Saturday, 30 May 2015

Who is 'us'?


Nigel Farage, in that inimitable manner of his, has been on about Muslims. And in doing so dear old Nigel has framed it in these terms:

..there are some Muslims in Britain who comprise ‘a fifth column living in our country who hate us and want to kill us’.

My question in all of this is to ask who Nigel means by 'us'? We sort of know, or think we know - it's clearly not intended to mean Muslims so might mean everyone who isn't a Muslim. The problem is that we struggle to determine who 'us' might be - at least when we get to the point of actually sorting out the sheep from the goats, us from them.

Firstly there's no doubt that there are a bunch of people who hate me for what I am (or choose to be) - some hate my Englishness, others hate my catholicism, and another bunch hate me for being a Tory. Amidst all this hatred there's a few who hate me for rejecting the idea that there is one god whose prophet is Mohammed. A minority of these hate-filled people entertain the idea of violence as a means of projecting their hatred

But that doesn't get any nearer to the vexed question of who Nigel means by 'us'. It's all mixed up in judgements about language, skin colour, religion, gender, sexual preference and political opinion. Which perhaps means that, while Nigel thinks I'm part of 'us', I don't think I am because it would mean accepting his world view by suggesting that my Black, Pakistani and Jewish friends are somehow 'them' - tolerated rather than welcomed in my place.

What we see here is the irony of the left's groupthink - ironic both because the left focuses closely on defining characteristics (and society's attitude to those characteristics) and also since I'm talking about Nigel Farage who isn't 'of the left', at least in conventional terms. If we define people as members of a particular group (or groups) then we allow for the sort of comment that Nigel Farage makes by allowing for the existence of 'us' and 'them'. If, on the other hand, we define people as individuals who have a particular set of characteristics - some innate, some acquired, some a matter of choice or belief - then the idea of 'us' ceases to have relevence other than as a practical pronoun.

The political use of the word 'us' is exploitative of people's desire to belong. Nigel Farage uses it to suggest that Muslims living in Britain are not 'us' because a few of those Muslims hate some non-Muslims and may want to be violent towards those people. And we therefore have to reject all Muslims because we can't on first assessment tell whether this is a Muslim who will chat to us about cricket, laugh at our jokes and discuss business, or a Muslim who is only a switch away from blowing us all up.

But, on this logic, I should reject other groups that might hate me too. How do I know that the person with the Twitter account proclaiming their hatred of Tories isn't planning violence against me - perhaps a terrorist attack on the Conservative Club? I've watched the antics of anti-austerity campaigners and reckon they're pretty violent at times - how is this different from what Nigel Farage is saying about Muslims? Clearly such people aren't 'us'.

We could go on here - citing how some people hate (and therefore might be violent towards) a host of different groups from gays and lesbians through an assortment of races or religions, to the supporters of the wrong football club. There is no 'us' if it is defined by membership of a group not, in one way or another, hated. But the word is convenient and deniable - membership of 'us' is fluid and flexible subject to interpretation and amendment. Confronted by a challenge, I've no doubt that Nigel Farage would absolutely deny that 'us' didn't include Muslims even though the logic of his criticism tells us this must be the case.

I am quite comfortable with 'us' existing - my support for West Ham places me in a group where 'us' is fellow supporters and 'them' is everyone else. And the same goes for a load of other things - from my politics through to my group of close friends or family. But where we make the mistake is in framing political debate in terms of 'us' and 'them' - I'm guessing this isn't a new thing but it is, despite the opinions of right wing nationalists like Nigel Farage, very much associated with the left of politics, with the idea of collectivity and with the primacy of the group in their idea of society.

In the end there should be no 'us' in politics where that word is used to define others as an enemy, as unwanted or as dangerously different. Nor should there be an 'us' that means one group of people being unfairly privileged by government simply because of their membership of that group. And there should not be an 'us' where the politician campaigns on the basis of group interest - 'vote for me, I'm the Muslim/Black/Working Class candidate'.

You and I are not defined by our membership of a given group or groups - for sure such membership might inform what we think important but imposing this 'us-ness' on people is essentially divisive however well meant it might be. We know it's divisive because we see Nigel Farage do it with Muslims and are outraged. But Farage's use of 'us' is absolutely the same as the 'us' that determines the multiple manifestos at the recent election (for young people, for the disabled, for England, for Scotland, for ethnic minorities, for LGBT people). Are people really defined by age, gender, sexual preference and ability or by the specifics of their own lives, loves, interests and opinions? Surely it's the latter - I do hope so.


