Sunday, 21 December 2014

Ah! Global warming

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Or not as the case may be:

As the international team of researchers from the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Greece, Sweden and Switzerland describes it, this history depicts “a long-term cooling trend of -0.30°C per 1,000 years over the Common Era in northern Europe” (see figure below). Most important of all, however, they note that their temperature reconstruction “has centennial-scale variations superimposed on this trend,” which indicate that “conditions during Medieval and Roman times were probably warmer than in the late 20th century,” when the previously-rising post-Little Ice Age mean global air temperature hit a ceiling of sorts above which it has yet to penetrate.

As reported here - being a brief summary of the article here.

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So Nell, you hate Christmas do you? Bah, humbug!


Every year, somewhere in the torrent of Christmas-related guffle that the media pour into our consciousness, there is the Grinch piece, the 'I'm going to tell you how much I hate Christmas' article. Such articles are as much part of our preparation for Christmas as the 'we've lost sight of the true meaning' rants and the avalanche of charity appeals each more tragic than the next.

We need people who write stuff like this:

Christmas is the stick with which millions of us beat ourselves into brandy-soaked agony for being poor, single, childless, lonely, or simply bad at being jolly. It’s one thing to be single, skint and surrounded by dysfunctional relatives, but it’s quite another when the entire capitalist world is telling you that this is the most magical time of the year. We seem to have lost the script to a pantomime we never even believed in. We have ruined Christmas, without even trying.

Indeed this article (being as it's in the Guardian and all that) fills a specific sub-sector of the 'I hate Christmas' genre - the 'I hate Christmas because of all the advertising, commercialism and evil capitalist exploitation' piece. You see folks, we really don't have any choice in the matter as the glamour of capitalism's seasonal fairies has enchanted us - we are led astray by the glitter of fairy dust. Now is not the time to deal with the ignorance of this view - suffice it to say that it's nonsense.

However, it's necessary for us to have these sorts of writings just so people like me can tell the authors (in this case one Nell Frizzell) to stop being pathetic, grumpy old kill-joys and get down with the spirit of the time. To remind them of this:

"I do," said Scrooge. "Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You're poor enough.” 

For this is the message of the Nell Frizzells of our world - like Ebeneezer Scrooge they see Christmas as 'just a day':

...if we really do want to spread comfort and joy this year, we should accept it for what it is; a day. Just a day. Whatever Roy Wood says.

You see our Nell sees Christmas as an intrusion into her misery and her celebration of the misery of others. The sad thing is that (and I've no issue with Nell sitting in the corner with her pet lip, arms crossed and definitely not getting involved in anything that seems even the slightest bit like festivity) what the 'I hate Christmas' brigade don't appreciate is that, if we didn't have Christmas, we'd have to invent it or something pretty much like it. And the very reason for that is that very gloom, misery and despondency that surrounds so many of us - especially in the dank, dreary darkness of winter. The thing Nell evokes in her sorry tale of Christmas past and Christmas present.

More to the point (and it's a very important point) Christmas is still the very antithesis of that supposed selfish capitalism. Even ignoring the God bit, Christmas is a time when we give presents, send blessings and share stuff with our neighbours. Most of the year we don't sing songs with other people (I'll be carolling at The George in Cullingworth tomorrow - beer and song, what could be better), we don't make a specific effort to consider our fellow men near and far, and we don't make an effort to recognise the bonds of family and friendship that hold our society together.

It is people like Nell Frizzell who are the selfish ones (and let me stress that I'm not saying they can't be selfish, just that their selfishness is sad and pathetic) with their self-righteous, posing rejection of Christmas. Po-faced and preachy, Nell refuses to play - no gifts for friends, no smile, no games. Just nonsense about capitalism.  Nell doesn't even plan to replace expensive largess with making a cheaper, personal effort to join in the spirit of sharing - nope, Nell plans to do nothing, to sit there pretending she's a better person because she's opted out of Christmas. Well she's wrong and there's only one thing to say to such people...

Bah, Humbug!

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Saturday, 20 December 2014

The curse of bureaucracy...

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And a reminder that large parts of the USA are far removed from being that traditional descriptor, "land of the free". This is New York City|:

Mr. Brotter, 55, is an expediter, an imprecise term that is used to describe the men and women whose workdays are spent queuing up at the Manhattan branch of the New York City Department of Buildings to file the documents and pull the permits that allow construction projects — your kitchen renovation and the high-rise next door — to go forward. 

There are over 8,300 people who do the same job as Mr Brotter - getting paid to stand in a queue to see a bureaucrat so you can build your extension, install a new kitchen or get a new block of flats built. And this just adds to the cost of getting stuff done in  New York. As, Aaron Renn observed in citing this example:

Particularly when you are trying to build lower rent buildings, all of the fixed costs you have to incur to built anything (land, permits, expediters, etc.) have to be recovered and amortized across the units. When you have a hyper-complex development environment, these fixed costs raise the minimum viable rent threshold and thus push the cost of construction towards the higher end of the market that is already being served.

