Monday, 3 August 2015

Neoliberalism is wonderful...


Seriously it is. The much maligned idea of open trade, international flows of money and stern fiscal control has meant that there are now fewer people in extreme poverty than in 1820 (when there were only a billion folk on the planet).

So all you lefties - get with the project.

The graph is from Max Roser.


Sunday, 2 August 2015

Why conservatives need to be more Santa Claus...

"When you look at the data, it turns out the conservatives give about 30 percent more. And incidentally, conservative-headed families make slightly less money."

American conservative thinker, Arthur C Brooks, has written a book urging us (conservatives that is) to change the manner in which we present ourselves to the world. The book - “The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America.” - reopens an important argument about conservatism, one that was glibly but tellingly set out by P J O'Rourke:

I have only one firm belief about the American political system, and that is this: God is a Republican and Santa Claus is a Democrat.

God is an elderly or, at any rate, middle aged male, a stern fellow, patriarchal rather than paternal and a great believer in rules and regulations. He holds men accountable for their actions. He has little apparent concern for the material well being of the disadvantaged. He is politically connected, socially powerful and holds the mortgage on literally everything in the world. God is difficult. God is unsentimental. It is very hard to get into God's heavenly country club.

Santa Claus is another matter. He's cute. He's nonthreatening. He's always cheerful. And he loves animals. He may know who's been naughty and who's been nice, but he never does anything about it. He gives everyone everything they want without the thought of quid pro quo. He works hard for charities, and he's famously generous to the poor. Santa Claus is preferable to God in every way but one: There is no such thing as Santa Claus

The message here is that conservatives are stern, judging, a little intolerant and rather rules bound. In reviewing Brooks' book, Greg Mankiw makes more of less the same observation:

The image problem is that conservatives too often resemble Ebenezer Scrooge. By opposing increases in the minimum wage, advocating cuts in corporate taxes, railing against excessive regulation of business and worrying about the cost of entitlement programs, they appear to care only about the rich and well-­connected.

And the answer is, to continue the O'Rourke metaphor, that conservatives should be more Santa Claus or maybe stress the other - loving and caring - aspects of God (this works better in the USA where God is a rather bigger deal than he is in British politics). The challenge still remains - conservatives are compassionate, do care, and consistently demonstrate a greater propensity for acts of compassion than 'progressives' who hide behind that Clement Attlee position:

"Charity is a cold grey loveless thing. If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim."

This is entirely the difference between conservatives - the Good Right as Tim Montgomerie has campaigned - and 'progressives'. The latter believe it is right for the act of compassion to be nationalised, for it to become part of the state's purpose whereas conservatives see this as people rejecting their responsibility to care. I recall my Mum complaining - back in the 1980s - about the lack of volunteers and her explaining that people thought that the government or the council should provide this as paid work "because we pay our taxes".

It is this very position - the pushing aside of private acts of compassion, the corporatising of charity and the suppression of voluntary leadership - that has helped damage and atomise our society. The very things that progressives claim to support are harmed by the crowding out from an overweening state. This isn't just the £13 billion or so in government funding spent through charitable and 'voluntary' organisations but the manner in which regulation stifles that voluntary initiative. As the team from Joseph Rowntree Foundation looking at loneliness discovered, we feel we need "permission to care" and that "regulation kills kindness". At the time I wrote:

That professionals in the employ of the Council, the NHS or their satellite agencies (are) needed to allow people to look out for their neighbour. In this I saw a dead culture - one murdered by the good intentions of public agencies. That we might not be allowed to pop in on Mr & Mrs Jones to make sure they're OK, maybe make them a cuppa and have a chat for half and hour. Unless we've undertaken the official "befriending" course, got the required clearances from the state and been attached to an organisation that "delivers" looking out for the neighbours.

It isn't enough however for conservatives to challenge the progressives' corruption of care and compassion - this is too close to semantics and reminds the listener of the contested word games of political spin. We need to make that challenge but, at the same time, talk about different subjects than those we're used to talking about. In Mankiw's review of "The Conservative Heart", he reminds us of the tough love, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps aspect of conservative policy-making and comments that the typical policy agenda for conservatives seems doomed to be condemned by the left as "attempts to further enrich the already successful while gutting the social safety net for those most in need".

This might be a gross and inaccurate caricature of the conservative policy platform but it works as a critique because it's easy to cast such policies as 'uncaring' - even when (as has been the case with the American left especially) those very same policies are pursued by self-described progressives. In the UK there has been - until this year's proposals for reforming in-work benefits - a pretty consistent approach to welfare with the emphasis on wielding a stick to incentivise people into getting a job. The Labour Party's rhetoric is different but the policy programme - a combination of tightening entitlement rules, training programmes and workfare - remains essentially unchanged.

