Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Talbot to Ludlow

I thought long and hard about whether to call this particular little piece, "keeping the Welsh out" but decided since that was a fool's errand to talk instead about games. And why we play them.

The title I've chosen refers to an event card from the game Kingmaker which has long been one of my favourites featuring all the best things about games - plague, pestilence, storms, battles, castles and general skullduggery (and the picture is Ludlow Castle). And since I was brought up in the days before computers, we played games involving small pieces of card being piled up on a board and moved around. Proper games, if you ask me!

Indeed - along with ridiculous amounts of D&D - I spent a significant proportion of my waking hours at university playing games. Along with Kingmaker we played Machiavelli (no surprises that this is set in renaissance Italy), Mighty Fortress (set in reformation Europe) and assorted Diplomacy varients. These games required thought, considered approaches, some understanding of strategy and a wide streak of devious nastiness. Which I guess is why they don't appeal to everyone - I'm told there are people out there for which the prospect of a rainy day in playing board games is some kind of purgatory.

Today we still play board games - Kingmaker if we can find enough willing victims (I think they like to call themselves 'players') but more usually more recently publish board games like 'Ticket to Ride', 'Carcassonne' and 'Puerto Rico'. And I still have a love hate relationships - great to play, exercises the mind. But when you're as competitive as I am rather stressful. And don't get too near me when I'm losing!


Monday, 30 August 2010

Legalising gambling would help stop corruption in sport.

The revelations regarding the Pakistan cricket team are at the same time a tragedy for the game (indeed for sport in general) and also the inevitable consequence of prohibition. Assuming that the allegations have some substance, it seems that the corrupt hand of Asia’s “gambling syndicates” has infected the great game of cricket – and not for the first time. Why is this?

The main reason is that throughout Asia – and in too many other places – gambling is illegal. And – given that people will gamble whether it’s illegal or not – that means the punting business is run by criminals. Which of course in nothing new – ask ‘Shoeless Joe’ Jackson!

If you ban something that people want to do, you hand it over to criminals for them to run. And, given that those criminals are (ipso facto) unregulated, the result is the fix – the criminals set up the system to increase their advantage. Forget about the bank having advantage – this is the bank ensuring it wins.

For the sake of sport – and for the liberty of snails climbing up walls or droplets running down windows – we need gambling to be legalised. Only then can we have any chance of controlling the corruption of sport by the bookies and the sharks.


One of my favourite books is Robert Heinlein's "Doorway into Summer". Mostly because the real hero of the book is a cat - a boy cat with a rough attitude not one of those pampered housebound metrosexual pussy-cats but one who travelled everywhere with his head poking out from a kit bag. What this has to do with anything is moot but the idea of the doorway was central to the book - the cat would travel from door to door in the house knowing that one would be the 'doorway into summer' and he could go out without getting cold or wet or both.

Which rather takes me to the point of doors. Are they to keep us out or to protect us while we're in? And are we not fascinated by the possibilities that lie behind the door. Don't tell me you haven't tried a door handle or two in your time? Or peeked carefully - and with a slightly guilty feeling - through a door left ajar? Of course you have and, like Heinlein's cat, you're left disappointed. There is no summer, no secret garden where all is good, the sun is shining and the living is easy! Yet we carry on looking. Hoping that next time...


"There's a pill for that" - Big Pharma and the medicalisation of society's ills


Dr Petra tweeted this article from The Drum about the medicalisation of low libido in women and, more significantly, the manner in which drug companies mis-use research to provide supposed evidence for their products.

However, this article in The Drum shows how the companies take a further step:

Virtually unheard of not so long back, FSD burst onto the global stage in 1999, with bizarre but widely trumpeted claims it affected 43 percent of women. Viagra had just been approved for men, and as sales soared, the fantasies of pharmaceutical executives soon turned to a similar mass market among women.

Sex researchers, for a long time locked outside the hallowed halls of the health establishment, were suddenly inundated with offers of fine food, flattery and funding, from the friendly folks in pharma, and a new science of sexual medicine was born. Over the next 10 years companies with obligations to shareholders to widen the numbers of people defined as sick, and narrow the solutions offered to them, would not just sponsor the science of FSD, on occasions they would actually help to create it.

Corporate staff would participate in scientific conferences where the uncertain nature of FSD was hotly debated; companies would orchestrate surveys to prove how widespread sexual problems were; and perhaps most chillingly, company employees would help design the diagnostic tools used to label otherwise healthy women as disordered, opening the pathway to long-term treatment with costly and potentially harmful medicines.

And at the centre of all this sponsored science was the special long-term relationship between a small circle of senior researchers and a powerful industry whose sales are approaching a trillion dollars a year. In 2000, when a key definition of FSD was published - with claims it affected up to one in every two women - 18 of the 19 'thought leaders' who wrote it had financial ties to a total of more than 20 companies.

This process seems eerily familiar to those who have studied the medicalisation of smoking (or rather nicotine replacement therapies and drugs). First identify a real problem such as that smoking increases cancer risks or that some women have lower levels of sexual drive and then turn that problem into one with a medical solution. This is achieved by the subborning of researchers and, if this isn't always possible, setting up front organisations or even conducting your own 'research'.

More recently it's been the turn of the German drug company Boehringer Ingelheim to construct this science, its paid consultants 'educating' doctors, its staff helping produce yet another survey finding widespread suffering, and employees helping design the tools to diagnose the condition. The Decreased Sexual Desire Screener is a simple five-item questionnaire, launched last year by the company as a 'new, easy to use' diagnostic tool to assess women with HSDD - the target condition for the company's experimental sex drug, a failed anti-depressant which affects the brain's chemistry. That's right … a drug company is helping to design a diagnostic instrument to label women with a disorder, so they can qualify for that same company's drug

We really should be very concerned that pharmaceutical companies, aided and abetted by governments and by the medical establisment are activiely seeking to medicalise all society's ills - smoking, drinking, not enough (or too much) sex, eating too much or too little, not exercising enough and all the regular depressive conditions that come with life's downs.

As someone once said: "there's a pill for that!"


Sunday, 29 August 2010

Profit-taking and the NHS - inevitable or avoidable?


The inspiring and sceptical legal blogger Jack of Kent asks whether part of the problem with the NHS relates to ‘profiteering’:

Huge profits are made by pharma and PFI contractors under NHS model. Surely we should not have such a profit-based approach to healthcare?

Now this rather begs the question since in addition to Jack’s examples we could identify thousands of other ‘for-profit’ businesses – large and small – making good money from providing goods and services to the NHS. It is not a matter of the NHS being wholly isolated from the private sector. A moment’s thought would show that (assuming we are not in the process of establishing a soviet system in the UK) you cannot insulate the NHS from private, for-profit enterprises. It would be unreasonable to expect the NHS to manufacture its own toilet tissue, sew all the operating theatre gowns, make the scalpels, produce the swabs and provide all the equipment required to operate a modern healthcare system.

What Jack is really asking is whether the profits taken by suppliers (however defined) to the NHS are excessive? And, if this is the case, whether the system itself is in some way to blame for such ‘monopoly’ profit? Finally, we need to ask whether such profit-taking is an acceptable price for maintaining a free, national service?

