Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Yay for suburbia (and let's build more of it, fast)

I'm a suburban boy, it's in my bones - the semi-detached house with a garden, one of thousands just the same. It is, for some, the veritable definition of Malvina Reynolds' song "Little Boxes".
"And they're all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same."
As children - perhaps prompted by a father who was something of a folk music fan - we even referred to the estate at Orchard Avenue in Shirley as the 'ticky-tacky houses'. This was a world of trains to work - Reggie Perrin's soliloquy of a walk to the station from his semi in a London suburb - of buses to school, of hobbies and pastimes, sheds and allotments.

It became popular to deride suburbia - its design, its housing, its values - and to draw a negative parallel with either the racy, youthful and exciting life of the big city or else the bucolic, laid-back pleasures of the distant country. To be suburban became the acme of shallowness, a selfish existence, uncaring and dull - an insult used by historian, Simon Schama to put down polemical columnist, Rod Liddle:
‘Go back to your journalistic hackery… and turn your suburban face away from the plight of the miserable,’
Yet most of us - even Simon Schama - are the products of suburbia, living in those semi-detached houses, going to the same sort of state school and having our values set by life in these work-a-day, middle-class places. When I think of my childhood, I think of suburbia, of its space, its variety and the security it afforded us. And I know that my core values - community, neighbourliness, decency, politeness, respect - come from that suburbia.

So why is it that we have such a problematic relationship with suburbia? How did a suburban boy like Simon Schama come to use 'suburban' as an insult, as a way to dismiss someone he disagreed with and felt, in some way, beneath his attention? And when did we start the fetish of the city - the dirty, crowded, unsafe, unfriendly, child-free city? A fetish that, frankly, is something we (perhaps secretly) despise - what we hanker for is suburbia. There is no better place to raise a family - near enough to town for work and pleasure but far enough away that you can take Mr Pooter's advice about home:
"After my work in the City, I like to be at home," as he put in his Diary of a Nobody. "What's the good of a home, if you are never in it? 'Home, Sweet Home', that's my motto ... there is always something to be done: a tin-tack here, a venetian blind to put straight, a fan to nail up, or part of a carpet to nail down."
The truth is that, despite all the efforts of planners to force us into over-dense, anti-family urban cramp, we're still headed for suburbia if we get the chance:
Much of this has been driven by migration patterns. In 2016, core counties lost roughly over 300,000 net domestic migrants while outlying areas gained roughly 250,000. Increasingly, millennials seek out single-family homes; rather than the predicted glut of such homes, there’s a severe shortage. Geographer Ali Modarres notes that minorities, the primary drivers of American population growth in the new century, now live in suburbs. The immigrant-rich San Gabriel Valley, the Inland Empire, Orange County and their analogues elsewhere, Modarres suggests, now represents “the quintessential urban form” for the 21st century.
This is California, famously unfriendly towards sprawl, a place with some of the world's most vicious urban containment policies, and a place with some of the world's most over-priced housing. Imagine how much better it would be if we recognised that people want to live in one of those 'ticky-tacky houses' - three bedrooms, front and back garden, garage. A place that combines comfort and affordability with room to grow.

And it makes economic sense too:
Overall, what suburbia dominates is the geography of the middle class. All but four of top 20 large counties with the highest percentage of households earning over $75,000 annually are suburban, according to research by Chapman University’s Erika Nicole Orejola. One reason: Most job growth takes place in the periphery. Even with the higher job density of downtowns, the urban core and its adjacent areas account for less than one-fifth of all jobs, and since 2010 this pattern has persisted.
It's a myth that the only places where jobs get created is in the urban core or grand cities - 80% of jobs are elsewhere and, you've guessed it, most of those jobs are in and around suburbia.

So suburbs are nicer places to live (really they are) with better amenities than either the city or the country. Suburbs are cleaner, friendlier, safer and less stressful that the city. And more accessible with better schools, healthcare and activity than the countryside. Plus people want to live in them.

Perhaps then, we should ignore all the pompous city living snobs who sneer at suburbs (often while dreaming of a nice posh pile in some village that's really an exurb) and get on with building what most folk want - more suburbs.