Conservatives need - and this is the point of Brooks' book - to start talking from the heart about subjects like poverty, achievement, aspiration and what various commenters call the three rules. Finish school, get and keep a job, get married and stay married:

The 2001 Census data clearly show that dropping out of high school, staying single, having children without a spouse, working only part time or not working at all substantially increase the chances of long-term poverty. Certain behaviors are a recipe for success. Among those who finish high school, get married, have children only within a marriage and go to work, the odds of long-term poverty are virtually nil.

Moreover, while these behaviours matter, we are also in the position to support people in achieving that exit from poverty. But what we can't do is ignore the reality of poverty and the fact that, in terms of society's expectations, there are many people who are in that condition. And in talking about poverty we need to reposition the debate as being about genuine material want not the preferred progressive line of focusing on inequality (and in describing inequality as poverty, a view which is manifestly nonsense).

What is most interesting about the Brooks manifesto is that is isn't about policy but about heart. This is where the progressive left has regularly trumped centre and right wing politics - their arguments are framed in terms of the excluded, the vulnerable and the oppressed. The programmes of the established state are characterised as failing these groups whereas a progressive state wouldn't not do so. Other than promises of more funding, however, there is little substance to the progressive programme but this doesn't matter since the appeal is based on describing how the vulnerable, excluded and oppressed are failed, not on a policy platform proposing solutions to these groups' predicament.

In the end conservative politicians need to learn how to use the anecdotes of caring and to do so consistently. Here's Marco Rubio getting the heart thing right:

Many nights growing up I would hear my father’s keys at the door as he came home after another 16-hour day. Many mornings, I woke up just as my mother got home from the overnight shift at Kmart. When you’re young and in a hurry, the meaning of moments like this escape you. Now, as my children get older, I understand it better. My dad used to tell us — (SPEAKING IN SPANISH) — ‘in this country, you’ll be able to accomplish all the things we never could’. A few years ago, I noticed a bartender behind the portable bar in the back of the ballroom. I remembered my father, who worked as many years as a banquet bartender. He was grateful for the work he had, but that’s not like he wanted for us. You see, he stood behind the ball all those years so that one day I could stand behind a podium, in the front of a room.

This is a message the progressive left don't understand because their targets are always wealthy and successful people like Marco Rubio - the solution they offer is to pull those people down, to extract more cash from them so as to allow people they consider vulnerable, excluded or oppressed not to have to do what Rubio's dad did.

In the end the absolutely fundamental distinction between conservatives and progressives is that the former believe everyone has within themselves the capacity to achieve. And conservatives further believe that the duty of everyone - and of the state - is to help people achieve. This isn't always what people aspire to do but it is a chance to do the essentials right - to bring up good, honest children with the right values, to contribute to the local community, and to carry on providing for self and others through your own effort. The state's role is to support this not to replace it with government.

Conservatives can get this message across but to succeed it's not enough to rely on the uselessness of the opposition or the votes of the grumpy. We need to cultivate a little more jolliness, to be prepared to simply empathise, to give a great big Santa Claus hug to those people who are struggling. This works as an entire policy programme for the left - us conservatives can do it too in the knowledge that we really do have policies that work, that help people like Marco Rubio's dad, and that offer real hope not the false hope of the handout.


Saturday, 1 August 2015

So what is beauty? A response to Res Publica.

Centrist think tank, Res Publica has put forward the idea that a 'right to beauty' should be enshrined in primary legislation:

Our report argues for a ‘community right to beauty’ to be introduced via primary legislation. The policy recommendations set out a range of new powers and incentives to support the democratic discernment of what makes a neighbourhood beautiful, and communities’ ability to independently create, shape and improve their locale.

It all sounds fabulous but, yet again, it starts from the premise of inequalities rather than any attempt to be objective about what we mean by beauty. There are several worrying questions that arise here - the democratisation of beauty (apologies for the ugly language), the presumption that access to beauty is limited or restricted, and the reminder that polished or preserved places represent the only beauty in an urban environment.

Let's start with an example. Is this beautiful?

It's OK, you don't have to answer the question - not everyone loves early 19th century industrial architecture. And if you visit the place pictured you'll see the sadness in its tattiness, the consequences of its redundancy and realise that all this is mixed into the gritty surroundings of terraces, traffic and litter.

Another example:

Easier this time - we all get that this is beautiful. A fifty foot waterfall setting in mature woodland - such scenes should be protected, cherished and celebrated.

The two pictures are about seven miles apart yet could be different countries. Indeed, I'm pretty sure than most of the people leaving near the first picture don't even know the falls exist. They are private, secret. A little piece of magic tucked away. There is no tourist sign, no 'interpretation', no urbanising of a wonderfully rural setting. But you can walk to it - for free.