Are profits for NHS suppliers ‘excessive’? I’m not in a position to answer that question with anything other than an anecdote – after all to answer the question would require a definition of ‘excessive’ and an assessment of the profitability for all suppliers or contractors! However, some years ago I undertook a substantial piece of consultancy for a specialist NHS supplier. My conclusions were that the NHS was (and is) a cash rich organisation and that procurement decisions were determined by budgets, past costs and bureaucratic trip wires (e.g. ISO9001, IIP) rather than by understanding the costs of producing supplies or the sustainability of the supplying industry. The net impact of this was that suppliers – especially in specialised areas of production like that of my client – were able to take higher margins than they could in sectors driven by market forces rather that procurement regulations.

So we can see that the system is, almost certainly, contributing to ‘excess’ profits for (some) suppliers. Jack mentions PFI (private finance initiative) contractors which represent a special case in that public sector risks were retained so as to allow an accelerated programme of development. We got more hospitals, more quickly than would be the case under a more regular construction model – but at a considerable cost in the form of excess rents. The most obvious alternative to this approach – allowing hospital trusts to leave the NHS and self-fund development – was rejected because of the political risk and the perception of threat to the founding principles of the service.

Which brings us to the “price” of a service free at the point of need – and whether this cost is set right or indeed whether we can accept that part of the cost is in the form of private profit. Plainly this is a value judgment rather than a matter of economic rationality. However, ‘private’ systems such as that in the USA get a pretty bad press since they exclude too many (mostly poor) people. But the idea of a single national service – however tidy and attractive – was always something of a pipedream. We reflect on bureaucratic incompetence and bemoan the profits of ‘Big Pharma’ but fail to realise that the model we adopted promoted monopoly supply (over the short-run which is all that matters) and built in inevitable procurement inefficiencies that could be exploited by suppliers.

Finally, we should recognise that in producer-oriented systems such as the NHS, there is a hidden profit-taking in the form of higher wages, larger establishments and perks or privileges. British doctors – while less well paid that those in the USA – are well-paid (the popularity of medicine as a degree course reflects the economic truth that graduates in the discipline have the highest average income prospects) and complemented by a large establishment of support. We regard this as being ‘inefficiency’ and wail about ‘too many managers’ but it is what would be ‘profit’ in a private organisation.

None of this is intended to suggest an alternative – there are many different models – but to suggest that providing a universal service has costs beyond those we would expect from a free market system. But those costs appear inevitable if we are to deliver healthcare to those not able to pay for it – and part of that additional cost will, as night follows day, end up either in the pockets of healthcare employees or else in the profit columns of healthcare suppliers.


Who is Bradford?

I had pondered writing a grand, selfish post about yesterday’s ‘events’ in Bradford. I might have pondered the essential illogicality of attempting to ban a march on grounds of ‘diversity’ or the rather pathetic attempts by Unite Against Fascism to claim that their “we are Bradford” event wasn’t a counter demonstration. It may walk like a duck, quack like a duck and taste good with orange sauce but apparently it’s a ‘peaceful, multicultural celebration’.

However, I thought instead that I’d ask the question ‘who is Bradford?’ After all the UAF and fellow travellers have laid claim to being Bradford and I’m not really so sure that they are – in any meaningful sense – ‘Bradford’. Indeed, away from the City Centre (albeit just a hop, skip and a jump away) a separate ‘peace’ event was help on Infirmary Fields in Manningham.

So who is Bradford? Is it the collection of people – artists, performers, local politicians and assorted (mostly middle-class public sector) people who laid claim to the title? Or is it people across the city who just did what they always do on a Saturday – go to the supermarket, watch the television, maybe take the kids to play cricket, rugby or football? I really don’t know but I guess that the sentiment expressed by “we are Bradford” is best understood through the negative juxtaposition with the EDL – what Bradford isn’t is racist.

Yet – setting aside the very public display of bigotry we saw yesterday – anyone with his ears open would recognise the casual racism is very much part of Bradford. Whether it’s the old man I know who regularly refers to black footballers as “coons” or the young Kashmiri cricketers I hear speaking in racist and disparaging terms about Bengalis. Or the good Asian friend who uses the term ‘jewed’ to describe his loss in a property deal. None of these people would have been anywhere near yesterday’s demonstrations but they are very much part of Bradford.

For what it’s worth, I don’t believe those laying claim to ‘being Bradford’ are any more representative of the City than were the brayingly repulsive EDL thugs. And I do not find UAF to be an especially appealing group with its focus on direct action, confrontation and “the streets”. Plus a divisive ‘if you’re not with us you’re against us’ attitude to those of us who refuse to get involved with organisations run by an extremist, ultra-left, anti-democratic political movement.

So who is Bradford then – assuming we really want an answer to what is a pretty daft question? It’s all of these people – black, white, old young, male female, gay, straight, fascists, the loony left and the grumpy old man party. And some of Bradford is racist – not in a ‘beat you up’ kind of way but in a pre-judging, misunderstanding and ignorant way. We cannot wish away this fact through willy-wagging celebrations of ‘multiculturalism’ – especially when so many of the City’s residents live comfortably within their monocultural bubble. And these people don’t wish to be shoe-horned into some form of faux cultural sharing.

Racism is stupid. But its existence isn’t removed by punishment nor can we just wish it away in some form of middle class multicultural group hug. Nor should it be used as a vehicle for promoting extremist politics – whether of the nasty right or the unpleasant left. The solution – if there is one – lies in shared experience not in laws, punishments and the seeking out of new sins.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

An over-reaction Bradford-style....

I've just been to fill up a petrol can with fuel for the lawnmower. A mundane task of no threat to anybody. Unless you're the cops of course. They've instructed filling stations across Bradford not to sell petrol in cans today.

I assume this is because the people making petrol bombs (if there are any) are stupid enough to go fill up cans at a filling station replete with CCTV? Rather than, for example, siphon the fuel out of cars in the street. And if they are that stupid perhaps they'll just drive to Leeds where the filling station will cheerfully sell them a can full!

Instead, people like me are inconvenienced and some poor bloke who runs out of fuel won't be able to fill a can so as to get home.



An approaching unintended consequence?

As part of a blizzard of populist (and in many cases welcome) announcements, the wonderful Eric Pickles has call on councils to cut down on street clutter:

"Our streets are losing their English character. We are being overrun by scruffy signs, bossy bollards, patchwork paving and railed-off roads - wasting taxpayers' money that could be better spent on fixing potholes or keeping council tax down. We need to 'cut the clutter'.

"Too many overly cautious town hall officials are citing safety regulations as the reason for cluttering up our streets with an obstacle course when the truth is very little is dictated by law. Common sense tells us uncluttered streets have a fresher, freer, authentic feel, which are safer and easier to maintain."

All very good and very welcome but please note this:

Ludlow traders who have been asked to remove pavement billboards today revealed they could launch a legal challenge to the move, claiming it could lead to their businesses closing.

Right. And Mr. Pickles’ well meaning announcement simply adds more to the Councils’ campaigns again harmless and innocent signing by traders. In Ludlow it seems to be a nice little earner. Here’s one trader (who runs a very nice little cook shop):

“They’ve sent letters to some businesses asking them to remove A-boards voluntarily, but then they will remove them, charge us £10 a day for storage and may destroy them after 28 days, so it’s voluntary, but with a gun to your head.”

We can expect council officers to use Eric’s good intentions (targeted at the proliferation of council installed signs) as a further justification for stopping the use of A-boards. And as ever there will be an anonymous ‘local resident’ to raise ‘concerns’ with the Council justifying their actions!

Friday, 27 August 2010

Further thoughts on Sheep - and what the clown says...


The dear old Clown asks "What is wrong with people?"

