Sunday, 26 February 2017

Loving the place you live - the essence of conservatism

From Roger Scruton:
This is why the true environmentalist is also a conservative. For the desire to protect the environment arises spontaneously in people, just as soon as they recognise their accountability to others for what they are and do, and just as soon as they identify some place as “ours”. Oikophilia is deep in all of us, and it is illustrated by the two-century-old campaign in my country to preserve the countryside, and by the similar campaign in the United States to protect the unspoiled wilderness. If we are to have a cogent environmental policy it must appeal to the oikophilia of the electorate, and that means that it must respect their sentiments of national identity. It must stand firm in the face of globalism, including the globalist rhetoric that would accuse all patriotic people of “racism and xenophobia” just because they are not prepared to let their home be swallowed in the global entropy.
It all does rather remind me of Kipling's paean to his home county of Sussex:

Love of place - country, county, town or village is central to the idea of conservatism but is often overlooked in our discourse. Whenever I'm with my fellow Conservative councillors - as I was for a couple of days this week - the feeling that comes across most is of of really being bothered about protecting where they live, their commmunity, their neighbours.

This idea:
Love of place is great equalizer and mobilizer. In all my years of doing community practice, I’ve never seen a more powerful model for moving communities forward and enabling places to optimize who they are instead of trying to be someplace else. It is this message that frees people to love their place, and hearing that their love of place is a powerful resource is not something many residents (or their leaders) have properly recognized and leveraged. That’s why I think I often see tearful reactions in my audiences and hear heartfelt stories of personal relationship with a place after my talks. The message of attachment—that the softer sides of place matter—resonates deeply.
You cannot, though, embrace the ideas of neighbour, community and place while simultaneously rejecting the idea of nation or worse still try to cast those who speak with emotion about nation as 'narrow-minded', xenophobic or racist. And this sense of place - belonging - underlies why Theresa May was right to say claiming to be a citizen of the world makes you a citizen of nowhere.


Saturday, 18 February 2017

Things are seldom as simple as they seem...

I'm discussing Council budgets and we get to the matter of shared services and specifically sharing back office functions (things like receipts and payments, payroll, tax collection and so forth). Now these are things that every local council does with the same intention and the same outcome. So, on the face of it, sharing such things ought to be a doddle.

The problem is (and it's not insurmountable since quite a few councils have merged back office with other councils) that, for all the apparent obviousness, things aren't that simple. Even if I allow for a certain amount of bureaucratic sucking of teeth - "ooh, Councillor, I don't think that's possible" - there remains the matter of systems. And unless you merge the systems you really don't realise, other than a bit of saving in senior management, much benefit from sharing.

The problem is that merging large and complicated systems is not straightforward. By way of illustration, our former Spanish bank (Banesto) was taken over by another bank (Santander) but the actual back office systems for the two banks remain - or did in October 2015 - separate to the extent that Santander operators were unable to sort out problems, these had to be done by the former Banesto people who "understood the systems".

Integrating two complicated back office systems - say those of Leeds and Bradford Councils - is only possible given time, money and a plan. To make such a merger worthwhile, we need also to know that the net savings exceed, in a reasonable time frame, the money invested in the merger. It is, while not impossible, pretty challenging to make this calculation with a high degree of confidence. Such a lack of confidence isn't really a problem if the costs are low and the savings are high. But this really doesn't seem to be the case for such back office mergers (or so I'm told).

This problem with complex systems, how they stay in place because changing them is uncertain and expensive, is repeated time and time again. Here's Jon Worth on European railways (quite literally):
After having been stuck again this morning due to lack of collaboration between EU rail firms, I started to wonder: can liberalisation of EU rail actually ever work? And, were it to ever work, what are the prerequisites to making it work?
Jon goes on to set out seven factors about the system (information, accountability, ownership, cohesion, customer rights, maintenance and ticketing) that need resolution through system design if a liberalised railway is to be delivered. Jon concludes, unsurprisingly, that:
So then, that’s the little list of issues to solve. Will the EU, and its Member States, be ready to go that far to make a liberalised railway work? And to foot the costs of doing so? I rather doubt it…
The problem for us is that, given the significance of our legacy systems (in government, transport and finance especially) and the rate of innovation in these areas, we run the risk of economic sclerosis unless we begin to grapple with the challenge of replacing those systems with new ones. There are technical solutions to all of Jon's questions but the current infrastructure (physical and social) is largely unable to carry those technical solutions. The result of this is that people find 'get-arounds' - those railways, instead of sleek transport systems of the future become anachronistic and inefficient systems superceded by driverless vehicles, drones and communications technology.

