. And the media seems set on letting Labour get away with fighting a seat that, were this a normal by-election causes by death or resignation, the party would have had every expectation of winning or coming close to winning. The truth about Rochester and Strood is that it's not a sort of Kentish version of Buckingham or Wokingham - it's a pretty working class place and Labour is hanging its support there out to dry, handing it over on a plate to UKIP.

If I were a cynic, I'd suggest that Labour essentially giving up on contesting seats where iit had MPs in the last decade reflects their running the dangerous game of wanting UKIP to damage the Conservatives. The problem is that, across much of the South, the consequence of this approach will be that UKIP will become - for the time being at least - the main opposition to the Conservatives.  And along the Thames estuary - perhaps the few places in the south where Labour remains strong - the party will die out.

Odd really.


Saturday, 18 October 2014

Social capital and the problem with immigration - some thoughts


Immigration is a problem. OK, you can call it a challenge, a significant policy issue or some other 'slightly-dodging-the-issue' form of words but the truth is that people – voters – are bothered about immigration. We know this because they tell us so in polling and because, if any of us have any ears, we hear it every day. Whether it’s a casual racist remark in a queue to go through security at Leeds Bradford Airport or the comments that trail behind crime reports, stories about ‘multiculturalism’ and descriptions of events at mosques.

The problem is that, whatever people say, immigration really isn’t an economic problem. There really isn’t much – or indeed any – substantial research evidence showing that immigration has a negative impact on levels of employment, economic growth or other measures of economic performance. So when Jonathan Portes reports this he is right:

“The research found evidence of a positive and significant association between increases in employment of migrant workers and labour productivity. It found that recruiting from outside the UK had allowed employers to fill skilled and specialist roles and enabled some organisations to expand. Employers reported that migrants' skills are often complementary to, rather than substituting for, those of UK born employees.”

However, this really isn’t the problem (or challenge or significant policy issue) at all nor is this simply a case of people being fed misleading information by politicians and the media. A positive economic impact simply isn’t sufficient for people to accept the social changes that immigration implies. Yet much of what we might call ‘immigration-positive’ research and comment is dominated by economic considerations, arguments over statistics and accusations that opposition to immigration is essentially racist.

If we are to understand immigration and, more importantly, develop policies that respond to the genuine concerns of very many people, then we need to get a much better grip on the sociology of immigration. We need to get a better idea of how immigration affects existing communities, how those communities react to immigration and how we manage migration so as to give a greater chance of that community reaction being positive rather than negative. By focusing on the economics of migration we have missed completely the real driver behind those community concerns that some politicians exploit.

Indeed it is the need to reduce negative social impact that should drive immigration policies and controls rather than the prevailing preference for points-based systems based on a more-or-less arbitrary decision as to whether the ‘skills’ of the immigrant are ‘needed’. The evidence, both from polling and from qualitative studies, shows consistently that worries about immigration relate inversely to people’s exposure to immigrants. I would add that my personal view is that Britain’s current anti-immigrant feeling is substantially driven by the migration from EU accession countries being to parts of the UK that have had limited prior experience of immigration.

None of this gets us any closer to a basis for setting policy - assuming we’re going to plonk for somewhere on the continuum from totally closed borders to totally open borders. Regardless of the economic case for immigration, the potential social negatives (the cost of which may not be wholly contained in an economic model of migration) require some degree of control. And that will mean that some people will not be allowed to migrate into the UK.

And there is a good argument for striking a balance in terms of cultural and ethnic heterogeneity. I know we like to talk about how many different languages are spoken in our communities (this isn’t new – I remember the Principle of Bedford FE College saying just this in 1983) but the breakdown in social capital implicit in that heterogeneity damages both the immigrant andreceiving communities:

“People in ethnically fragmented communities have lower levels of interpersonal trust; lower levels of civic, social, and charitable engagement; less efficient provision of public goods; more sluggish economic growth; and lower levels of happiness and general satisfaction. It seems that the more diversity we experience, the lower our quality of life is.”

The risk we run with open borders is that they meet a short-term economic need but in doing so provide the seeds for more sluggish development in the communities where those ‘needed’ immigrants settle. Indeed, we should recognise that some degree of homogeneity is essential if a community is to develop the institutions, connections and structures essential to building social capital. Put more bluntly, the people within a neighbourhood have to share more than the fact of living in that neighbourhood if it is to become community rather than merely a place.

The unanswered question here is how we determine the point at which we set our migration policy. This has to be where the economic benefits of immigration exceed any negative impact on educational attainment, health or crime. Not just because those negatives carry a cost that isn’t necessarily picked up by the employers of immigrant labour (the prime beneficiaries of the economic benefit) but because poorer schools, health and community safety are reflections of a dysfunctional neighbourhood, of the breakdown in the social capital needed for the long-term.

Finally, there has to be some connection between the expectations of the current demos and the actions of government. In a democracy this should be a statement of the obvious but I fear it is not so – too often the response from public officialdom to concerns about immigration is to say ‘there, there - don’t worry’ or else to suggest that the person expressing concerns is simply a bigot. A further type of response is to flood the individual with (essentially meaningless) statistics accompanied with the implication that they are some kind of idiot.

We need to have immigration controls for the very simple reason that the public – the demos – demands that we control the arrival of culturally-distinct people into the neighbourhoods where they live. This can’t be dismissed as racism, bigotry or prejudice (although all those things may be present on occasion) but rather should be seen as articulating the collapse of social capital in many neighbours that large scale immigration brings about. People are not idiots but are reflecting concerns about the loss of community in their words and choices. And government too often fails to pick up those concerns in defining policies (locally and nationally).