He'll like this quote from de Tocqueville:

"It is vain to summon a people who have been rendered so dependent on the central power to choose from time to time the representatives of that power; this rare and brief exercise of their free choice, however important it may be, will not prevent them losing the faculties of thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves, and thus gradually falling below the level of humanity."

...and I guess Fromm's take on all this is also relevent:

"Authority is not a quality one person "has," in the sense that he has property or physical qualities. Authority refers to an interpersonal relation in which one person looks upon another as somebody superior to him."

We act as sheep because we desire to be sheep. Or not as the case may be?

And, if we stand alone? Proudly saying we won't flock? What happens? Ah, yes - that flock gets together attacks us, condemns us for difference. The flock may even break off from doing down another flock long enough to cast the lone ram out into the wilderness or worse still to pen that independent beast up safely away from any corruption that might come from actually thinking differently.


Thursday, 26 August 2010

Lies, damned lies and exam results


The enthusiasts (or should I say apologists) for our current state education system have come up with a jolly little statistic derived from this years – just this years – GCSE results. It is that:

“…this year’s exam results showed the state sector gaining on private schools at both GCSE and A level.”

Now I’m not going to go rambling through the statistics except to state the obvious. This is that the independent schools have hit a ceiling – year after year the majority of private schools have 99% of students achieving 5 A*-C Grade GCSEs and similar numbers achieving good grades at A level. When every child is getting top marks, it’s pretty hard to find ways to improve overall grade scores of performance.

And we know that – for A Level at least – the gap has grown over the past ten years with private school performance moving from 3.5 times more likely to achieve the top grade to four times more likely. There has been no appreciable change this year and the new A* grade has shown the same pattern.

I’m not going to play the “grade inflation” game but the closing of the (massive) gap is down to the A* ceiling rather than any wonderful transformation in the performance of our dysfunctional state system.

In the meantime read this.


Nudge, nudge, wink, wink - behavioural economics as a tool of social control

The matter of behavioural economics came to the front of my mind with reading this excellent blog post – in a roundabout way a review of “Nudge. Now the term “behavioural economics” has always seemed to me an oddly oxymoronic description since, if it is concerned with anything, economics is concerned with individual behaviour.

So let’s start at the beginning:

“The natural effort of every individual to better his own condition, when suffered to exert itself with freedom and security is so powerful a principle that it is alone, and without any assistance, not only capable of carrying on the society to wealth and prosperity, but of surmounting a hundred impertinent obstructions with which the folly of human laws too often incumbers its operations; though the effect of these obstructions is always more or less either to encroach upon its freedom, or to diminish its security.” (‘Smith, An Enquiry into the Causes of the Wealth of Nations)

The core premise on which all economics is based rests on the view that – taken in the round – each individual seeks “to better his condition”. And this has been taken to mean that decisions taken by individuals are ‘rational’ – hence the idea of ‘economic man’. Yet Smith – nor the other classical economists – never said that every decision taken by an individual is rational given full information and knowledge. We need to consider that, in aggregate, the decisions of individuals tend to be rational (i.e. directed to the betterment of that individual’s condition) or have a rational intent.

Now, since classical economic models allow for the effect of decision-making in circumstances where an individual has incomplete information, we would be disposing of the child as well as the dirty water simply to dismiss classical models (or for that matter neo-classical models) because of bounded rationality, incomplete self-control and (alleged) lack of self-interest. What we need to appreciate is that our issue relates less to information than to perceptions of incentive. Hence ‘nudge’.

Which brings us to advertising – after all the persistence and success of advertising is living proof of the bounded nature of human decision-making. Advertising does not limit itself to putting across information about the product, where you can buy it and its price. The marketer seeks to appeal to heuristics, to create short-cuts and to reduce the decision-making process to a sub-pavlovian reflex when presented with a brand message.

All this is true but for one sneaking little problem – the advertiser has to live up to his brand promise. It really is that simple – businesses that do not do what they say in their advertising (and I’m talking about brand here not deliberate mis-selling) do not develop good brands. McDonalds presents an image of good fun, tasty food and good value – all things to which people aspire and the availability of which they consider betterment. And (for many people) the company lives up to its brand promise. A promise that does not extend to nutritional value, not being fat or even saving the planet.

We (says he trying to put himself into the mind of the health nudgers) want to believe that the McDonalds consumer is some kind of victim. And here the behavioural economists step away from the snug amoral world of economics and into moral judgment:

“Incomplete self-control refers to the tendency of economic agents to make decisions that are in conflict with their long-term interest. Self-control problems may lead to addictive behaviour, undersaving or procrastination. As opposed to the neo-classical view, restricting the choice set can be beneficial for an agent with bounded willpower.”(from Diamond & Vartianen, ‘Behavioural Economics & its applications’)

It is too short a step from noticing that some folk make stupid decisions to intervening to direct their decision-making in some way (i.e. altering the ‘choice architecture’). This is a moral judgement since in the aggregate (as ever ceteris paribus) the typical human decision is rational – it responds to incentives and is directed to betterment. It is as daft to run a model based on a pre-judged moral position as it is to say that every human makes a rational decision every time.

The problem – as our behavioural economists have found – is that those pesky humans just won’t co-operate. They carry on drinking, smoking, scoffing fatty, salt-laden goodies and indulging in a whole panoply of high risk activities. And the only response is – as we have seen, for example, with smoking and begin to seen with booze and food – ever more insistent ‘nudges’. And some of these nudges aren’t even that they’re outright bans, huge financial blunt weapons and armies of enforcers of the behaviouralists’ moral assumptions.

All economics is about behaviour but the economics that says behaviour can or should be controlled or directed is immoral, inconsistent, judgemental and wrong. We may wish to understand human behaviour better – that is a proper course of human enquiry. But only if this is done for reasons of understanding – sadly the behavioural economics we see too often is designed solely with the intention of control. We have returned to an age before the enlightenment that Locke, Hume, Smith and other brought. Back to the brutal, controlling leviathan and the moral control of the puritan.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

A World Shortage of Fairy Dust...how this threatens the green economy

We underestimate the importance of fairy dust. Not only is it essential to the new green energy but it provides a critical fertilizer for the money trees we need to make that green economy operate properly. So we need to understand that there are limited sources for the fairy dust.

#Source One: Fairy dust from the deep mines of Aelfhame. This however would be a concern to those worried about human rights since the gnomes mining the dust are not, in any recognisable sense, free. Or for that matter paid since they are under Oberon’s geas for mooning at his daughters.
#Source Two: Treated moondust. Not strictly speaking fairy dust – I wouldn’t recommend running your Mini on this – but an acceptable substitute in most cases. However, you must go to the moon to get the dust (opting for a day when she isn’t green cheese and the man is away).
#Source Three: Manufactured or Synthetic Fairy Dust. There are many recipes for the dust all of which require complicated process, appropriate spells and careful timing. Even the most experienced thaumaturgical engineers have struggled to design systems much better than those used by an individual mage working alone.

The result of this is that we have a world shortage of fairy dust. For all it’s environmental credentials, there simply isn’t enough of it to provide the means of operating the fairyland economy proposed by the greens and their friends. And what little there is remaining has been carefully hidden and well-guarded by The Gentry.

We will have to go on – I fear – using real energy sources that actually work to get us about for the time being. Like oil, coal, gas and uranium. It’s a pity, I know, but what else can we do?


Tuesday, 24 August 2010

A parable of enterprise

John is speaking with his mate Jim in the club and Jim mentions in passing a bit of a wheelbarrow crisis he’s facing. It seems Jim needs to get hold of 50 barrows at short notice. Just a passing comment.

