Friday, 20 January 2017

The problem with English intellectuals? They don't like the English

England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during “God Save the King” than of stealing from a poor box.
Nothing much has changed since George Orwell made this observation in his essay "The Lion and the Unicorn" over seventy years ago. What Orwell observed was a distaste, verging on the pathological, for everything that characterises English culture. French food, Italian art, German philosophy, Scottish courage, Irish wit, Spanish football even Russian gloom - these are the good things. There is nothing English that can be shown as fine or noble - the English are uniquely vile.

The usual approach here is to take something the puts the English in a bad light - football hooliganism, vertical drinking and the pub crawl, kiss-me-quick hats and seaside slot machines - and make out that this is not only typical but problematic. This is followed by references to empire, colonialism and racism as if England didn't exist before the 19th century. The English are lost man-children who will only be saved by the nobility of what Deirdre McCloskey calls the clerisy:
The referendum vote does not deserve to be respected because, as an outgrowth of English narcissism, it is itself disrespectful of others, of our allies, partners, neighbours, friends, and, in many cases, even relatives. Like resentful ruffians uprooting the new trees in the park and trashing the new play area, 17 million English, the lager louts of Europe, voted for Brexit in an act of geopolitical vandalism.
So speaks one of those self-loathing English academics, Professor Nicholas Boyle. Leaving aside the accuracy of his numbers (and the manner in which he dismisses Wales as an English "appendage"), the entire tone here is that, somehow, the English are not fitted for polite society:
Hag-ridden by their unassimilated imperial past, by their failure of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, the English refuse to think of themselves as a nation in the same sense as Scotland or Ireland and have constructed a constitution for their United Kingdom which denies the obvious.
The pretention of this statement - comparing the German experience (a Prussian identity slapped on top of urbane, civilised small states then saved by Prussia being occupied by the Russians for 45 years) to England's is a delight but contains as much truth as would a comparison between England and that other great empire, China. It is what lies underneath Boyle's anti-English narrative that matters - only by having a polity, a government, a parliament can a place secure an identity. Englishness is a problem because it is expressed as a cultural rather than a political phenomenon.

And, as Orwell observed, intellectuals like Boyle hate English culture. They hate the beer, the food, the banter, the good and bad behaviour, the loudness and the humour. For all that such people dismiss us as Little Englanders - that classic term of sneering, intellectual crypto-racism - they want to make England small.
"...the reality that a nation with three-quarters of one per cent of the world’s population cannot claim significant, let alone exceptional, global status, and cannot survive on its own."
Given Boyle's anger at England and the English derived from how we impacted the world through empire, it's bizarre to then say that somehow England is small and insignificant. And pig-ignorant to suggest that a nation culturally-attuned to looking to the whole world as its market will ever be 'on its own'.

The problem for Boyle and his sort is that they see the English as dull, stupid and incapable - they have given up on us. I disagree and see this sneering and dismissive arrogance as little different from the sort of analysis that sees the Scots as tight, the Jews greedy, the French rude and the Germans boring. England is a great place filled with brilliant people and maybe Boyle should start there rather than with hating the English?
England is huge. It's not just the fifty million people. Nor is it the wealth and power of our industry and commerce. It isn't the guns, bombs, ships and tanks of the World's best armed forces. It's not even the best universities and finest schools on the planet. Or the traditions of art, theatre, music and song. England is huge because of what its ordinary men and women will do tomorrow - innovative, creative, inspiring, adventurous, challenging and spirited. Anyone who calls England 'little' has given up on those men and women - the old ones long gone in Kipling's charm, the ones here now doing great things in a small way, and the ones still to come who will take England's greatness even further.

To say that my country is small, to use that sneering put down 'Little Englander', is to deny our history. It shows a disrespect of those people - ordinary men and women - who built the finest place on earth for us to enjoy. Worse, it insults the English and the idea of England - an idea that is made by the people who call this place home.


Monday, 16 January 2017

The art of the possible - taking a pragmatic approach to trade and Brexit

“Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best”

It's fair to say that Bismark was - as were many other 19th century politicians - pretty much a cynic. Or a pragmatist as a spin doctor might put it nowadays. Grand old Otto wasn't alone in this, Lord Palmerston, Benjamin Disraeli, Lord Salisbury all fit the same pattern. And set against them were a bunch of folk who has a vision of that shining city on the hill, a glorious future, an untroubled world - Chartists, socialists, liberals all approached politics as if man was perfectible and the ideological schematic they adhered to need only be implemented for us to reach Utopia.

