Friday, 30 September 2011

Making alcohol is easy...

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...it really is! You want cider, you crush up some apples in a tub add some water and leave it – hey presto, cider!

We are seeing more and more examples of illegal vodka manufacturies and tales of bad booze on the shelves of corner shops and off licences.

Making alcohol is easy. Really easy. Yet our lords and masters – the nannying fussbuckets of the Church of Public Health would raise the prices of drink through duty, hand extra profits to drinks businesses through minimum pricing and restrict advertising. All actions guaranteed to promote private production.

Watch next as these nannying fussbuckets call for bans on home brew kits and other kit for the making of moonshine. Listen as they find self-serving justifications for a policy that will kill more people than legal alcohol ever managed.

Yet the shouts and cries for bans, for controls and for higher taxes continue, the anti-drink lobby lie and mislead and the media lap up this rubbish, failing to challenge and question. 

Yet today the next step towards a sad, illiberal, judging and controlling world takes place. The Scottish government – run by the arch-nannies of the SNP – has grasped the temperance nettle and set that country on a road to smuggling, illegal stills and drinkers dead from supping methanol.

Awful for a country that makes this.

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Friday Fungus: which came first, the hippy or the mushroom?

These aren't magic mushrooms
I’ve noted before the emerging research into the positive effects of magic mushrooms and today I’m pleased to bring you details of some further research shedding light on these effects – this time from researchers at John Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore:

Psilocybin, the drug in “magic mushrooms,” helps many people become more open, creative, and curious after they take a single high dose, a new study shows.

It would seem that this isn’t a short-term effect either with the doses of psilocybin seeming to permanently alter personality. And the personality trait promoted by the magic mushrooms is “openness”:

Openness relates to the ability to see and appreciate beauty, to imagine, to be aware of our own and other people’s feelings, and to be curious and creative.

My thoughts immediately turned to hippies – all that beauty, the empathy and the creative spirit. It seems magic mushrooms fit perfectly with the popular view (at least for us non-hippies) of brown rice munching, kaftan wearers!

While the study has limitations, it does show that the use of drugs has an effect on personality. This effect may be a problem in some circumstances but we should not put aside the potential for treatments involving psilocybin in the management of some mental health conditions.

But more importantly...

...which came first, the hippy or the mushroom?

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Thursday, 29 September 2011

Bradford's LDF consultation will be a disgrace...

Cottingley
The current planning legislation and the legislation wending its way through parliament in the form of the Localism Bill speak often and loudly about ‘community engagement’, about ‘consultation’ and about ‘community-led’ planning. Let me tell you the truth.

Planners – or those planners charged with drawing up local plans, spatial strategies and ‘development frameworks’ – do not think the public, you and me, are qualified to know about such lofty matters. I recall being at a briefing about localism and communities developing local neighbourhood plans when a senior planner at a large metropolitan authority (not Bradford for once) described such devolution and public involvement as “the thin end of the wedge”.

By way of illustration might I present Bradford’s “LocalDevelopment Framework Core Strategy Further Engagement Draft” – currently so draft that the page numbering is inaccurate but that amounts to over 300 pages.

But this is just the beginning – there are some other documents, some of which the council has yet to publish. These include:

Open Space Assessment
Bradford District Baseline Study
Bradford District Retail & Leisure Study
Conservation Area Assessments & Management Plans (various)
District Wide Transport Study
Draft Settlement Study
Employment Land Review
Gypsy & Traveller Accommodation Assessment
Local Infrastructure Plan
Sports & Recreation Facilities Assessment
Strategic Flood Risk Assessment
Affordable Housing Economic Viability Assessment
Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessment
Strategic Housing Market Assessment

Each of these documents will be over 100 pages – some much more than that. All of them will be hard to come by and laden with impenetrable technical language. It is truly a monument to the last government’s bureaucratic mindset and to the planners’ belief that only those will their occult knowledge can possibly create a strategic spatial plan for Bradford.

I am at a loss to understand how the ordinary public – the men and women whose local amenity and environment will be affected by these decisions – are able to engage with a process involving over a thousand pages of jargon-filled planning mumbo jumbo. This is not the local planning process we were promised when the “Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act” was passed by the Blair government.