Next day John’s driving past Scott’s Yard and he sees a compound full of wheelbarrows. John stops, buys the wheelbarrows for £15 each and rings Jim. “You know those wheelbarrows you wanted?” “Yes,” says Jim. “Well I’ve got 50 you can have for a grand but you’ll have to pick them up from Scott’s Yard.” The deal is done. Scott’s got rid of depreciating stock, Jim’s solved his wheelbarrow crisis and John’s made a tidy profit for the sake of ten minutes chat with Scott and a phone call.

So what you say. Just wheeling and dealing. But let’s look a little closer at the situation. On seeing the wheelbarrows, John has three options – he can ignore them and drive on, he can simply ring Jim and tell him about the barrows or he can see the opportunity, take the risk and make the profit. Be clear that most of us would not take that third option – the most we’d do is tell Jim and maybe get a pint out of him next time we’re together in the club.

People think there’s something grand, swish or complicated about enterprise. There isn’t. Enterprise is what John does and we don’t. It has two elements – spotting the opportunity and taking the risk. If you spot the opportunity but don’t take the risk – you’ll get a grateful pint from Jim. And if you take a risk but have no opportunity you’ll go bust.


Monday, 23 August 2010

Labour left an inflation time bomb - and it's going off some time soon

Back in February I wrote this:

The Government’s strategy is to use inflation to reduce the impact of massive debt and to protect Labour’s key public sector voters. That’s why they printed £180bn in so-called “quantitative easing”.Inflation is 3.5% now. Expect 4.5% - even 6% - over the next few months. And watch the value of your savings shrink! Transferred neatly into the reduction of the real value of government debt. Let it rip!

Now read this report on a Policy Exchange study:

That boom would quickly run out of control, as the £200bn of "money printing" by the Bank during the crisis would lead to "a huge expansion in the money supply, which will lead to inflation". He estimates that the Retail Prices Index (RPI), the inflation measure favoured in wage settlements and against which annual rises in train fares are priced, would rise "above 10pc". The Consumer Prices Index (CPI), the inflation measure that the Bank is responsible for keeping at around 2pc, will top 6pc, Mr Lilico reckons.

Or if you think Andrew Lilico is a loony right-winger, this:

CPI inflation has exceeded the Bank of England's 2pc target for 43 of the past 52 months. The CPI remained at 3.1pc in July – forcing the Bank to pen yet another letter of explanation. Since 2007, despite the screams of the self-serving deflationist crowd, eight such letters have been written. In the latest, released last week, Bank Governor Mervyn King invoked the spectre not of falling prices, but of 1970s-style price rises, warning of the dangers of "destructive high inflation".

I told you so!


Sunday, 22 August 2010

So Ed Miliband is an economic illiterate after all! No surprise there then!

The are moments when I am tempted by the blandishments of the left – the sense of justice, the desire to right wrongs using the power of government, the noble cause of a better society. It’s rather like the moment Galadriel is offered the ring.

And then I am reminded of just how economically illiterate much of the left’s thinking has become.

Ed Miliband’s latest wheeze looks pretty ace doesn’t it? We get firms to pay a ‘living wage’ and make a saving by not paying in-work benefits. Plus offering those firms the incentive of a tax break (or rather not allowing the lower rate to apply to bad firms who don’t sign up to Ed’s jolly scheme). Now we know that minimum wages affect unemployment – marginally when the rate is very low as it is in the UK but to an increasing degree as the rate rises.

The impact of Ed’s scheme will be as follows:

1. Where the tax gain is equal to or in excess of the cost of the ‘fair wage’, firms will comply. Most firms would do this in any case as they employ few, if any, people at below the proposed £7.60 per hour. Obviously, for employers with large numbers of people paid below that rate the benefit is unlikely to exist and they will not take part – preferring instead to reduce tax exposure

2. Firms participating in the scheme will be less likely to take on new workers as this increases the cost and, at some point, is likely to take them to the point where the marginal cost of employing someone extra is negative. This will sustain levels of current unemployment and have a further negative impact on benefit levels

3. The main benefit is gained by firms who do not pay anyone the between £5.80 and £7.60 per hour. Most of these firms are paying higher wages because the market dictates that without higher wages they would not be able to recruit the skills needed to do the work

It all seems very sweet, the Guardianistas are frothing with excitement but, and this is a big but, it is crap economics and will act only to reinforce barriers to work and to sustain the benefits culture.

Maybe that’s what Ed wants?


You don't think Councillors have any say on these matters, do you? We're lucky to be 'consulted'!


Now dearly beloved reader, I’m going to explain how our system of local government works and, specifically the role of the councillor (or rather ‘elected member’ as we are more commonly called these days).

I know that you believe Councillor’s to be all powerful, semi-divine, genii bestriding and directing the colossus of local government (or maybe a bunch of self-serving, money-grubbing second-rate has-beens). But understand this. Most – 99% of the decisions on policy taken by local councils are not taken following debate at a committee. Councillors – well, most of us – simply aren’t involved at all in the decisions taken by the councils to which we are elected.

In the comments to this campaigning post from Anna Raccoon about Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council’s decision to fine a woman for flicking cigarette ash is this desire:

That ‘revised Enforcement Policy’ does make for some terrifying reading. I would love to have been in that council committee and listened and watched the type of people that came up with that vile and sinister piece.

One hates to disappoint but, my guess (I did try to find the actual minute but – and this is indicative of the problem – finding minutes and agendas of committee meetings on SMBC’s website isn’t easy) is that the offending policy was agreed by “cabinet” which means no public discussion and debate as that august body has only Labour members selected by the leader. This is confirmed by the revised ‘Governance Arrangements’ (another document most councilors won’t have read).

The truth is that decisions in local government aren’t taken in the manner most ordinary people – including quite well-informed ordinary people – believe is the case. Us councilors no longer sit on various committees in numbers reflecting the political balance of the council. Eight or ten councilors make up a (usually) one-party executive – often pompously called the ‘cabinet’ – and it is here that the decisions are taken. But understand that any discussion takes places away from the scrying eyes of the public – in Bradford we had a thing called “CMT” consisting of Executive Members and the Council’s “Strategic Directors” where the real decisions were made. You must also understand that most of the decisions are made under “delegated authority” by one or other ‘strategic director’.

Which brings me to a second example, the proposed banning of a march through Bradford by the English Defence League (EDL) and, one assumes, any counter-march by the equally unpleasant ‘Unite Against Fascism’ (UAF). Although the permission to grant a ban came from the Home Office, this was on application from Bradford Council’s Chief Executive. You will, of course, not that no politicians are quoted in the BBC report. The only comment I can find is a mealy-mouthed, weasel-worded one from Ian Greenwood, Council Leader:

We are grateful to the Home Secretary for considering this. It is not an easy decision.

The decision relating to this ban – a significant decision to limit fundamental freedoms – has not been taken following political debate. The majority of councillors haven’t been asked for their view and certainly haven’t had any chance to vote. The matter hasn’t been before a committee – even a one-party ‘cabinet’.

Understand that this is the norm for decisions in local government – you elect councillors believing they might have some say over these kind of momentous decisions and that they will be involved in discussing and debates major policies like the enforcement policy in Sandwell. Sorry to disappoint, we’ve not and haven’t been since the last Labour government “modernised” local government.


Saturday, 21 August 2010

Were Iceland’s banks run by elves? And have we upset them?