Monday, 20 November 2017

Quote of the day - why council housing isn't the answer

Worth remembering this:
The underlying problem has often been misdiagnosed by politicians who yearn for an uncontroversial and immediate solution. A lack of public housing is emphatically not the cause of our plight. About a fifth of all homes are owned by councils or housing associations, placing us towards the very top of the European league table. This amounts to about four times as much social housing as they have in Germany and is considerably higher than in France, Denmark or Sweden. If the quantum of state housing were the key driver of housing affordability, the UK would be one of the cheapest places to live in the western world.
We've spent the best part of four decades not building enough housing (for London and the South East it's about six homes built for every ten new households) and this is why we have a crisis. Not funding. Not state investment. Not tax incentives. Just urban containment.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Memories of what once was haunt our politics

OK this is about about Youngstown, Ohio but the same sentiment could pass for a thousand other places across the USA, Britain and Europe:
In places like Youngstown, many people still remember what life was like when employment was high, jobs paid well, workers were protected by strong unions, and industrial labor provided a source of pride – not only because it produced tangible goods but also because it was recognized as challenging, dangerous, and important. The memory of what it felt like to transform raw ore into steel pipes and to be part of the connected, prosperous community that work generated still haunts the children and grandchildren of those workers.
These memories of what once was haunt today's politics and the minds of economists. The problem is that those economists know only the dry, utilitarian core of their discipline - free trade works, economic liberalism makes the world richer. And all this is undeniable but what it reminds us is that utilitarianism and Benthamite consequentialism should not be the only drivers of what we do and how we think about the world.

I don't think we can get back to those halcyon days of factories, unions, strong men and robust communities in places like Ohio, South Yorkshire, Livorno or Roubaix - this is, if you like, the mistake of Blue Labour and Red Tory analyses. But what we should do, rather than peer in faux-concern at the poverty consequential on the loss of those days, is ask what is needed to find again the ties that bound those communities together and made them strong.

John Sanphillippo writes brilliant photo-essays about America's suburbia and, in a recent piece about Orange County, California, he started with what I think is a really important remark:
There are things that we can do as a society to work through our big structural difficulties at an institutional level. And there are other things that can be done independently at the household level by individuals. I don’t have the technical skills, political skills, social skills, credentials, patience, or desire to engage the large scale systems. To be honest, I don’t think most people do. But there are all sorts of things that ordinary people can and should do on their own that can make a huge difference on the ground at room temperature. Collectively all our separate choices create the world we inhabit.
To do this we have to break with those memories of what once was, to forget pretending large factories with their unions, job security and dominance of a community will ever return. We've also to stop seeing the answer lies with holding out a cap to national government crying "fill it with money, we're hurting" - it's not that redistribution is a bad thing but rather that it stops things getting worse it doesn't make them better. The starting point is where Sanphillippo is pointing - outside our front doors.

Right now the neoliberal elite (apologies for calling them that but it's all I've got) are in denial. They know that their world view is challenged by folk struggling in Youngstown, Oldham or Fosse De Sessevalle and they know also that the voice of far-left and far-right echoes round these communities as they search for what they lost when the steelworks, cotton mills and coal mines closed. The problem is that the populists, whether rightists like Farage, Trump or Le Pen or leftists like Mélenchon, Corbyn or Sander, don't offer anything that works - all these would-be demagogues offer is a false hope and strong words of blame.

It seems to me we've to offer people two things - hope based on empowerment and control, and the idea of aspiration. Maybe if we start with those neglected local things - the fallen walls, the crumbling highway, the kid who needs a lift (or a bike) to get to an apprenticeship, the local school looking for readers, the doctors wanting help getting folks to and from hospital, a thousand things too small to get the notice of big government but important to you little place. Forget about grand national schemes and think instead about our neighbourhoods - because it really does work:
The Knight Foundation, an American charity that supports journalism and active citizenship, ran a programme called 'Soul of the Community' that showed how there is an "important and significant correlation between how attached people feel to where they live and local GDP growth" and what "most drives people to love where they live (their attachment) is their perception of aesthetics, social offerings, and openness of a place". If people love where they live, that place will succeed - it's Sam Gamgee going round The Shire planting a grain from Galadriel's garden in every corner.