The bad news is that mankind is not perfectible (something that the god-fearing have always know), human nature is not innately good, and what looks like the solution to life the universe and everything probably isn't.

So that's the end of it? We can dismiss ideology as simply the domain of Toryboys, Marxists and Libertarians can we? Get a solid broad-bottomed coalition of people who stress the practical, who are focused on action rather than thinking? Perhaps not for, in doing this, we abolish strategy in favour of a cavalcade of beautifully spun tactics - "what matters is what works", Tony Blair famously said without thinking about or defining what he meant by "works".

It seems to me that there are three possible responses to our vote to leave the European Union:

1. Ignore it and stay in

2. Implement some sort of Utopian dream of UK independence

3. Be pragmatic and practical - apply Bismark's dictum

One and two above are essentially ideological responses. I know that the Remainers want you to believe that they are somehow saving Britain from thick, stupid, xenophobic voters (and thereby saving 'law and democracy' from the 'extreme right'). There is no talking with such people since their position is immutable and absolutist - the referendum was 'advisory', parliament must 'vote', we need a second, presumably advisory, referendum, the law trumps democracy, and leaving is far to complicated. All of this is entirely ideological.

For the Brexit Absolutists there's a different obsession intended to rescue Britain from the arrogant, elitist, out-of-touch, anti-democratic establishment. As with the Remainers, there's no talking with such folk - Britain is full, Brexit means having nothing at all to do with the EU, problems in the NHS, social care and education are down to immigration, and we shouldn't wait but should leave now by repealing the 1972 European Communities Act.

One of the things that both Remainers and Brexit Ultras talk a lot about is trade. In the case of the former, we apparently had no trade at all with anywhere in Europe prior to 1972 and trade is entirely down to the granting of permissions by governments. The Brexit Ultras are divided on this between those who want a smaller, UK-only version of the EU's protectionist model and those who sign up to the 'Go Global' idea and talk a lot about free trade.

Now some people think all this talk of free trade is an ideological obsession bordering on a cult - introduce free trade and, alakazam, all will be well and everyone will be rich. And the logic of economic theory tells us these cultists are right - here's Don Boudreaux:

Put differently, the only economic reason for trade is that each of us produces some goods or services at costs lower than the costs that our trading partners would incur to produce those same goods or services. That is, each of us has a comparative advantage in supplying the goods or services that we sell to others, and a comparative disadvantage in supplying each of the many goods and services that we buy from others.

Any barriers placed by governments in the way of allowing this trade to happen - borders, tariffs, regulations and so forth - make that trade less likely and us all poorer (in purely economic terms). So when Brexit Ultras like John Redwood or Tim Worstall argue for absolute free trade they are doing so on the basis of a robust base of evidence. More open trade does make us all better off so, logic tells us, absolutely free trade is ideal since that would give the greatest chance of all being richer:

Edwards notes that past studies have suggested that countries that are more open to the rest of the world are better able to absorb the rapid technological advances of leading nations. If the costs of technological imitation are lower than the costs of internally developed innovations, then a poorer country will grow faster than a more developed one. This faster rate of growth will continue so long as that country remains open to capturing new ideas until, at some point, an equilibrium is reached and the rate of growth slows.

Edwards uses a new comparative dataset for 93 countries to analyze the relationship between openness and total factor productivity (TFP) growth. He notes that past limitations in appropriate comparative measures of openness have left studies on the relationship between openness and productivity open to question. To bolster his case, he uses nine alternative indexes of trade policy.

Edwards finds that more open countries indeed have experienced faster productivity growth, and that result holds true no matter which openness index he uses. He further finds that his results are not specific to a certain period, but apply generally throughout the decades 1960 to 1990.

One of the ironies the we can take from this fact is that the Brexit Ultras and Remainers are using the exact same argument on trade but coming to different conclusions. The latter tell us the UK will be poorer because we will leave the single market and lose the benefits of more open trade across the EU. And they are probably right. For the former, the EU is protectionist and leaving opens up new markets and new opportunities in fast growing parts of the world. Again they are probably right.

Indeed, it is true to say that the pragmatists - those seeking to find a way of squaring the circle implicit in the ideological positions of Remainers and Brexit Ultras - are supporting solutions that are less (in pure terms) economically advantageous. As ever the answer is that, even if we just use Adam Smith as our economics source book, the argument is not really rooted in classical liberal absolutism but is rather more subtle:

As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value, every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.

