Friday, 26 August 2016

Heterodox Academy - challenging left-wing hegemony in academia

A long overdue initiative to challenge the domination of academia - and especially academic social sciences - by a narrow left-wing ideology: was founded to call attention to this trend and the problems it is causing for scholarship, particularly in the social sciences and related fields (such as law and public policy). The word heterodox means “not conforming with accepted or orthodox standards of beliefs.” We chose that word to contrast with “orthodoxy,” which refers to conforming with accepted norms and beliefs. Orthodoxy has religious connotations, but it can be applied to any view that becomes dogma or dogmatic, such as “orthodox Marxism,” “social constructionist orthodoxy,” or “progressive orthodoxy.”

It will be a long hard road and I wish those involved - all American, so focused in issues in US institutions. The study of human institutions, of society and of how we behave is too important for one ideology to dominate discourse and debate.


Friday Fungus: Eating batteries and why bagpipes should be banned...

Some fungus going about its rotten business - loverly!
You'll have noticed just how good fungi are at rotting stuff. The mushrooms and their mouldy yeasty brethren are right at the heart of nature's processes for chewing up - recycling if you must - things that are lying around. Sometimes this is a problem - as people looking shocked at a dry rot growth on the house they left lying around discover. But sometimes - like with nappies - it's brilliant:

A team of scientists from the University of South Florida has found a natural way to recycle the tons of waste batteries. Lead researcher Jeffrey A. Cunningham and Valerie Harwood are using three strains of fungi – Aspergillus niger, Penicillium simplicissimum and Penicillium chrysogenum that are naturally occurring in decaying foods. They have presented their finding at the 252nd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society that is held in Philadelphia until Thursday this week.

OK the researchers end up with an acidic soup filled with cobalt and lithium. And don't know how to get those lovely metals out. But it's still great and takes us a step closer to better battery disposal and recycling.

When it comes to rotting stuff, however, fungi aren't choosy. Lungs are good:

Playing the bagpipes could prove fatal, scientists have warned, after a man died from continually breathing in mould and fungus trapped in his instrument.

Doctors in Manchester have identified the condition “bagpipe lung” following the death of a 61-year-old man from chronic inflammatory lung condition hypersensitivity pneumonitis.

The condition is triggered by the immune system’s response to inhaling irritants. When the unnamed man was diagnosed in 2009 doctors were puzzled because his house contained no mould and he had never smoked.

Now I know you've always wanted a reason to ban bagpipes...


Thursday, 25 August 2016

Bradford schools - how many children will we let down before we get it right?

So someone shares this article on Twitter. It's a story about an 'A' Level student who didn't quite get the grades to go to her chosen university. First reaction is sad for her but tough - there are thousands of students who've got tantalisingly close to meeting a challenging offer. There are other opportunities, other options, life goes on.

But the story's not really about the girl who didn't get her offer, the story's about the school:

Getting into Durham University is never going to be easy. But it’s near impossible when the school you go to has been placed on special measures by OFSTED three times since you started.

Failing OFSTED obviously shows the school is shit, but it also leads to another flaw that you’ll find in every school like the one Megan and I went to: The pass rate is way more important to the school than how well the students actually do.

Megan would never have even received an offer from Durham had she listened to her Head of Sixth Form, who told her that A-levels would be too difficult, and advised her to take BTECs instead. BTECs can be sneakily added into the overall A-level results of the school, making it look better than it actually is. BTECs avoid any risk because, realistically, who fails them?

These state school teachers are lying to intelligent students, stunting what they can achieve, all for the sake of league tables. It’s hard to know whether to blame them, or the government and regulators who incentivize that kind of behaviour.

And one other thing. The school is in Bradford and, as you know, I'm a councillor there.

I've a feeling that Megan will be fine. She'll get to a good university doing a subject she enjoys. She'll do well and get into a good career. But there are a load of other young people at that school who we're not talking about. These are the ones who left at sixteen with nothing. The ones who might have got an 'A' Level or two. The ones talked out of even applying for university. The ones who'll just be statistics on Bradford's skills gap, unemployment and crime levels.

The school in question is in 'special measures' and is in the process of transferring to an academy chain. Let's hope - once all the arguing over contracts is done - that this means the school, once one of Bradford's better schools, can start delivering the education that children going there deserve.