Too often this is an argument against doing anything or for merely doing things that don't impact the established order - an interactive screen here, an app there rather than having some idea how the system will look when everything is done. For all my liberal instincts, I can't help but think things are seldom as simple as we like to think they are whatever William of Ockham might have said!


Friday, 17 February 2017

Owning robots...

Tyler Cowan at Marginal Revolution responds to this question (with a very interesting consideration of robotised government):
There’s two versions of this.

1. One or a small group of entrepreneurs owns the robots.

2. The government owns the robots.

I see how we get from where we are now to 1. How would we get to 2, and is 2 better than 1?
Leaving aside Cowan's discussion of what government means in a robotised world, isn't there a big issue with the premise of this question? The idea that state ownership of the robots is desirable? And whether 1. accurately describes how those robots will actually be owned?

The first point is that the robots will be an asset either of the business employing them or, assuming some sort of leasing arrangement, of a financial institution. So there may be a 'small group of entrepreneurs' owning the businesses that make the robots but the robots themselves won't be owned by those businesses (except one guesses for the robots that are making the robots that make the robots).

So the question really isn't about who owns the robots in a future economy but rather who owns the businesses that employ the robots to make and do things. This is a very different question. We can, on the basis of historical experience, dismiss the idea that state ownership of the economy is better than other forms of ownership. The Soviet Union tells us this is the case. At the same time, however, we can see that the productivity gains from the robot economy have to arrive in the pockets of regular folk for that robot economy to work.

Partly this distribution of the robot benefits comes through goods and services being cheaper (lots cheaper in some cases) thereby allowing our money to go further. But there is also the consideration that the benefits cannot simply go to a few entrepreneurs if the advantages of robots are to be realised. This is where some advocates of minimum basic income get their shtick - government taxes the robots' added value and shares it with the humans who don't have jobs any more thereby allowing those humans space to go off and do exciting, creative stuff. This does presuppose that government will not crash the robot economy so as to pay the higher basic income they promised in order to get elected. Not a presupposition I'd care to put money on.

Far better would be for us - not the government but us - to own the robots. Or, to put it another way, to own the businesses that employ the robots. And we have the models for this - mutual funds, pensions, investment funds. It would be good if (and Cowan's robot government suggests this might be so) government didn't crowd out investing in business by running huge debts funded by money that might otherwise be invested in the productive economy.

So the robot future could be very different from our presumption. Much smaller (or really much cheaper which isn't quite the same thing) government meaning that money currently taken either in taxes or spent buying government debt is available to invest in businesses that employ the robots. And a whole load of that money will belong to 'we the people' - actually belong rather than belong in some sort of romantic, wistful socialist manner. We get to own the robots.

So it's not how we get from 1. to 2. in the original question but rather how does government help us get to own those robots.


Thursday, 16 February 2017

Cause and effect - how falsehoods are created

While the precise nature of truth isn't straightforward, we should be much clearer about falsity and the unethical use of data to present something that may not be true:

Firstly, of course, Leave.EU don't provide a source for the claim. The source is the latest ONS population digest:

Looking at the estimates by country of birth, between October to December 2015 and October to December 2016:
  • UK born people working in the UK decreased by 120,000 to 26.37 million
  • non-UK born people working in the UK increased by 431,000 to 5.54 million
The inference that Leave.EU make is that the reasons for this decline in the number of UK born people working is migration - 'British workers paying the price for mass migration'. And this could, indeed, be the reason for the decline. The problem is that neither the ONS data not Leave.EU provide the information needed to establish whether or not migration does put UK born people out of work.

And there are other equally plausible reasons for the decline such as 'baby boomers' retiring, the decline in public sector employment leading to early retirements, increased numbers of people staying in full-time education, more women opting to remain as housewives. Unless all these possible reasons - and maybe others I've not thought of - are shown not to be the reason, we cannot make the claim that Leave.EU make. It is, regardless of the source's quality, a falsehood.