We are, Smith says, protectionists by preference so it isn't necessary for us to be made protectionists through fiat. The local preference that opponents of free market liberalism claim to support (and wish to enforce) is right there in the founding text of liberal economics - made possible by the 'invisible hand'. All other things being equal we prefer to deal with the bloke we know rather than the one we don't. Indeed making your business or product seem comfortable and familiar is one of the main purposes of brand advertising!

It seems that the ideologues are wrong. Not wrong in saying that mankind is enriched by trade and the more open the better, but wrong in suggesting that open trade creates a level playing field between Peoria and Penge, Peshawar and Peking.

I voted to leave the EU in the full knowledge that this could have a short-term negative impact on trade and, therefore, on our economic well-being. We would lose access to those currently important, (more-or-less) barrier-free EU markets more quickly than we could replace them with new open relationships elsewhere. This isn't an argument against leaving because we have to set that loss against a different set of economic problems - the train crash of the Euro, the collapse of political stability in Southern Europe, and the continuing slow growth across much of the continent.

It is, however, an argument for interim or transitional arrangements even if those arrangements result in a longer period during which the UK pays money 'to the EU' and in fewer domestic controls over immigration than we would prefer. We should always resist the blandishments of regulatory bodies - national or international - who tell us their purpose is to facilitate trade when this is seldom the case. But this doesn't mean those bodies that promote standardisation, encourage food safety, help control environmental risks and police fair dealing are somehow unwanted, merely that - for all their value in consumer protection - they do not enhance or promote trade.

The process between now and the point when the UK leaves the European Union is about these arrangements, about balancing between maintaining access to the EU and openness elsewhere, and about the UK deciding upon and implementing a trade strategy. It's not and never has been about there being some 'plan', a sort of ideological blueprint for leaving the EU. Such planning's main function is in allowing the testing of different scenarios and in exploring how UK domestic decisions play out internationally:

But this question also has a common sense answer that every trade policy practitioner knows: governments negotiate trade agreements not because they wish to reduce their own trade barriers but because they seek to reduce the trade barriers imposed by their trading partners, and they are willing to "pay" - with market access "concessions" of their own - for the enhanced access to foreign markets that lower foreign barriers would bring.

It is true, as some Brexit Ultras would argue, that governments can simply ignore this process and implement whatever they wish (this is, after all, the entire point of sovereignty as a concept) but the realpolitic of international trade is that the other side expect concessions. If we have nothing to concede then there is no trade negotiation and no trade deal. This was essentially the point made by Phillip Hammond in his interview with Welt am Sonntag - the discussions we will have with the EU are not one-directional meaning that the Union (or its individual member states) cannot dictate the terms and the consequences of demands from one side may not be helpful to a satisfactory conclusion.

In some respects the very loud argument between Remainers and Brexit Ultras (plus the Farageist protectionists) is helpful to the government. Not because it protects them politically but because it provides them with the means of controlling both sides - "look over there", they'll say, "that's what you'll get if you don't play the game our way." The result of this is very clear in the manner of concerns from both Keir Starmer as Labour lead on Brexit and the Brexit Select Committee of Parliament. Questions are asked, doubts are raised but there is a consistent message of "we won't prevent the referendum being implemented". This infers, however, that the 'deal' depends on the process complying with the pragmatic approach and derives philosophically from Bismark's dictum and Salisbury's doubt rather than from a predetermined ideological end-game.


Sunday, 15 January 2017

Putting on the postman's uniform - a return to local leadership

In David Brin's book, The Postman, he describes how a man in a post-disaster USA dons the uniform and, as if by magic, is transformed into that same reliable and trustworthy working-class public servant. In exploring the importance of connections between places, Brin (in common with many other writers exploring a post-disaster world) touches on different forms of organisation. We wander from self-reliant little homes with tough but loving families through suspicious and fearful villages or towns to the most dystopic world of the Big Man and the warlord.

In all the book's places we see what many would see as a crisis of leadership. In some places there is no leadership beyond the family, an entirely independent pseudo-pioneer world - a sort of Farnham's Freehold without the casual racism. In others we see safety and security achieved at the cost of compliance with oppression - Zamyatin's We with tatty leather jackets. Elsewhere we glimpse the entirely lawless where, in a world of scarcity, the utility function drives human decisions to their logical conclusion. Here's Deirdre McCloskey in "The Bourgeois Virtues":
"The economist and historian Alexander Field has based a similar argument on biology. He notes that on meeting a stranger in the desert with bread and water that you want, you do not simply kill him. Why not? Sheer self-interest implies you would, and if you would, he would, too, in anticipation, and the game's afoot. Once you and he have chatted for a while and built up trust, naturally, you will refrain."
Or perhaps not if the utilitarians are right? In their world the task of the leader, or so it seems, is to decide - by whatever means - what is the greatest good for the greatest number and implement that good. Such, for all the deal-making, fancy words, thought leadership and opinionating, is the core purpose of those gatherings of great and good - Davos, Bilderburg, summits, conferences and think tanks. Such things are the manifestation, the logical conclusion of a philosophical tradition running from Plato through Mill and Bentham to A C Grayling: leadership from the wise.

