Sunday, 26 July 2015

At least with Pete Seeger you could enjoy the music - Jeremy Corbyn and the politics of protest

There's a bit in Pete Seeger's version of 'We Shall Overcome' where, talking ahead of the next verse, Seeger talks about learning lessons from 'the young people':

"The most important verse is the one they wrote down in Montgomery, Alabama. And the young people taught everybody else a lesson to all us older people who had learned to take it easy, lead their lives and get along - leave things as they were - the young people taught us all a lesson, we are not afraid."

Watching Labour leadership contender, Jeremy Corbyn undergoing a gentle, chatty Sunday morning interrogation from Andrew Marr, I was struck by the manner in which Corbyn returned again and again to 'young people'. Not just in talking about student fees, welfare or employment but as a central aspect of his campaign. Observations like this:

‘The entryism I see is lots of young people who have hitherto not been very excited by politics coming in for the first time and saying ‘yeah, we can have a discussion, we can talk about our debts and our housing problems.’

Now I don't have the age profile (or indeed any demographics at all) of the new members and supporters piling into the Labour Party so as to vote in the forthcoming leadership election. And I suspect that Corbyn doesn't have a great deal more information. Nevertheless it is central to his politics that young people are the drivers of change - the heart of the 'social movement' he refers to repeatedly.

Pete Seeger and that whole American folk and protest revival of the 1950s and 1960s may seem a little naff to many today but Corbyn's politics uses the same slightly folksy rhetoric, the same disconnected slogans intended to cheer the audience and draw on the instinct we all have for compassion. So, faced with a serious question about national debt or economic growth, Corbyn summons up a series of statements - about tax dodging companies, high rates of tax and an 'overemphasis on orthodox economics' - that touch on the subject but don't actually address the question. This is followed by a glib conclusion - something like '..but tax isn't the real issue here, the big question is what sort of society we want'. You can almost hear Pete Seeger and Joan Baez tuning up ready to launch into 'We Shall Overcome' or 'Joe Hill'.

And this is the problem with such folksy socialism - it has a genuine appeal to many of us. I get an emotional jolt from Woody Guthrie singing 'Vigilante Man' or 'Tom Joad' and, though others may not share my enthusiasm for American folk music, many will point to song, story or images that echo that shout of pain and cry for justice. We really do care and politics like Corbyn's build on the exploitation of that compassion - coupled with a sort of poverty pornography an endless emphasis on failure that's essential to the making of political myth.

The problem - it's striking that Corbyn only ever talks of industry never business, public investment not private capital - is that we know that the solutions being offered don't work. Most importantly they work least well for the very people who Corbyn and others like him claim to care most about - the poor, sick and excluded. The economic catastrophe that follows from nationalisation, regulation, high taxation and rent or price controls - and it does without question - damages the poorest, weakest and sickest most quickly and most extensively.

Corbyn's appeal to 'young people' is an appeal to the most naive amongst the caring, to those who are most likely to join his mission to create that 'social movement'. The constant reference to student fees reminds us of that audience - these are overwhelmingly the children of the middle classes not the poor. There is a delicious irony that the taxes of an eighteen-year-old shelf stacker will, in Corbyn's world, go in part to pay for the education of a new generation of lawyers, social workers and bankers who will earn a load more in their lifetime than that shelf stacker.

There's a place - a need even - for Corbyn's politics. Protests and campaigns for justice are good and right. But the solution offered isn't one that will work - far better for that protest to stay in those songs and stories where, as these things do, it will act as a constant reminder that we should consider poverty, exclusion and the abuse of power at all times.

Turning the politics of student protest into a programme for government will result in disaster. And, by focusing on young people to the exclusion of everyone else, Corbyn seems oblivious to the real fact that most voters aren't young, aren't on welfare, aren't unemployed and aren't poor. They're just regular sorts - what Americans call the 'middle class' - going about their lives, doing the best for their children, making ends meet most of the time and squeezing as much pleasure and enjoyment from life as they can. It is these people that Corbyn wants to crush, it is their culture he wishes to destroy, it is their society he wants to change.

As a Conservative a little bit of me wants to see Jeremy Corbyn elected as Labour leader. But because I know a lot of Labour people - and like a fair few of them - I think electing a man who thinks the politics of Bolivarian socialism are a good thing would be an act of arrant stupidity, a triumph for unthinking ignorance and bigotry disguised as a caring agenda. Protest is great and it's a central part of what the left does but making it the entire purpose of the Labour Party - what Corbyn means when he says he wants a 'social movement' - sets up that party for permanent opposition rather than as a credible alternative government.