For Bradford as a whole, it's just another reminder that improving Bradford's education is like a depressing game of whack-a-mole - every time we get a failing or struggling school turned round, another one rears its head elsewhere. The City's education system lacks the capacity to respond - this isn't about the capability of the education staff, the best head teachers and the most effective governors but simply the realisation that we haven't enough of them.

I've argued - indeed the Conservative Group has put forward motions on the subject - that we need to start sharing capacity with neighbouring authorities, to begin to create a sort of 'Yorkshire Challenge' akin to the successful 'London Challenge'. This is rejected for what seems at times to be 'not invented here syndrome' plus ideological resistance to the central government agenda of academies, free schools and a tighter curriculum.

But in the end this isn't about ideology but rather about the very practical task of getting all schools to work like the best schools. We can see what works - ethos, leadership, good planning, high expectations - but too often allow matters like who owns a building or employs the staff to get in the way of running a good school. These days, us councillors have precious little to do with schools - we don't set the budgets, we don't determine what's taught and we don't inspect. Ofsted wants still more powers - our role in school improvement and chunks of child protection work - and the gradual procession to academies seems inevitable.

Rather than moan about the injustice of all this, we should see it as a liberation, as the opportunity to start saying things about schools, teaching, funding and the role of Ofsted that need to be said. To point at failing schools and say "you're failing", to act as an advocate for parents and pupils let down by bad schools and to challenge the use of poverty and social conditions as an excuse for failure.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

In the end bans usually make things worse - the case of cigarettes

The problem with banning things is that it seldom stops them. Even when you take the sort of extreme and violent steps we've seen recently in The Philipines. Yet politicians, policy-makers and their friends in academia still champion bans - de facto or de jure.

One of those bans - although it doesn't look like one because no-one's passed a law with the word 'ban' in it anywhere except Bhutan - is that of tobacco. This is a ban by stealth implemented by steadily raising the price of fags to the point where more and more people can't afford to buy them. Or at least this is the theory.

The problem is that the bigger the gap between the cost of production and the post-tax retail price, the bigger the incentive for people to (illegally) arbitrage that gap. Why take the risk smuggling heroin or cocaine when you can smuggle tobacco! Check out your local paper and you'll see a steady stream of stories about illegal cigarettes (interspersed with stories about cannabis factories). With each increase in tobacco duty, we see an increase in criminal activity around tobacco.

And this is where it ends up - with violence:

The BAT manager was stabbed and bashed by at least three men, after he refused their order that he get into a car. The kidnappers arrived at the man's Sydney home at around 10pm on Saturday June 4.

A source said the manager was forced to "fight for his life" to ward off the kidnappers, who have not been identified. He was rushed to hospital after the attack.

The attack appears to be an unprecedented escalation in the struggle between policing agencies and the syndicates driving the illicit tobacco trade. Evidence suggests the attack was linked to BAT's support of police inquiries.

The manager in question was employed (by that source of all evil, a tobacco company) to support the police in investigating smuggling and illegal tobacco. Why? Quite simply because it's a billion dollar plus criminal business.

Right now, our one-eyed approach to smoking is creating a new international criminal business smuggling cigarettes and tobacco. In the UK, trading standards departments are advised that tobacco companies are the bad boys:

Tobacco companies continue to approach local authorities and local Trading Standards teams in particular with offers to support their tobacco control strategies primarily around tackling illicit tobacco but also in relation to other areas of enforcement including age of sale regulations. Local Authorities are recommended to examine such offers critically in the light of Article 5.3 and its guidelines and only engage in any collaborative work with the industry where this is considered strictly necessary.

That's right folks - the Tackling Illicit Tobacco for Better Health Partnership (essentially a bunch of trading standards officers) thinks it just fine to refuse to work with tobacco companies - businesses selling a legal product - in catching criminals.

So what we have is a new and lucrative business for organised criminals created entirely by policies designed to promote public health. And, rather than recognise the problem, public health and its agents refuse to co-operate with the tobacco companies in reducing the criminal impact of their (public health that is) policies.