The problem today isn't that we are entering some sort of dystopia but rather that the most essential part of leadership - that someone has to follow - has been lost in our desire to perfect the manner in which leaders lead and the things that they lead on. Here from the Millennium Project:

I haven't got the Davos agenda but, while the words may vary, this 'conscious leaders' agenda' pretty much covers what they'll talk about (other than how to get themselves more power and money of course - that's not on the official leaders' agenda). What we have here is the agenda but the problems for those leaders in Davos is that, especially for the political ones - plus those pompously titled thought leaders - it's the lack of followers that is the agitation. This is the 'populism' that is troubling so many of the great and good - for them it is, indeed, better characterised as 'unpopularism'.

The problem here is that these leaders, for all that they seem secure in their power, are uncertain how long this will remain the case. We were all pretty certain that Donald Trump wouldn't win the US presidential election - and we were wrong. We were less certain but assured by our leaders that the UK wouldn't vote to leave the Euorpean Union - and we were wrong. Elsewhere we've seen the President of France become so unpopular that he withdrew from any prospect of seeking re-election. In Spain and Greece social democratic parties are being replaced by radical parties of the left and the big losers to left and right in Holland, Sweden and Germany aren't conservatives but rather Europe's once dominant centre-left.

And the image above of the world and its problems? That is an image constructed by the centre-left - a reflection of big state, big government models for the future. It's not that the content is wrong but rather that the model assumes that the wise - Philosopher Kings - will provide the leadership and this leadership will be global. These are the people who Harm de Blij says live in a flat world, flitting effortlessly from place to place across the world and inhabiting a community where they genuinely feel like Tom Paine's citizens of the world. The problem is that 99% of the worlds population aren't in this flat world - they're, in de Blij's words, either locals living in the global periphery or mobals trying to get from that periphery to the core where they can have a better life.
"From the vantage point of a high-floor room in the Shanghai Hyatt, the Mumbai Oberoi, or the Dubai Hilton, or from the business-class window seat on Singapore Airlines, the world seems flat indeed. Millions of world-flatteners move every day from hotel lobby to airport limo to first-class lounge, laptop in hand, uploading, outsourcing, offshoring as they travel, adjusting the air conditioning as they go"
Such 'flat earth dwellers' understand the locals and mobals. After all they've listened to a thought leader speak, they've read a precis of the current academic research and they reviewed documents from a UN agency or two plus, for balance, Oxfam or some other NGO. The right noises about poverty, economic development, humanitarianism and growth drop from their lips. But they do not know these locals and mobals. Those people, the ones they see from the limo window, serving them tea in the hotel and marching angrily about how their livelihoods are threatened - they've stopped following these Philosopher Kings. Our 'flat earth dwellers' are no longer leaders but rather a bunch of folk who can see a lot of locals and mobals pushing against the glass of their bubble. And they are scared.

None of this is to say that enlightenment liberalism is wrong or a problem. After all, despite the best efforts of some to suggest otherwise, capitalism has made us richer and is doing the same for those locals and mobals de Blij worries about. Rather it's to suggest that we need to rethink the model of leadership that is revealed at Davos and to recognise that this approach - consultative, knowledge-focused but still globally focused and top down - no longer fits what's needed.

At a board away day recently (from where I pinched that image of the world's agenda) a couple of almost throwaway comments struck me as important. The first of these was that we're moving to a self-service world, quite literally through the power of the smartphone in our pocket. Want to know where something is? Phone. Need a picture? Phone. Want to buy some car insurance? Phone. I forget where I read it but if your business idea doesn't work on a phone, don't bother.