I know Labour Party members have a lousy choice but choosing the candidate who sees the party as a protest movement is just plain stupid. Jeremy Corbyn comes across as Pete Seeger without the banjo - well-meaning, caring, committed to change and - in political terms - utterly, utterly wrong. The difference is that, as least with Pete Seeger you could enjoy the music.


Saturday, 25 July 2015

On the nonsense of our obsession with children's weight


There are children with a serious weight problem but there aren't very many of them. Unless of course you rely on a simplistic measure that takes no account of differential rates of development and which places an entirely arbitrary level for 'normal', 'overweight' and 'obese. The result of this - plus the endless bothering in the media about weight - is that children, especially girls, are worrying about their weight. Most of the time this gets blamed on skinny models and the fashion industry which means that another culprit - public health campaigns about childhood obesity - gets away without any criticism.

Here's a comment from the former head of the Food Policy and Research Unit at Bradford University (and Bingley Rural resident), Vernor Wheelock:

"Verner Wheelock, former head of the University of Bradford’s Food Policy and Research Unit who now runs a food training and consultancy service in Skipton, believes the BMI (Body Mass Index) system of measuring body fat based on weight in relation to height is a 'nonsense.'

He says some people with a higher life expectancy are in the overweight category and says it is even more difficult to calculate when it comes to children because they're still growing and there are some muscular children with a higher BMI. "When officials get hold of them they say they have to lose weight, but it's nonsense," says Verner,

He believes there is too much obsession with weight and that many people are given the wrong dietary advice."

What sort of barking mad world do we live in where one day children are being told they shouldn't worry about not looking like a supermodel (and anyway they're unhealthily skinny) and thew next that their BMI places than as overweight meaning they should lose weight. All this is against a background where, as Dr Wheelock points out some overweight people - in particular older people - have a higher life expectancy that people with a 'normal' weight.


Tuesday, 21 July 2015

How left wing academics are killing the business school


For many years business schools and management faculties were the bastions of sanity in academia. Places where such concerns as robust research methods, consistency and applied knowledge were more important that ideology or the revolution. Business schools were, so to speak, the engineers or social science - sensible places producing graduates who could actually contribute something to the world once they left the groves of academe.

Sadly this is now under threat. A thing called 'critical management studies' has grown like a sort of parasitical maggot within the body of the business school:

As an umbrella research orientation CMS embraces various theoretical traditions including anarchism, critical theory, feminism, Marxism, post-structuralism, postmodernism, postcolonialism and psychoanalysis, representing a pluralistic, multidisciplinary movement. Having been associated mainly with business/management schools in the United Kingdom and Scandinavia earlier, CMS as a research approach has presence all over the world and is not confined to management/business schools. This suggests that CMS is an approach to doing research rather than a school or tradition, and there is no particular 'right' way of doing CMS.

I am reluctant to do anything more than just peek at this hideous growth upon an otherwise sensible part of our higher education system. But that peek reveals the usual - and more-or-less incomprehensible - left wing wibble. We encounter a world focused on 'alternatives to growth driven neo-liberal capitalism', on 'critical performativity' (whatever that might be), and on 'challenging the...power structures in the university workspace'.

And in doing this work, such ordinary stuff as scientific method and detached, dispassionate research are to be dismissed:

We do not believe that good social science is always detached, objective and quantitative in its approach. Nor do we think it should routinely borrow from the natural sciences in its investigations. Instead we favour the use of a wide range of methods in attempting to understand and unpick management and organisations. This is why the School of Management at the University of Leicester houses the largest body of heterodox researchers across the core disciplines of accounting and finance, marketing and organisation studies in the world.

We are now beginning to churn out from university management schools the same deluded, evidence-light, ideological research (I call it research because I'm kind) has we've seen for generations from sociology and social studies departments. This isn't to say that left wing views have no place in the study of business and management but rather to observe that the application of that ideology seems to trump any reasoned or rational consideration of the things being taught and studied.

What we see here is the continued debasement of academia as the unchallenged hegemony of 'progressive' delusions gradually infects the whole body of research. To be fair there's a way to go before the UK's business schools are so corrupted by the sort of ideological non-research those unfortunate students at Leicester are suffering. But, just as there is no space for any challenge to this progressive hegemony across much of the social sciences, it seems that it will be only a matter of time before the BSc in management becomes just as uselessly impractical as the typical BA in Sociology or Social Policy is today.