Now I call this stupid.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Stuff to read: Driverless buses and trucks, night parks, stupid planning rules and Tokyo's housing

Driverless buses in Finland:

Residents of Helsinki, Finland will soon be used to the sight of buses with no drivers roaming the city streets. One of the world's first autonomous bus pilot programs has begun in the Hernesaari district, and will run through mid-September. 

Finnish law does not require vehicles on the road to have a driver, making it the perfect place to get permission to test the Easymile EZ-10 electric mini-buses.

The buses look cute too:

And self-driving trucks are on the way too:

By joining forces with Uber we can fast forward to the future. Together, Otto and Uber can build the backbone of the rapidly-approaching self-driving freight system. We can help make transportation as reliable as running water, everywhere for everyone, whether you’re talking people or packages.

All web-enabled too:

Veniam, a startup coming out of the University of Porto with offices in Silicon Valley and Singapore (besides its homebase in Portugal), turns moving vehicles such as cars and buses into live networks that allow people to be online without being dependent on a cellular network. The platform is also capable of using the data it collects to keep track and better manage traffic flows and alternate routes. Veniam’s technology was launched 18 months ago in Porto, where its hardware has been installed onto the public transport system. The company claims that about 73% of the city’s bus riders are using Veniam’s free Wi-Fi. The next market for the company this year is Singapore.

And yet again Singapore is at the forefront.

Anyway. Should parks be open at night?

A couple weeks ago, it was a beautiful summer evening in Milwaukee and some friends and I decided to meet up at our favorite park to toss our light-up frisbee. It was about 9:30pm when we finally gathered, so we spent the next couple hours tossing the disc. We also spent the next couple hours keeping a constant eye out for the police. This is because all the parks in our area “close” at 10pm and it is technically illegal to be in this public space at night.

Singapore embraces new technology the disruption of existing market models - Spain on the other hand:

A month ago, Barcelona City Hall introduced a €1.3 million raft of measures to crack down on owners letting out apartments using sites like Airbnb, but without a license. The authorities set up a website and called on residents to report apartments being rented out illegally. So far, some 500 complaints have been made.

And you wondered why Europe was falling behind?

Mind you it's not just Europe with daft planning rules - here's New Zealand:

Just look at the mess in Auckland where a developer wanting to build housing for 1500 households in an old gravel pit at Three Kings, turning much of it into parks and open spaces, has bought almost a decade’s worth of objections and processes and hearings. How can anybody build anything to scale under those conditions? In the middle of a housing crisis, with daily news stories about the number of children having to live in cars with their parents because there are not enough houses to go round, NIMBY activists block new construction.

This consultation has been going on for eight years - helps explain why Auckland is one of the world's least affordable cities.

It doesn't have to be that way - here's Tokyo as an example:

As FT’s Tokyo bureau chief Robin Harding wrote in the article, the city had 142,417 housing starts in 2014, which was “more than the 83,657 housing permits issued in the state of California (population 38.7m), or the 137,010 houses started in the entire country of England (population 54.3m).” Compare this, also, with the roughly 20,000 new residential units approved annually in New York City, the 23,500 units started in Los Angeles County, and the measly 5,000 homes constructed in 2015 throughout the entire Bay Area.

And this is in a city with no empty land. This is what laissez faire planning policies get you. Take note London.


Sunday, 21 August 2016

Abolishing the Corn Laws again - the case against 'food security'

It's not every day that you read an article saying that it was a mistake to repeal the Corn Laws:

The situation created by the British vote to leave the European Union is momentous for UK food. It is on a par with the Repeal of the Corn Laws of 1846 when Britain decided its Empire could feed it, not its own farmers.

The point about the Corn Laws was that they existed for the sole reason of keeping grain prices high so as to sustain marginal British agriculture. With the expected effect of making food prices higher:

The high price caused the cost of food to increase and consequently depressed the domestic market for manufactured goods because people spent the bulk of their earnings on food rather than commodities. The Corn Laws also caused great distress among the working classes in the towns. These people were unable to grow their own food and had to pay the high prices in order to stay alive.

By opening British farmers up to competition, the repeal of the Corn Laws resulted in cheaper grain and, therefore, cheaper bread (and beer). We forget, however, that the main justification for the corn laws wasn't landowner self-interest but the belief (at the end of a long war and a series of poor harvests) that what we'd now call food security was more important than open trade. At the heart of the food security concept is the idea of self-sufficiency.

