Tuesday, 22 April 2014

UKIP. Prejudiced? Yes. Illiberal? Certainly. Racist? No. Should you vote for them? Absolutely not.

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UKIP launched some posters. As cynical political campaigning goes they are premier league. Indeed, they have achieved exactly what UKIP wanted - best captured by Dan Hodges, top grumpy, lefty cynic:

It would be wrong to call Ukip’s brand of racism subliminal. There’s nothing subliminal about giant billboards claiming 26 million “Europeans” are about to arrive on our shores in the hope of stealing the jobs of every honest, hard-working Brit.

Now I'm pretty sure there's a fair smattering of racists supporting UKIP. But then I met a couple of ex-BNP Labour supporters recently. They were pretty racist.

The reality here is that, just as has always been the case with effective political communications, there is no room for nuance or subtlety. We 'say it like it is' meaning that we strip out any qualification, remove any caveats and say that there are 26 million unemployed Europeans and they could come and get your job.

This is rubbish, has no evidence to support it, is prejudiced and reveals again that (like all our political parties these days) UKIP see illiberalism as the way to get votes. The posters are only 'racist' if you believe that wanting to reduce levels of immigration is 'racist'. I simply don't accept that argument and Hodges' secondary argument that we'd think it was racist is the posters said Asian or African is equally daft - the posters are for an election to the European Parliament so focusing on things that are, in part, a consequence of EU membership seems reasonable (even when what is said is utter twaddle).

UKIP is a prejudiced party - making sweeping judgement and generalisation about EU residents coming to work in the UK. I think they're wrong but I don't think their policy is racist.

UKIP is an illiberal party - for all the tabloid libertarianism of Farage's rhetoric, UKIP's immigration policy, response to same sex marriage and economic policies are deeply illiberal. But they are not racist.

I detest the EU. It is anti-democratic, controlling, interfering, unaccountable, lying and unjust. I will vote to leave with enthusiasm when I get the chance to do so. And I will argue the case against from an absolute belief in free trade, free speech and free enterprise. So I won't tack along with UKIP's prejudiced illiberalism. Indeed, if we want that referendum, that chance to leave, then the very last thing we should do is vote UKIP.

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Monday, 21 April 2014

Note on the causes of health inequality...

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This is from the ONS statistical bulletin entitled "Life Expectancy at Birth and at Age 65 by Local Areas in the United Kingdom, 2006-08 to 2010-12". It talks about possible reasons for health inequality - including this one:

One factor that has received less attention is the selective migration of healthy individuals from poorer health areas into better health areas or vice-versa. This type of migration has been shown to play a significant role in increasing or decreasing location-specific illness and mortality rates, which then consequently impact on life expectancy figures. Norman, Boyle and Rees (2005) demonstrated that the largest absolute flow within England and Wales between 1971 and 1991 was of relatively healthy people moving from more deprived into less deprived areas. The impact of this migration was to raise ill-health and mortality rates where these people originated from and lower them in the destination areas. The authors also noted that the benefit to less deprived areas was reinforced by a significant group of people in poor health who moved from less to more deprived locations.

Migration explains a lot of the variation it seems. So area-based approaches to reducing 'health inequality' may be addressing entirely the wrong target problem.

H/T Tim W

The good of community and the bad of government - in one paragraph

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From a blog post entitled  "How Africa Works":

This is Ronald Ngala Street Nairobi, it 6.00 in the evening, multitudes on their way home, buses honking their way through the city. The hawkers in coordinated chirrups as they sell their wares, from; vests to Chinese watches, handkerchiefs to exotic Kiwi fruits, they trade their ways. All of a sudden hell breaks loose, the hawkers dis-assemble their small table top shops within seconds and run, run they must from the dreaded City council police. Some hawkers with their tiny toddlers, some pregnant they disappear among the multitudes, they will be back. Much, much later in the night they will sit together, each will contribute to the benevolent fund and each will contribute their savings and credit scheme, one of them will walk with five thousand shillings today.

Community and freedom works, government tries to stop it working. Sadly 'twas ever and everywhere thus.

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Sunday, 20 April 2014

Food poverty is a failure of government. Capitalism is the solution.

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I'm a capitalist. A proud capitalist. I believe that, without capitalism, we'd be poorer, less healthy, shorter lived and less happy. The evidence of the past two hundred years tells me this is so.

The thing about capitalism, about those free markets, that neoliberalism is that it celebrates everything that is good about people. I know you've been told by your teachers and by the man on the telly that capitalism is all about greed and rapacious exploitation. But they are wrong - capitalism is about exchange, cooperation, creativity and, above all, foregoing something now in the anticipation of more tomorrow.

I am always curious when people seek affirmation of their mistaken belief about capitalism in what they term 'market failure'. By this, they don't mean that the market actually stopped working (markets just don't do this) but that the market didn't deliver the outcome they desire. So it is with food banks. We are told that these little local institutions are a consequence of capitalism's failure because it has failed to put food on the table of some families.