The most frightening thing about the progressive left isn't just that it is out of touch with reality but that its academics reject structured, quantitative research methods (mostly because - as I was told by my research methods lecturer - 'maths is hard') in favour of the recycling of shared opinions and the gradual translation, without any real evidence, of those opinions into a 'research' corpus. Worse, if organisations are recruiting new managers infected by this 'business is bad' ideology, then instead of new and improving techniques in business adminsitration we will see the corruption of our businesses from within.

Monday, 20 July 2015

If we want to protect the environment, we need to fall in love with the car again


New Start magazine is home to the most predictable and dated of approaches to regeneration. A bunch of folk wrapped in the New Economic Foundation, Green Party, Agenda 21 line of anti-development, anti-car, anti-freedom beliefs that simply don't reflect the reality of either regeneration or the thrust of transport technology. Here's a classic of the genre from the misnamed Campaign for Better Transport:

We know our reliance on cars is bad for us – bad for our health, bad for the environment and bad for the economy. Yet the way we plan and build continues as if it were still the 1950s and the car a watchword for freedom.

And so on in this vein. Each illustration of the car's evil is ticked - 'clone towns', 'subtopia', 'car-dependent ghettoes', 'foorball pitch sized car parks', 'retail parks'. And the glorious alternatives to economic growth are celebrated - 'improved public health', 'revitalised town centres' and 'tackling carbon emissions'. Plus of course the desire that planning rules should be changed "so economic growth is no longer allowed to trump essential considerations like environment and health". As if planning rules do anything at all but limit economic growth - it's what they're designed to do.

My problem with this - and all the stuff about "strong public transport links with discounted ticket prices, the establishment of cycling routes and initiatives such as free bike workshops all contributing" - is that it completely fails to recognise the direction of transport technology. All the most innovative and green developments in transport are about roads and transport on roads - from smart road surfaces and electric vehicles through to flexible urban pods and lorry peletons the future of transport lies with clean green vehicles using a new generation of roads not with 19th century technologies like trains, trams, bicycles and trolley buses.

Technology is making roads dramatically safer and allowing greater capacity while the development of hybrid engines and more efficient transmission systems is making vehicle significantly less polluting. New materials reduce the carbon emissions in manufacture and make recycling or waste reduction easier. In time vehicles become smaller as technology eliminates collisions allowing for more flexible parking systems.

The problem is that we have a planning system that sees roads as a problem and cars as a curse rather than seeing these systems as a more flexible, safer. reliable and sustainable solution that railway tracks or other systems dedicated to single uses. Most public transport solutions (with the honourable exception of electric buses) rely on this exclusivity - from bus lanes and tram lines to swathes of countryside ripped up to accommodate high speed rail. It really is time we set aside this obsession with old technology and began to support investment in the exciting technologies of tomorrow - technologies based on the shared space that is the highway.

If we want a sustainable transport future then the answer lies in working with technologies that make roads more flexible, safer and faster. We need to embrace the idea of increased road capacity and smoother traffic flow that smart road technologies will bring. Above all we need to remember that the car still is a watchword for freedom, is still the preferred means of transport for the majority, and that driverless technologies open up that freedom to people who right now can't access the car. We need to fall in love with the car again.


Sunday, 19 July 2015

There is no evidence - none at all - to justify this lastest sugar 'target'

Except, of course, that reducing the amount of sugar might be consequential on reducing total calorific intake. More to the point this selection of one 'macronutrient' as the culprit for rising levels of obesity is pretty lousy science - as if it's not possible to eschew nasty 'added sugar' and get properly fat!

"There's no medical evidence that reducing sugar consumption below 10 per cent to five per cent carries any additional health benefit - absolutely no evidence at all.

"The current average consumption of sugar is around 12-13 per cent. Getting to 10 per cent is a reasonable target and I think we should put some real effort behind achieving that first, but to come up with a new target that is miles away from what is achievable is entirely foolish - no population in the world can do that.

"Even vegetarians from India consume eight per cent of their calories from sugar and they have less heart disease and less diabetes than anyone in the world."

So says Professor Mike Lean, chair of Human Nutrition at Glasgow University's School of Medicine who I'm guessing knows a thing or two about this stuff. Now Professor Lean does say that the government has been too soft on the food industry - he may have a point but surely most of the blame (assuming that's the game we're in) rests with us as consumers.

Nevertheless, blaming sugar for obesity simply doesn't stack up for the very simple reason that we're eating a lot less of it. Here's a line from a research proposal:

Furthermore, there has been a paradoxical decline in sugars consumption in the UK and elsewhere over the past 3 or so decades and yet rates of obesity have continued to increase.