Jeremy Clarke in his ‘Low Life’ Spectator column writes about elves. More specifically Icelandic elves. This is what he was told:

“Even today, she said, when a road is built in Iceland the contractors take great care not to route it through an elves’ village. There was a celebrated case not so long ago, in fact, where road builders were unable to start their heavy plant one morning. The machines just refused to start. The contractors came out to the site to investigate and their first suspicions were quickly confirmed when they realised the next day’s levelling work would have flattened some elves’ dwelling places. The road was accordingly rerouted at considerable expense.”

The other thing we know about Iceland is that they suddenly – almost overnight and without anyone actually noticing – became a banking powerhouse.

“An entire nation without immediate experience or even distant memory of high finance had gazed upon the example of Wall Street and said, “We can do that.” For a brief moment it appeared that they could. In 2003, Iceland’s three biggest banks had assets of only a few billion dollars, about 100 percent of its gross domestic product. Over the next three and a half years they grew to over $140 billion and were so much greater than Iceland’s G.D.P. that it made no sense to calculate the percentage of it they accounted for. It was, as one economist put it to me, “the most rapid expansion of a banking system in the history of mankind.”

And this powerhouse, equally dramatically, collapsed leaving debt, misery and a load of very grumpy Icelanders. Some feel – or appear to suggest – that the problem wasn’t the worldwide credit crunch, sovereign debt, banker corruption or indeed any mundane economic reasons. The problem was that the elves (or possibly gnomes and trolls working for the elves) called in their debts. As a Vanity Fair article (quoted above pointed out):

Alcoa, the biggest aluminium company in the country, encountered two problems peculiar to Iceland when, in 2004, it set about erecting its giant smelting plant. The first was the so-called "hidden people" -- or, to put it more plainly, elves -- in whom some large number of Icelanders, steeped long and thoroughly in their rich folkloric culture, sincerely believe. Before Alcoa could build its smelter it had to defer to a government expert to scour the enclosed plant site and certify that no elves were on or under it. It was a delicate corporate situation, an Alcoa spokesman told me, because they had to pay hard cash to declare the site elf-free but, as he put it, "we couldn’t as a company be in a position of acknowledging the existence of hidden people."

The second problem is that all Icelandic males consider themselves heroes from the sagas. But the main problem seems to be that the investment bankers – behaving like heroes (that is rashly and without though of course) – didn’t pay enough attention to the elves. As is suggested here:

Possibly the Icelandic banks should have made sure there were no hidden people lurking in their balance sheets, waiting to take revenge on anyone who disturbed them.


Afterthought: I understand elves are rubbish at football too. Which explains a lot!


Kids, parents and a few teachers have worked it out - pity the education establishment hasn't


Much fuss and bother about 'A' Level results including, of course, the 'it's all fixed in favour of public schools' argument from the unions, Guardianistas and assorted educational experts. Now leaving aside that this Guardian piece is rather speculative (to say the least) and that the Universities say it ain't so, it does appear that the kids, their parents and possibly some teachers (who aren't wasting their time being spokespeople for unions) have worked out the best way to improve the odds of getting into better universities:

This week's A-level results showed that pupils were increasingly shunning so-called "soft" subjects in favour of science, economics and maths.

Bit of a clue there, eh?

Friday, 20 August 2010

Faith Schools - or why Richard Dawkins is a fundamentalist jihadi

Richard Dawkins, militant proselytising atheist, is worried about “faith schools”. And Channel 4 has given him a platform to articulate this worry

The number of faith schools in Britain is rising. Around 7,000 publicly-funded schools - one in three - now has a religious affiliation. As the coalition government paves the way for more faith-based education by promoting 'free schools', the renowned atheist and evolutionary biologist Professor Richard Dawkins says enough is enough. In this passionately argued film, Dawkins calls on us to reconsider the consequences of faith education, which, he argues, bamboozles parents and indoctrinates and divides children.

Now I look at the net effect of all this religious “indoctrination” and see that the fastest growing viewpoint on religion is…atheism! Or more precisely not professing any religion.

According to the 2001 UK Census, those of no religion are the second largest belief group, about 2 and a half times as many as all the other (non-Christian) religions altogether – at 15.5% of the population.

And more recently – seems those faith schools ain’t doing a great job! And yet thousands of essentially agnostic patents pretend to be good churchgoing folk so as to get their offspring into church schools. Perhaps those schools aren’t doing a bad job at delivering what parents want – a good education for their children.

I make no secret of my disagreement with Dawkins – his spiritless, dry, confrontational obsessions have created an atheism that is no longer fundamental but that requires a range of beliefs beyond the essence of atheism. That essence is, of course, very straightforward – that there is no god. What Dawkins has done has been to take upon himself a jihad directed at anyone who does not adhere to his obsessions – unreconstructed Darwinian evolution, a view that religion is a pathology and utter contempt for any promotion of a religious viewpoint.

If faith schools were bad schools – and some might be – then parents would reject them rather than queue up to get their sprogs in. If atheists wish to have secular schools then the case is simple – set them up and show how their soulless, sceptical, ethics-light ideology can produce a better education. Religious schools should not be the only choice but if parents want that choice they should have it.

And finally the “I don’t want my taxes to fund religious education” argument – if we believe in state-funded education and in parental choice we must respect that choice and fund it. Unless – as I suspect is the case with Dawkins and his acolytes – you don’t really believe in choice? Just like those other jihadi you want to impose your world view on those who - however stupidly - don't share it.


The Plague Village: thoughts on the Big Society

During a cross country drive back to Cullingworth from Shropshire we stopped off at the village of Eyam in the Derbyshire Dales. You remember Eyam? You probably learned a little about it at school (assuming you attended school before dumbing down and the advent of eco-salvationist propaganda) – it’s the ‘plague village’.

In the summer of 1665, the village tailor received a parcel of material from his supplier in London. This parcel contained the fleas that caused the plague. The tailor was dead from the plague within one week of receiving his parcel. By the end of September, five more villagers had died. Twenty three died in October.

Some of the villagers suggested that they should flee the village for the nearby city of Sheffield. Mompesson persuaded them not to do this as he feared that they would spread the plague into the north of England that had more or less escaped the worst of it. In fact, the village decided to cut itself off from the outside would. They effectively agreed to quarantine themselves even though it would mean death for many of them.

Whether this act of collective self-sacrifice really did prevent the plague spreading to neighbouring villages – or worse to the slums of nearby Sheffield – we’ll never know. But it seems to me a rather apt – albeit morbid – illustration of what we might understand by the ‘Big Society’. The villagers of Eyam didn’t have to listen to Mompesson the local vicar. They could have left the village – fleeing the plague. They chose not to out of what appears to be a belief in doing the right thing, together.

Now what does that remind you of?

The Cuckoo-pint (Arum maculatum) was originally termed 'Priest pint' but this was deemed rather irreverent and the name changed. 'Pint' of course is a contraction of 'pintle' an archaic word for a penis. The berries are poisonous but the root can be eaten - I'm told it was sold under the name 'portland sago'.

As to the name? With that bright colouring wouldn't 'clown pint' be better?


Saturday, 14 August 2010

Why the Audit Commission had to go...


Don't have time to set out in any detail the full uselessness of the Audit Commission. Nor to dwell on its pointlessness and how it has become a generator of cost rather than a watchdog of efficiency. But this quote from here is enough to scrap it in my book.

Earlier this year it emerged the body, which is supposed to the politically neutral, paid nearly £60,000 to lobbyists who advised it to "combat the activities of Eric Pickles", then the Tory party chairman.