Friday, 17 November 2017

On safari with the poverty tourists

Since the Brexit vote in Britain and Trump's election in the USA, there has developed a genre of journalism that involves the writer departing from their comfortable, elite environs (London, New York, San Francisco) and venturing out into the badlands where people voted either the leave the EU or else for Donald Trump. On safari with their patronising pencils:
Hale, who is 65 and lives in San Francisco, is a career activist who got her start protesting nuclear plants and nuclear testing in the 1970s. In 2005, she was one of the founders of Third Way, a center-left think tank, and it was in that capacity that she and four colleagues had journeyed from both coasts to the town of Viroqua, Wisconsin, as part of a post-election listening tour. They had come on a well-meaning mission: to better understand their fellow Americans, whose political behavior in the last election had left them confused and distressed.
Or by the seaside smugly observing poor people struggling:
The elephants that lumbered up and down Blackpool’s beach have long gone. Britain’s political parties have stopped decamping to the town for their annual jamborees. Even the deckchairs have left: the local government sold all 6,000 of them three years ago to a company in the affluent county of Cheshire. The one thing that hasn’t disappeared is the people.
This sort of poverty tourism feeds a set of consumers eager for the latest instalment of voyeurism, the next explanation as to why these stupid people voted for Brexit or plumped for Trump. We get depressing descriptions of people's lives interspersed by showing how they're all bigoted, racist, misogynist, overweight and unhealthy. What there isn't is any attempt at all to understand why, at least not beyond glib, smug quips about "shit life syndrome" or lurid reporting on illiberal attitudes towards druggies, welfare queens and high school drop-outs.

The whole approach - whether it's a Financial Times journalist going to Blackpool, a Guardian writer venturing to Stoke, or some San Francisco researchers driving through rural Wisconsin - reeks of 19th century anthropology where intrepid researchers ventured into the dark jungle in search of lost tribes to write up in their next book - published to great acclaim and talk of how brave, how brilliant. What we don't get is any real sense of understanding as journalists turn for insight to the public sector elites that dominate many of these places - to the very people who are failing to turn them round.

It's no surprise then, that the descriptions focus on the dysfunctional lives of people who live in these places, on the drugs and alcohol, the depression and the sense of hopelessness. What's lacking from this poverty tourism is any sense of empathy, any appreciation of what having a shit life is really like. And why so many people with those shit lives are in Blackpool, Stoke and rural Wisconsin. It struck me as telling that the UK edition of J D Vance's gripping 'Hillbilly Elegy' describes it as "a great insight into Trump and Brexit" - it may be that but more importantly it's a revealing story of the struggles faced by the white working class in the deindustrialised Mid West. That Trump and Brexit were stuck on the book's front cover tells you everything you need to know about the interests and priorities of bien pensant bookshop browsers in London or New York.

What's missing is any suggestion as to what - other than familiar cries for more government cash - should be done to change shit lives into lives that are all right. We get little criticisms of government like this:
For Jonathan Portes, chief economist at the DWP between 2002 and 2008, the lack of a plan was, in retrospect, part of the problem. “There’s an argument for saying you can’t do [welfare reform] separately from having some sort of place-based economic strategy as well — and we never really had that,” he says. “Just telling them, ‘Well there’s 5,000 new jobs in London every week, and people seem to find it perfectly easy to move 600 miles from rural Romania to take one of these jobs, so why can’t you move 200 miles from Blackpool?’ — it’s true but it sort of ignores the social context.”
The truth, of course, is that we had decades of place-based economic strategies some funded through ERDF Objective One and Two, others by UK government funding (City Challenge, SRB, Estate Action - a potpourri of place-based regeneration) but, in the main, the places that were poorest in 1968 are more likely to be poor in 2018. And, while all this money helped, the economic fundamentals for places like Blackpool, Barnsley or Stoke haven't changed all that much.

When you read Vance's book, you get a little sense of the irritation many like him (hillbillies, rednecks, chavs, pikies - the white working classes of Britain and America) feel at the way they're portrayed in these poverty tourism pieces. We're given the idea that such folk are dull, listless, ignorant and essentially helpless, that only the intervention of bright, engaged, educated and empowered people from outside can resolve the problem. We're to say "there, there" and provide a big middle-class hug to all these sad, incapable poor people out there in the sticks.

Perhaps instead of that hug, we should try a little bit of understanding? Get underneath why their lives are shit? Maybe we can stop hassling them about lifestyle too and focus instead on the things that could help? But then, I've a suspicion, the journalists, academics and think-tankers believe they're done their job by pointing at Blackpool as saying "ewww, isn't it horrid" (albeit taking 5000 words to do so). After all their readers will now be armed with all they need to hold forth about the evils of capitalism, the failures of Tory welfare policies and the noble work being done by the public sector elites in these towns, people who are sacrificing the comforts of civilisation to do good work in these sad, broken places.


Thursday, 16 November 2017

People who think Twitter - with or without Russians - decided the referendum need to get out more

There is an almighty panic afoot. It seems that a vast army of trolls in fur hats with snow on their boots are ruining our democracy by doing stuff on Twitter. Yes folks, it's the Russians - even the Prime Minister was moved to say how naughty they are albeit in a wonderfully sinister way ("we know what you're doing").

Some perspective is needed here because, while it may well be the case that Russian spies sat at computers in St Petersburg are bombarding Twitter with stuff, the impact on elections ranges from pretty much zero to really not very much at all.