My concern is that the security of food might get lost in the debacle. The UK must not let that happen. Food stocks are low in a just-in-time economy, an estimated three to five days’ worth. The UK doesn’t feed itself. It has dropped to 61% self-sufficiency, Defra reported last month.

Now leaving aside how the UK being self-sufficient in food is compatible with membership of the EU, let's ask instead what the consequence of self-sufficiency might be - here Professor Lang's article is helpful. The consequence - a policy aim in the professor's world - will be more expensive food:

Part of the challenge now is the UK’s love of cheap food. This was the legacy of the Repeal of the Corn Laws which sought cheap food for workers. Cheapness as efficiency is still central to the neoliberal project today, as Michael Gove stated in the referendum campaign. But in food, cheapness encourages waste and makes us fat. Good diets are too expensive for the poor.

Again, we'll ignore that Professor Lang also tells us in his article that Brexit will make food more expensive, and ask instead whether there is any practical basis for deliberately making food more expensive (for there surely isn't any moral basis). We'll note the negative impact on the economy from people spending more of their income on food - a huge and unnecessary opportunity cost. The main - probably the only - case is a health one:

The researchers found that healthier diet patterns—for example, diets rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, and nuts—cost significantly more than unhealthy diets (for example, those rich in processed foods, meats, and refined grains). On average, a day’s worth of the most healthy diet patterns cost about $1.50 more per day than the least healthy ones.

The problem here is that we have to accept the premise - Diet X is healthier than Diet Y - and to agree that there is a reason for government to intervene in food pricing (for example by making grain more expensive). And to understand just how much more expensive. Plus of course, we have to agree with the researchers that the price differential is so substantial remembering that these are extreme measures - the 'most unhealthy' diet set against the 'most healthy' diet.

So instead we get food policy planning that uses the idea of 'food security', on the assumption that there is a genuine threat to the supply of food meaning that, in the worst case, we get food riots. Indeed, Professor Lang thinks these are on the way because of Brexit:

But given that the WTO rules are “the lowest common denominator” and the Codex Alimentarius is determined in meetings that are “dominated by big business and lobbies [making] the EU look like the most democratic organisation in the world”, this is far from ideal. The result would be food riots, says professor Lang.

The agricultural sector is very keen (especially the bit that actually owns the land) to get this idea of food security high up on the agenda when food is discussed. It is the biggest justification for the continuance of agricultural subsidy post-Brexit and for the sorts of high-tariff models loved by the EU, USA and Japan. We should be resisting such a model (subsidy plus tariffs) since - as we can see from the corn laws experience - the result is more expensive food acting as a drag on the economy to the benefit of a tiny proportion of the UK's population. Smaller even than you think:

Each year we’re seeing a further concentration of benefits in the hands of fewer,
larger landowners, who seem to use their subsidy cheques to buy up more land and more subsidy ­entitlements,” Jack Thurston, the co-founder of, told the Scotsman. “Most people think farm subsidies are there to help the small guy but we’re seeing it’s quite the reverse. The bigger you are, the better your land, the more public aid you get,” he said.

So we've a system of support (as, unintentionally, Professor Lang shows) not far removed from those 19th century corn laws. We know also that the main impact of subsidy comes in raising land values meaning that those agricultural subsidies and supports are doing little or nothing to maintain food security but represent a straight transfer of money from the taxpayer to the owners of agricultural land.

We should explore whether there is a model that works rather than promising to stay in the warm bath of subsidy after we've left the EU. Perhaps starting by asking how New Zealanders can grow onions that sell in a Kentish farm shop for the same price as locally grown onions. And why those Kiwis can produce lamb, ship it to the UK, sell it for less than British producers and make a profit:

New Zealand is the largest dairy and sheep meat exporter in the world, and a major global supplier of beef, wool, kiwifruit, apples and seafood. New Zealand-grown produce feeds over 40 million people, with 7,500 animal products and 3,800 dairy products going to 100 countries every month.