People like me – with a little time and some knowledge – will try to understand what the planners are saying, will challenge their arguments on population growth, housing need and the distribution of employment, and will endeavour to get across to our local residents what the proposals are saying. But this massive, overweening, so-called “evidence base” will mostly go unchallenged except by those with the money to employ the experts to go through the documents and comment.

The Bradford LDF is planning to remove significant tracts of land from the ‘green belt’, to increase the size of villages like Denholme by approaching 50% and to force huge crowded “urban extensions” on to the fringes of the City. And it is that list of documents above that will be used to justify this pillage and to ignore the pleas of local communities for a conversation about the place they live. A conversation that would allow the negotiation of new housing – affordable and market – places for new employment and places that need protecting. Not from the view point of some expensive, besuited consultant but from the local people who the plan will affect.

It is a disgrace.

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Councillors and blogging - for the unbeliever

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From my colleague, Cllr Matt Palmer:

Some stats for unbelievers:

Established engagement: 

  • Households subscribing to my weekly email list: 468 (only covers Burley - I don't do a Menston one at the moment so that's for half the ward)
  • RSS news subscriptions to my web site: 435
  • Monthly visitors to website at mattpalmer.net: 5,159 (10k page views)
  • Monthly visitors to local discussion forum at wharfedaleforums.com: 11,855 (reading 95,556 pages between them)
 Local paper? About 1,130 in the same area in 2009 but fallen since then.
Almost all of this is from half my ward so with the right efforts over the next 8 years it could probably be doubled.
 
It does work!

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Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Things that make me cross....

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A headteacher addresses the Labour conference:

"In Mr Gove's eyes we are a failing school," she said. "Shame on you, Michael, how dare you? 47% of my students gain English GCSE. They believe they're the best kids in the world because that's what we tell them."

So over half the young people you teach come out without a qualification in English - the most basic, the most fundamental, the essential - with Maths - qualification?

Sorry Ms Sharples - it's not those children who are the failure. It's you.

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You couldn't make it up...

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A resident asks Bradford Council for advice on possible contractors for a collapsing highway wall. She's told that "standing orders" don't permit such advice.

The resident asks - via a Freedom of Information request - for the list of approved contractors (which, if you know where to look, are on the Council website) and an explanation. Result is the list and in answer to this question:

"Details of the relevent Standing Order and/or Council Policy that prevents officers from divulging this list of approved contractors to private individuals"

the local resident received this answer:

"The Council does not have a Standing Order or written policy."

The officer concerned simply made up a policy position on the spot. And it was an unhelpful one - quelle surprise!

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Did we have employment land strategies during the industrial revolution?

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The body that 'represents' senior local council planners - the Planning Officers Society - has been having its say on the National Planning Policy Framework. And its main criticism is that without a grand strategy on "employment land" we won't get any economic growth. Or something like that:

"...new rules would create a weakening of stipulated employment land at a local level, due to the potential for building housing on land previously set-aside for businesses, according to the POS.

‘The basis for planning for housing has not yet been clearly thought through,’ it said.

‘A local reservoir of such land is essential to facilitate the growth of small and medium-sized enterprises, to provide … employment and to attract inward investment.

Apparently under these rules Jaguar wouldn't have been able to expand as the land would have gone for housing.

Remember folks that these are the people who think they can plan our futures! Heaven help us!

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BHF reveals its priorities...

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Apparently 'No Smoking Day' is a charity - or was until now as it has just been merged into the British Heart Foundation. Apparently they weren't going to get all that lovely government lolly:

No Smoking Day started approaching potential merger partners because it expects to lose half its funding in 2012, when an annual grant of £250,000 from the Department of Health will come to an end.


The move involves two No Smoking Day staff moving from offices in Shoreditch, east London, to the BHF headquarters in Mornington Crescent in north London. Its other employee, chief executive Amit Aggarwal, will leave when his fixed-term contract expires in November.

It seems that BHF will be making up the shortfall using all those donations from good folk who want them to research medical treatments for heart disease.