Except this isn't the case at all is it. Food banks are a consequence of the failure of government not the failure of capitalism or the market. Look at those figures from the Trussell Trust - over half of those arriving for support are doing so because the benefits system has failed them in some way. So the market (a generous, charitable market in this case) steps in to provide - for we should be clear about charity, it is a private matter driven by the energy of people who want to help not by the direction of the state.

The second important lesson in this is that people's generosity is made more effective by the success of capitalism. All those people can afford to forgo something in order to help others have dinner - if we'd not had that neoliberalism we would still help but the help would not be enough. Children really would go without rather than getting food.

We have still got poverty - and be clear that poverty is absolute material lack not some abstract measure of inequality. But we are able to respond to that poverty both by urging the government to act and also by doing something ourselves. Even if that something is as little as giving some tins of beans and a bag of pasta to the food bank. However, if we want to eliminate that poverty - not just through relief but forever - we need to support capitalism because that is the best, we could say the only effective, route from poverty to comfort.

In an inverted way the wealthy and powerful can afford to reject capitalism - they're already on top of the pile. For the poor, the market and its freedoms should represent the route out from not knowing where tomorrow's dinner will come from. Sadly, some of those wealthy and powerful protect their wealth and power by telling the poor their state is due to freedom and the market rather than the reverse. Yet every exchange in that free market adds value whether it's a gift freely given, a bartered exchange or a cash transaction. Those who try to stop this liberty are the true creators of poverty, people who have the good things using their power to prevent others using capitalism to getthose good thing.

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Saturday, 19 April 2014

So what is the point of peer review then? Bias and the European Journal of Public Health

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Richard Grant reports that the European Journal of Public Health (EJPH) has become the latest academic publication refusing to publish research that is wholly or partly funded by the tobacco industry. As Richard points out, the publication is, in essence, admitting that the peer review process doesn't work.

By banning research funded by one particular industry the Journal is demonstrating that its review process it is not just the research that is assessed but the author or the funder of the research. And that the Journal is not confident that its reviewers will be able to spot research from tobacco-funded sources in a blind review. The journal doesn't operate a blind review process that would give greater assurance of research quality and reduce risk of reviewer bias.

This indicates that either the tobacco-funded research is mostly sound or else that the carefully selected reviewers for the Journal are not competent (I guess it could indicate both of these things too).  If it is the latter then perhaps the editor and managing editors need to improve the editorial board (it is listed here although the specialisms and institutions of its members aren't clear).

It seems that the Journal, rather than operating a proper peer review system aimed as ensuring quality is instead through an 'open' process effectively institutionalising confirmation bias. As an independent outsider, I find this quite disturbing - the editorial board is effectively positioning itself to refuse any research (however funded) that challenges the board's ideology. I do not need to read every article published in EJPH (or indeed any of them) to know that what is published is selected, partial and probably biased.

In one respect this doesn't matter a jot. The Journal is a private institution published by another private institution. However, because its pronouncements on public health are given weight in the wider world, the fact that we cannot be confident of its objectivity makes it dangerous. And the decision to exclude research on the basis of its funder alone (regardless of the validity or quality of that research) illustrates why I am right to be concerned.

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Friday, 18 April 2014

Sorry Lord Turner but it's planning not technology that's driving up urban land values

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It does make me rather cross when the great and good - doubtless living is a splendid multi-million pound home that benefits from rising urban land values - completely fail to understand that it is planning restrictions that causes the problem. Just that, nothing else.

Here's Adair Turner doing just this:


In many countries, the majority of that wealth – and the lion’s share of the increase – is accounted for by housing and commercial real estate, and most of that wealth resides not in the value of the buildings, but in the value of the urban land on which it sits.

That might seem odd. Though we live in the hi-tech virtual world of the Internet, the value of the most physical thing – land – is rising relentlessly. But there is no contradiction: The price of land is rising because of rapid technological progress. In an age of information and communication technology (ICT), it is inevitable that we value what an ICT-intensive economy cannot create.

This is arrant nonsense. Land is expensive in London because it is scarce and it is especially scarce because we've put all sorts of restrictions on using that land including identifying large tracts of land around the city where you can't build. Another bunch of folk want to make it even worse by stopping tall buildings, banning basements and preventing changing use from commercial to residential.

Planning reforms won't make London's land cheap but it would stop that mad rise in values Lord Turner speaks of. For sure you could 'fix' the problem his way - put up interest rates, make it harder to buy and beyond the means of all but folk like Adair. Except that wouldn't solve the problem because the problem is planning. It really is that simple.

If you want to read a better written, better informed and thoughtful piece on this problem turn aside from Turner's ignorant wibble and read this piece by Kim-Mai Cutler about San Francisco's housing problems. I don't entirely agree with Kin-Mai's assessment but at, unlike Lord Turner, she appears to know what she's talking about.

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In many countries, the majority of that wealth – and the lion’s share of the increase – is accounted for by housing and commercial real estate, and most of that wealth resides not in the value of the buildings, but in the value of the urban land on which it sits.
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphThat might seem odd. Though we live in the hi-tech virtual world of the Internet, the value of the most physical thing – land – is rising relentlessly. But there is no contradiction: The price of land is rising because of rapid technological progress. In an age of information and communication technology (ICT), it is inevitable that we value what an ICT-intensive economy cannot create.