According to Oleksandr Talavera at Swansea University there are 150,000 accounts with "links to Russia" that Tweeted about Brexit during the campaign. Talavera is at the upper end of the spectrum of guesses about these Russian bots most other researchers give much lower figures for accounts that can be clearly linked to the folk in St Petersburg - 419 from researchers in Edinburgh, 13,493 from London University and just 54 from Oxford University.

Taking the 419, this is what they were doing:
Professor Laura Cram, director of neuropolitics research at the University of Edinburgh, told the newspaper that at least 419 of those accounts tweeted about Brexit a total of 3,468 times – mostly after the referendum had taken place.

Commenting on the Brexit tweets, she told The Guardian the content overall was “quite chaotic and it seems to be aimed at wider disruption. There’s not an absolutely clear thrust. We pick up a lot on refugees and immigration”.
I'm pretty sure that the same will go for the bigger numbers. For a little context, however, we should note that there were literally millions of Tweets about the referendum - the LSE, for example, looked at 7.5 million in their analysis. Those Russian tweeters represent a drop in this ocean of Tweets. Let's remember also that there are about 10 million UK Twitter accounts (this matters because they're the ones with a vote) and let's also note that 17.4 million people voted to leave - rather more than have those Twitter accounts.

Even accepting that Russia did try to interfere in - disrupt, influence - the referendum (something that probably shouldn't surprise us), the evidence presented by researchers tells us that it really didn't make much difference at all, indeed it was swamped by a vast tide of Tweets from real people about Brexit. Indeed that LSE study showed just how Brexiteers were much more engaged and active:
There is clearly a pattern in the way the referendum campaign unfolded on Twitter, with those wanting to leave communicating in greater numbers and with greater intensity. Districts with a greater share of Twitter users supporting Leave also tended to vote for leaving the EU, so that Twitter activity correlates with voting in the referendum.
We also know from that LSE blog that the same goes for Facebook, Instagram and Google search - as a senior politician (and remain voter) said to me: "Brexit voters were going to crawl over broken glass so they could vote to leave". I've been involved in politics for 40 years and have never seen ordinary voters - the sort who often don't bother - so motivated to turn up and vote. Public meetings were a thing of history in British elections, yet we held a debate in Cullingworth and filled the hall with over 250 people, most of them planning to vote leave.

This latest conspiracy theory - hot on the heels of the "it was big data" nonsense - reminds us that many of those who voted to remain are still in denial as to what the campaign outcome was down to. These inconsolable remain voters simply can't countenance that their 'business as usual' message got both barrels from an electorate that frankly didn't think that 'business as usual' was doing them any good. The result has been firstly to shout about how it was all the stupid people who did it and it's not fair, then to blame the Daily Mail followed by lots of overhyped scare stories about 'hate crime'. We then got the conspiracies - it was shadowy American billionaires, it was manipulating 'big data' and now it's the Russians.

The truth is that two-and-a-half million mostly older and working class voters who don't usually vote or vote infrequently decided on this occasion to go down to the church hall or school and stick a big firm X in the box marked "Leave the European Union". There were a pile of reasons why they did this but the main one was that the EU is a distant, unaccountable, corrupt and undemocratic institution a very long way away filled with people who have absolutely no connection with or idea about what matters in Denholme or Wyke or Scarborough. It really had absolutely nothing at all to do with Twitter, the Russians, Cambridge Analytica or whatever stupid conspiracy sobbing remainers dream up and if you think otherwise you really should get out more.


Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Racism - why the progressive left's definiton is damaging

It was some time in the early 1990s when a friend, steeped in the occult law of progressive politics, explained to me that most on the "left" didn't mean what I thought they meant when they talked about racism.

You see, along with most of the populace, I'd laboured under the misunderstanding that racism was prejudice based on a persons race. So a decision, for example, to exclude someone, not employ someone or stereotype someone based on their race is pretty much all there is to racism. It seems I was wrong - or rather that there's a different meaning of racism that derives from society's structure, history and other stuff that Marxist sociologists speak about.

Under this different meaning of the word 'racism', I (as a white person) do not have to say or do anything at all that regular folk consider racist for the progressive left to consider that I am a racist. My very existence is a monument to racism - white people are racists because they are white people. And, of course, the victims of that racism - people of colour - cannot be racist even if they use language or act in a way that most folk would consider racist. Understand that you don't have to agree with this definition of racism (and I don't) for it to be significant in the way a discourse about racism is conducted.