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...or you could just cut taxes? A comment on 'green quantitative easing'.

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A kind soul (well my sister actually) sent me a copy of Richard Murphy and Colin Hines masterpiece entitled “Green Quantitative Easing”. I am troubled by it since it makes very little sense.

First let me be clear that I’m not an economist – anymore than Richard and Colin are economists – and shan’t be talking about what is or isn’t quantitative easing. Or indeed whether or not such easing actually does any good. In general terms, I take the view that printing extra money without it actually being derived from the creation of value in the real world is inflationary. And I do not believe that the UK economy was ever really at risk of deflation.

But, for what follows I am accepting Richard and Colin’s view that:

“The need to reflate the UK economy has not gone away...”

My problem is with their proposals – or rather the proposals they’ve borrowed from the New Economics Foundation’s “Green New Deal”:

  1.  Direct government investment in infrastructure
  2. A National Investment Bank
  3. Local authority bonds for the “green economy”

Underneath these arguments sits NEF’s (and our authors) unquestioning belief in the effectiveness of the Keynesian multiplier – in this case as a means of raising tax revenues. Sadly, the authors don’t even seem to know what the Keynsian multiplier is:

The multiplier is a central concept in economics and especially regional studies where it is widely used to assess the long term impact on employment and output from different forms of investment. As such it represents a significant part of the Keynesian aggregate demand model of the economy and can be described as the impact of the marginal propensity to consume (mpc) on a given investment or expenditure where the higher the level of mpc the bigger the multiplier (Heertje & Robinson, 1979).

The problem is that our authors’ assumption – that creating jobs through infrastructure will resolve the government’s revenue problem is rather misplaced. For two reasons – 

  1.  It is misleading to take the view that public spending decisions are optimal – we cannot assume that our spending isn’t at the expense of private investment simply because it has multiplier effects
  2. Taxation – the thing at the heart of Murphy & Hines’ proposals – has an opportunity cost. If you take something in tax, even deferred taxation in the form of public borrowing, that comes at the expense of private activity and private spending

Even if we accept the multiplier effect as true, the model proposed here assumes that building infrastructure drives growth when there is little evidence that this is the case. And, worse, the proposals for a ‘national investment bank’ represent a return to that old socialist obsession with picking winners.

However, it is good that our authors provide a worked through (well sort of) example demonstrating just why this sort of spending doesn’t work – they propose repurchasing £56 billion in public finance initiative (PFI) debt with the “green quantitative easing”.

Now it may be a good idea to buy out this debt – although the contract holders might see it a little differently if Murphy & Hines’ figures are correct – but it won’t help the economy one iota. And – I find this quite remarkable – our authors are proposing to print over fifty billion in crisp fivers so as to hand it to the banks and financial institutions. Who do they think holds all that PFI debt?

There won’t be any multiplier effect from this “investment” (and if they really think they’ll get a deal at £56 billion Richard and Colin really are stupid) since no extra money will go into the real economy, no stimulus will have taken place. Those schools and hospitals will be employing the same number of people on the same wages as they were before the ‘green quantitative easing’ – it will be just like the QE our authors criticise, we won’t know where the money has gone or whether it has done anything to help the economy.
 
Our authors seem wholly wedded to the idea that only government can direct investment and stimulate growth. Perhaps if they hesitated in their obsession with setting ever higher taxes and borrowing ever larger sums to build this mythical “green economy” they might see a clearer, simpler alternative strategy. One that would provide an immediate boost to the economy, which would create jobs and would be popular.

That £56 billion could be used to cut taxes – either by raising thresholds further and taking less well off people out of tax or by a 10% cut in the basic rate of income tax. Rather than the great and good deciding how that vast mound of cash should be spent, ordinary people would decide on the basis of what they want. But then I suspect Richard and Colin would never countenance actually cutting taxes!