Put simply, the more hoops you make developers jump through, the more expensive the rents - and this is bad news if you want to meet housing demand in a magnet city like New York of London. And no the solution isn't to use taxpayers cash to subsidise a chosen few developers, the solution is to have fewer rules and fewer charges.

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Fascinating Yellow Bus stat....

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Makes you think this:

"School bus carriers operate the largest mass transportation fleet in the country. Each day, 480,000 yellow school buses travel the nation’s roads. Compare that to transit, with 140,000 total vehicles, 96,000 of which are buses; to the motor coach industry, with 35,000 buses; to commercial airlines, with 7,400 airplanes; and to rail, with 1,200 passenger cars. In fact, our school bus fleet is 2.5 times the size of all other forms of mass transportation combined."
And there's loads more about America's yellow bus fleet here.

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Thursday, 18 December 2014

Blair's 'modernisation' of local government has been a disaster...

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The Association of Public Sector Excellence (APSE) - which for connoisseurs of local government used to be the Association of Direct Labour Organisations (ADLO) - has published findings from a survey of councillors that asked about the 'modernisation' of 2000 that introduced the leader and cabinet system of administration:

Almost two-thirds of decision-making councillors believe the modernisation agenda for local authorities – which heralded the introduction of cabinet systems of governance – has been a success. Just 37% of backbench members agreed.

Two out of three non-executive councillors felt the changes had marginalised their role with 43% believing they could personally help to improve local services compared to 87% of executive elected members.

In simple terms people with front bench jobs believe the system is just great and that they can really influence what's going on but the rest of the councillors feel left out. This is a reminder that Blair's modernisation of local government was half-baked and ineffective. It began with lots of typical Blairite stuff about the committee system being a 19th century system unsuited to the challenges of decision-making in modern local government and ended up (because Labour councillors successfully lobbied to prevent the imposition of directly-elected mayors) with the rather undemocratic and opaque system of cabinet administration.

So the situation we now have is one where most councillors (Executives and/or Cabinets typically contain fewer than ten members) are no longer involved in the decision-making that their residents actually elect them to do. Once every four years there's a vote to choose a leader and this person hand picks the chosen few who will make the decisions. The rest of the council languish on mostly purposeless scrutiny committees or toil away on regulatory panels deciding planning permissions, licences and so forth - knowing that their decisions are subject (quite rightly) to challenge and external inspection.

The findings from APSE's survey shouldn't come as a surprise - any conversation with backbench councillors will reveal a genuine frustration about being able to influence the system. Instead we're fobbed off with a ludicrous role of 'community leader' - in the view of senior officers and council leadership, a role that tasks councillors with the job of communicating their better's decisions to hoi polloi. All this is made worse by the continuation of the system of 'special responsibility allowances' - extra payments to councillors who chair committees, run panels or do some other task deemed over-and-above the normal job of being a councillor.

APSE chicken out of proposing any substantial change - preferring instead to suggest stroking backbenchers and sympathising with their grumbles:

‘This study shows there is a need to find a way to better recognise the contribution of councillors who may be focused on serving their communities but feel disconnected from decision-making.’

So rather than change the system so councillors actually are involved in decision-making, we cobble together some form of words that says all the stuff we do is just as important. Except, of course, we know that it isn't as important. Being able to explain to a resident whose bin has vanished that the Council charges for a replacement is not the same as being able to make a decision about whether or not such a charge is warranted.

Perhaps we need to consider whether we should complete Blair's botched modernisation - I'd support elected mayors but even without them the current system clearly has too many local councillors - or else to go back to a system where all the councillors we elect are actually involved in doing the thing we elect them to do. That is to make decisions on our behalf about the administration of the local council and its services.

The present system lacks open-ness, is not especially democratic and produces a lot of councillors who feel like spare parts. Going back to the committee system would give those councillors a real role to play (and allow for them to develop genuine knowledge on a given area of service -something the cabinet portfolio system precludes). Alternatively we should reduce the number of councillors significantly, pay them all the same regardless of position, and eliminate the disconnection between front- and back-benches.

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Tuesday, 16 December 2014

We know what happens when a developed nation has no immigration

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We know the answer to this because of Japan - here's a report in New Geography:

Japan’s working-age population (15-64) peaked in 1995, while the United States’ has grown 21% since then. The projections for Japan are alarming: its working-age population will drop from 79 million today to less than 52 million in 2050, according to the Stanford Institute on Longevity.

Since hitting a peak of 128 million in 2010, Japan’s overall population has dropped three years in a row. These trends all but guarantee the long-term decline of the Japanese economy and its society.

Bear in mind that Japan's population is 127 million today - it will fall but the precise figures are hard to predict because of longevity. The New Geography article sets out some of the consequences:

...by 2020, adult diapers are projected to outsell the infant kind. By 2040, the country will have more people over 80 than under 15, according to U.N. projections. By 2060, the number of Japanese is expected to fall from 127 million today to about 87 million, of whom almost 40% will be 65 or older.

