Friday, 23 January 2015

A question...

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What if the projections are wrong? What if, rather than the city growing younger and larger it grows older and smaller? What if the economy becomes dominated by the business of looking after that older population? And what if the older people who remain are the poorest and least healthy?

Residents of seaside towns, large and small, will be familiar with this picture. From being wealthy places of leisure and pleasure they have - from Blackpool to Bridlington, from Southend to Littlehampton - become just these kind of places.

The question for people in marginal northern towns - whether in East Lancashire or Yorkshire of the North East - is whether this picture is a real possibility for our future?

I ask because the happy thriving future we're being sold be politicians and planners might not be real.

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Thursday, 22 January 2015

A dangling conversation about Mrs Roosevelt and parking outside Cullingworth Primary School

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For many years I subscribed to that famous Eleanor Roosevelt dictum - you know the one:

Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.

Now leaving aside just what an unpleasant gossipy bitch Mrs Roosevelt was, I've now come to the conclusion that this dictum is a monumental load of tommyrot. And this realisation came from listening to a song I really don't like all that much - Paul Simon's 'The Dangling Conversation'. In the third verse Simon tells us:

Yes we speak of things that matter,
With words that must be said,
"Can analysis be worthwhile?"
"Is the theater really dead?"
And how the room is softly faded
And I only kiss your shadow,
I cannot feel your hand,
You're a stranger now unto me
Lost in The Dangling Conversation
And the superficial sighs
In the borders of our lives.
The couple in the song lived absolutely according to Mrs Roosevelt's dictum yet Paul Simon suggests that the result of this is that what they considered to be grand thoughts about important matters were, in truth, utterly superficial. What matters is more personal, more direct and much much more difficult to discuss - how we feel about others, how people relate and how this affects our lives.

This morning I turned down the opportunity to go on the radio for a discussion about 'Charlie Hebdo', free speech and all that stuff. I did so because some neighbours of the primary school in Cullingworth have complained about parking by parents delivering their children to the school. An utterly mundane matter of no strategic significance but, I decided, far more important than pontificating about grand things on the radio.

At the primary school I've got a fighting chance of doing something to make the situation a little better, to allow my neighbours (and the school's neighbours) to rub along together a little better. And this matters far more to people than whether or not I think it's OK to publish cartoons that might upset someone. Those people are the small minded folk that Mrs Roosevelt viewed with such snooty disdain - they want to tell me about the man who parks his 4x4 on the pavement or the taxi driver who always ignores the double yellow lines. This is because these things matter.

When the grand people on the radio or television - or those apeing them like the couple with the dangling conversation in Paul Simon's song - talk about grand ideas they forget that those grand ideas, when acted on, result in real effects on real people. Indeed that, were the ideas presented to those mums at the school gate or the couple in the council house round the corner, they'd get short shrift - out-of-touch would perhaps be the most polite response.

Because us grand folk have Mrs Roosevelt's disdain for such small-mindedness (too often thinking that those people simply won't understand so why bother), we resort to conducting political debate through dumbed down slogan and pithy soundbites. This is the world of 'not right or left but right or wrong', 'long term economic plans' and 'for the many, not the few' - endlessly repeated advertising mantras that mean little but make a pleasing sound.
We pretend that people like what we're saying by the liberal use of opinion polling as post hoc justification of the slogan or soundbite. Yet this brand marketing is weak, inconsistent and ineffective compared to that from big brand owners - put simply Coca-Cola, McDonalds and Persil are more trusted than any political brand anywhere in the world. And this is because, unlike those brands, political parties treat their customers - the voters - with Mrs Roosevelt's disdain.

None of this is to suggest that we shouldn't discuss grand ideas but we need to try to include more people in those discussions rather than, as is typical, using words and concepts seemingly designed to close the debate off to any but the cognoscenti. Whether it's a debate about 'culture' or a discussion of macroeconomics, we should try at least to use words people understand rather than pretending that language is somehow a barrier to the analysis of the subject in question. In the end - as so often with these things - someone has made the point much better - here's George Orwell:

A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.
Above all, it seems to me, we need to spend more time talking about (and to, and with) people and their daily lives and not pretending that somehow this is a lower form of talk reserved for people who aren't nearly as clever as we are. For, by the use of that grand language, we fall into Orwell's trap and become fools. Fools no-one else much can understand but fools - snobbish fools - nonetheless.

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Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Quote of the day - summing up the Green Party:

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Ed West gets it about right:

It wants pre-industrial economic policies mixed with 21st century radical sexual politics mixed with a strong hostility to pleasure, especially if someone’s making money out of it; it supports hard secularism and population control policies combined with open borders and pacifism (let’s see how that works out!); immense levels of state control over our private lives alongside moral relativism towards things like terrorism and crime. Its support base is mostly the educated, squeezed middle yet its economic policies would certainly ruin them.

As Ed points out this won't make a jot of difference to the Party's appeal - trendy hipsters in Saltaire will carry on voting for them - but it is a reminder that the Greens are utterly bonkers.