Many of the presumptions about public services, transport, retailing and decision-making no longer apply. It's not that we don't still need leadership but that that leadership needs to be more dispersed, connected and local than what we see today. The economics writer, Tim Worstall taked about Bjorn's Beer Effect:
Instead they have what I call the Bjorn's Beer Effect. You're in a society of 10,000 people. You know the guy who raises the local tax money and allocates that local tax money. You also know where he has a beer on a Friday night. More importantly Bjorn knows that everyone knows he collects and spends the money: and also where he has a beer on a Friday. That money is going to be rather better spent than if it travels off possibly 3,000 miles into some faceless bureaucracy.
In a self-service world we need to look more at local considerations than at the systems needed to deliver services - the phone in your pocket can deliver those services and you can work it out for yourself. But you still want advice, help - dare I say it, leadership - but this should be at your scale: local, responsive and focused. Most of the world's problems - pretty much all of them with the exception of that huge asteroid - don't require a global response but require us, at most, to change our personal behaviour. This needs dispersed local leadership rather than grand gatherings in nice cities.

The second throwaway from my meeting was about how people work - specifically Generation Y and Z but I suspect this applies much more broadly - in a world where access to knowledge (and fake knowledge) approaches being universal. We heard a description of a noisy, confused room of young people discussing the task at hand, phones being consulted, everybody talking, groups forming and unforming - there's leadership here but not in the traditional, dominant, top-down manner that our Philosopher Kings would want. And the leader on one task is different from the leader on another task - all a bit like The Apprentice!

This again reflects the manner in which connectivity - something that mobile technology is bringing to de Blij's locals - now forms the core function in leadership. The leader is no longer in that high castle and, tomorrow, may step aside because a different person has stepped up to lead. All this suggests that the established power structures of representative democracy and bureaucracy serve less of a purpose - if we self-serve we don't need that big bureaucracy and, therefore, its great leader. And if we're connected, involved and engaged we have less need to choose someone else to do the connection, involvement and engaging.

We'll still need the public servant but that person won't be a president, chief executive or civil service mandarin. Rather that servant will be Bjorn having a drink on a Friday with his friends and neighbours or Claire playing Lego with the kids in the local pre-school. Someone who, to return to where we started, has put on the postman's uniform.


Tuesday, 10 January 2017

You can call them what you like but London needs new suburbs

I appreciate that some folk want me to believe - against all the evidence - that the supply of housing for purchase is not connected to high rents and high property values. Thing is that, however hard you try with this, I still don't think that the essential truths of supply and demand are not applicable to the sale and purchase of houses.
Tragedy struck one of those artist residences last week when 36 people died after a fire ripped through the illegally converted Ghost Ship warehouse in Fruitvale during a concert.

The horrific event could lead city officials to go after illegally converted warehouses across Oakland, especially as evidence mounts that building inspectors knew of numerous problems with the Ghost Ship property but didn’t take action.
This is in one of the world's richest cities where illegal conversion, overcrowding and ridiculous rental values contribute to an almost wholly unnecessary housing crisis. Here's Scott Beyer:
The more pertinent point, at least for housing, is whether metros respond to such changes, or just sit on their hands…as the Bay Area has done. Between 2010 and 2015, the metro population grew by 100,000 people per year, but added only 20,000 units per year. Bay Area median home prices have thus predictably skyrocketed since December 2010 from $515,000 to $825,000.
So at any point in the last five or six years there have been at least 100,000 people looking for somewhere to live in and around San Francisco and only 20,000 homes plus the relatively few additional as a result of outward migration. The result is what we saw at Ghost Ship - overcrowding, exploitation and death.

And don't think that the UK's overheating cities - especially London - are any different. I've been reading Ben Reeve-Lewis's blog on Landlord Law for some while and some of his stories about exploitative, dangerous and overcrowded housing in our capital beggar belief. The problem is that, for all the shouting and rhetoric, we've our fingers in our ears on this issue, continuing to pretend that the housing can be put somewhere else - words like 'brownfield' or 'regeneration' are popular here - rather than where people actually need to live so they can get to the jobs our economy is providing.

Some time in the next week or so (right now we're told probably 16 January) the UK government will publish a 'White Paper' on housing. The content of this paper remains a matter of speculation but it has been strongly hinted that the need to build homes will trump the desire to protect open countryside on the fringes of towns and cities. To understand how the reaction from some MPs might run, we can look at the Neighbourhood Planning Bill currently before parliament:
In a Tory split over a planning bill, 15 backbenchers have tabled amendments which seek to protect land around cities and to increase the powers of local people to stop new development.

Conservatives rebelling on the Neighbourhood Planning Bill included Andrew Mitchell MP, who told HuffPostUK “I shall be questioning the Government’s commitment to the greenbelt in forceful terms” in the chamber.