Snow on their boots...thoughts on the Great Russian Hacker Conspiracy

"There is being circulated everywhere a story that an immense force of Russian soldiers – a little short of a million, it is said – have passed, or are still passing, through England on their way to France."

The rumour began on 27th August 1914, because of a 17-hour delay on the London to Liverpool train service. The reason for the hold-up was said to have been caused by the transportation by rail of Russian troops, who had landed in Scotland and, under conditions of the utmost secrecy were being moved by train to the Channel ports. From there they were destined to cross to France and fight alongside the Allies.

As the tale spread, more and more people ‘knew’ someone who had seen Russian troops in transit. For instance, someone knew a railway porter in Edinburgh who had swept snow from the railway carriages there, at several stations there were reports of strange-looking men seen with snow on their boots. In Perthshire, Lady Baden-Powell heard that the Russians were coming and promptly rushed to the station to catch a glimpse of them.
It seems not much has changed. Except the Russians in question today don't have snow on their boots preferring the relative warmth of a swivel chair in front of a computer screen. And this time they're sinister baddies not saving troops.
Hours after Michael Flynn, Mr Trump's national security adviser, resigned after misleading the White House over conversations with the Russian ambassador to the US, reports emerged that key campaign aides had also been communicating with Russian officials.

That scandal began after US officials leaked the fact that Mr Flynn had discussed sanctions with the ambassador. Leaks also prompted the controversy over the "dirty dossier" prepared by a former MI6 operative, and have plagued the first weeks of the Trump administration.
From anonymous briefings, leaks and oblique references comes a line that results in the widespread belief that somehow Russian espionage was responsible for Trump's election (and for more febrile minds Brexit too). The most creative and complex of those conspiracy theories can be read here - it's very good, John Le Carré would love it.

Now I'm absolutely sure that Russian intelligence agents did endeavour to interfere in the US Presidential election. I'm also pretty sure that those agents and their predecessors tried to influence the outcomes of every US election. This is pretty much part of the job description for a spy - get favourable outcomes for your country. And it's why countries have laws preventing foreign funding of election campaigns.

I'm also pretty much sure that the impact of Russian intelligence on the election is somewhere between 'none at all' and 'a little but but insignificant'. It suits a particular agenda to adopt the view that the Democrat's comprehensive defeat last November was down to sinister external forces rather than them simply not being popular enough even to beat a candidate as weak and unpopular as Donald Trump.

Nevertheless, as Tim Newman observes, liberal media such as the BBC persists with the suggestion that "one controversy has clung to the Trump train like glue: Russia". Tim also points out that there's not much truth to this:

Russia only became the albatross of choice with which to hang around Trump’s neck when all others were laughed off: misogyny, racism, fake news, etc.

Speaking from a cynical perspective, such argument - effectively exonerating left of centre political campaigning from failure and blaming a foreign government - continues to give the right, whether conservative or reactionary, a free run at politics. The public love a good spy story but, in the main, consider those stories to be just that - tall tales. Tim Newman's conclusion here is apt:
...if Trump had a tower with his name on in Moscow or a casino in Vladivostok then one could raise legitimate questions over his connections to Putin. But he doesn’t, and nothing I have seen suggests Trump ever had any business or other interests in Russia aside from him having a quick look-see back in the 1990s or early ’00s and deciding, quite sensibly, that it wasn’t worth the hassle. Has Trump actually ever been to Russia in person? Has he met Putin? I’ve not seen any evidence he’s done either, and if it existed surely we’d have seen it by now. This whole obsession with Russia is nothing more than the latest in a line of pathetic attempts to cast doubts on the legitimacy of Trump’s Presidency and shore up the narrative that he is not acting in the interests of America.
Strange conspiracy theories about Jews, communists, banks and big business used to be the stock-in-trade of the loonier parts of the far right. The continuing failure of decent patriots, working people and nationalism wasn't down to its lack of appeal but rather to the efforts of sinister folk meeting in Swiss mountain resorts or nice Caribbean hotels. It seems that, faced with a similar scale of defeat - especially in the USA - the centre-left has fallen hook, line and sinker for a new generation of conspiracies: tall tales with Russian snow on their boots.