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It's really time our debate about health grew up.

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Our national debate about health is a shambles. Indeed, 'disgrace' is probably the best way to describe how politics debates the issue that remains with economic well-being the single most important issue for most people. I am grateful to Jackart for 'Bracken's Law of NHS Debate':

"The longer any discussion about the NHS goes on, the closer the probability a spurious invocation of the US system of healthcare gets to one, and whoever does so has lost the argument"

The minute anyone uses the word 'competition', 'market' or 'reform' those with a vested interest respond with reference to the US system (which somehow manages to be both very expensive and wholly captured by producer interests).

The other, and closely related, aspect of the debate is to invoke the caring nature of nurses, doctors and others who work in the NHS. And to imply that, without the NHS, none of this would be there. You'll have heard people exclaim: "my mother (or child or spouse or sibling) is alive today because of the NHS".

To which my response is to ask whether that person would be dead had they lived in France, Holland or Sweden - none of which have a centralised, bureaucratic, national health system. But you can't win with this argument because the shameless and disgraceful debate kicks in with shouty stuff about "selling off the NHS" or even "you don't care about Our NHS".

We have a huge challenge in our health service that isn't being discussed. Or rather it's not being discussed by the national political leaderships, by the representatives of health care producers or by the media. At the very local level people are prepared to discuss how we deal with an ageing population, how we strike the balance between social and health care, and whether our spending priorities are entirely geared to meeting the real health challenges we face.

Yesterday - as the motion's proposer made very clear - Bradford Council didn't debate a motion about public health. We went straight to the vote. Now, to be honest, the motion was a good example of us not facing up to the truth about health spending - instead of asking what Bradford Council was doing with the £30m or so it gets in public health funding, all the motion's proposers wanted was a line in every report asking "what are the implications for public health". This would join similar lines on "sustainability" and "trade unions".

The thing we should have asked was whether the way we're spending that money right now is the best way to help get better health for Bradford's population. And maybe suggesting to the government that they trust local councils and lift the ringfence on public health money would be a start. However valuable smoking cessation clinics might be (and the answer is actually 'not very effective') would the money - three-quarters of a million - we spend there not be better directed to helping keep the wheels from falling off our social care system and keeping old people out of hospital?

If we want a better health service (and right now ours really isn't good enough) then we need to discuss how to get such a service. Instead we refuse to discuss the choices facing us because we fear 'Bracken's Law' and the shouty ignorance of those most interested in keeping the status quo. It really is time our health debate grew up.

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Tuesday, 20 January 2015

All-population approaches don't work - even for national security

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We are familiar with the use of all-population strategies to respond to public health challenges - smoking, drinking, eating too much and so forth. The argument is essentially that, if sufficient people are engaged in a negative activity, then it is worthwhile targeting the whole population - thus we impose high duty rates on alcohol, people call for sugar or soda taxes and we impose constraints on the supply of the product (up to and including a total ban).

The problem is illustrated by the success of such a strategy in the UK's consumption of alcohol - this has fallen by around a fifth over the past decade as a result of much higher duty rates, extensive education measures and high profile campaigns from all public agencies targeting binge drinking. So the strategy is a success? Seems not to be so because, assuming that the main gain is a health gain, then the strategy has failed:

The number of hospital admissions for alcohol related harm increased by 47%—representing an increase of more than 800 each day—over the five years between 2004 and 2009, show latest figures for England.

Put simply we saw a continuing rise in ill-health related to alcohol during a period when overall alcohol consumption was falling. The all-population approach had failed (at least in terms of health outcomes - it seems to have been effective in terms of crime). This same problem is repeated when we look at other issues - overall calorie consumption and broad measures of obesity are static or falling but we are seeing rises in chronic conditions related to obesity.

So it should come as no surprise to discover people questioning all-population strategies in other areas of policy:

Surveillance of the entire population, the vast majority of whom are innocent, leads to the diversion of limited intelligence resources in pursuit of huge numbers of false leads. Terrorists are comparatively rare, so finding one is a needle in a haystack problem. You don't make it easier by throwing more needleless hay on the stack.

We cannot us lots of computer power to scan and analyse billions of data rather to replace the dull job of gathering intelligence, targeting known or likely suspects and then conducting specific surveillance. Just as with health - where we should target resources towards those who actually have a problem - the growing security infrastructure really has little impact in the prevention of terrorism or crime.

The problem is that, just as blanket restrictions of booze or boozing appeals to a certain sort, the introduction of all-population surveillance provides a comfort blanket for a nervous population. Confiscating nail clippers and half empty water bottles from tourists boarding a flight to Malaga at a regional airport contributes nothing to the fight against terrorism or organised crime but does give the impression that the authorities are deeply concern (and doing something) about these problems.

It cheers me (although does not explain why government persists with all-population measures) that there's a mathematical explanation as to why mass surveillance is a lousy way to fight terrorism.