Heavy-weight backbenchers Crispin Blunt, Nick Herbert and Nicholas Soames also opposed the Government’s plans. Soames tweeted on Monday that the “unspeakable behaviour of housebuilders” needed to be “dealt with”.
Now I know that these MPs mean well. They face considerable pressures from well-organised local groups largely opposed to any further development in the semi-rural exurbs they represent. But when the consequence of these actions is the sort of overcrowding that led to those deaths in Oakland, we perhaps need to start asking quite where we want to put our priorities. I've no particular desire to defend housebuilders but I don't consider them unspeakable - someone has to build the homes people need.

OK so you're asking how it is that the housing needs of relatively poor, often immigrant communities in central London can be met by building houses outside Crawley or at Sutton Coldfield? The answer lies in a hidden challenge facing our big cities - a generation of younger people wanting to do what folk do and get married, raise a family. Right now they can't do that - check out the sort of rented accommodation in central London and then ask whether you think is sensible or even possible to raise a family in such places? The result is that people don't get married and don't have families - here's the world's starkest example, the Bay Area of California:

Over 70% of households in San Francisco are childless. The situation in London is nearly as stark - about 64% of Inner London households are child free. As we move into suburbia - Outer London - the pattern changes with 27% of households consisting of couples with children. The problem is that the outer London suburbs are, as the children brought up in these plces soon find out, increasingly unaffordable.

Just as with San Francisco, there is a big difference between the growth in housing demand in London (about 60,000 per year) and the delivery of new housing (currently about 25,000). This would be fine if the housing need was being met elsewhere (i.e. in the South East beyond the Greater London boundary) but it seems not:
The 30 fastest-growing non-London local authority areas in percentage terms are almost all in the South-East (Table 3). Of those, 21 were below the national average in terms of their housing supply measured against household growth, and only five supplied enough homes to keep up with long-term need. These were Uttlesford, Dartford, Ashford, Aylesbury Vale and Slough. Collectively, London plus these next 30 areas expect to experience 38 per cent of England’s household growth over the next 25 years, yet they contributed just 26 per cent of last year’s housing supply.
This is the context for the Nick Soames complaint. He represents one of those places - Mid Sussex - that has, in part, to meet the pressure on housing need generated by the economic success of London and all the yelling about housebuilders won't change this fact. What MPs should be doing is discussing the nature of this new demand and considering how new suburbs can be built to house England's future families. There are lots of possible answers but nearly all of them, for these places in London's exurbia, require the use of land that is currently designated as 'green belt'.

The question for me isn't whether Nick Soames and others can stop all this terrible housebuilding (at a terrible cost to those future families) but whether they're actually doing their jobs. Have they met with the 'unspeakable' housebuilders? Sat down and talked to local planners about the issues and challenges? Discussed different options for meeting local housing need? Or are they just grandstanding in parliament to sweep up a few votes (that given Soames' majority he probably doesn't need)?

Right across England we need a more mature debate about housing development. Not the polemical ASI "scrap the green belt" debate but rather one with local communities about how much extra housing they'd be happy with and where it might go. After all most of those people have families, they know how expensive housing is these days and they want their children and grandchildren to have the joys of home ownership. Instead the dumb voices of the CPRE and assorted BANANA groups are allowed the space to say that all the housing need can somehow be met on brownfield and regeneration sites in the big cities.

What we need isn't new skyscrapers in London (or for that matter in Manchester, Leeds or Birmingham) but new suburbs - you can call them garden cities if that floats your boat - where families can come to live, grow and thrive just as did their parents and grandparents.


Monday, 9 January 2017

Great technology but lousy business - the urban farming revolution that isn't

There's an article in the New Yorker about 'vertical farming' - this is the use of redundant urban spaces to create farms:
No. 212 Rome Street, in Newark, New Jersey, used to be the address of Grammer, Dempsey & Hudson, a steel-supply company. It was like a lumberyard for steel, which it bought in bulk from distant mills and distributed in smaller amounts, mostly to customers within a hundred-mile radius of Newark. It sold off its assets in 2008 and later shut down. In 2015, a new indoor-agriculture company called AeroFarms leased the property. It had the rusting corrugated-steel exterior torn down and a new building erected on the old frame. Then it filled nearly seventy thousand square feet of floor space with what is called a vertical farm. The building’s ceiling allowed for grow tables to be stacked twelve layers tall, to a height of thirty-six feet, in rows eighty feet long. The vertical farm grows kale, bok choi, watercress, arugula, red-leaf lettuce, mizuna, and other baby salad greens.
Pretty interesting stuff especially when you look at the technology involved where the production system uses a tiny proportion of the water typically used to grow those baby salad greens. Indeed this sort of technology holds out considerable opportunity for the further intensification of high added value salad vegetable production - anyone driving through the Fens will see the polytunnels and greenhouses that might form the basis for this technology, especially in a world where water is more expensive, to really make a difference.

