Monday, 24 November 2014

Why the NHS is like a Porsche 911.

The Porsche 911 suffers a fundamental design flaw: it's engine is in the wrong place, over the rear axle, leaving the car struggling for grip at the front, and tail happy. Decades of development have seen the engine's weight move towards the middle (where it should be), and by the 1990s Porsche was successfully keeping stockbrokers from going backwards through hedges, while keeping the overall shape that people seem to like.


The NHS is a lot like this car

"The NHS is being Privatised" is one of those perpetual political tropes, wheeled out by the hard left when Labour's in power, and everyone to the left of David Cameron when the Tories are. This is an example of 'the political class' (broad definition; which probably includes political obsessives like me, who're reading this blog) speaking a different language to the average voter.

What the NHS means to most people is a healthcare system, funded out of general taxation, free at the point of delivery, at which they can rock up when ill, no questions asked. Whether or not it is state-owned matters not a jot, so long as they don't have to pay when they're hurt. What the NHS means to a left-wing political activist on the other hand is 'the only thing on earth which is both state-run, and popular'. The NHS, following the triumph of Thatcherism, and the utter failure of traditional, trades-unionised municipal socialism, is all that is left of Atlee's post-war consensus and so critical to the left's image of itself.

But contrary to the Lefties' belief, the NHS has always made use of significant private business. Thankfully, even Atlee didn't nationalise the pharmaceutical companies. Most GPs are private-sector businesses which generate their business through NHS contracts. Services like cleaning and catering are often outsourced to private companies and have been for decades. And following reforms by the Labour party, some medical services are now run by for-profit businesses too. So the NHS is being privatised, a bit, by piecemeal and where appropriate.

But since the basic 'free at the point of use' structure of the NHS is not under threat (even the morons of UKIP don't want to fight the electorate over this), the ranty lefty screaming about 'profit' just seems ridiculous. I too support free(ish) at the point of use healthcare funded out of taxation. But I suspect private businesses competing to deliver services, especially if reforms can mean money follows patient choices, will deliver improvements in the standard, efficiency and responsiveness of care. I hope the reforms continue, backing success and learning from failure. Eventually, the state will control the spine of the NHS, guarantee the principles, and provide funding; but leave the actual provision to people and companies who aren't owned or employed directly by the state.

Which also brings us neatly to the Private Finance Initiative - something the left thinks is 'privatisation' too and the right thinks is state spending "off balance-sheet". The purpose of PFI is to deliver hospitals now, with the private sector bearing the delivery risk, and generating the financing. In return, the state offers a long-term delivery contract. The contract rolls up the cost of delivering, managing, maintaining and often cleaning a facility, so cannot be compared directly to build costs.

The PFI is delivered by a special purpose vehicle, a company whose shareholders might include a bank, a construction company like Balfour Beaty, a service company like Capita and various others. Investors typically bear the delivery risk should costs over-run. And this is why PFI projects have a good track-record, better than that of the state, in bringing things in, on time and on budget. This is why the ONS said they were good value, despite slightly higher financing costs. The state is a lousy project manager; the private sector, when it stands to lose big money if a project over-runs, has a good track-record of delivery. The rapid spread of PFI round the world (another successful British innovation in political economy, like privatisation) wouldn't happen if it didn't deliver benefits.

And the NHS will survive, and the left will still rant and rage about "privatisation", and the public will still raise an eyebrow, suspicious of politicians' motives; but so long as the NHS remains free at the point of delivery, the electorate will demonstrate their 'false consciousness' by studiously ignoring the silly, shouty people demonstrating and their Socialist Workers' Party placards.

The NHS is slowly being "privatised" and has been since it was founded. The Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership may open the NHS to American healthcare companies, if they aren't already here. This is a good thing. Standards improve with the input of new ideas, and the abandonment of bad ones. Hospitals are built with the input of private capital and project management. An internal market improves responsiveness to patients' needs. All this is ultimately underwritten and financed by the state from taxation. The problem with the NHS is not "privatisation", it's the fact it was ever nationalised in the first place. Like the Porsche 911, the NHS's engine is in a fundamentally wrong place (Way out behind the rear axle, on Whitehall, rather than somewhere between the patient and the GP), but with decades of development and tinkering, that design flaw is being been overcome, as the engine is moved closer to where it should be. The NHS will remain Free at the point of use, just as the Porsche keeps its shape, but however good they are now, no-one's copied the underlying design of either.



Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Government and Mazlow's Hierarchy of Needs

Life, even after a few years of falling wages, is pretty good in the west. Whatever the idiots of the left tell you, you need to pretty comprehensively screw your life up to be homeless in any developed western economy. Some people fall through the net, but they're exceptions who're often on the streets because they reject help. Starvation in the west, is almost always a result of mental illness, not want. This is why shroud waving about 'the bedroom tax' has fallen flat. It's just contrary to what people can see with their own eyes.

So, unlike almost every society preceding it, the west delivers all the physiological needs of food and water to all of its people, with near 100% reliability. Most do a pretty good job of providing affordable healthcare too.

With the bare necessities of life secure, a place to live is fairly high on the list of requirements. And very, very few people have nowhere to live. Some fall through the cracks, and for too many it's far too expensive to live reasonably near work. We build too few houses, and prices are too high for sure. But that's a problem soluble within the present system. Unlike many economies on earth, however almost everyone in the west has access to a secure house.