Friday, 29 May 2015

Everything that's wrong with lottery funding - in one quotation


The quote is from a chap called Henry Kippin who works for an organisation called Collaborate CIC (who do something very important around" creative thinking, policy development, and a ‘shared space’ for insight, debate and problem-solving"). It's in the house magazine of professional urban nonsense, New Start:

A proactive navigating of sector boundaries has precipitated more creative, iterative and diffuse ways of reaching scale – blending public funding with social finance and a more proactive role for the private sector. Far from protecting a sense of safe isolation, funders celebrate confident interdependence and regularly take collective risks on path-breaking initiatives to build social capacity and resilience. The impact on funding beneficiaries feels profound; offering the possibility of new routes to impact, and an alternative to the increasingly fraught relationship between social action and the local state.

I'm pretty sure that Henry knew what he meant when he wrote that paragraph - it's a picture of the 'social funding' environment in 2025 if we all do what Collaborate thinks we should do. The problem is - and I know you've spotted it - that the prediction does actually say anything of substance. Roughly translated it says that 'social funders' (that's the lottery, charitable trusts and other formal philanthropy) will be most effective if they work in partnership with the public sector in their funding decisions. You could call it 'collaboration' but in truth its the alignment of private initiative with the policies and priorities of the state.

Such an arrangement suits the public sector and, since that is the pond in which they swim, also meets the needs of those who work for the big social funders. But for that social funding to be most effective it should be challenging the state - investing in things that government can't or won't do. This isn't about plugging perceived gaps in provision but rather is a route to new ideas and new activities. What Henry and his pals are proposing isn't a beautiful collaborative future but rather the de facto nationalisation of social funding - the further submission of charity to to objectives of big government.

Right now most of the social funding out there goes to a very limited pool of recipients. Funding is most likely to go to organisations with full time workers where the focus is on capacity, social infrastructure and campaigning rather than on what most of us normal folk think of as charity. Most of the social action taking place today isn't being done by these organisations but rather by a host of little groups doing things they think important. Nine out of ten charities and community groups don't employ anyone yet to read what organisations like Collaborate say you'd think this was the exception not the norm.

If social funders want to make a real difference they need to change what they do and how the fund. Not by getting more cuddly with the state or even holding hands with private business, but by widening their net and supporting the small battalions of volunteers that really do make a difference in all our communities. Sadly though, people like Henry with their jargon-ridden wibble will win the day meaning that the distance between real voluntary work and the activity of the "third sector" gets ever larger.

Thousands of organisations simply don't bother approaching those big social funders. Not because they don't need support and aren't doing great work. Rather it's because they take one look at the information provided by the funder and decide they have no chance of getting support. "No point in us applying for funding, they never give money to organisations like us round here" - I've heard this dozens of times and, however much Henry and his pals want to say it ain't so, I know it's the truth.

So if Henry wants to change things - wants a better future for 'social funding' - he should start arguing that support should be directed to real social action being done by ordinary people in every community rather than for some sort of grand unified theory of collaborative funding that's really just code for doing what the government wants.


Thursday, 28 May 2015

Professor Tim Lang. Not just a food fascist but completely wrong about every aspect of food policy.

The sort of food Tim Lang disapproves of..

Quite a few years ago I want down to the Borough Market to a conference about markets - the foodie sort of market not the economics sort of market (although the former is a subset of the latter). I was speaking about what we were doing in Bradford, trying to use markets as a driver of regeneration. And apart from meeting Thomasina Miers and sitting on a panel with Will Alsop, this was my first experience of Tim Lang.

Professor Lang (as he might have been back then but I don't recall) is a certain sort of foodie's favourite academic. The kind of academic who provides a rationale for those who don't like cheap food, abhor supermarkets, hate McDonalds and prattle on endlessly about urban growing, 'independents' and food deserts. All this means that the professor gets plenty of space to promote his views. And, as I found all those years ago, Tim Lang's views are deeply and profoundly unpleasant yet somehow they appeal to a constituency of middle-class, urban greens.