'Nuff said!


Off to the Marches.....

The blogging stuff will be limited to non-existant whilst we go and paddle in what is predicted to be a rather damp Ludlow. St ill I shall drink a little wine, eat some fine food and maybe hunt down the odd mushroom.


Friday, 13 August 2010

Friday Fungus: look what a little rain brings!

Lovely - if a little inedible!


Bingley Show, old laws and the real reason for getting the show moved


Not sure whether to laugh or cry about this.

"Following a request from a member of the public Bradford Council uncovered an old act of Parliament – S44 of the Public Health Acts Amendment Act 1890 – which states that the local authority may on such days as they think fit close the park for any agricultural, horticultural show...provided that no such park or pleasure ground shall be closed on Sundays."

Another part of the act known as – S76(1) of the Public Health Acts Amendment Act 1907 – does give the local authority certain powers to set apart any such part of a park for the purposes of recreation and exclude public from the part set apart. Unfortunately this only applies to a part of the park and not the whole or majority of the park which is necessitated by Bingley Show."

As Bingley Show charge admission and use the whole of the park they are effectively excluding public. If Bradford Council were to continue to let Bingley show use Myrtle Park on a Sunday it would mean that the council would be operating beyond their powers. Bingley Show have thus been asked to book another day."

To start with this is the 21st Century. And Bingley Show takes place once each year – that’s right folks, just one Sunday out of the 52 available. But what I find most surprising is that “a member of the public” has gone to the bother of finding out about this dusty law and then telling the Council about it. Why? Does it really matter?

Or are they – without success – trying to stop this event from taking place?


Thursday, 12 August 2010

Anyone know how to make moonshine? Thoughts on the economics of minimum booze prices.


Today the Prime Minister came out in support of a proposal to introduce a 50p per unit minimum price for alcohol within Greater Manchester. Now, leaving aside the absence of any border control in this conurbation and the obvious fact that driving from Bolton to a supermarket in Bacup isn’t exactly a great trip, we should maybe consider the economic impact of minimum pricing.

The core argument – and we have to start somewhere – is that a relatively low minimum price will only impact off-sales since pub and restaurant sales are typically over £1 per unit. Here’s one study’s conclusions:

Only alcohol sold for home consumption would see an increase in prices, and reduction in sales would generally spare pubs and restaurants. While consuming more units of alcohol than other groups, higher income and high managerial groups would be less affected by this pricing policy.

However, this isn’t the view held everywhere. The Centre for Economics and Business Research (in a study funded by a brewer) criticised the theoretical basis for the argument and the evidence. Most importantly, while the evidence shows (not surprisingly) a relationship between price and consumption this is weakest for the heaviest drinkers.

However, when overall alcohol consumption levels and prices are taken into account, heavier drinkers are less responsive to price changes than moderate drinkers. The University of Sheffield study estimates that hazardous and harmful drinkers have a
price elasticity of -0.21 across all alcohol products – this implies that a 10 per cent increase in price would only lead to a 2.1 per cent reduction in consumption amongst heavier drinkers.

However, we still see a “positive” impact from minimum pricing albeit a small one. However, this is a pretty blunt implement that, in effect, targets the poor (note the findings from the first study cited). More importantly, minimum pricing has an impact on supply – there is an incentive for the producers of alcohol sold currently at below 50p per unit to increase their supply so as to take advantage of the excess profits implied by the minimum price. With higher profits the producers (and their retail agents) can afford to invest more in promotion.

The most likely outcome of this surplus reducing investment is promotion targeted at drinkers currently buying alcohol at higher prices – either in pubs or for home consumption. The impact of this would be negative for the pub trade and counter to the expectations of those promoting minimum pricing. And we have not yet considered moonshine!

All-in-all it seems unlikely that minimum pricing will address the core issue of the ‘problem drinker’. And we have to set this against falling consumption and fewer alcohol-related emergency admissions. Whatever we’re doing at present, its working and, rather than penalising people for only being able to afford cheap booze, maybe we should focus our efforts on the relatively small number of problem drinkers.

Anyone know how to make moonshine?


Wednesday, 11 August 2010

A symptom of the problems we face...meet PWC


A bunch of jumped up beancounters have announced - in that patronising manner developed over many years by "management consultants" - that the Government shouldn't consult the public because:

...they have "no real idea" what they are being asked to do and are ill equipped to participate.

After years of ever so clever people at places like PWC screwing the country over with overpriced advice, it takes a huge amount of gall for them to insult the public's capacity to understand this simple fact...

"...we are spending more money than we've got to spend and need to make some cuts. What should we cut?"

How hard is that? Shut up and go away PWC - your patronising, self-serving, statist rubbish has help nearly bankrupt the country. Can we leave it to real people for a change, please?


So much for Gross National Happiness...


The Himalayan ex-kingdom of Bhutan made loads of headlines with it's invention of Gross National Happiness as a measure of the country's performance. Hippies, Greenies and assorted trendy lefties all squealed with delight at this innovation.

But if Bhutan's such a happy place why are we housing refugees from this 'happy country'?

The UK Border Agency is today welcoming 37 Bhutanese refugees into the UK. The move follows the agreement under the Gateway Protection Programme for the UK to take 750 refugees from a number of different locations in 2010-11. This includes an eventual total of 100 Bhutanese refugees who have been living in Nepalese refugee camps since 1992 or 1993, with no prospect of local integration in Nepal or repatriation to Bhutan. It is the first time that the UK has resettled Bhutanese refugees.

Not such a great idea after all it seems!


Sometimes it's a tough life...

We don't all get to start in the best place. Sometimes the soil's a bit lacking and the ground rather stony. And that's the way it is - we can sit there and moan about what a hard life it is and how others have a much better deal. We can shout, "it's not fair" at our masters - and watch as they take away our freedoms in the name of a false equality.

Or we can be strong. We can make the most of what we've got. We can get pleasure from growing in the hard ground and the poor soil. And when we're set and strong, we can look around us, smile and tell the world...

...we did it ourselves.

Don't be fooled - that false equality is about them controlling you, not you getting a better (let alone a fairer) chance. Take the cards you get, play them well and thank the world. But please don't cry foul if someone else is more successful, taller, smarter, faster or braver. And stop asking the government to make it fair - it can't.


Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Benefit fraud: In defence of the bounty hunter!


Fraud, error and administrative cock up are a real problem for our benefits system. Despite this we sink to the level of ‘debate by headline’ where the prejudices and preferences of different sides to the argument are paraded like a political version of a 1960s Brighton Bank Holiday.

What follows is an attempt to put a little perspective into the argument – to escape from silly ad hominem and straw man arguments and actually talk about the issue – fraud, error and administrative cock up in our benefit system. And let’s be clear this stuff is there – benefit fraud isn’t the invention of frothing right-wing pundits writing in the Daily Mail. Every Government in my memory has, at some point, announced a ‘crack down’ on benefit fraud (albeit mostly to get a headline or two).

So what’s the deal? How big an issue is fraud and what should we do about it? Well much has been said about it – anecdotally and statistically and the new Government is no exception:

“We are looking urgently at different options for reform. Tougher penalties for
fraud, more prosecutions, encouraging those who know fraud is taking place to come forward, and making greater efforts to reclaim money that's wrongly paid," the prime minister wrote. "We will look at all these things and more. Including, for example, using more information from third parties such as credit referencing agencies to identify circumstances which are incompatible with the benefit claim. I have asked Iain Duncan Smith [the work and pensions secretary] to draw up an uncompromising strategy for tackling fraud and error which we will publish in the autumn."