There is, for some white people, an escape clause. You become an 'ally' of people of colour. This doesn't actually stop you being a racist because you are white but it does provide some protection as your heart is in the right place - especially if you've acknowledges the deep structural causes of racism within society (having learnt about this from listening to those Marxist sociologists).

Which brings me to Emma Dent-Coad MP and Nasreen Khan (or Naz Kahn as she was until recently).

Taking Naz Kahn first. It is clear that Naz is a person of colour (being, in this case, a Muslim of South Asian heritage) which means that, in progressive mythology, she cannot be a racist even if she says something that is racist. Moreover, Naz's crime was to be anti-Jew and there's a problem with the Jews in that progressive myth . Everyone recognises that Jews are a minority and that they were (and are) persecuted but they are mostly outside that people of colour definition because that would put them in the same category as the Palestinians who are, of course, oppressed (by Zionists who are mostly Jewish).

Ms Kahn may have overstepped the boundaries of what the progressive left will accept in terms of antisemitism - mostly by suggesting Hitler wasn't all that bad, which means the Labour Party will eventually get round to sacking her - but her opinions are simply slightly more extreme versions of those held by a significant proportion of Labour members. Anti-Zionism is acceptable (because the Palestinians are oppressed) even though opposing Zionism means opposing the existence of Israel, something central to the identity of most Jews.

Meanwhile, Emma Dent-Coad, the MP for Kensington is reported to have called a black Tory activist, Shaun Bailey, a "token ghetto boy". Normal progressive left reaction to this (and indeed that of most regular folk) would be to say "racism" because referencing the ghetto and calling a black man 'boy' definitely fits everyone's idea of racism and Ms Dent-Coad is white so, in that progressive mythology, presumed guilty of racism. Yet a black progressive left MP, Clive Lewis, chose to defend her:
I see some brothers getting upset at @emmadentcoad recent comments. Where were your howls of outrage at the Tory ‘nigger in a woodpile’ comments? Pathetic.She’s done more for black people in her constituency with #grenfell in 6months than most tories will do in their entire lives.
What you see here is that Ms Dent-Coad is being defined as an 'ally' to people of colour thereby provided cover for a deeply racist (in regular folks' understanding of what that word means) remark. You see, Ms Dent-Coad is on our (people of colour) side so therefore we can excuse her offensiveness to a black person. And this get out clause is reinforced by the victim is this case being a Conservative activist and politician. Here's Mr Lewis again:
If you think you can fight racism and be in the Tory party then I guess this conversation isn’t going to go very far I’m afraid. If anyone has any understanding of the structural reality of modern racism, you’d not come within a country mile of a Tory membership card.
In Mr Lewis's mind, Tory equates to white. What he's saying is that any black person (and the comment was in response to someone who is a person of colour) who joins the Conservative Party has given up on racism, is a sort of traitor to the cause - an Uncle Tom or a 'coconut'. And, within Mr Lewis's mindset, adhering as it does to those progressive myths about racism, this must be the case - the Tories are the party of the establishment and the establishment is white and racist.

If one thing comes of this sorry situation - with a senior Labour MP insinuating that thousands of black and minority Tory activists, including hundreds of councillors and MPs are somehow unconcerned about racism - I hope it is to confine the stupid progressive definition of racism to the dustbin of silly ideas where it belongs. We've made huge progress over the past few decades in dealing with the endemic racism within our society and, as the words of Naz Kahn and Emma Dent-Coad show, we've still a long way to go. But to say that "structural reality of modern racism" (whatever that actually means) says that Conservatives don't care about racism is to wear a set of ideological blinkers. Racism is, in the end, always about people prejudging others, often harmfully, on the basis of their race. Yes it's ingrained and embedded in society but can we not try and turn it into some sort of 'groupthink' where only those subscribing to a narrowly-defined ideological position can be called anti-racist?


Monday, 13 November 2017

The appeal of autocracy to intellectuals

Joel Kotkin is bang on the money here:
China’s ascendency appeals to many in America’s intellectual classes, and not only them, who historically have a soft spot for “enlightened” autocrats and overweening bureaucracies. In the progressive era, the lodestone was imperial Germany, in the 1930s for many the “future” was to be seen in the Soviet Union and even fascist Italy. In the 1980s, Japan emerged as the role model, followed in the late 1990s by a united Europe that seemed to many more humane and successful than the U.S.
The reality is that, for all its many flaws and failings, the US system based on liberal capitalism is more robust, responsive and successful than the Utopian "Man in Whitehall Knows Better" systems beloved of the centrist and progressive left - especially the acedemic and intellectual bits of it.