The problem is that urban spaces really aren't the best places - even with multistorey production - to do such a business. Here's a clue:
The AeroFarms clamshell package (clear plastic, No. 1 recyclable) appears to be the same size as its competition’s but it holds slightly less—4.5 ounces instead of five. It is priced at the highest end, at $3.99. The company plans to have its greens on the shelves soon at Whole Foods stores and Kings, also in the local area. Greens that come from California ride in trucks for days.
So we've a product that is significantly more expensive that the more traditionally produced product. Even were a tighter ship to be run it is unlikely that AeroFarms will be able to compete with the mass production in California leaving it with a niche market of people who want to buy 'local' production.

This vertical farming requires the acquisition of expensive urban real estate and a significant capital investment just to grow stuff for a niche part of a niche market for salad vegetables. The idea that this sort of production will somehow release current agricultural land for rewilding is pretty much nonsense. The plant in New Jersey featured in the article will have cost some $39 million (including nearly $9 million in government grants) to create a little more than an acre of vertical farmland - right now agricultural land in New Jersey sells for about $10,000 an acre.

The technology here is genuinely exciting but, even in run down urban areas, there is no way that vertical farming on expensive real estate is the solution. And this is before we recognise that businesses like AeroFarms focus on agricultural products with pretty much the highest margins - salad leaves for yuppies - rather than on the sort of production that dominates arable farming in the USA: corn, wheat, potatoes, barley and so forth. Lovely technology but lousy business.


Sunday, 8 January 2017

Capitalism will save the world (if we let it)

We need to understand - and this isn't an argument for any variety of Brexit merely stating what will be - that global economic growth, driven for much of the great boom fuelled by us stopping with the world war rubbish, won't be coming from Europe or the USA.
28 March 2012 was a big day for mankind, according to some statisticians. It was the first day in modern history that developing countries were responsible for more than half of global GDP, up from 38 per cent 10 years earlier. This convergence makes sense. If people have freedom and access to knowledge, technology and capital, there is no reason why they shouldn’t be able to produce as much as people everywhere else. A country with a fifth of the world’s population should produce around a fifth of its wealth.
The success of global capitalism - of those greedy, rapacious business people exploiting stuff - is palpable. Levels of poverty - real grinding poverty, less than a couple of dollars a day - are now lower than at any time in human history. So my fellow capitalists, take a second out to pat yourselves on the back. Because it's not socialism, not the actions of government employees and not the decisions of politicians that has achieved this wonder. We did it, us capitalists. We got those poor people out of poverty. And left to our devices not only will the remaining 10% of really poor people be saved from that poverty but millions of others who are poor by our western standards will also clamber up onto that shining mountain that is our fabulous consumer society.

The jobs for us all is to stop the usual idiots - protectionists, socialists, Marxists, trade unions, aid workers, NGOs - from preventing capitalism from making all the world richer, happier and healthier. Let's do it.


Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Immigration is a success. Integration is a disaster.

Immigration is a success. Britain is a richer place with a stronger economy because of immigration. We have kept the wheels from falling off our health and care system, maintained the provision of cheap fruit and vegetables, slaughtered a lot of chickens and built the world's greatest financial sector on the back of immigration.

Immigrants are more likely to be working, less likely to be claiming benefits, contribute more in tax than they take out and bring a bewildering variety of new experiences to our great nation. Immigration is not the cause of NHS crises, the lack of school places or the shortage of housing - short-term policy-making and a daft planning system are far more to blame for all this. And compared to similarly poor communities, immigrants commit less crime.

So why is immigration such a problem? How did migrants and refugees arriving in the UK cause such an outcry and, in part, contribute to the decision to leave the EU? Are the British incorrigibly racist? Is it the result of the drip drip of nasty bigotry from dubious newspapers? Or is there some other reason such as lousy public policy?