Other elements in 'security' are amply provided by western societies. We enjoy secure property rights. Few of us die of violence. There is justice, imperfect to be sure, but there is a reliable dispute resolution process. We can travel freely, and seek to do business worldwide, and assume contracts are honoured. Regulations ensure our homes and workplaces are safe. None of these are perfect, but by with centuries of problem-solving, things get better, in fits and starts.

This is the bread and butter of politics. The steady, patient accumulation of good ideas, and the abandonment of bad ones. Free market, democratic capitalism has delivered material wealth unimaginable to our forebears, and will continue to develop improvements, and hopefully find ways to distribute them better. Regulation, and robust institutions to enforce them, are necessary, in part so people don't have to re-invent the wheel every time they innovate. What works - from hard hats on building sites to banking capital adequacy is a reasonable function of government. And it's pretty dull. Much of this is supranational trade regulation, outsourced to bodies like the WTO and EU to enable bigger, and therefore more efficient markets. Too much regulation, of course strangles the golden goose. But that too is tested world wide and locally. Bad ideas like marking-to-market are abandoned, good ideas which seem to work, spread. This is only possible because people are allowed to question our rulers.

From Magna Carta in 1215 (and similar ideas in the Islamic world at about the same time) which put rulers under law, imperfectly, and with many retrograde steps, the idea that Government should obtain their people's consent gained traction. And because people are good at solving problems, the societies which governed by consent, and which broadened the stake in society, were far more successful than the autocracies with which they competed. We free people have seen off big, bad ideas: The divine right of kings, Bonapartism, religious absolutism, slavery, fascism, communism and we're having another competition with religious absolutism now, but no-one thinks seriously that Radical Islamists pose any existential threat to western democracies.

We, broadly if not universally, won. And if the Koreans or Japanese have caught up, it is by taking up our good ideas and applying them to their society. They now compete to generate the new ideas which help society improve. As more and more countries join us on the technological frontier - the former soviet Eastern Europe is catching up fast, as is China, and so more and more of humanity's creative endeavour will be applied to solving problems, creating solutions we can all share.

In politics, it's tempting for politicians to rubbish others' ideas and try to sell theirs as revolutionary. But because we've defeated all the really, really bad ideas, we're now arguing about ever smaller and smaller problems. This, in turn makes politicians look small and petty. We're no longer arguing about how to organise society, we're arguing about distributing success. This requires managers, not leaders. And so turnouts fall worldwide and people shift from parties of government to single-issue pressure groups. We hanker for the old, simple, black and white questions were WE could broadly persuade ourselves that WE were on the side of Angels, and THEY were the bad guys. And if you grew up with the cold war, in the democratic west, we were the ones outside the wall, asking the others to tear it down. And now, the Green movement is on the side of the planet against big, bad business, which is destroying the planet. Or UKIP blaming everything on the EU and the LIBLABCON Westminster clique.

Feeling part of something, especially AGAINST something self-evidently wicked, is more important in many ways than material and economic security. These are the social, love and esteem layers of Mazlow's Hierarchies of need. British elections in the 1980s were in part between those who sympathised with the communists, and those who identified with America. Parties were mass movements, and satisfying as a result. In success, politicians lost something to define themselves against, even as they maintain the forms of adversarial debate. When you're discussing potential nuclear holocaust, or how to defeat fascism, this is fine. But if you're trying to present £11 a week  off benefits as existential crisis, or a small change in tax-rates as a return to communism (guilty as charged...) you just look ridiculous.

While this was manageable during a long rise in living standards, it rapidly became less so when the great recession hit. Having got used to success, governments spent and spent to fund promises of ever greater services, and ever greater consumption. And eventually the money ran out. Insurgent parties then moved into the void across the world - UKIP, the Tea Party, Front National and others. Some more responsible than others, but each coming with their own comforting 'Them and Us' narrative.

Ultimately I think these parties, should they ever be confronted with the realities of Government will either end up looking exactly like the parties they claim to oppose, be absorbed by them, or will implode under the weight of their internal contradictions. The upper levels of the hierarchy of needs are not really deliverable by politicians. All they can do is promise to manage the ever shrinking portion of economies needed to deliver safety, security and possibly health to the people. It used to require the productive efforts of 95% of humanity just to provide food, a task delivered in the west by just 1% now.

People want to be listened to, as an inevitable consequence of having enough to eat and a place to eat it. But everyone wants something different. So we require a new politics, one that enables and facilitates, rather than seeking to impose a one-size fits all approach. Formal government needs to shrink, sharing, as David Cameron used to say in the good times, the proceeds of growth between tax-cuts and better services. This will leave people to seek the social, love and esteem without government interference, and with an ever-shrinking burden of taxation. You want freedom. Free people from want, let them feel secure, then watch our creative talents take man to the stars.

Yes, we (unfairly) despise politicians, because they have solved the major problems of life, and continue to do so. The answer isn't to return to them-and-us politics, but with smaller questions; Instead we must take more questions out of the politicians' purview. Their job is largely done, and they can recede, to be the people to whom we outsource the bin collections and sewage regulation. What they do is important. But it is now unglamourous.

One day perhaps we will give no more thought to the Government that delivers health services, organises some redistribution, funds education services and defends the realm than we do to the remarkable supply-chain that delivers our bread. Libertarianism will not come from destroying government, but by building on its successes something vaster and grander, and more satisfying to the people who live in it than any Government or bureaucrat could possibly imagine. Let us not despise democratic government, but reduce it over the next few centuries to the status of the monarchy in the UK now, a useful, decorative relic which doesn't get in the way much, while the free people get on with delivering what people actually want from each other.