I've written about Lang's obsessions a couple of times before but they can be summed up quite quickly - we eat too much meat which is destroying the planet, we eat to much cheap carbohydrates which is destroying the planet, and we eat too much processed food which is destroying the planet. Onto this main meal of climate change wibble Lang sprinkles a liberal covering of health warnings mixed up with a sort of militant semi-vegetarianism. At the heart of Lang's argument is the belief that food is too cheap.

Which bring us to the news about Tesco reducing the sugar content of its soft drinks (I'm guessing by substituting it with some sort of artificial sweetener). And unsurprisingly Prof Lang has weighed into the argument:

But not even mighty Tesco can sort out obesity. That would require a re-engineering of the entire food system which works hard to over-produce food, and flood markets with ever-cheaper salty, fatty, sugary non-food foods. We’d also need to build exercise into daily living, and curtail out of town supermarkets which can only be reached by gas-guzzling obesity-inducing car culture.

Here we have the distillation of the trendy foodie greenie left's position on food. Who cares whether we make food more expensive so the poorest in our society find it harder to feed their families. Who gives a monkey's about the idea of choice. And let's pretend we're going to save the planet by producing our food in a less efficient, more resource intensive manner - a sort of Sally does Subsistence Farming approach to the food economy. I love farmers markets, trendy delis and artisan baking to bits. And I'm rich enough to be able to indulge myself on the produce these folk are selling me.

Anyway Prof Lang has got himself even more hyped up over the matter of sugar - despite the fact that in the UK sugar consumption has fallen - presenting it as the core element in the food culture he dislikes:

Sugar is put into a vast range of food and drinks today, as is salt. Hence these two ingredients being targeted by public health advocates. They symbolise the world’s uptake of ever more processed, factory-made, instant satisfaction non-food foods and snacks, and the rise of the “permanently eating” culture among those populations who have access and can afford such products.
Note the last part of this quotation - "can afford such products". This is of course the man who, like many of his Guardian reading fans, thinks the solution lies in more expensive food:

Observers of food policy certainly believe that cheap food is a problem or, as Professor Tim Lang of City University tells it, that too much of the true cost of food is born not by the consumer or the retailer. The environmental and health damage caused by modern food production and its transport, as well as by excessive consumption, entails vast costs, often picked up by people far away from Tesco's catchments. But it is the supermarkets' eternal price wars – their one-track marketing philosophy where "value" trumps all other qualities in food – that have driven prices so low.

That's a Guardian editorial - an endorsement for the idea that the poor, the working classes the left purports to love, should be made to pay more for their food. Yet what these people fail to appreciate is that much of our food waste isn't about markets or the policies of supermarkets but is a consequence of regulation, agricultural policies and the failures in food education - all things that are down to government not markets.

But there's a bigger point here about the environment. Nearly all (about 83%) of the carbon emissions in the food chain are generated by the production process. This is the case regardless of the actual production process - it applies just as much to free range poultry as it does to factory-farmed chickens. However - and this really is important - the fewer imputs to food production the less it damages the environment. And this means that large scale agriculture and food processing is less carbon intensive than the small scale production systems that Prof Lang and his fans promote:

Agricultural economists at UC Davis, for instance, analyzed farm-level surveys from 1996-2000 and concluded that there are “significant” scale economies in modern agriculture and that small farms are “high cost” operations. Absent the efficiencies of large farms, the use of polluting inputs would rise, as would food production costs, which would lead to more expensive food.

Us trendy foodies don't want this to be so. We want high welfare, grass-fed, free-range, rare breed meat to be less damaging to the environment than the products of machine agriculture but the terrible truth is that it's not Big Food that's destroying the planet but an unholy alliance of us trendies with out resilient local economies and the subsistence farmers who're chopping down and burning all the forests. Think about it for a minute and it becomes clear. Imagine the big industrial coffee plant where they squeeze every last bit of coffee flavour out of those beans while trying to minimise the cost of doing so and compare this to your home roasted , home ground beans. Per cup of coffee who's generating the most carbon dioxide? You are of course - Big Food (and the bigger the better) is where we should be going if we want to reduce carbon emissions and stop damaging climate change.

And the really great thing here is that, not only do we reduce damage to the environment by intensifying food production but we are also able to produce the food a whole lot cheaper. This means we can feed more folk and free up money and time for those folk to spend on other things than where the next meals coming from. All this means less resource use, more economic growth, healthier people and a boost to the world's happiness as fewer folk are scratting at the soil from dawn to dusk so as to keep body and soul together.