Cue frothing media debate and a stream of absolute nonsense from pundits and politicians on all sides – from scaremongering about the use of credit referencing data to hyperbole about ‘bounty hunters’. Plus, of course, the compulsory “it doesn’t really matter, it’s just a drop in the ocean of Government spending” and “why are we worrying about benefit fraud, what about tax dodging?”

So, from me, an attempt at a more balanced analysis!

Firstly, benefit fraud is a problem – somewhere between £1.1bn and £5.5bn worth of problem. And it is compounded by the additional problems of overpayment, underpayment and ‘claims in error’. Once we shake all this stuff down there’s something around £10bn of spending involved – which is a lot of people’s taxes however you want to slice them (I would net this off against under-claiming of benefits except the Government already does that in its projections on public spending so to do so would be double counting – just as is the case with estimates of tax revenue).

The problem is that ‘clamping down on fraud’ costs money – you need to employ armies of fraud investigators and I’m sure they don’t come cheap. So there must come a point where further clamping down on fraud – however morally justified – actually costs the taxpayer more money than allowing the fraud to continue. Unless, of course, you can find another way to ‘fight fraud’.

Well there are two important considerations here – what negative incentives can we build in to prevent fraud? The obvious one is to catch more fraudsters (this influences both the fraudster caught and the whole market since the more caught the less incentive to cheat). Except that we’ve already spotted how this doesn’t make fiscal sense. Unless we shift the Government’s risk (in employing fifty grand’s worth of investigator) into the private sector. This is called by some ‘bounty hunting’ but it might be more sensibly named speculative private investigation – you bring evidence that leads to a successful prosecution for benefits fraud we pay you an agreed amount. This amount would represent the median cost of a benefit fraudster to the public purse – the only risk the government faces is that the investigator behaves badly. And, as far as I know, we have other laws to deal with that!

The other approach is to make is less profitable for the fraudster to take the risk – either because of the increased chance of being caught or else because the balance of risk and reward isn’t good enough. In a less complex system based on less information, fraud would be less profitable (and error less likely – addressing a related problem). At present we have a complex system that is relatively easy to game which results in a great deal of abuse – some of which is openly fraudulent while the rest is what might be called ‘pushing the envelope’.

As it stands – and given the number of claimants and the amounts of money involved – there is no chance of any Government making much of an impact on fraud. And with what we might call “fiscal ullage” running at a maximum of 2% and probably less, it makes little sense (beyond headline moralising) to run such programmes and campaigns. Unless of course you take my advice and shift collection risk into the private sector – which means fraudsters will either get caught or else the problem will disperse because the risks are too high. Simple really!


Monday, 9 August 2010

The countryside belongs to suburban ramblers


The latest salvo in the great ‘right to roam’ dispute arrives – a series of disputes over access pushed forward by what used to be called the Ramblers Association and is now I gather just called The Ramblers (which makes it sound like one of those slightly plasticy food pubs serving discount Sunday lunches).

As the Telegraph reports:

Campaigners say that many of the growing number of disputes are caused by people with “money and prestige” buying property and refusing to recognise established footpaths.

A little hint of class war there I suspect – how dare those people buy land in the country and do something like farming on it when its there for city-dwellers to tramp all over on their weekends for free. And the Ramblers are talking nonsense as this case indicates:

A dispute in Swanland, Humberside, where walkers want to be allowed to use a path across a primary school playing field also seems likely to go to a public inquiry.

And why can’t the walkers take a little detour round the primary school playing field then?

In truth we know that The Ramblers object automatically to any proposed closure, diversion or alteration of a footpath that they stumble across. And even – as appears to be the case with Vixen Tor – make up rights of way that aren’t even there:

For the previous 30 years, an agreement with the Tor’s previous owners, the Windeatt Estate, had allowed public access to the site, but Mrs Alford claimed there was no such legal public right of way.

What ever the outcome of these disputes it remains the case that The Ramblers are promoting free access to the countryside – the idea that we do not have rights to control access to and use of our property if that property is the sort of place where folk in boots would like to tramp. Ancient rights of way are just that and landowners have to maintain those paths but the right to walk along a path is very different from general rights of access.

And – regardless of the evil spectre of health and safety – Mrs Alford is right:

Mrs Alford, whose family has farmed on Dartmoor for six generations, said: “There is no right of way. There was permitted access with the previous owners, but we bought the land to farm it and that’s how we want to keep it. Animals and intensive public use just don’t mix.”

At present the law grants free access under some circumstances and is used aggressively by The Ramblers and local authorities to ‘protect’ footpaths but nowhere in all this is any recognition that for the landowner these interventions are disruptive to their main business of farming, expensive and come without compensation. Perhaps rather than use the brute ignorance of the majority, The Ramblers should start thinking about how they should start paying for the leisure use they extract from those rights of access.


Sunday, 8 August 2010

Bye-bye oil spill! And maybe an apology Mr Obama?


You have to wonder don’t you?

In a humiliating climbdown, the Obama administration conceded the 'vast majority' of the oil that gushed into the ocean from the ruptured well has already gone. The rest, it says, is probably so diluted, it doesn't appear to pose much of a threat.

Ooops! Not much of a spill really:

Yes, the spill killed birds — but so far, less than 1% of the number killed by the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska 21 years ago. Yes, we've heard horror stories about oiled dolphins — but so far, wildlife-response teams have collected only three visibly oiled carcasses of mammals. Yes, the spill prompted harsh restrictions on fishing and shrimping, but so far, the region's fish and shrimp have tested clean, and the restrictions are gradually being lifted. And yes, scientists have warned that the oil could accelerate the destruction of Louisiana's disintegrating coastal marshes — a real slow-motion ecological calamity — but so far, assessment teams have found only about 350 acres of oiled marshes, when Louisiana was already losing about 15,000 acres of wetlands every year.

So will Mr Obama and all the eco-nutters apologise to BP? Somehow I doubt it.


Nuclear piggies - you couldn't make it up!


I know it's Germany where things are strange but...

Wild boars have a long and lurid rap sheet — they decimate the landscape, destroy property, spread disease to domestic farm animals and will fearlessly attack humans and pets if they feel threatened. It's become a growing issue in the U.S., where they were imported for hunting, as well as in their native European countries. In Germany, their population has exploded in recent years, and the increasing number of human-boar encounters has gotten increasingly strange. They've stormed churches, chased police, rampaged through stores and living rooms, knocked an elderly woman off a bicycle, attacked a wheelchair-bound man, dug up corpses, and cause as many as 25,000 traffic accidents a year.

These animals are smart and resourceful, and no one has figured out how to successfully manage their population once it gets out of control. Declaring open season on the wild hogs hasn't made a dent in Germany. Despite hunters killing hundreds of thousands of boars a year, their population increased by an estimated 320 percent between 2008 and 2009.

What could possibly make this scenario more stressful for governments and animal advocates alike? How about a little radioactivity?

Radioactivity? Are we in some Marvel comic now? Apparently it's the mushrooms!

...the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown almost 25 years ago has left the wild pig population contaminated. The radioactive elements that leaked into the soil are soaked up by mushrooms and truffles, which are then eaten by the pigs.



Saturday, 7 August 2010

Pakistan, democracy and Islamism - time for a new strategy maybe?