Friday, 14 November 2014

On Being a "Real Conservative"

Tim Montgomerie, formerly doyen of Conservative home, now at the Times, has returned to his former bailiwick to explain why he's not joining UKIP. Basically, they're a bunch of clownish amateurs, however much he likes having his prejudices stroked by them. Despite not wanting to join them, he agrees with much of UKIP's analysis.

I feel – as many Tories do – that there is a cuckoo in the nest at present and he will be gone on either the day after the next election or a year or two afterwards...
Cameron is, of course, a great deal more popular than his party. Or more accurately, in this current toxic anti-politics mood, less unpopular. Cameron isn't the problem;  people like Montgomerie (and me...) are the problem. The parties, as they shrink are less the mass movements of ordinary people they once were, but clubs for political obsessives. The Tory fixation with Europe, or the endless Lib-Dem demands for PR as the answer to everything, or Labour's wibble about predistribution could never happen in a genuinely mass party.

He blames Cameron for failing to win an election against Brown. The UKIPish nutters, obsessed by Europe are far more to blame than the Prime Minister for conservative failure to win an election. The sheer insane kamikaze disloyalty they have shown has crippled the party for nearly two decades.
David Cameron is not a terrible conservative. He’s a little bit conservative in every respect. A little bit of a fiscal conservative. A little bit of a Eurosceptic. A little bit of a reformer. A little bit of a hawk on foreign policy
Montgomerie appears to be complaining that the Prime Minister who has cut state spending faster than any administration since Atlee is not savagely partisan enough. Cameron doesn't seem to enjoy being conservative enough. And that is the problem.  In the United states, the parties have become utterly polarised. Candidates must appear extreme to win nominations in primaries, then tack to the centre to win an election. Everyone ends up with something they didn't vote for, which further feeds dissatisfaction with politics. American Politics is utterly toxic and totally dysfunctional as a result, yet too many Tories look at the GOP today, and think "Gosh, I wish we looked like that".

As parties shrink, they become captured by vested interests: The Labour party is more in hock to the Unions than ever before, a wholly owned subsidiary of Unite. The Tories run the risk of being seen as being a subsidiary of their big-business donors. All this turns off the average voter, who feel, rightly at the moment that none of the parties speak for them. Hence the rise of UKIP, the SNP and the Greens who all have messages which are angry, clear, simplistic and wrong.

The activists, like Montgomerie have to realise it's they (we...), not the much-derided "political class" who are the problem. Professional politicians have always existed, and the idea the country should be run by amateurs is laughable. Until activists can reach out in the spirit of compromise, seek to speak to people about what the people are interested in, not what the activists think the people ought to be interested in, politics will remain a minority pursuit. Most Tory councillors, who've experience of governing get this, but the activists, the enthusiasts, the door-knockers and bloggers who create the mood-music don't. "How can he think like this? If only he'd be more extreme, then all would be well."

How's Ed Miliband's 35% strategy working out?

Montgomerie blames Cameron for the rise of UKIP, which he says
is partly the product of both lousy party management and strategy by the current Tory leadership.
I think a better analogy is UKIP as the Tories' Militant Tendency. As Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless have shown, the UKIPish backbenchers and activists are utterly unreconcilable - reaching out to them is utterly futile. They got the referendum they claimed to want, but it just encouraged them in to more tantrums of headbanging nuttiness A referendum in 2017? NO WE WANT ONE NEXT WEEK, WITH YOU CAMPAIGNING FOR 'OUT'!. They have got into the habit of rebellion, and lack the discipline to want to run the country, preferring the masturbatory pleasures of opposition, even while sitting on the Government benches. Compromise isn't unprincipled. Collective responsibility isn't dishonest. It's a recognition that there's competing interests in the country, and no-one gets everything they want.
There are divisions across the Right in all parts of the world but the lack of internal democracy has forced Tory divisions into the open and many natural Tories out of the party... Robust systems of internal democracy might have meant certain policies that I, personally, support – including equal marriage and the 0.7% aid target – might have been blocked. I would have argued for them but party members and MPs deserve to be consulted more often than at a once-in-a-decade leadership election. Every MP in the next parliament should have a job (running the UK equivalents of Battleground Texas, for example (of which more on another occasion)). There should be an elected Tory board and Chairman with the responsibility to think about the long-term health of the Tory Party. The whole party apparatus should not be obsessed with helping the current leader survive beyond the annual electoral cycle. Fundamental change is needed in party organisation if it is to think long-term about rebuilding in the northern cities, changing the profile of party candidates and – the previous theme – remoralising the Tory brand.
There are some good ideas about decentralising the party, but the problem remains: Tory activists do not look like the country and remain unhealthily obsessed with Europe. The country is socially liberal, the party is (mostly) not. To give too much power to the current ageing activist base risks accelerating the party's retreat from the electorate, and making it harder to govern - the one thing the electorate agrees on is it cannot stand a split party. The party must reach out first, try to make the activists look a little bit more like the country and learn to compromise again.

Purging the UKIPpers, who've been making Tories unelectable since 1992 is a good start.



Thursday, 13 November 2014

Landing a Probe on a Comet vs Tackling Poverty

On March 2, 2004, an Ariane 5 rocket took off from French Guiana containing the Rosetta spaceship. A few days later, having escaped the earth's gravity and put into a heliocentric orbit, Rosetta commenced a 10-year 6,500,000,000 km journey which involved taking slingshots off the earth (three times) and Mars (once) to rendez-vous  with a rubber-duck-shaped snowball the size of Cambridge 300,000,000 miles away, moving at 42,000 kmh, Having achieved the rendez-vous, a dishwasher sized probe with three harpooned legs was to be released to float down to the surface of the comet, as it hurtled through space. Touchdown was achieved on 12th November 2014. 