No matter how sophisticated and super-duper are NSA’s methods for identifying terrorists, no matter how big and fast are NSA’s computers, NSA’s accuracy rate will never be 100% and their misidentification rate will never be 0%. That fact, plus the extremely low base-rate for terrorists, means it is logically impossible for mass surveillance to be an effective way to find terrorists.

And if it is true for terrorists then it is true for anything where the proportion of the population we need to target is small. Or so it seems, at least to someone who has only a basic understanding of Bayes' Theorem. So answer should be to deal with the actual problem rather than bother at the whole population in the vain hope that this will work. It seems it won't.

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Monday, 19 January 2015

Capitalism will eliminate poverty if we let it (and ignore Oxfam)

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The world's plutocrats are gathering in Davos. And, in its annual tradition Oxfam has issued an update of its report on how us evil capitalist bastards are responsible for all that death and starvation in Africa. If only we would tax ourselves more and give the good folk at Oxfam more aid money then things would be fine. The problem is that Oxfam is utterly committed to promoting policies that sustain poverty - its stated aim is to make subsistence farming "sustainable" thereby keeping those peasant farmers just above the point of starvation through the use of aid money.

This article argues that policies used by middle and high-income countries are unsuitable for poorer, agricultural countries; it recommends instead that these nations promote broader access to land and raise land productivity. The authors explain why instruments used by richer countries, such as those that control prices and cheapen food, fail in poorer countries. They describe the features of smallholder farmers in poorer countries, drawing upon evidence from India, Peru, and Guatemala to demonstrate how subsistence farming can be part of policy responses to the distress of a food crisis in both the short and medium term. They call upon donors to improve their understanding of and support for small-scale, subsistence-oriented farming.

What Oxfam are saying here is that it's different in these poor countries and that the thing that made us western folk rich - capitalism - isn't going to work. Indeed, it is utterly shocking that Oxfam support policies that lead to more expensive food, less efficient agriculture and the maintaining of abject poverty in poor countries. So when you reach into your pocket for some change to put in that Oxfam tin or sponsor some well-meaning niece in her swimming or running, think for a second where that money is going. I'm not talking about administration costs here or even the buying of top end 4x4s for aid workers but the policies - policies that sustain poverty in Africa - that Oxfam supports.

The truth is that, not only is Oxfam wrong, but their support for protectionist policies at Davos actively advances the very agenda of those plutocrats and prevents Africa from challenging the dominance of the west. Instead of wibble about taxation or the liberal use of the word 'neoliberalism' what Oxfam needs to demand is an end to agricultural protection in the developed world, a more open banking system and the wider promotion of property rights, free markets and free trade.

Over the past three decades that neoliberalism - the thing Oxfam wants to blame for the ills of the world - has resulted in a billion people escaping abject poverty. Better still, for many of that billion the escape from poverty has been an escape from the tyranny of dirt-scrabble farming. They've moved to the city from where they can play a small part in creating exciting, free and innovative societies - just as happened in the west. Oxfam and its fellow travellers stand - using our cash - between people and the realisation of this dream.

I wrote this a while back - it is still true:

Sit back, put a smile on you face - punch the air with joy. You and me - capitalists both - have sat getting a little richer for thirteen years while a billion folk have escaped absolute poverty. All the international trade, all those businesses and those business folk filling the posh seats in aeroplanes flitting across the world - they've done that, they've lifted those people out of poverty.


Tell Oxfam to either get out of the way or get with the neoliberalism that is ending poverty more quickly that at any time in human history.


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Sunday, 18 January 2015

Bradford Labour deputy leader backs Galloway's rally against free speech

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I asked on Friday who would join George Galloway in attacking the idea of free speech (I know George dubbed it a 'free speech rally' in the same way that communist dictatorships call themselves 'democratic').

And we now have our answer - 'hundreds' turned out in last night's cold and snow for what is now being called a 'multi-faith' rally (I wonder how many non-muslims - Galloway excepted, of course - actually attended) and they heard George say:


"I am here to defend the honour of Muslims, Islams and Muhammad.

"These are not cartoons, these are obscene insults to the prophet Muhammad.

"The backlash against Muslims is under way in France and the UK.

"It seems there are limits to freedom of speech in France. That's hypocrisy, not democracy.

"For the sake of unity in our society, we have to demand from our Government the protection of our prophets."

So pretty clear from George there - he wants blasphemy laws that extend the (already excessive) privileges granted to religion and to Islam in particular.

And he was joined in this call by Imran Hussein, deputy leader of Bradford Council and parliamentary candidate for Bradford East:

"There is a big debate around freedom of speech. It is a fundamental right.

"Let's have freedom of speech, not freedom to openly insult.

"I was deeply insulted, deeply offended by the publication of Charlie Hebdo, in particular its depiction of the Holy Prophet Muhammad.

"There has been double standards and hypocrisy here."

So Cllr Hussein thinks that somehow he has the right not to be offended and that special protections - essentially a blasphemy law - should be granted to the faith he professes because him or others might be upset by that blasphemy. This is not free speech.

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