All of this without any subsidy:

New Zealand agriculture is profitable without subsidies, and that means more people staying in the business. Alone among developed countries of the world, New Zealand has virtually the same percentage of its population employed in agriculture today as it did 30 years ago, and the same number of people living in rural areas as it did in 1920. Although the transition to an unsubsidized farm economy wasn’t easy, memories of the adjustment period are fading fast and today there are few critics to be found of the country’s bold move.

So ask yourself a question. Do you want the sort of protectionist, subsidy-hungry food security that sucks up over £10 billion each and every year. Or an agricultural sector that contributes to a growing and successful economy? For me food security isn't about self-sufficiency but is about diversity and choice - we're more at risk if we've only one supplier of grain than if we've 50 suppliers. Yet the advocates of policy based on food security still argue that protectionism, trade barriers and expensive food (plus rich landowners) is the way to provide that security. The argument we thought we'd won back in 1846 when those Corn Laws were scrapped is still here today and we have to make the case for open trade in food all over again.


Saturday, 20 August 2016

Scribblings II: On pubs, smoking bans, perdigree dogs, political donations and Brexit

We're back with another dose of great writing from Martin Scriblerus bloggers. I did get called out for calling it 'scribblings' - but what else could I choose! Well here we go:

There are a lot of beer bloggers who talk about beer. Old Mudgie talks about pubs and his blog is a paean to their wonders, a wistful look at the memories of pubs gone and a poke at those who get too precious about beer. Here's he looks at why old pubs just sit empty:

Assuming the building has no future as a pub, it is going to cost money to convert it to anything else, and that will need both someone willing to take it on, and planning permission. In many cases, the owners are probably hanging on to get planning permission to demolish the building and redevelop the site for something else, typically housing.

Up and down the country, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of derelict pubs that have been in that state for years, many of which are featured on my Closed Pubs blog. Fortunately there aren’t too many in Stockport, but two exceptions are the Royal Mortar on Higher Hillgate and the Bow Garrett on Brinksway, both of which must have been closed for over ten years.

Dick Puddlecote, when not running some sort of transport business, writes passionately about the fussbuckets - charmless, judgemental folk who hate us having pleasure. Here he cites a fellow 'jewel robber' (and he calls those challenging the anti-smoking, temperance and diet fanatics) and comments that:

This is what happens when you have a colossal state-funded machine which views life solely through the lens of health. Other pleasures and benefits in consuming the products in question are completely ignored, therefore the prohibitionists simply cannot comprehend the huge social and financial damage their rancid policies are causing ...

Julia has been a loud, uncompromising and essentially conservative voice in the blogging world for a long while. Here's a typical sample of her blogging as she comments of a story about a lefty who bought a pedigree dog - first the quote from the story:

"...Colleagues and friends have accused me of abandoning my longstanding centre-left principles in favour of eugenics, arrivisme and trying to suck up to the ruling classes..."


Might I suggest you find new colleagues and friends? It should be quite easy, now you have a puppy!


Mark Wadsworth is best known for writing about land value tax but he's not a one-trick pony and here's a cracking post about donations to political parties (that may or may not be a good idea): has been suggested that parties should either be funded out of taxation or there should be a cap on the amount each donor can give.

I don’t think either of those two are satisfactory, and would like to suggest another alternative. Legislated anonymous donations.

Anyone wishing to donate above say £500, would have to send their cheque to the Electoral Commission nominating to whom it should go. Once a year, those donations would be passed on to the relevant party aggregated and without the names of the donors.

Raedwald's another blogger who takes few prisoners and doesn't bow to political correctness. Here he compares a map of 7th century East Anglia to the devastating effect of ice caps melting on the region:

The Indie prints a map of how East Anglia could look if the giant ice sheet did melt; it's exactly the same as the historic Anglian coastline in the 7th century.

Finally -for this week - Frank Davis compares the experience of Remain voters after Independence Day with the shock smokers like Frank got on 1 July 2007 when they were banned from pubs:

But for those who voted to remain, their experience that day was probably one of shock and dismay and disbelief. They are probably feeling something very like what we smokers experienced on 1 July 2007. For they also had just been expelled from a club in which they had come to believe that they were full members – just like smokers and their pubs. They had become exiles. Their world had been turned upside down. They are probably filled with the same disbelief and rage as many smokers were on 1 July 2007.