This is, quite simply a technical and scientific achievement equivalent to putting man on the moon. To my mind it is enough that it's there to do, but this isn't just an everest for rocket engineers. We will get data on the origins of the early solar system, and possibly the origins of life on earth from this mission. We will know more about what comets are made of. Much of this is pure science of little immediate or practical use. Put charitably "Why are we firing rockets at snowballs in space?" is a question about opportunity cost. What did society forgo to achieve this soft landing on a comet. And the answer is "not much".

There is a complaint that "we should be curing cancer" or "ending poverty" with the money spent on space exploration. "What good is it to me?" some ask. I'm tempted to dismiss such soulless utilitarianism as the bleatings of one who's already dead inside. The point about pure science is that it leads to who knows what future advances that solve real problems. Perhaps vital resources can be recovered from comets cheaply. We might learn a bit about the composition of objects that might hit earth, potentially generating knowledge that saves life on earth from extinction. To ask "what is this for?" is to betray a total lack of imagination. If nothing else a nine-year old might be watching the probe land on a planet and be enthused to become an engineer, and go on to do something we haven't even thought of yet.

"End Poverty"? Benefits paid to poor people are not where they are because they're the most that can be afforded. We could afford to pay the unemployed more to live on, or top up low wages by more. The reason they're low is because of the freeloader effect. The higher benefits are relative to work, the more attractive benefits become, and the lower the returns to work. People do not want to work hard to pay taxes to fund a comfortable life-style for those who don't. More people would choose benefits over work. Thus benefits are set at a level which means live subsisting on them is pretty rotten. Any more would be politically impossible to sustain. Besides, poverty isn't solved by cash transfers, but by work, and trade and free markets. This is the same thing that will ultimately cure disease. That and the application of pure science.

"Curing diseases?"Aids or Ebola will be cured by free trade with Africa, allowing their farmers access to our markets. Such trade will stimulate road building; roads, which unlike those to mines, go to where Africans live and work. Roads stimulate trade. With trade comes a cold-chain. That means vaccinations. Vaccinations mean healthier people. Healthier people do better in education, making them more productive. Being productive, means being richer, and being richer means people wear watches. And when people wear watches, they know when to take their anti-retrovirals. And if people take their anti-retrovirals, their HIV blood counts go down, making them less infectious. Less infectious means fewer infections. And fewer infections which become chronic rather than fatal conditions will lead to the steady decline in AIDS infection rates we've seen in the west. 

In developing all the above, a few decent health-centres and hospitals will mean Ebola will not spread when it's first identified. How much will this cost us? Less than we spend stopping it happening now. (Farm Subsidies like the CAP are, you see, wholly, genocidally evil). Trade you see is not Zero-Sum. Africans get richer because the market for their produce increases. We get richer because more people are competing to supply our markets so we get things cheaper (and vice versa). We're both richer. 

Cure cancer? It's difficult to see how a rocket engineer could help there. There's very little tangible that can be done in that regard that isn't being done now. There's already good money in curing cancer. So if we cannot give more money to the poor, cure Aids Ebola or Cancer with the money, why not give us something inspirational? To encourage us to let slip the surly bonds of earth and look out to the stars. That's a public good, that is. But to cure poverty or whatever, we need to stop the Government doing bad stuff to Africans, not stop it doing wholly amazing, inspirational science.



Wednesday, 5 November 2014

No, Abi, the Poppy Is Not associated with Racism, Nationalism and Islamophobia.

Abi Wilkinson, a generally thoughtful breed of lefty, has nevertheless, in this article, succumbed to the temptation of projecting her prejudices onto something she doesn't understand and in doing so caused some offence. I said I would explain why thought she had written a bad article.

The fact is, poppies have become less a symbol of genuine grief and recognition of the soldiers who have fallen fighting in our country’s armed forces, and more a compulsory signifier that a person is on ‘our side’.
The phrase "The fact is" rarely comes before a fact. But it is easy to see why people could think the Poppy divisive. The men in uniform, the pageantry, the national unity, are redolent to the triumphalism of empire which makes much of the left uncomfortable. They're wrong.

British history has its shameful moments, something the right is often guilty of ignoring, however Remembrance is not the season to dwell on these. Broadly, the British Empire was a force for good, trying to leave Cricket, the Rule of Law, democracy and Railways behind. That this was a stated aim of the British Empire is something the left is loathe to admit. Historians should not be seeking to impose a narrative based on today's values or seek to "prove" something for the benefit of one political view today; rather we should learn the lessons of history, so the horrors can be avoided, and the triumphs learned from. That requires admissions of failure as well as a celebration of successes.

The armed forces who have for four hundred years fought in support of one of the most stable and prosperous democracies on earth, have every right to take pride in the successes, and remember that our freedom is bought with a heavy price. This country took part in, but then dismantled the Global Slave trade, fought European dictators from Napoleon to Hitler, offered a parliamentary model of democracy which has proved itself far more stable than the presidential  model exported by France or the USA. A British soldier has died overseas in the service of his country every year since 1666, with one exception: 1968.