The reason for us crawling very slowly up Manningham’s White Abbey Road became clear – several young ladies plus a couple of bearded young men were waving buckets at passing cars to raise some cash for the relief effort in Pakistan. I wound by window down and dropped a couple of quid into the bucket wondering whether this was actually the first time I’d donated to an Islamic charity – in this case Islamic Relief.

This fact got me to thinking – not about whether Islamic Relief was any better or worse than other aid charities with in-your-face religious affiliation such as Tear Fund, Cafod or Salvation Army but about Pakistan, Islamism and the future for what is a pretty dysfunctional place. It seems to me that Pakistan is a nation going backwards – away from the goal of freedom, prosperity and happiness promised by Jinnah and the country’s other founding fathers.

We tend in our assessment of Pakistan’s travails to seek explanations in either geopolitics – the relationship with India, the ongoing problems in Afghanistan and the legacy of colonialism or the ‘Great Game’ – or else in what we have convinced ourselves is the malign influence of Deobandi and Wahhabi Islam. And the people running Pakistan, attached as they are to the clan-like elements of Pakistan’s politics, escape from criticism. These men and women –often corrupt and venal – are feted and protected on the increasingly thin argument that they stand as bulwarks against the triumph of radical Islamism.

Yet we never ask whether the rule of men like Nawab and Zahavi – and those before them like Zia and Bhutto – are ultimately the reason for the attraction of Islamism. And the aggressive – often violent – suppression of Islamist organisations and politicians legitimises the use of violence as a political tool by the Islamists. What Pakistan really needs is a moderate Islamist movement – a Muslim parallel to Christian Democracy rooted in the importance of Islam to national identity but recognising pluralism, choice and justice.

Rather than protecting the failing Pakistani state and through such actions further encourage violent Islamism, could we support the creation of a moderate Islamist movement similar to Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) or Morocco’s Justice and Development Party (PJD). Or will we continue to view – from our arrogant eyrie – Islam as inherently anti-democratic:

The motives of these parties are often doubted by some political analysts. They argue that the commitment of these parties to liberal democratic principles may be thin and of a purely instrumentalist nature. In other words, they may use the rules of the democratic game to ascend to power, but there is no guarantee that they will continue to play by them when they are established. The fear that the hidden Islamist agenda of moderate Islamic parties may emerge as soon as they gain control of their respective states haunts many European political actors and local secular liberal groups. Although these fears may not be completely unrealistic, the experience of recent years has shown that Islamic political parties that have entered the democratic political game by participating in the parliament or the government have tended to moderate their political agenda and adopt more circumspect positions on relations between Islam and the state rather than attempt to precipitate an Islamist takeover.

It may be too late for Pakistan – generations of corrupt, self-serving government and the use of appeals to Islam as some kind of political Pavlovian tactic may make it too hard to achieve moderate change. I hope not. I hope some of the fine, intelligent, well-educated men and women in Pakistan will take up the cudgel of justice on behalf of the millions sinking further and further into poverty – to a world where the afterlife seems more appealing than the depressing drudgery of subsistence. And I hope the Pakistani diaspora stands up too – making the case for pluralism and arguing strongly that democracy, liberty and justice can reach an accommodation with Islam just as they have with Christianity.


CRB checks, bureacracy and regeneration


I have to have another CRB check done. This is so I can sit in a committee room at Bradford City Hall and hear appeals against the Council’s refusal of support for travelling to school. Apparently, Councillors who sit on committees that “discharge any education or social services function” require a CRB check. Here in Bradford the Council’s bureaucracy has decided that this will be an ‘enhanced’ check.

I have no idea at all what all this is for, whether is achieves anything other than feed a system. I have no problem with running background checks on people who are working with children but I’m not doing that, I’m just sitting on a committee and won’t come into contact with any children who aren’t firmly attached (so to speak) to parents, guardians or other responsible adults. And that contact – if we can credit it with such a description – takes place in the company of other panel members, committee clerks, officers of the education authority and other assorted educational flotsam and jetsam. There is precisely zero risk associated with such a circumstance.

I am inclined not to complete the necessary forms and to see what happens – the worst outcome is that they take me off the Education Appeals Panel, which wouldn’t be a great loss on my part! However, the whole exercise does remind me of a lecture given by someone involved in regenerating (of trying to regenerate) Wythenshawe in South Manchester. Given Wythenshawe’s location close to the North West’s biggest employment generator – Manchester Airport – very few residents of the town actually secured work there. On investigation, it turned out that the main reason for this was that records of petty criminality or anti-social behaviour meant most of them failed security checks. As we were told – going straight doesn’t look a great option to these young men!


Friday, 6 August 2010



This anonymous comment from my post about the fleece closing closing left me (almost) at a lost for words:

Sorry to hear about the Fleece. Just about to spend a few days in Cullingworth too! As someone who was diagnosed with incurable lung cancer 10 months ago and a life-long non-smoker, aged 46, I am less sympathetic to smokers as nine out of 10 people with lung cancer are or have been smokers. However, smoking is all about personal choice and people should be able to do what they like in their own personal space. A room set aside for smokers in a pub is certainly preferable to allowing people to smoke in a pub garden, where the smoke always seems to waft my way.



Friday Fungus: Dinner in a tent

We're off out to a dinner in a tent in a park in Bingley so no Friday Fungus of note. Just thought I post a photograph providing genuine evidence of my willingness to cook - if not my capability in that department.

In the meantime let me recommend The Mushroom Channel - a veritable feast of mushroomy stuff (if a little inclined to the annoying 'mushrooms as superfood' and 'mushrooms as a meat substitute' lines).



Thursday, 5 August 2010

Community - a discussion of meaning

Community is one of those slippery words - we use it to describe something that when pressed we find difficult to either define or explain. Politicians - from whatever ideological position - litter their public utterances with 'community this' and 'community that'. But we don't ever stop to think just what we mean by community - which rather makes it difficult to know what 'community leadership', 'community development' and - the latest wheeze - 'community organiser' actually mean.

And, as you know, I like (some of the time at least) my words to be nice*. Those slippery words like community are deceptive, even deceitful since what the proverbial man on the bus (or for that matter single mum in the playground) thinks we mean by these words is too often not the case at all. The ordinary folk think community refers to the neighbours, to the place where they live, to a network of connections, friends and acquaintance that makes the world work.

Once we understood very clearly what community meant. When the monks and lay brothers were living in Kirkstall Abbey they considered themselves a community - their lives were shared and through that community, God's glory was praised. The people up the road were not part of that community - indeed they were not part of any community in the sense understood by those abiding by The Rule.

To be a community you need a shared purpose not just a shared space or a shared identity. Thus today's 'Kirkstall Community' is just an arbitrary collection of people living in proximity to eachother - they may have some shared interests (although we can never assume all people will share a given view), they may have a relationship with the place and they may describe all of this as 'community'. But we cannot know this to be absolutely the case since being of a community requires that shared purpose - needs us to make a positive act to join in. Just living in Kirkstall does not automatically make you part of some 'Kirkstall Community'.

Which brings me to the idea of 'community organisers'. Are these to be ambitious outsiders leaping around poor communities running campaigns, getting things up and running (while preparing themselves for a life in politics)? Or are we looking for local people - rooted in the place and committed to making it better? Perhaps what we will get is people who make communities where there are none - bringing together local people in shared action? Or perhaps we'll get a new set of busybodies lecturing poor folk about the lifestyle?

But whatever we do end up with, it will further stretch the practicality of 'community' as a valued term - pulling it further away from its origins as a voluntary, shared purpose and experience.

*As you know 'nice' originally meant precise or accurate