Put simply Japan can't afford to do this. It can barely afford the cost of health and care today. And this is the reason why Japan's economy is struggling. Moreover, it points to the reason why the UK, Germany and the USA stand an outside chance of affording health and social care costs at least for the time being. We have had relatively open borders allowing us to maintain the size of our working age populations - without this immigration we would be facing the same time bomb as Japan faces.

It's not just a fiscal time bomb it's a social one too:

Japan’s grim demography is also leading to tragic ends for some elderly. With fewer children to take care of elderly parents, there has been a rising incidence of what the Japanese call kodokushi, or “lonely deaths” among the aged, unmarried, and childless. Given the current trends, this can only become more commonplace over time.

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Poking, sneering, moralising and despising - the defining character of Fabianism

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Let's get one thing out of the way. I'm not sure I agree with limiting child benefit to two children but there does need to be a debate about said benefit and whether it is the best way to support children and especially children who live in what we've defined as poverty. After all a significant chunk of child benefit is paid to mothers who have no need for it (again this isn't to say the benefit isn't welcome but that no-one will lack for basics by its absence).

So I understand Iain Duncan Smith's point:

The work and pensions secretary hinted the move was being examined by his party despite previously being vetoed by Downing Street over fears it could alienate parents.

Asked about the idea on the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme, Duncan Smith said it could also “help behavioural change” in what appeared to be a suggestion that it could discourage people struggling with their finances from having more children.

Leaving aside that the Guardian is putting words into IDS's mouth, this idea probably has significant support amongst the population.  There is a widespread view (that I don't share) that having more than two children is somehow irresponsible and that child benefit provides either a reward or an incentive for such foolishness.

However, to describe what IDS has said as 'eugenics' is stretching the point well past breaking point. Yet - in a typical piece of bravado nonsense - this is what Polly Toynbee does:

Some themes deep in the heart of Toryism just never go away. Up they pop, over and over. Control the lower orders, stop them breeding, check their spending, castigate their lifestyles. Poking, sneering, moralising and despising is hardwired within Tory DNA.

The problem with this is that these days most of the proposals for controlling the lower orders come from the left-wing establishment, from the sort of people Polly approves of.

It was a Labour government that introduced the Anti-Social Behaviour Order as a way to criminalise things that aren't criminal. It is use to enforce a sterile environment that, in effect, permits the police supported by the magistracy to arrest anyone for any reason.

It is great figures from the left - H G Wells, J M Keynes and, most recently, Jonathan Porritt and David Attenborough who have been advocates of enforced population control, of eugenics. It is the people that Polly has dinner with who enthused about communist China's one child policy and socialist India's bribes for vasectomies.

It is the left with their moralising about debt and lending that wants to check the spending of the working class. It left-wing writers like Naomi Klein who put about the patronising lie that ordinary people are manipulated by corporations into something called 'over-consumption'.

And it's the left - including the last Labour government - who led the charge against people's lifestyles. Banning smoking in the pub, whacking a duty escalator on beer (while exempting wine and champagne), imposing planning restrictions on fast food takeaways and trying to ban gambling. It's the left that want taxes on fizzy drinks, bans on added sugar and salt, restrictions on portion sizes, the ending of multibuy offers and a host of other nannying interventions in people's lifestyle choices.

My party is not immune from these problems - you only have to look at Tracy Crouch and Sarah Wollaston to see this - but despising the worker is not 'hard wired' into Tory DNA. It people like Polly Toynbee who patronise and exploit ordinary people so as to prosecute their disturbed and disturbing political opinions. Political opinions we can trace back to that great Fabian socialist, H G Wells:

...the ethical system of these men of the New Republic, the ethical system which will dominate the world state, will be shaped primarily to favour the procreation of what is fine and efficient and beautiful in humanity - beautiful and strong bodies, clear and powerful minds, and a growing body of knowledge - and to check the procreation of base and servile types, of fear-driven and cowardly souls, of all that is mean and ugly and bestial in the souls, bodies, or habits of men. To do the latter is to do the former; the two things are inseparable.

And that equally renowned Fabian socialist, G B Shaw:

...If people are fit to live, let them live under decent human conditions. If they are not fit to live, kill them in a decent human way. Is it any wonder that some of us are driven to prescribe the lethal chamber as the solution for the hard cases which are at present made the excuse for dragging all the other cases down to their level, and the only solution that will create a sense of full social responsibility in modern populations?"

Or the ever so progressive Margaret Sanger:

 "... Degeneration has already begun. Eugenists demonstrate that two-thirds of our manhood of military age are physically too unfit to shoulder a rifle; that the feeble-minded, the syphilitic, the irresponsible and the defective breed unhindered; ... that the vicious circle of mental and physical defect, delinquency and beggary is encouraged, by the unseeing and unthinking sentimentality of our age, to populate asylum, hospital and prison. All these things the Eugenist sees and points out with a courage entirely admirable"

Eugenics was always a ghastly creed. But is was a creed - along with directing and controlling the lives of workers - that was at the very heart of Polly's Fabian socialism.

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