Let's begin with a couple of myths. Firstly, "it was the media that did it".
The referendum was won on a drumbeat of anti-foreigner sentiment. It’s the same tune being played by demagogues in every corner of the globe. It’s the same tune that was played in the 1930s. It’s the same old beat that rises in volume when people are afraid. In the UK, it’s echoed by a rabidly right-wing press and unchallenged by a flaccid establishment media. Mixed by a band of unscrupulous liars and political zealots, it has become a tsunami of bile that has downed and drowned a once great nation.
Now I don't want to get sucked into the vortex of the Brexit debate but the gist here - from LSE economist John Van Reenan - is that the driving force for Britain's 'anti-foreigner sentiment' was that 'rabidly right-wing press'. This is pretty much received wisdom amongst the intelligentsia but is just baldly stated, no evidence is presented to substantiate the argument that the British people - and the English working classes in particular - have been led by their ignorant noses by a corrupt and Fascist press working hand in glove with those 'unscrupulous liars and political zealots'.

This just isn't true. Not that the press is innocent or perfect, it's a long way from that, but that Van Reenan has cause and effect in the wrong order. The Sun, Daily Mail and Express are commercial enterprises - they exist to make money for those who own them. This means they deliver what they think the public wants, they are like the advertisers they depend on for income - mirrors of society not the creators of society's mores or values.

The second myth is that the problem comes from the values of immigrants - most specifically that these are in some way not compatible with nebulous and vague 'British values'. We talk about honesty, decency, respect for the law, family and so forth as if these ideas only exist as values in the UK, that somehow immigrants - Muslims in particular - don't share these essentially fundamental views about behaviour. Now, while I'm happy for core values to be part of what we teach children and young people, I don't see that you can isolate a particular set of values and say they are in some way exclusive to Britain.

To suggest that, for example, Islam doesn't contain these values is to misunderstand that faith entirely. For sure different emphases are evident - more stress on justice than on rights for example - but these are nuances within those values not a different set of values. It's true, however, that these higher order values are a damn sight easier to elevate when we are economically successful and secure. And it is here, at least in part that the problem with immigration starts. Just as there is a tendency (not always without reason) for immigrants to see their status as a factor in their poverty, there's also a feeling among the poor communities where migrants arrive that these new arrivals contribute to the poverty of those already there. The lump of labour idea may be false but it is emotionally appealing.

So if it isn't media manipulation or differences in values and only partly economics, what is the reason for the rise in what Van Reenan calls 'anti-foreigner sentiment'? It seems to me that the problem is one of culture combined with a terrible failure of public policy. In economic terms immigration is brilliant and, for us successful folk with good jobs and good incomes, something of a boon but in cultural terms immigration over the past thirty years has been a disaster. We have left established communities across Britain - and particularly in England - with the feeling that, at best, their culture is something to be sneered at and, at worst, that it's based on bigoted, racist, Little Englander attitudes that have no place in the modern world.

In simple terms the adoption in the 1980s of a policy based on multiculturalism led to a complete failure of integration and sowed the seeds of today's 'anti-foreigner sentiment'. And once the feeling that the great and good considered immigrant cultures to be superior had established, it was a short step to concerns about immigrants taking jobs, stealing our women and generally ruining everything that's good about England. Public policy seemed to say that bangra was more important than brass bands, that Christmas should be turned into 'Season's Greetings', and the last night of the proms was a slightly sleazy exercise in jingoism. Strategies to 'celebrate diversity' featured every kind of imported culture and none of the home grown stuff. Integration failed because public policy deemed it unnecessary.

Nobody is suggesting here that English culture - and specifically English working-class culture - is somehow superior to cultures from elsewhere, merely that it ours and it deserves more prominence as the culture of the people who already live here. We tend to think that "when in Rome" refers to abiding by local laws but, while this is true, it goes a lot further - it's about respecting the mores, values and culture of the people you've come to live amongst. Multiculturalism, for all that it was well-meant, resulted in some immigrant groups feeling that this no longer applied.

None of this is to suggest that racism and xenophobia doesn't exist. Rather it is to say that multiculturalism is a failed policy that has contributed more to our current attitude to immigration than the media, populist politicians or misunderstandings about values. To go back to where we started, in economic terms immigration is a success, The problem is that in cultural terms we've allowed it to be a disaster. And unless we begin to give a greater prominence to indigenous culture and especially the culture of those some sneeringly refer to as 'the left behind', we will continue to face these problems.

Immigration is a success. We are all richer for people coming here and contributing to Britain's economy. We should direct our efforts to integration rather than pretending that closing the borders will solve the problem. Back in June I listened to some people express their concerns about immigration. Except, as I pointed out, their concerns weren't about immigrants but about people who were born here, for whom Bradford is just as much home. This makes it all our problem and not one solved by immigration control. It's multiculturalism that has failed us not immigration.