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Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Labour's still wedded to the license state

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The bizarre polity that is modern India was - under its then perennial Congress Party rule - described as the 'license raj":

This is when India got its License Raj, the bureaucratic control over the economy. Not only did the Indian Government require businesses get bureaucratic approval for expanding productive capacity, businesses had to have bureaucratic approval for laying off workers and for shutting down. When a business was losing money the Government would prevent them from shutting down and to keep the business going would provide assistance and subsidies. When a business was hopeless an owner might take away, illegally, all the equipment that could be moved and disappear themselves. In such cases the Government would try to keep the business functioning by means of subsidies to the employees. One can imagine how chaotic and unproductive a business would be under such conditions. 

Every economic act, every profession, every industry acts solely on the basis of licenses granted by government. Not only was this corrupt but it crippled the Indian economy for a generation.

This lesson in failure - with India falling ever further behind places like South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia and, latterly, China - is still ignored by social democrats. Ignored by those who see the purpose of the state as the direction of individual actions to a greater good - or rather to the preferences and interests of the political class.

Such a man is Ivan Lewis MP, the Labour culture shadow - Mr Lewis wishes to license journalists:

Lewis will suggest that newspapers should introduce a system whereby journalists could be struck off a register for malpractice.

Not only is this illiberal - but then we expect that from Labour politicians - it is stupid and enforceable only by arbitrary power. It would represent the first step towards the social democrat establishment controlling the output of the press, a big stride towards the hounding of journalists for the grave sin of criticising Labour politicians. And it is wrong.

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Learning from Jehovah's Witnesses...

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Sunday last I chanced across some Jehovah’s Witnesses as they plied their proselytising ways in Harecroft, a little hamlet between Cullingworth and Wilsden. I didn’t stop to chat but the occasion popped into my mind when I read David Green’s latest piece on scientology.

And the thought wasn’t the usual, ‘good grief, what are these people on’ but a question. Simply put, is there anything we can learn from Jehovah’s Witnesses – or for that matter Mormons and Scientologists?

After all, these groups are the successful end of barking pseudo-christianity – there are over seven million JWs, around 13 million Mormons and Scientology claims several million (although the true figure is perhaps below 500,000).

Set against a world population of several billions these aren’t big numbers but that isn’t the point – these are organisations with extremely heterodox beliefs (I am being kind here) and that require adherents to make significant life changes to belong. You can’t simply toddle along with the same old sinful practices, you will have to tithe, you will have to separate yourself from the corrupt world and you will have to accept the disciplines of the church.

So what can we learn?

Around a dozen men and women were out on a September morning knocking on the doors of people in Harecroft. Knowing full well that the response would be varied – from a door slammed rudely in the face to polite engagement. Every now and then someone will get a bite – rather than the slammed door, real interest and a discussion about what Jehovah offers.

Every week these people go out seeking to spread their message. Not in a cynical, worldly-wise manner but from sheer conviction and duty. We can, in our snide, knowing way, mock what these people believe but we should learn from their commitment and sense of conviction. We do not do this, we have ‘better-things-to-do’, places to go, grand jobs to undertake and much else of importance and moment.

Gordon Dickson wrote Necromancer as a prequel to his Childe Cycle (the most famous part of which is the Dorsai Trilogy) in which he set the context for man’s splintering as he expands through space – and the search for ‘responsible man’, a drawing together of three core traits: faith, courage and intellectual curiosity. Groups such as the Jehovah’s Witness are echoed in the “Friendlies” – planets populated by true believers.

The lesson we can draw from faith isn’t that it can ever take the place of enquiry – the problem with fanaticism is that is brooks no questioning, no doubt – but that we need faith to provide the motivation to go to Harecroft on a cold morning and knock on doors. Not just one morning but morning after morning – without the self-imposed discipline of duty, without true belief you will not do this, you will stay in bed and read or lounge on the sofa and watch the telly.

Without faith – however transient – we will not act to persuade others of what we believe. If there is only doubt, mere scepticism, then there can be no truth and no justice. This is the lesson I take from those dozen men and women in Harecroft that morning – a lesson to believe and to make sure others are told of that belief.

A reminder that knocking doors, making phone calls, writing letters – engaging with the world – cannot be substituted with slick PR, with shiny ads and with banks of computers. A prompt that two minutes of face-to-face conversation communicates more than the cleverest of advertisements or the most well-crafted of press releases.

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