The point of a democratic beauty is that it's determined by polls and majority opinion. I may consider that the serried rows of three-bed semis in the place I was raised contains a kind of beauty - a beauty of memory, of things done, with each corner revealing a little something that strikes to the soul, that reveals beauty. But the great and good do not consider this to be beauty, they tell us that nothing in the environment of the inner urban dweller is beautiful.

Our public poll is damning. It shows we are singularly failing the poor. A staggeringly high household income, more than £10, 000 above the national average (2), gives you better access to beautiful surroundings.”

Res Publica has gathered together a cross-party 'who's who' all proclaiming how important it is that people have 'access to beauty'. But this is beauty as defined by the great and the good not our own personal understanding of beauty. To return to access - what Res Publica are speaking of isn't 'access' but proximity. Their poll simply reflects the fact that places considered beautiful by a lot of people garner a premium for those wanting to live close by. To use urban examples, if you want to live overlooking The Stray in Harrogate or in Bath's Royal Crescent then you will be paying a substantial premium for such a pleasure.

But if I want to walk on The Stray, take photographs of the Royal Crescent or stand looking down on Edinburgh's Royal Mile then I can do so freely and without restriction for these are public places. The view from the summit of Whernside, the daffodils at Grasmere beloved of Wordsworth and the Windrush as it winds through West Oxfordshire - these views are for all of us, free and without restriction.

The Res Publica report presents an approach to beauty that is shallow and incomplete. It assumes that the "community" is more able to determine what is, or isn't, beautiful - guided of course by a new volume or two of planning guidance all carefully crafted by those appointed by the great and good rather than by communities (and due to be interpreted by the cold analysis of the lawyer). Think for a minute about the disagreements you've had with friends and family over choice of colours, buildings and vistas and then scale these up to the level of a community (whatever that might mean) - can a community determined definition of beauty ever really work?

This 'community right to beauty' proposal is simply a headline looking for an idea to go with it. But the idea isn't beauty at all, nor is it something excluded from existing planning controls - the idea is that we should protect places that work, promote the improvement of places that don't work, and, for new development, seek to build places rather than just buildings. None of this has anything at all to do with beauty - yet if we get it right we will have places loved, cared for and celebrated by their residents. And enjoyed by visitors.

Most of the tools needed for getting this right are in place. We do not need new legislation that creates a sterile definition of beauty in planning law. We have had community design guides for decades, we can create neighbourhood plans that make strong statements about the style of development and the provision of open space, and we have a local plan framework that incorporates conservation, listed structures and much else protecting heritage, ecology and environment. Most councils employ specialists to advise on design up to and including, for some places, a skilled city architect.

Finally beauty is a personal thing and should be respected as such. We spend a great deal of time and effort trying to persuade young people that there isn't some kind of perfection - a singular depiction of beauty - yet now we have people setting about doing just that for urban environments. And doing this because of a misplaced - indeed a stupid - belief that somehow such defined beauty is more democratic and more accessible. We don't need rules for planners and bureaucrats to stop things, we need to remember that the urban beauty we're celebrating - in Saltaire, in Bath, in York, on the canalsides of England - was built without planning legislation, without the great and good deciding what was or wasn't right.


Friday, 31 July 2015

The lesson we should take from Calais - prohibition doesn't work


We have banned them from entering the country. We have built walls and fences. We have deployed cameras. And armed police abound. Yet still they come:

Around 4,000 people have stormed fences and desperately tried to clamber on trains bound for Kent in the past three days - a deadly gamble that has allowed at least 150 to get to Britain but also claimed the lives of nine people.

Migrants have said that watching their friends die will not stop them trying to get to the UK with one saying: 'It's England or death'.

We can make all sorts of assumptions about the situation, about why these (mostly) men are swarming around the entrance to the Channel Tunnel, clambering onto and into trucks, and taking the most extreme risks to get to England. What is abundantly clear is that building fences, throwing up walls and arming the cops is not enough to keep them out. Let's also get straight that sending in troops won't keep them out either.

It won't win me any friends saying this but so long as our strategy for preventing refugees and migrants from entering the UK is a barrier - our contribution to managing the wider problem of the world's population displacement - we will see repeated examples of what's going on in and around Calais. Just as we know from booze and drugs, prohibition is ineffective and difficult to enforce.

Let's assume for a minute that all the migrants wanting to come to the UK are going to ask for asylum when they arrive. Do we not have a process for determining whether a claim for asylum is genuine? Complete with an appeal system, special courts and hostels? Wouldn't it be better to use that, now pretty well tested, approach to managing the process? After all we know it's working:

The man is the first individual confirmed to have been repatriated through a new removals programme that seeks to take advantage of recent legal judgments and changes to UK immigration policy, which mean that Somalis seeking asylum must successfully prove that they face a specific threat, rather than simply being at risk from indiscriminate violence.