I grew up with the Cold War raging. We, as part of the Alliance of democracies beat international communism, as we defeated European Fascism. The Army I joined was trying to put the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone together. And the Army I have served has been in Far off Dusty places for the last decade and a half. The world is undoubtedly a better place for it, taken as a whole, though the merits of each campaign can be debated. Recently the mother lode of bad ideas making people miserable round the world stems from the creed of Radical Islamism. Abi's political ideas were formed when 'the enemy our boys are fighting' were mostly Muslims.

So from there it's a simple mental jump to regard the British Armed Forces are mostly a tool to fight Muslims, conveniently forgetting previous decades, and centuries of idealogies and enemies defeated. And to a limited extent, amongst some people, the poppy has become a 'them and us' symbol. If you don't wear the poppy you are one of "them". This was as true, and to the same extent, for the leftists and communists and Irish, as it is for  Muslims now. It has never been significant.
Propaganda images pitting our soldiers (deserving of state support) and ‘immigrants’ (greedy, reviled and a drain on state resources) are the bread and butter of this [Britain First].
Britain first are capable of putting together emotive Internet memes, but little more. But theirs is not, and will not be the majority or even significant view, though they are tapping into genuine if misinformed hostility to immigration. Most soldiers I know find Britain First's mawkish parasitism on their profession faintly ridiculous. The real experience of remembrance can instead be found at war memorials up and down the country you will see proud men and women, many wearing medal ribbons, remembering those they fought alongside who didn't come home.

Remembrance isn't about the  political posturing at the Cenotaph or people sharing memes on Facebook; and certainly not a Newspapers encouragement of a Poppy hijab. Instead it is about the smaller, more personal ceremonies at village memorials, regimental parade grounds and churches up and down the country. I think of the village on Skye where my Grandfather grew up. There are five houses and a pub. There are eight names on the war memorial. And five more from World War 2. You will not see any hostility there to anyone there. Just bow your head and reflect why we have the freedom to speak freely to our rulers and how dearly it has been bought.

Last year saw my Unit's wreath laid at Westminster Abby. The year before that, I was on an Army base. The year before that, with my Brother in Yorkshire. So my experience of Remembrance is likely to be very different to Abi's, who I suspect is not moved as I am by the sacrifices of our Soldiers, nor as proud of what they have achieved.

Wear a Poppy. Don't wear a poppy. Wear a  white poppy if you think such private pride and grief is really something you feel needs challenging. Thousands of men died in Normandy 70 years ago in part for your right to do so. Abi's journalistic mistake is to imagine her experience of Remembrance, filtered through a miasma of political beliefs, and distorted by selection bias and availability heuristic, and imagine it to be universal. I would invite her to Remembrance ceremony with me next year to see for herself.



Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Obesity and the Daily Mail

The Daily Mail's editor may or may not have been exhorted to "give them something to hate every day" by its proprietor, Lord Northcliffe, but today, the subject of the hate is fat people. Apparently 12,000 people are on disability benefit because of "metabolic disease", which the daily mail has taken as a proxy for "too fat to work" despite the fact not all the cases of diabetes will be due to blubber.

In a population of 70,000,000, 12,000 people is less than 0.02%. This really isn't very many, and some of whom will be ill without being fat. Obesity costs the NHS £9bn a year? I doubt that too. I suspect the Mail has just asked what heart disease, Diabetes and so forth costs the NHS and assumed that's all Obesity. In any case, in an NHS budget of £115bn, this too isn't that big a number. But the fat, like smokers die younger, costing the country less in pensions and die quicker, meaning they cost less the NHS less than a healthy person in their final years.

Having lied with statistics and asked the readers to blame the deficit and the breakdown of the NHS on salad-dodgers, we are then asked to blame the food industry. A nice, simple daily mail morality tale. Wicked businesses, allied to weak, stupid, gluttunous fat people (defined as 'people fatter than you') are costing YOU money. If only THEY could be made to behave, the problem would go away. Having waded through the article, I suspect most readers have got a very inaccurate impression as to the actual size of the problem of people who're "too fat to work", and the root causes of obesity.

The problem is obesity is not about sugary drinks or high calorie ready meals, or fast food. It's about a vast number of factors, most of which are not yet fully understood. Obesity has a genetic component. Some people have a greater propensity to put down fat than others. It has an environmental component: it's easier to eat healthily if you live in a relatively affluent area. Poor kids are less likely to have access to safe outdoor play. It has a life-style component. Active people don't tend to get fat.

But ultimately the problem is a combination of readily available high calorie food, and jobs that don't burn it off. We all have the appetite of a hunter-gatherer who roams miles in search of food, but we sit behind desks. Our jobs are stressful, which raises cortisol levels. Driving is stressful too. Yet our bodies do not get to make the "fight or flight" for which they are prepared, and instead lay down fat. And as our jobs get ever more sedentary, and ever more labour-saving devices are employed in the home, we will burn ever fewer calories as we move about.

There is a moral component to getting fat. It is possible to look in the mirror and say "I'm getting fat, and I must do something about it". But if you're fat as a 10 year-old, it's really not your fault. All studies show losing weight, and keeping it off is hard-to-impossible without lifestyle changes. Raising your activity levels isn't easy either. Having got fat, 'going for a run' puts an intolerable burden on knees and backs. Thighs will rub together and bleed. The extra activity needed to burn off the blubber is simply agony for the obese. 'Take daily exercise' isn't that simple.

It seems that at some point in development, your body decides how much fat it wants to carry, and this happens quite young. Most people get steadily fatter as they get older, and research suggests a bit of middle-aged spread isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's certainly better than being underweight. What matters far more than Body Mass Index is how active you are. People who take regular, moderate exercise are much, much healthier than those who don't, even if they carry a few extra pounds.

