Thursday, 26 November 2015

In which a Guardian writer bemoans the lack of slums...

Or so it seems:

In this mix of complexity and incompleteness lies the possibility for those without power to assert “we are here” and “this is also our city”. Or, as the legendary statement by the fighting poor in Latin American cities puts it, “Estamos presentes”: we are present, we are not asking for money, we are just letting you know that this is also our city.

It is in cities to a large extent where the powerless have left their imprint – cultural, economic, social: mostly in their own neighbourhoods, but eventually these can spread to a vaster urban zone as “ethnic” food, music, therapies and more.

All of this cannot happen in a business park, regardless of its density – they are privately controlled spaces where low-wage workers can work, but not “make”. Nor can this happen in the world’s increasingly militarised plantations and mines. It is only in cities where that possibility of gaining complexity in one’s powerlessness can happen – because nothing can fully control such a diversity of people and engagements.

OK, our writer - one Saskia Sassen - doesn't actually use the word 'slum' here because that would load a whole lot of negatives onto her narrative. This narrative is filled with the popular "everything is being bought up by huge corporations" line - as if the buildings in London, New York and Berlin were all owned by collectives, co-ops and interesting old couples who've lived there since the place was built. There's also a slightly worrying 'and lots of the money is Chinese' as if this is necessarily a problem (a decade or so ago the bad foreigners with funny names were Japanese).

Now the point about slums is that they allow people to do those capitalist things away form the gaze of the authorities occupying expensive real estate in the city proper. And our writer is perhaps right to be concerned about the squeezing out of these places:

"Arrival cities are known around the world by many names," Saunders writes: "slums, favelas, bustees, bidonvilles, ashwaiyyat, shantytowns, kampongs, urban villages, gecekondular and barrios of the developing world, but also as the immigrant neighbourhoods, ethnic districts, banlieues difficiles, Plattenbau developments, Chinatowns, Little Indias, Hispanic quarters, urban slums and migrant suburbs of wealthy countries, which are themselves each year absorbing two million people, mainly villagers, from the developing world."

But Sassen is also wrong because the arrival of those grand developers, the imposition of those gigantic regeneration schemes, and the suborning of public space to private use doesn't stop those migrants coming. They still fill up the cracks, occupy what space can be found that's too marginal, contested or contaminated to attract those rich foreigners with funny names and their millions. And Sassen seems overly bothered by the location of public buildings filled with regulators and controllers - as if these people are either the friend of the slum-dweller or their places of work truly public spaces.

In The Arrival City, Doug Saunders talks about Istanbul - not the old city of tourists and old architecture but the far suburbia where the rural migrants settled illegally and built the fastest growing, most dynamic communities of Turkey. And this is the pattern in all our cities - the success of those at the margin makes the success of the city, a success achieved in the teeth of government opposition, eviction, regulation and distrust.

But they stay in the city. I remember selling a magnificent hand-stitched quilt to a middle-aged Jewish lady in Mill Hill. She and her husband were rich, living in a multi-million pound house in a desirable North London suburb. Asking the woman why she wanted the quilt she told me that she 'wanted an heirloom, our families came here with nothing and we want our families to have something'. Those families didn't come to Mill Hill, they came to London's East End and lived in a couple of cramped rooms from where they made their way in the world.

We look at slums and see squalor, dirt and disorganisation. The leaders of these places speak of poverty, exclusion and prejudice. But those new arrivals aren't staying in those slums - the best summation of what drives them is this quotation from Marco Rubio, one of the men seeking the Republican nomination in next year's US Presidential election:

Many nights growing up I would hear my father’s keys at the door as he came home after another 16-hour day. Many mornings, I woke up just as my mother got home from the overnight shift at Kmart. When you’re young and in a hurry, the meaning of moments like this escape you. Now, as my children get older, I understand it better. My dad used to tell us — (SPEAKING IN SPANISH) — ‘in this country, you’ll be able to accomplish all the things we never could’. A few years ago, I noticed a bartender behind the portable bar in the back of the ballroom. I remembered my father, who worked as many years as a banquet bartender. He was grateful for the work he had, but that’s not like he wanted for us. You see, he stood behind the ball all those years so that one day I could stand behind a podium, in the front of a room.