Sadly the proposers still wants to discover whether "individuals with a high consumption of dietary sugars, and in particular free sugars are more susceptible to weight gain than low consumers" rather than accepting the distinct lack of any direct causal link between sugar and obesity. In the end the truth about obesity is pretty straightforward - firstly people are obese because they consume more calories that they use over a long period of time, and secondly that most of the people labelled 'overweight or obese' are not in any way at greater risk of being ill.

Much of the debate around obesity has been a extended effort to find a demon - something or someone to blame for us being fat other than our own overeating and underexercising. The food industry, advertising, takeaways, fizzy drinks, saturated fats and sugars all get a pasting from 'public health' sorts worried about obesity. The truth is that it's a whole lot more complicated than all that but still in the end boils down to us sticking fewer calories in our gobs than we use. And we can achieve this in two ways - eating less and moving more.


Saturday, 18 July 2015

If we're to serve tomorrow's economy we need to invest more in roads and less in rail

Since 2001 rail travel in the UK has increased by over 50% (and has more than doubled since rail privatisation in the 1990s). I'm guessing that people see this as a cause for celebration and a recognition that 'heavy' rail is part of the nation's long term transport solutions. And this celebration is reflected in the investment programme for those railways, in proposals for brand new railways and in political rows about this investment.

However there's a problem. Currently rail journeys account for just 3% of total journeys (slightly more than this as a percentage of journey miles) and we are repeatedly told - hence the investment programme - that the rail network is over capacity. Let's assume that the investment programme succeeds and rail capacity is increased thereby allowing another doubling in rail journeys (this is a big requirement that the planned investment isn't going to meet) - rail would then constitute 6% of journeys made in the UK and the system would be uncomfortably crammed to the gunnels.

Given that the billions of planned rail investment dwarfs every other planned investment by the UK government, you would assume that it would go a long way towards resolving the nation's transport challenges. Between the investment in the current network and High Speed 2, the UK's rail investment programme amounts to approaching £80bn. This compares to the road investment programme of (and I'm being kind here) less than £30bn over the same period. The UK plans to invest more than twice the amount in rail than on the road network, yet there are 20 times as many journeys by road as there are by rail. Roughly speaking we're planning to spend £40 on every rail traveller for each £1 we spend on a road traveller.

The result of this imbalance in investment is that the UK's roads are not up to scratch. Local authorities have trimmed on highway maintenance (in Bradford we underspend by 30-40% each year on highway maintenance) and have little or no capital available to deliver improvement schemes let alone new road schemes. The national investment programme - the £15bn announced in 2014 that is slightly enhanced by decisions in the July 2015 budget - barely scratches the surface of improvements needed in the strategic road network. Yet a decision to delay one small part of the rail investment programme is treated as a major political faux pas whereas the consistent and lamentable underinvestment in our roads doesn't merit media coverage let alone the sort of outcry we get from train fans.

MP after MP, from every side of the house, lines up to berate ministers, including the prime minister, about rail investment. But questions about roads are few and far between despite most of those MPs' constituents making more use of them than they do of railways. When road schemes are asked about the response is that there isn't the funds, that other schemes have higher priority or that the decision is delegated to one or other agency.

For decades we operated under a sort of 'field of dreams' myth about road investment - 'build it and they will come' was the mantra. Or rather the reverse of this - building roads increases traffic volumes ergo if we don't build roads people will shift to other forms of transport thereby saving the planet (or something along these lines):

In transportation, this well-established response is known in various contexts as the Downs-Thomson Paradox, The Pigou-Knight-Downs Paradox or the Lewis-Mogridge Position: a new road may provide motorists with some level of respite from congestion in the short term, but almost all of the benefit from the road will be lost due to increased demand in the longer term.

The problem is that, wherever we look now, this paradox appears to be weakened - in the UK traffic volumes fell for three consecutive years (something that hadn't happened before) during the downturn and, since 2010 have been essentially stable. This is a situation mirrored in the USA where there has been a significant decline in vehicle miles - the population adjusted estimate is that traffic volumes have fallen back to the level they were back in 1994. This picture - dubbed 'peak car' - reflects the logical cap to car ownership rises driven by declining household size, suburban growth and women entering the workforce (as well as increased earnings relative to the price of cars). The consequence is that we should reconsider the various induced demand models for road development:

In a world of peak car, where traffic levels are flat to declining on a per capita basis, induced demand no longer holds court, certainly not to the level claimed by those who believe it’s pointless to build roads. In fact, what peak car means is that while speculative projects may be dubious, there may be good reasons now to build projects designed to alleviate already exiting congestion.