This is why active transport - cycling and walking is so important. It will allow an increase in activity, without requiring the willpower to "go for a run". A bicycle is a labour saving device, relative to walking, and in any sensible society, should be the first choice of transport for journeys under a couple of miles. But as Daily Mail readers are viciously opposed to bicycles, as the transport of people they don't understand, the one thing that might reduce obesity will not be supported.

So the Daily Mail plays its vicious little morality play, feeding idiots' righteous indignation by lying with statistics, in order to fuel animus against THEM. All the while, being a significant part of the problem itself. The Daily Mail is a hateful little rag, which leaves its readers a little less informed, every single day.



Wednesday, 29 October 2014

What Free Parking Tells Us About UKIP

In UKIP's "policies for people", I find two mentions of Free Parking. The first under "The National Health Service",

"...UKIP will commit to spending £200m of the £2bn saving to end hospital car parking charges in England
The "saving" they're talking about comes from not treating migrants, so the free parking at the hospital is paid for by dead foreigners. It's a fantasy this money exists, that charging migrants would raise anything like £2bn, and in order to do so, you'd have to set up a payment collection bureaucracy, which cannot be had for £2bn. Do you really think the NHS, whose hospitals are often near town centres should be in the business of providing free parking? Now, there's a case for providing free parking to some patients, but clearly not visitors, who'll also "pop to the shops" after seeing granny. And this is why free parking doesn't work. It's abused.

The second is under "Employment and small business" where
"UKIP will Encourage councils to provide more free parking for the high street
There is no doubt this is popular. It's a common complaint that parking charges discourage people from visiting the high street in favour of out-of-town stores because of the availability of parking. Parking fines make people angry. Some people feel  It's all part of a "war on the motorist". Free parking is a simple policy, easily sold. And massively, demonstrably counter productive. If you allow free parking, it will accelerate the decline of the High Street as a shopping venue.

UKIP is entitled to its own opinion, but not it's own facts. And this policy, like so may others is based on beliefs that are to put it simply, false. Most business owners on any given street over-estimate the percentage of people arriving by car, often significantly. Retailers think car drivers are richer, and therefore more valuable as customers. They aren't.  Business owners think people drive, park in front of their shop, get back in their car and leave. They don't. People tend to park, mooch about, visit a number of shops, have a coffee, before heading home. Retail is a leisure activity on the high street. Retail in an out of town store is much more focussed. because who wants to go to the wind-swept car-park outside PC world and DFS unless you want a laptop or a sofa? Out of town retail is not a substitute for high-street shopping.

The key to making parking a part of a successful high street is turnover. A high street might contain parking for twenty or thirty cars. If those cars are there all day, the thousands who will be needed to keep those shops open will, if they are coming by car, find somewhere else to leave it, and in circulating to find a spot, will cause congestion. Parking charges are about valuing that scarce space, so that people come, for thirty minutes, or an hour or two, do their shopping and leave, freeing space for someone else to do the same. (This is also the logic behind encouraging cycling - twelve bicycles can be parked in the space occupied by one car) The first 30 minutes of most parking is nominal. The second hour might cost a lot more than the first. That is certainly the case with the town centre car-park where I live. And there is a vibrant high street here.

The key is to see what people do. If it is routinely "impossible to find a space" then the parking charges are too low or more parking needs to be provided (but who pays for this...?). If you can find a space easily, then they are too high and can be reduced. The other consideration for retailers is the leisure component of high-street shopping. The reason pedestrianisation works is because it encourages people to come to an area to spend time and money. Cars make an area hostile to people and leisure. Remove the cars, foot traffic increases, and business benefit. Of course people need to park, but most towns have multi-story car parks, which are out of sight. On-street parking impedes the flow of people. Remove the on-street parking (usually insignificant in towns with multi-story options) and it makes the area more attractive.

Why do people think free, on-street parking is so much more important than it actually is? The answer is the availability heuristic. Cars dominate our urban space. Most town centre streets are lined with them. Other people's car journeys are more noticeable to us through noise, and time spent crossing roads (externalities) than are journeys by foot or bicycle. Everyone can recall the feelings of frustration in circulating to find a space. We do not recall the visits to the multi-story car park, where space is near limitless (how often have you parked on a roof?). Thus the importance of on-street shop-front parking is over-estimated, next to the paid, limitless off-street option. Count the cars parked down one high street. Twenty? Thirty? Then go to the multi-story behind the shops and look at the spare capacity. On-street parking isn't necessary or even desirable for a vibrant high street, especially when it's free.

The answer to high-streets is to provide the right amount of parking, in the right place, at the right price. This does not always mean less, or more expensive parking, but it does require thought about what has been tried, and what has worked elsewhere. Suggesting parking charges are part of a conspiracy to deny the people the use of their car is either dishonest, or stupid. And this is exactly what UKIP are doing. Their simplistic policies are clearly by people who have no interest in public policy beyond their own unexamined prejudices. 'Free parking' is a soundbite, designed to buy a vote from someone who's never thought about the issue in detail, spoken by someone who isn't interested in public policy and lacks the wit to find out. It might just be 'Free parking', but it demonstrates exactly why UKIP shouldn't ever be allowed to get control of anything.



Monday, 27 October 2014

On Charlie Elphicke's plan to ban the Trolls.