There's a huge international problem that we are choosing to squeeze into one localised symptom of displacement created by a wrong-headed refusal to adopt a sensible approach when faced with ignorant, borderline racist nonsense in the tabloid newspapers. If we were looking to process migrants, establish those with a case and deport the rest - putting resource into a practical response rather than fences or guns - we might have a chance of getting a grip. So long as our response is prohibition the cost of containment will keep rising as migrants seek - and find - new ways round the barrier.

It isn't for reasons of humanitarianism that we need to change our policy around entry, it's for the simple and practical reason that the current approach - de facto prohibition - isn't working. We urgently need a system that allows the existing process dealing with migration and asylum to operate properly rather than spending ever larger sums grandstanding over camps around Calais.


Thursday, 30 July 2015

Gentrification should be welcomed by cities not treated as a curse

One of the single most important challenges facing Bristol and cities like it as they grow their economies is how to do development without doing gentrification. I set out from the start that I believe gentrification to be a social ill.

To appreciate just how stupid this statement is, you have first to note that the man who said it was very nearly elected executive mayor of Bristol. Marvin Rees was the Labour candidate in 2012 and fancies another go at getting elected next year. And Marvin believes that 'maginalised communities' must be protected from

...the focus on a high tech economy in which the highly educated are uniquely placed to exploit the opportunities and rising property prices and rents so that historically poor areas become increasingly unaffordable to their long established lower income traditional communities and their children.

This suggests that Marvin feels ordinary working-class Bristol folk won't be able to get good jobs in that exciting new Bristol that economic growth creates - they're excluded, as Marvin puts it, from "...the city of street art, the Shaun the Sheep tour, festivals, balloons, bridges, Brunel, the hipster and the Tesco riot." What a depressing vision for a city - you can't invest in buying a house, opening a coffee shop or brewing craft beer because that might exclude 'traditional communities'.

We see a lot of this anti-growth rhetoric wrapped up in a package dubbed 'opposing gentrification'. And resisting the blandishments of people like Marvin Rees is essential if cities are to reduce deprivation, create opportunity and develop into places where people want to live rather than places people want to escape. Marvin needs to ask himself a question about those traditional communities he cites - St Pauls, Easton and Southville. Do people growing up there who succeed stay there or do they leave for a place, often not far away, that they think is better?

I recall an old colleague who was born and brought up in Chapeltown, a part of Leeds as noted for its riots as for its culture. This colleague, Robert was his name, insisted that he would stay in Chapeltown: "these kids need a role model who isn't a gangster or a drug dealer". Some while later I ran into Robert again and he had succeeded - thriving business, got married, child on the way and living in Harrogate. So much for staying in Chapeltown.

Without gentrification this is what happens - the best from those 'traditional communities' move away as success makes that possible and the gap they leave is filled by a new generation of poor people. As my colleague Robert noted, the roles models for youngsters - other than pop stars, boxers and footballers - consist of criminals, gangsters and wheeler-dealers. In a gentrified neighbourhood there's a whole load of people - many from pretty ordinary backgrounds - who provide examples of success without negatives.

It is madness to want to preserve poor communities out of some misplaced sense of social solidarity yet this is precisely what people like Marvin Rees want, this captures the lack of aspiration and rejection of opportunity that results in places remained stagnant, dying slowly from neglect. It is a recipe for ossifying the social deprivation gleefully described by Marvin in his article. Places like Bristol - in truth most every place - needs those bohemian sorts, hipsters and the like if they are to succeed:

It gets down to what I call "the eye" - certain people have it. "The eye" in this regard is really about intuition and it allows you to spot things and live well without very much money. When my wife and I were building our first brand, Red or Dead, in the early 1980s, we opened a shop on Neal Street – now a buzzing part of fashionable London, but then it had no fashion shops and was a rather dowdy area stocked full of white good repair shops. We took a risk and acted outside of the mainstream. Our approach allowed us to spot a place where city investment and mainstream money wouldn't go. And it worked. We grew our business by spotting Neal Street equivalents in half a dozen UK cities and another dozen locations around the world.

Politicians and activists - most green sorts and the 'progressive left' - want to exclude people like Wayne Hemingway from their cities or else to corral them into specific regeneration areas thereby killing the initiative and innovation they bring. Let's not get this wrong, gentrification isn't the be all and end all - if we want kids from St Pauls to succeed we need great schools, good training and a wide variety of what they used to call 'jobs with opportunities'. But attacking success in the strange belief that its investment, excitement and choice excludes people can only result in less growth, less development and a poorer place.


Sunday, 26 July 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, 25 July 2015

On the nonsense of our obsession with children's weight


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

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

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

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

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

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