This isn't a defence of slums, just an observation that, for many of those who live in urban poverty, their life is better than the one they left behind. And they also know their children's lives will be better too. I guess only a conservative would really understand this though.


Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The real story is health spending not spending on the elderly.


This graph is doing the rounds, usually attached to arguments about how favoured the old are under the present government.

Right now spending on 'older people' (which I assume means the state pension and assorted other welfare payments directed to retired folk) has got back to the position it was relative to other spending back in 1997. We can also note that, despite falling unemployment and endless stories about the evil DWP, the rest of welfare spending has barely budged as a proportion of total spending. And there's a reason perhaps for old people getting more of the budget - there's a whole lot more of them than there used to be:

I'm not defending the 'triple lock' or other decisions made by government over the past several years merely observing that the increased number of older people inevitably means a bigger bill for old age pensions.

To return to that graph from the Resolution Foundation again, the real change that shows isn't the up and down in terms of funding for old or young but the acceleration in health spending as a proportion of total spending. Now this is, in part, another consequence of those older people - something like three-quarters of NHS spending is on the over 65s (for the simple fact that they need the health care while younger folk mostly don't) - but it is also shows that health spending is the real priority of government. And reminds us that the efficient and effective use of that growing resource represents the dominant challenge for any UK government. Shouting about how old folk are getting a better deal isn't the issue here - getting to grips with the health budget is.


Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Nice thought but I don't think cause and effect is established here...

Some stress-busting green space

The Bradford Telegraph & Argus reports some 'ground-breaking' research into the link between green spaces and depression in pregnancy:

The key finding revealed that while 33.5 per cent of women reported at least one severe depressive symptom during pregnancy, those living in the greenest areas of Bradford were around 20 per cent less likely to report feeling depressed.

Programme manager, Rosie McEachan, said: "This is a really important finding, as it means we can make changes at an environment level which will have a larger benefit for our communities in most need.

"Efforts should be made to increase the availability of green space at a policy level and utilisation of green space at an individual level."

The problem with this is that the mums living in Bradford's greenest areas are (I guessing here) probably older, richer, healthier and better-educated. Not that these eliminate ante-natal depression of course but I suspect that a young single mum-to-be in inner city Bradford is far more likely to suffer from depression than her counterpart up the valley. Which isn't to say that green spaces aren't important but that those demographics are likely to be much more important.

Still a nice thought.


Monday, 23 November 2015

How climate change and anti-nuclear fanatics are making energy a luxury good


Germany. That place we're supposed to emulate. Land of eco-friendly cities, anti-nuclear protests, pacifism and campaigns against gentrification. The world's fourth largest economy. Migrant-welcoming manufacturing giant. The place where fans still stand at football matches, where there aren't speed limits on the motorways and where beer is drunk from litre steins (except in Cologne where it comes in tiny glasses and is mostly froth). Yeah, Germany.

Home of the world's most expensive electricity. The country where energy is almost a luxury good:

When Stefan Becker of the Berlin office of the Catholic charity Caritas makes a house call, he likes to bring along a few energy-saving bulbs. Many residents still use old light bulbs, which consume a lot of electricity but are cheaper than newer bulbs. "People here have to decide between spending money on an expensive energy-saving bulb or a hot meal," says Becker. In other words, saving energy is well and good -- but only if people can afford it.

A family Becker recently visited is a case in point. They live in a dark, ground-floor apartment in Berlin's Neuk├Âlln neighborhood. On a sunny summer day, the two children inside had to keep the lights on -- which drives up the electricity bill, even if the family is using energy-saving bulbs.