Monday, 13 February 2017

A bad person asks what's so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding?

Intolerant, judgemental, excluding, bigoted, closed-minded, sneering, insulting, rude, divisive, ignorant, aggressive and downright offensive. Shallow, unpleasantly personal, condemnatory, bullying and, sad to report, violent.

These are the sorts of words that spring into my mind when I consider our politics right now. I guess that, what with Donald Trump in the White House, Brexit and the rise of populism across Europe this is how many of you - especially the left wing ones - feel too. What you don't realise is that it's you I'm talking about. I'm fed up with the narrow, bitter little world that you inhabit and the manner in which you think anyone prepared to consider other opinions, ideas from the right, is essentially a bad person.

I've known I was a bad person for a long while. It's not just that I think capitalism is brilliant, empowering and liberating. No it's a wider conservative agenda - the bits about rejecting the world of equalities top trumps created by left-wing group think. It's about thinking that we should take people as individuals - in the round.

I know a bloke. Have a drink with him now and then. We'll call him Steve. He's a racist. And I've told him this loads of times. But I know he also fusses over elderly neighbours and will go out of his way to help someone hurt or stranded. I've seen him do this. So tell me, am I to reject him because he's a racist? Or should I mention his sin to him and continue to see the good that he does? Truth is it's better I hear his argument, engage with his concerns, than simply walk away.

But then I'm a bad person. I don't agree with your left-wing agenda. Take abortion - for sure I'm not opposed to it. But I do think it's a damned sight more complicated than the simple slogan 'women's right to choose' tells us. Yet people who don't agree with you about abortion - terrible people. Bad people. You know something? I want to hear those people, to treat what they say with respect.

A couple of days ago this gay, journalist 'came out' as a conservative. Now I appreciate that this is the USA where there's an enormous liberal temper tantrum going on but this little quote sums up for me the problem the left has with the idea that people don't all accept their worldview.
Frostiness spread far beyond the bar, too. My best friend, with whom I typically hung out multiple times per week, was suddenly perpetually unavailable. Finally, on Christmas Eve, he sent me a long text, calling me a monster, asking where my heart and soul went, and saying that all our other friends are laughing at me.

I realized that, for the first time in my adult life, I was outside of the liberal bubble and looking in. What I saw was ugly, lock step, incurious and mean-spirited.
The left wing commenters I read seem to speak a lot about values - how politics should be value-driven and how we should all fight to defend their values. Yet, these are values that think it's OK to ostracise someone from a community because he wrote an interview with someone right-wing? Think I'm exaggerating? Here's a chunk from a riposte to that gay journalist by another gay journalist:
Gay conservatives aren’t welcome in gay spaces because the people they support are an existential threat to our rights and our community. After all, queer spaces (such as bars, bathhouses, community centres, and even bookstores) were founded and instrumental in radical sexual politics and political engagement. You can’t divorce that from the social aspect, because doing so would deny the history of our community and the present reality of so many vulnerable LGBT people.
You're not allowed to be in the gay community if you're not left-wing.

For a while I worked for a voluntary organisation in Oldham. I never made a secret of my politics if anyone asked but I never brought those politics to work. I did my job, talked about all the other things in life but left political debate on the doorstep. This was hard because one or two colleagues with robust left-wing views were always ready to loudly proclaim their opinions (including in front of me, saying that conservatives are all ignorant, racist bigots).

You, my left wing friends, really must stop this (and I apologise at this point for the left wing friends who've already stopped). Not just because I'm telling you it's not very nice but because this attitude is destroying your parties and political prospects.

This chart, from Political Betting's Mike Smithson, shows that Labour is in third place among C2DE voters. Take a second to absorb this fact. This is, if you want a definition of it, is the 'working class'. Now ask yourself why? I know your response - the media, Brexit lies, racism, bigotry. Every single time this is the explanation from the left.