I write as a pseudanonymous blogger. My nom-de-plume is an old nickname from growing up. It's useful mainly because It means I can keep my political writing and activism separate from my professional life. But if you really, really want to find out who 'Jackart' is, it should take you about 2 clicks. This filtered permeability is deliberate. A Google search will either throw up my professional life, OR the blog, but not usually both.

A am not in any meaningful way, anonymous. But I understand why people might be. The Military 'Service test', company social media policies and so forth usually expressly forbid the expression of political opinion online. The exception seems to be the public sector hard-left who revel in their employers' support for their hard-left activism and desire to 'expose' those who 'have vile views' (ie disagree). Letters to employers can often follow some pretty mild expression of what is  often basically 'Economics 101'.

The real bullies are all too often those defending the status quo from those who think differently, and 'Troll' has come to mean 'anyone disagreeing with a lefty on the internet'. Real Trolls are just people whose hobby is winding up the self-important and humourless. The endless tweets of "your a dick" (the grammatical error is part of the gag) to Richard Dawkins is an example. The aim is to get a rise. And to this end, the perma-outraged Caroline Criado-Perez, the womyn behind the campaign to get a woman womyn on the £10 note, is great value. She will always bite. So she's targeted by Trolls. Some of whom are hilarious, some of whom aren't.

Trolling is not the same as 'flaming'. Flaming is the straight exchange of insults. This too can be cathartic and when indulged in between people who aren't offended, can be enjoyable. A good insult can be poetry. Use of robust Anglo-Saxon shouldn't be illegal.

We're also moving into the territory where giving offence is becoming illegal, encouraging a competitive victimhood race to get your identity/religion/political beliefs  legally protected. This is profoundly undemocratic, with a chilling effect on free expression. If you don't like something, block, ignore and move on (on which more later). Free speech must come with the freedom to offend, or it isn't worth anything, and political debate becomes a circle-jerk around the status quo. To the extent that it already is, partially explains the rise of anti-establishment parties. Offensive comment isn't "trolling", and shouldn't be illegal, however angry you may be about your shibboleth being held up for challenge or ridicule.

Nor is the stalking, harassment and abuse meted out to some people "trolling". I'd quite happily wind up Miss Criado-Perez, because I think she's an insufferable, po-faced, hypocritical misandrist who's more or less wrong on everything. But just as you're allowed to ask "name me something a woman has invented" to a feminist in a pub in order to piss her off, you're not allowed to say "I'm going to rape you, you fucking bitch" in a pub, on Twitter or indeed anywhere else. There's a line. That line is threats, harassment and incitement. The line exists in law, and no further law is needed. You can say what you like up to that line. But if the target of your abuse leaves the pub (blocks you on Twitter), and you follow them home (set up multiple sock-puppet accounts), you're moving from legal free speech, into harassment. Prolonged harassment is already illegal, online or in meatspace.

Which brings me to this excrescence from the Tory MP, Charlie Elphicke.

Hate-tweeting trolls make people’s lives hell. They’ve got out of hand on social media and we need to crack down on it
Great, enforce the laws that already exist.
we cannot just be tough on hate-tweeting, we must be tough on the causes of hate-tweeting, too. We should target the anonymity hate-tweeters use to harass people online. At the moment it’s just too easy to set up a bogus account and viciously stab at people from behind the curtain.
Does he mean "people" or "politicians"? So much good is done by people who tweet, blog and write anonymously, maybe because their views are controversial, or because "procedures" forbid those who know, from telling the truth. Remember night jack? I would fisk the whole thing, but as it doesn't address the issue that sprang instantly to mind with his first sentence, there's no point. Elphicke is talking out of his arse.

Anonymity is a vital component of free speech, because it allows uncomfortable truths be told to those, like Elphicke, who exercise power. And if you really need to find who someone making actionable threats is, it's easy enough to find out. Even the careful Old Holborn was 'exposed' eventually, after trolling the whole of Liverpool. But as he'd said nothing illegal, he's able to wear his title of 'Britain's vilest troll' with pride.

Peter Nunn, on the other had crossed the line. Threatening to rape someone, the MP, Stella Creasy on twitter is not 'Trolling' and is (rightly) already illegal. He was gaoled for 18 weeks under current legislation. Perhaps Ms Creasy is right. Perhaps we do need to take such threats more seriously. But it's clear from this case we don't need another law to do so.

The tone of debate on twitter is not the same as that in the house of commons. It's more like how a rowdy pub would be were it to hold a political debate. People are engaged through the medium of twitter. It's potentially a superb means for politicians to reach out to the people and bridge the divide. Some, like Michael Fabricant or indeed Stella Creasy get it. Others like Elphicke clearly don't. But trying to turn Twitter into the Oxford Union isn't going to work. All it will do is encourage another online network, which isn't regulated by the nanny state, to be set up where people can flame each other at will. Most of us enjoy the rough and tumble of debate, and sometimes minds are changed.

Perhaps someone should point out that calling Charlie Elphicke a stupid, ignorant know-nothing with a face like a baby's arse and brains consisting of what comes out of one, isn't "trolling". It's fair comment. I'm a card-carrying Tory, so nor it this a partisan attack. Indeed I'm ashamed to share a party with someone so wildly illiberal and ignorant of what he speaks. How DARE he write something so ill-informed and stupid?

This fear of "trolling" is nothing more than a particularly egregious moral panic. A good insult can be poetry. There is no right to live unoffended. We don't want to ban anonymous comment because we're a democracy. We have already banned abuse, threats and incitement because we're civilised. 



Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Cameron's European Immigration Gamble.