I believe that immigration enhances our nations bringing new ideas, attitudes, food, drink, music and dance to pour into the English cultural melting-pot. We are a vastly better society for having welcomed generations of migrants to our shores. And I don’t want to live in a place where we push people away, where we don’t offer sanctuary and where there’s a preference for a sort of sclerotic monocultural numbness. But if we want migration to work for everyone, we’ve got to manage it, to try and mitigate how it can damage social capital and to direct our attentions to integrating all the wonderful, hard-working people who have come to make their lives in our great country.


Friday, 17 October 2014

We already have a 'progressive consumption tax'...


Bill Gates has responded to the Thomas Piketty wealth tax proposal by moaning that it's not fair. By which he means not fair on entrepreneurs and the like who invest their money in the betterment of the business or society:

Bill Gates frames his argument like this — if you have three wealthy people, one spending money on new businesses, one spending money on charity, and one spending money on luxury items for him or herself, the last one should be taxed more because the first two are contributing more to society.

Now I may be wrong here but Bill's idea already applies (at least in the UK where we have a value-added tax). And, even though there are fewer consumption taxes in the USA, that country gives generous tax breaks for charitable giving and exemptions for capital investment in new or existing businesses.

So, whatever we think of Piketty's policy solution (and I think it mad, bad and dangerous to know), it does have the merit of being an attempt to resolve what that economist sees as an essential challenge to our society and economy. Bill Gates proposal is one that favours 'charity' over consumption and investment over spending. And, this might be fine for very rich folk like Bill but for the rest of us it's a proposal for a tax on the pleasures of life.

So once more let's remind ourselves that we don't live to hoard resources, to invest in business or to have 'charitable' consumption put on a special pedestal. We live to consume.


Bossiness with bite - the truth of anti-social behaviour legislation


Isabel Hardman sums up a big problem with modern politics. Put simply:

There are plenty of irritations of everyday life that government could, if satisfying the call of ‘Something Must Be Done’ always led to good policy, deal with. For instance, legislation to force people to move all the way down a packed Tube carriage. Or a judge-led inquiry into why Topshop at Oxford Circus feels a bit like an Hieronymus Bosch painting come to life. Or an Act of Parliament banning January and all its horrid cold wet weather.

I could continue - adding perhaps something to enforce good escalator etiquette (entirely unknown outside London) or maybe the wearing of baseball caps back-to-front and trousers at half-mast. You, I sure, will have your own gripes and grumbles about modern life and might welcome action to deal with whatever it is that gets your goat.

But while you're thinking about this remember that successive governments have built up an idea called "anti-social behaviour", and have created the means for police and local councils to take action to "clamp down" on such behaviour. The most recent iteration of this campaign is set out here - it essentially defines almost any behaviour cops and councillors decide they don't like as anti-social behaviour. And, as you already know the purpose of anti-social behaviour (or ASB, as those in the know refer to it) legislation is to create a means whereby the police can make something that isn't a crime into a crime.

The problem with modern politics - and we caught a ghastly glimpse of this with Boris's healthy city ideas (although I note the blonde one backpedalled on banning smoking in parks) - is that we do exactly what Ms Hardman illustrates, we respond when someone (usually from a charity or a think tank but sometimes someone who has suffered one of modern life's misfortunes) cries 'something must be done'. The result is laws we don't need but that act to provide the ability for public authorities to boss us about a little more. And, it goes without saying, give those police, border guards, PCSOs, council wardens and so forth the powers to force us on pain of arrest or punishment to comply precisely with that bossiness.


Friday Fungus: Ladybirds with STDs edition

Remember the crisis with those big, bad immigrant ladybirds? The ones that are driving the regular British ladybirds from the land, the grey squirrels of the insect world? Well they've got a problem - sexually transmitted fungal infection:

A team of Scottish scientists have called for the public’s help in mapping the spread of a sexually transmitted fungal epidemic increasingly found in the species.

The insect fungus, which is passed on primarily through mating, has been found infecting the spotted invader. 

It's not clear whether this is because the harlequin ladybirds are more rampant, more promiscuous or just most susceptible to the fungus - a chap called Laboulbeniales that leaves little yellow bristles all over the ladybird.


Thursday, 16 October 2014

A reminder - in case you needed one - that the left are the enemy of the poor


I observed a day or two ago that the environmental policies foisted on us by assorted left-wing governments are specifically designed to make energy more expensive. And that, while the better off can take the hit, the real victims of this 'planet-saving' policy platform are to poor.

Today we are reminded, via the pages of the trendy left's house journal, that the left really do want things to be more expensive. In this case it's a classic - a multi-millionaire, anti-capitalist who makes money from selling expensive stuff to rich people says that the poor should pay more for their food and clothes:

Clothes and food should cost much more than they do in Britain to reflect their true impact on the environment, Vivienne Westwood said on Wednesday night.

Speaking at a Guardian Live event at Chelsea Old Town Hall hosted by columnist Deborah Orr, the controversial fashion designer said: “Clothes should cost a lot more than they do – they are so subsidised.

“Food should cost most more too – you know something is wrong when you can buy a cooked chicken for £2. The world runs on debt and that’s why nothing costs what it should.”

You see folks - you should be made poorer because rich people like Ms Westwood would then feel so much better about their impact on the environment. Now remember that all those rich socialists in Islington town houses will be fine. They'll still have fancy food on the table, nice designer clothes and a classy bottle of wine (just one glass, mind).

But the single mum with three kids in Bradford who rather liked the fact she could buy a cooked chicken for two quid will have to explain to her children why they have less too eat and why they never get new clothes just hand-me-downs. Sadly though generations of brainwashing won't lead her to tell those children what they really need to know - that the 'progressive' policies of left-wing parties, the supposed parties of the poor, have resulted in those children being poorer.