Perhaps you want to take a step back and consider whether it's actually your outlook and values that are doing the damage. That friend of mine, Steve. He's a Labour voter (except he's not any more). And there are loads more like him. Inadvertently, Paul Mason, left-wing former BBC journalist captured the dominant left wing view of people like Steve:
“They’re not working class Tories… most of the UKIP people are either people who haven’t voted or have flipped in a radical way from Labour. They are toe-rags, basically. They are the bloke who nicks your bike.”
The search for understanding of these voters stops once you've satisfied yourself that they hold views you consider unsavoury such as wanting fewer immigrants, worrying about Islamist terrorism, supporting the armed forces, liking grammar schools, backing tough penalties for criminals, thinking the international aid budget is too big, believing that lots of people on benefits are essentially scroungers. I could go on but you get my gist.

All of these unsavoury views have a sensible, considered policy response that, when people hear it, gets them to to nod - even if thy don't always leap enthusiastically to support that policy response. Right now these people are voting for right-wing' parties because those parties do at least seem to have half an ear for the things that are bothering folk. What's the left's response? Mostly it's to call them racist, homophobic, misogynist bigots. Or, for the more considered, to mutter about 'dark forces' and genies being out of bottles followed by arch references to the 1930s. That and calls for violence.

But then, I'm a bad person. A conservative. I probably don't share some of your values. I certainly reject the idea that we are defined by the groups you've placed us in - it really is possible to be a gay conservative or a black libertarian. Such people are not weirdos, strangely deluded folk who probably need a re-education camp (and who we should surely ostracise before their unsavoury views contaminate our caring liberal places). You, my left wing friends, have a long way to go - you've allowed this to happen:
Ranking institutions as either red, amber, or green in terms of how restrictive they are, the survey of 115 universities found that 108 – when taking university administration and students’ unions as a whole – censor or chill free speech to some degree. Some 73 were assessed as red, 35 were amber, and only seven were green, meaning that as far as Spiked was aware, they placed no restrictions on free speech and expression – other than where it was unlawful.
Red means that the university - often under pressure from left-wing student activists - has "banned and actively censored ideas on campus". And trust me on this one - no left wing ideas have been banned not even the most extreme of communist apologists for historic genocide and current oppression. Indeed some of these lovely folk are the very activists campaigning for restrictions on free speech.

The bitter, snarky, judging and excluding way in which much of the left behave - not just the extremes but people who'd consider themselves moderate - suggests that it is having something of a crisis. Now I know there remain open, engaging and thoughtful left-wing folk out there and I feel for them. But what I don't see is that openness to a diversity of ideas that once was the hallmark of modern liberalism. Those hippy values - peace, love and understanding - have vanished, replaced with a unwavering and judging creed founded in groupthink and the rejection of free speech.


Saturday, 11 February 2017

The North-South (Housing) Divide - a lesson

So I'm at a seminar in North Yorkshire and a question is asked about housing and house-building. The person answering - a senior councillor from 'down south' - responds by asking a question:

"How many of you own your own house?"

Nearly the whole room - consisting mostly of councillors aged 50 or more - raises their hand. One group, all professional staff up from London, don't raise their hands. These twenty- and thirty-somethings in good jobs are all renting. And some are having to share just to make that renting possible.

The senior councillor asks another question:

"How many of you have children who aren't able to buy a house?"

The expectation was that a forest of hands would rise demonstrating how housing is unaffordable and inaccessible. That's what would happen in London.

Not a single hand was raised. All of the twenty- and thirty-something children of these Northern councillors, whether from Teeside, Bradford or leafy North Yorkshire, have got onto the housing ladder.

That senior councillor from 'down south' was a little surprised. Later he told me "I knew you were all rich in the North".

Because of the extent to which London''s economic success has created jobs, the south has struggled to meet the demand for housing. Even were there an adequate level of new housing development (and, as that same senior councillor observed, people want a house not a pokey little flat), London would have faced problems given the difference between the number of people looking for a home and the number of homes available - across all tenures - at any given time.

This is not true for the North. Our slower growth and balanced population (with modest outward migration in some places) means that young people who get a halfway decent job and save a bit can buy a house. There are some parts - Manchester, North Leeds, Ilkley, Harrogate - where some of that London-style overheating is happening but most of the North does not have a housing crisis, is not short of housing supply to meet current market demand, and presents the chance to manage future housing supply without huge government bungs or running roughshod over the green belt.

The problem is that national policy is determined by London's genuine housing crisis, not the North's more balanced and inclusive economy. Maybe those of us 'up here' should both be grateful for this and also careful about what we wish for?