Read more at http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/adair-turner-explains-how-a-fresh-wave-of-automation-is-transforming-employment-and-much-else#krA8CFrE7IHDSafr.99

On the marketing of politics...

In the 1950s, with the expansion of television into every household, mass marketing was born. Clever blokes at companies making what became known as fmcg (fast moving consumer goods) found that they could pull customers into demanding brands using TV to advertise bold, brash and colourful brands.

Before this time marketing was as much directed to the shopkeeper as to the consumer. What marketers did was get the shop to display the brand and, in many cases, provide a financial incentive for the store to push the brand to shoppers. If you want to understand how this works, look at how pharmaceuticals marketing works today - the company can't use direct-to-consumer brand marketing and relies instead on direct sales efforts targeted at doctors.

Brand marketing helped transform our society (for the better I would argue), contributed to better quality, greater choice and lower relative prices. And along the way, it also provided a load of pleasure - we reminisce as much about the ads of the '60s and '70s as we do about the TV programmes those ads were wrapped around. Promotion was broad, sweeping and general rather than precise and targeted - ads reached out to broad chunks of the population: "C1C2 women in the Granada TV area". The once dominant sales people became mere order takers as the heroes of fmcg became marketers.

Looking in awe and wonder at this brand marketing was the world of British politics. It's not stretching the metaphor to say that, until 1979, British politics was stuck with that pre-war model because the law wouldn't let political parties advertise on TV. Politics worked at the local level where professional agents organised local parties to push the party message - that familiar method of canvassing to identify support and 'get-out-the-vote' to make sure that support materialises. In 1979, two young ad men (and brothers) changed how we campaigned with one poster.

Today this approach - a big, bold brand message poured repeatedly into promotional channels - dominates our political campaigning. That old 'sales-led' approach has atrophied - we still canvass, we still ask people for voting intentions and we still knock up on the day but these activities are marginal to the outcome of a general election. And it is the general election that matters - it is to politics what Christmas is to turkey breeders and Easter is to chocolatiers.

So political parties have turned to the marketing men for inspiration - to get the message honed to perfection, to get that message constant and consistent in every promotional channel. The party machine has been replaced by a team of experts pulled together so as to direct those channels. The leadership doesn't put its effort into policies and ideas that would improve the nation but into enforcing the message.

Politics is beefing up its brand management just as brand marketing begins to falter, as marketers respond to the challenges of a fragmented media market, to aggregation and choice-making systems. We are watching political parties applying the ideas of a past marketing age - relying solely on the power of their brand to achieve success. And it will work (for one or other of the parties) since the heuristic of those big party brands (we often call it 'tribalism' but it's essentially the same as always buying Persil) means that most people will vote for one or the other. Plus, of course, Britain's electoral system makes it hard for new parties - there hasn't been a successful, sustained new party since the Labour Party overtook the Liberals in the 1920s.

The problem (and people from all sides and none in politics have noted this) is that the fastest growing 'brand' in the market isn't a political party but what we might call 'anti-politics'. We watch as brand marketing is used to promote what are essentially hollow shells - things painted to look like large, thoughtful and ideological political organisations but in reality contain little but but ambition.

This isn't to say that there aren't thoughtful, creative and ideological people in politics or to suggest that there isn't a critical and fundamental difference between the politics of 'centre-right' and 'centre-left'. Rather it's to point out that the marketing of politics remains a child of 1950s mass marketing, something done to the public not with the public. And, as Douglas Carswell quite bluntly points out, 'anti-politics' is here to stay:

It's just a phase, many MPs think. Voters are angry over expenses or Iraq or more expenses. But the mood, they presume, will pass.

No, my friends, colleagues and opponents. This anti-politics thingy is not just a phase. It will not abate. We are witnessing a permanent change in the relationship between the governed and the governing.

The big brand politics will carry on for a while - our electoral system guarantees that - but at what moment do we start to worry? When turn out in a general election falls below 50% maybe? In 2010 that already happened in Glasgow NE, Leeds Central and Manchester Central - plus there are another 120 constituencies with turnout below 60%. And none of this accounts for the estimated 20% of the population that don't even bother registering to vote in the first place. Or do we wait until other parties and independents soak up a third or more of the vote in return for a handful of seats? In 2010 in England the two big parties got less than 68% of the vote and all but 57 of the 616 seats.

When I learnt about marketing all those years ago, they told about the 4Ps - promotion, price, place and product. Our political marketers - fresh from running campaigns in Australia or America - seem to have lost sight of these fundamentals and especially any attention to the politcal product. Marketing has become mere promotion leaving behind an etiolated, weak political product. Sound and fury has replaced the idea that politics is a shared enterprise between politicians and the people they represent.

For now nothing will change except that a few more disillusioned folk will turn away from politics. But something will give in the end. With luck what will emerge from that change will be a more conversational politics, one not shaped by the demands of a big brand and its message but by a desire to create the best possible political product.

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