Prof Tim Lang and all the folk pushing his green version of food fascism are not just wrong, they're dangerously wrong. These people want to make poor people poorer simply because they've decided they don't like the choices such folk have made. And in doing so they not only reduce economic growth but also increase the damage being done to the planet by the production of food.


Monday, 25 May 2015

Quote of the day - why public transport doesn't reduce car use


We're constantly told by transport planners that active interventions in transport systems are all about model shift - a posh term for getting people to use something other than their own car. But the problem is that there's precious little evidence showing these interventions (other than pricing interventions such as the London congestion charge) make any difference to behaviour. We prioritise the wrong set of folk.

The line of reasoning in the opening quote* suggests the primary purpose of transit is reducing auto travel, rather than serving people who want to or must use transit. In other words, building transit is good because it reduces traffic congestion (and almost no one argues building roads is good because it reduces transit crowding).

That is at best a secondary benefit, a benefit which could be achieved must more simply and less expensively through the use of prices as we do with almost all other scarce goods in society, even necessities like water.

We should therefore be investing in transit systems so as to benefit the people who for reasons of economics or circumstance have no choice other than to use those systems. The trendy urbanist vision of a car-free city filled with sleek trams, funky buses and kids cycling to schools is - as I know you all suspected - something of an utopian pipe dream. The truth is that we need public transport for the old, the young, the less well of and those unable, for whatever reason, to use a car.

(*the opening quote in the article is: “Every person who is riding transit is one less person in the car in front of us.”)


Sunday, 24 May 2015

A sugar tax won't make anyone thinner - just poor people poorer


The other day a Conservative minister I'd never heard of told an audience that he supported a tax on sugar. George Freeman had this to say:

“I think that where there is a commercial product which confers costs on all of us as a society, as in sugar, and where we can clearly show that the use of that leads to huge pressures on social costs, then we could be looking at recouping some of that through taxation.

“Companies should know that if you insist on selling those products, we will tax them.”

Now there are some profoundly unconservative things in this statement - the idea that me getting fat "confers costs on all of us in society" is pretty dodgy from the Party of the individual and individual rights not to mention the idea of 'social costs'. However, my concern is that, even if you accept the validity of taxing things that are bad for society, a tax on sugar is going for the wrong bogeyman.

The first thing of course is to observe that the obesity crisis (or epidemic, if you prefer a different scaremongering line) is not a consequence of our sugar consumption. Not even a little bit. I know this because, while we've been getting fatter, our sugar consumption has been falling. And not just the consumption of the evil white stuff but 'non-milk extrinsic sugars' - that's all the sugar added to food plus honey. Even more importantly - in the UK, at least - our average total calorie intake has also fallen.
UK calorie intake. Source National Diet & Nutrition Survey
You'll notice that the amount of everything consumed (except female consumption of alcohol) has dropped in the ten years from 2000/01. So we can say with a considerable degree of confidence that any increase in obesity over that period is not down to what we eat and absolutely that it isn't down to sugar. The only health condition that is directly linked to sugar is dental caries - and we know that good oral hygiene (brushing your teeth regularly, using a mouthwash and so forth) eliminates most of that risk. Taxing everyone because some people don't look after their teeth strikes me as a largely futile exercise and deeply unconservative.

The next thing is to ask whether a sugar tax (and I can only assume that this means a tax on 'non-milk extrinsic sugars' rather than just sucrose) will be sufficient to change behaviour so suddenly pounds are shed from our waists and the obesity 'crisis' is solved. Certainly the evidence from other taxes is mixed - to work the tax has to be sufficiently high to actually make a difference to behaviour and, as the Danes discovered, won't work if it's easily avoidable.

So let's assume that George Freeman gets his ignorant way and a sugar tax is imposed. The impact will be to increase the price of products containing sugars - I'm guessing no distinction will be made between sugars naturally present in the product (like the fructose on your orange juice) and sugars added to the product (like the honey in those sugar puffs). If you wander round your supermarket idly reading product descriptions, you'll find that sugars crop up - in one form or another - is many processed foods. So the impact of a sugar tax will be to increase the price of a whole host of products - from the obvious chocolate, honey and jam through to pizza, ketchup and meat pies.