Our road networks are pretty resilient. Despite decades of underinvestment in maintenance the network remains in place and functional (if a little bumpy). However, if we are to deliver on the demands of a new economy, turn round the economic performance of the North and meet the needs of technological change, we have to look again at transport investment priorities. Placing a bigger stress on roads makes sense both because they are the dominant mode of transport for UK residents and also because those roads will prove central to future transport technologies:

A pair of trucks convoying 10 meters apart on Interstate 80 just outside Reno, Nevada, might seem like an unusual sight—not to mention unsafe. But the two trucks doing this a couple of weeks ago were actually demonstrating a system that could make trucking safer and much more efficient.

While the driver in front drove his truck normally, the truck behind him was partly operated by a computer—and it stuck to its leader like glue. When instructed to do so, the computer controlled the gas and brakes to pull to within 10 meters (roughly three car lengths) of the truck ahead. The computer then kept the two trucks paired at this precise distance, as if linked by some invisible cable, until the system was disengaged. If the truck in front stopped suddenly, the one behind could have reacted instantaneously to avoid a collision.

It's time for a rethink on transport priorities and begin to invest in the infrastructure we need for tomorrow's economy - that infrastructure is roads.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Friday Fungus: wild mushrooms and the tragedy of the commons

You've got dressed up, hired a cab and are safely seated in that special restaurant for your special occasion. Scanning down the menu your eyes fall on a "mosaic of chicken, wild mushrooms and pistachio nuts - an elegant combination of woody, autumnal flavours packed into a chunky terrine". If you're me, you leap as the prospect of wild mushrooms and place the order for your starter. What you don't do is ask how those wild mushrooms arrived at a posh restaurant in Ilkley. Perhaps it's time to start asking - for the sake of our woodlands and for the sake of us continuing to enjoy the fabulous flavours of those wild mushrooms blessing our palettes.

We're familiar with the tragedy of the commons (although it is often misrepresented):

...each human exploiter of the common was guided by self-interest. At the point when the carrying capacity of the commons was fully reached, a herdsman might ask himself, “Should I add another animal to my herd?” Because the herdsman owned his animals, the gain of so doing would come solely to him. But the loss incurred by overloading the pasture would be “commonized” among all the herdsmen. Because the privatized gain would exceed his share of the commonized loss, a self-seeking herdsman would add another animal to his herd. And another. And reasoning in the same way, so would all the other herdsmen. Ultimately, the common property would be ruined.

So it is with wild foraging for mushrooms.

The New Forest Association (NFA) says there's growing anger over "commercial gangs" invading and filching fungi to flog to posh hotels and restaurants in back-door deals.

Experts have warned the gangs could even kill because pickers who don't know the different species are likely to take deadly toadstools and other poisonous fungi in mistake for edible and safe mushrooms.

Forestry Commission bosses have now vowed to "disrupt" commercial pickers plundering this autumn's crop - but campaigners are demanding an outright ban.

This same story is repeated across our woodlands - from Epping Forest to Ogden Water you'll see evidence of large scale mushroom gathering. How else did you think all those wild mushrooms arrived in all those restaurants? And the easy result of authorities is to introduce a ban:

Authorities in London's Epping Forest have been stopping and searching walkers in an attempt to catch foragers who are stripping the woodland of fungi.

Forest keepers are trying to crack down on the harmful practice after gangs of foragers descended on the woodland in vans to cart away hauls of mushrooms which are then sold to restaurants.

The plants can fetch up to £50 per kilo as the trend for foraged food in upmarket restaurants in London and around the country has sent demand soaring.

The problem is that, as we know too well, a ban would simply drive up the price and make it worth the while to carry on foraging (the downside risk is probably pretty small). Even if we banned restaurants from selling wild mushrooms - imagine the foodie cries of pain - there's still be a market at the restaurant backdoor at an even higher price.

Instead of banning foraging would it not be more sensible (and lucrative) for places like Epping Forest and the New Forest to auction off the rights to crop the mushrooms? Trust me, if you've forked out thousands of quid for something you'll be making really sure people don't arrive and steal it from you. The owners of the rights would back up the local keepers and wardens to stop the poaching of fungi - we'd have an industry interested in a sustainable product rather than a collection of uncontrolled exploiters of common rights.

Despite this, I'll bet you that the choices of authorities will be the ban not the licence.