When Jean Claude Juncker was "elected" EU Commission president, he indicated he'd be happy to work with Cameron to renegotiate some powers. The one 'Red Line' he would not give is the free movement of people, enshrined in the Treaty of Rome.

There's an unpleasant xenophobia in British politics at the moment, where immigration is seen as a terrible thing, the worst thing, rather than an answer to the question "who's going to pay for your pension?". Most people, the left hand tail of the bell curve, who are considering voting UKIP are horrified by stories in the papers of schools where 75% of children speak a different language. Not knowing what the "availability heuristic" is, UKIPpers then go on to consider this near-universal. Over half of children in inner london schools are by some measure children of immigrants. Is that because that's the level of immigration, or because British people tend not to try to bring up infants in central London?

There is no doubt the foreign born population of the UK has expanded rapidly to around 12%. By far the biggest inflow is a half a million Poles who arrived between 2001 and 2011. Immigration from the Indian subcontinent continues at a steady trickle, tens of thousands a year. There's remarkably little evidence that wages have been driven down by this movement of people, though the claim is often made, evidence has come from individual industries, but certainly doesn't represent a widespread picture. If you believed the rhetoric, the 147,000 who came from Pakistan represented the majority. But the numbers are dwarfed by the Poles, whom no-one can accuse of scrounging, and who're often spoken of in a positive light, before a tirade against "the muslims".

Low skilled work is losing its value, and so low skilled workers are facing stagnating wages world wide, not just in the UK. It's just comforting to those who are suffering the effects of globalisation and automation to blame the polish blokes on the building site, rather than impersonal economic forces and the relentless march of technology. Throwing up barriers to the Poles coming here won't help Poland get richer, or improve the standard of living of British-born workers. It's an act of spite, that demeans this country, and should be resisted.

Cameron for his part has staked a "solution" to European migration as part of his negotiating strategy. I cannot see how this could possibly benefit him, except in the narrow, tactical sense in so far as it gives some answer which the army of Conservative activists can give to on the doorstep, while to the voters of Rochester and Strood consider whether or not to vote for Mark Reckless. The free movement of people is so fundamental to the EU project that it cannot be offered as a bribe to keep the UK in. So Cameron is going to face a humiliating climbdown at some point. Being cynical, He probably expects to do this some time in 2015, after the election. Will it be enough?

UKIP cannot be appeased. They are a protest. They are angry, and giving them the policies they "want" won't win them over. They will simply find something else to be angry about. Though it's not said openly, anti-muslim sentiment is being mixed with anti-immigration rhetoric, to overcome the relatively positive image of the largest new immigrant communities, the poles have in the minds of much of the electorate. The people who're considering voting UKIP don't by and large, hate the poles. But they are becoming much more open in their dislike of Muslims. And UKIP is not afraid to allow the misconceptions, the disinformation and the outright lies to continue. Sometimes they get caught saying something outright racist. Most of the time UKIP keep the right side of outright bigotry, and let the xenophobic mood music do the work. This is "dog-whistle" politics.

It's not policies UKIPpers want, it's leadership they're craving from Politicians. And on immigration at least, Cameron has failed the test. Having already made one promise, to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands, which he couldn't deliver, is now doubling down. The political class, insofar as such a thing exists, has failed the test by failing to lay out why free movement of people, within the EU and from elsewhere will benefit everybody. The logic behind free trade - division of labour, comparative advantage and so forth is as true for where people live as it is for what we buy. In failing to point out where the electorate is wrong, as they are on immigration, politicians are failing in a duty to the people in a representative democracy.

Cameron's gamble may pay off. But he either knows it cannot be delivered, in which case he's lying, or thinks it can, in which case he's putting political advantage ahead of the good of the country. Neither paints the Prime minister in a good light.



Thursday, 18 September 2014

A Caledonian Prediction

The eve-of-voting polls are remarkably consistent pointing to 48-52, with 5-10% undecided, in favour of no, so this is going to be the baseline of my prediction prediction. But the pollsters are not at all confident of their weighting methodology.


  • 'Don't knows' typically break for the status quo in such referendums. 
  • There are an unusually large number of people refusing to talk to pollsters. If these break one way or the other, this can make a mockery of polling.
  • One side is much noisier and more enthused than the other and there has been intimidation. This can lead to an under-reporting of one side
  • There are a lot of people who're voting for the first time and for whom no previous elections can be used to compare.
So, as a keen amateur psephologist, I thought I'd have a go at a prediction taking into account the factors above.
  1. Baseline 48-52 for 'No'.
  2. Don't knows at 5% breaking 2-1 for 'No' gives 47 1/4% to 52 3/4% for no.
  3. It's simply impossible to know how the Silent voters will vote, but in my experience as a teller, they tend to be older, male, and well educated. Older lean 'no', male leans 'yes' and education is a weak predictor of 'no'.
  4. I suspect 'No' voters are less likely to take part in online surveys, and be keener to avoid letting on they vote no, for fear of Nationalist flash mobs. I suspect there is a shy 'no' vote nudging it a couple of percent, or possibly more.
  5. First time voters, and newly registered voters are likely to be under weighted in pollsters methodology, especially if the turnout is very high. It may be this is sufficient to outweigh the 'shy nos'.
Given the above my SWAG (scientific wild-arsed guess) is No 53% Yes 47%. I'd be more surprised by a 'Yes' than I would by a bigger 'No' win. I think most Scots, even some who voted 'Yes' will be relieved by a 'No' vote.




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