Now it might be that the impact will be for manufacturers to reduce the amount of sugar but that might present some challenges - the sugar's not there by accident. So what happens is that the tax (as taxes usually are) gets lumped on the price and is paid by us consumers as our purchases ping across the checkout scanner. And, assuming that the sugar tax is low, all this will mean is that everyone carries on much as before - buying the stuff they want and getting fatter or thinner depending on how much we stuff in our mouths. Except, that is, for the poorest folk who will discover that the £1.39 pizza is now a £1.49 pizza making it just a little harder to feed the family.

Unless you set the sugar tax at a rate that really changes behaviour - read this as poor people not being able to afford food - the result will be negligible. A sugar tax really won't make anyone thinner. It will just make the poor a little bit poorer.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Why do public authorities have such a problem with motorcycles?


I've noted before that West Yorkshire police's press office dedicates a huge proportion of its press office resource to sending out press releases attacking motorcyclists. It's not just that the popular portrayal of motorcycling and motor cyclists is almost entirely negative but that this form of transport is almost entirely ignored - except as a line in the accident statistics - by transport planners.

The Leeds branch of the Motorcycle Action Group (I so want to call it the Leeds Chapter) staged a protest that called for a greater recognition of motorcycling and, specifically, for bikes to be allow to use bus lanes.

Scores of bikers have taken part in a "demo ride" calling for rights to ride in Leeds's bus lanes.

Organised by Leeds Motorcycle Action Group (MAG), the ride started from Squires Cafe, near Sherburn in Elmet, and finished at a pub outside Leeds.

The group is campaigning for all motorcycles, scooters and mopeds to be allowed to use the city's bus lanes.
The response from Leeds City Council (interestingly this isn't the body responsible for transport planning but we can't expect the BBC to actually know this - it's one of the reasons we need a metro mayor) is typical council-speak about 'harnessing' the views of motorcyclists. Probably because the planners have absolutely no intention of doing what Leeds MAG suggest - recognising that motorcycling has a real role to play in urban transport and especially the relief of congestion. These planners are wedded to trains and buses (including in Leeds having a bus on a string), plus pedal cycles their new favourite means of transport, and see motorised private transport as a bad thing, the main problem from which we all must be modally shifted.

The consultation - being conducted as we speak (I bet you didn't know, did you) by the Combined Authority - completely fails to mention motor cycles and only mentions cars as a problem. I attended a meeting of the Authority's Scrutiny Committee where a presentation about the new strategic transport plan - a good 40 minute long presentation - didn't mention the word 'car' once, let alone refer to motorcycles. Why is it these planners have such tunnel vision? And why do they hate motorcycles so much?


Friday, 22 May 2015

A reminder why the left is losing...


Perhaps not everywhere and not in every intellectual argument. But the left is losing - perhaps for the first time in fifty years - the cultural battle. And it's losing because too many of its adherents are nasty.

I am not saying that the political Right is immune from petty name-calling and self-importance. However, looking at my social media accounts alone, I lost count of the number of times I saw the words “moron” and “scum” used in reference to Conservative or Lib Dem voters. I didn’t see anything of the sort emanating from the political centre or the Right.

There has been a lot of talk of late of “shy Tories” being responsible for the electoral outcome. Is it any wonder that people had to be shy about their voting intentions when any admission of Tory solidarity would have resulted in the social media version of public stoning?

Enormous effort is invested in explaining how anyone not suitably "progressive" is motivated by evil, self-interest, greed, arrogance and a lack of compassion. All accompanied by that preening prattle about "values", "morals" and "ethics".

Out in the big bad world there are a lot of ordinary folk. People with jobs, mortgages, children to feed and school, and the regular trickle of painful bills to pay. The left - the Labour Party in the UK - offers nothing to these people except lectures about values, judgemental sermons on behaviour and the sanctifying of people those ordinary folk view as exploiters of our compassion and good nature.

The Labour Party will continue to lose support - and fans - until it offers something to these workers, stops demonising profit, ceases portraying the private sector as a bad place peopled by sharks or thieves and above all packs in with insulting those who disagree with them. We're not morons, we're not scum and were not without care or compassion. Today - and the Labour Party better get used to this - we are the party of workers, of those people with regular private sector jobs, mortgages and a desire for a better life.