Becker wants to prevent his clients from having their electricity shut off for not paying their bill. After sending out a few warning notices, the power company typically sends someone to the apartment to shut off the power -- leaving the customers with no functioning refrigerator, stove or bathroom fan. Unless they happen to have a camping stove, they can't even boil water for a cup of tea. It's like living in the Stone Age.

This situation is entirely the result of a combination of climate change fanaticism and anti-nuclear panic which means that German energy supply system is both inefficient and also obscenely expensive:

This year, German consumers will be forced to pay €20 billion ($26 billion) for electricity from solar, wind and biogas plants -- electricity with a market price of just over €3 billion. Even the figure of €20 billion is disputable if you include all the unintended costs and collateral damage associated with the project. Solar panels and wind turbines at times generate huge amounts of electricity, and sometimes none at all. Depending on the weather and the time of day, the country can face absurd states of energy surplus or deficit.

If there is too much power coming from the grid, wind turbines have to be shut down. Nevertheless, consumers are still paying for the "phantom electricity" the turbines are theoretically generating. Occasionally, Germany has to pay fees to dump already subsidized green energy, creating what experts refer to as "negative electricity prices."

Over the coming week or so, the climate change fanatics will be shifting into top gear - trying to persuade us all to change to the German model. A torrent of articles, news reports and documentaries will pour onto an unsuspecting public. These will talk of 'zero-carbon emissions', of the urgency of the challenge, of melting ice and dying polar bears, and will conclude with exhortations to change our wicked, sinful ways and embrace greenery.

Who cares if this means poor folk are living hand to mouth in damp flats they can't afford to heat of light. Who cares if steel mills close and aluminium smelters fold. Who's bothered if the lights are dimmed because the power supply is unreliable. We'll have save the planet won't we? Errr....

On the other hand, when the wind suddenly stops blowing, and in particular during the cold season, supply becomes scarce. That's when heavy oil and coal power plants have to be fired up to close the gap, which is why Germany's energy producers in 2012 actually released more climate-damaging carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than in 2011.

Great strategy!


Saturday, 21 November 2015

Being overweight is healthy (we just think it ain't sexy)

Although I have no evidence for it, I suspect that what we define as 'normal weight' is determined less by health considerations than by the sexual aesthetics of western societies. Put simply we view slim people as more attractive ergo being slim is healthier.

Except this isn't true, the evidence - sometimes (and misleadingly) call the 'obesity paradox' - suggests that the reverse is true and being overweight is more healthy than being normal weight:

...dozens of studies have confirmed the existence of the paradox. Being overweight is now believed to help protect patients with an increasingly long list of medical problems, including pneumonia, burns, stroke, cancer, hypertension, and heart disease. Researchers who have tried to show that the paradox is based on faulty data or reasoning have largely come up short. And while scientists do not yet agree on what the paradox means for health, most accept the evidence behind it.

Despite this evidence - and there are literally hundreds of studies that confirm the 'paradox' - public health persists in conflating overweight with obesity to create a massive scare story ('two-thirds obese or overweight' or similar) that justifies whole population interventions such as sugar taxes, fast food shop bans, ad restrictions and Jamie Oliver. We have well-funded 'obesity strategies' produced by every English local council that feature a raft of activities and interventions predicated on the idea that there's something called an 'obesogenic environment' filled will temptations that make folk fat.

The evidence here suggests that, instead of making nannying interventions that demonise individual macronutrients (sugar, fat and so on), we need to focus our effort and resources on the very fat and the very thin. And on healthy behaviours:

Paul McAuley, a health education researcher at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina, has been studying fitness for close to 20 years. He says most studies on weight and health fail to take it into account. “Or they ask one question about it,” he says, and don’t bother to go further. When McAuley collects data on fitness, he finds that it predicts health and longevity much more strongly than fatness.

It's time - just as with drinking - that we listened to the actual evidence on risk and harm associated with excess weight. And recognised that our definition of 'normal' weight do no match that evidence - in fact seems (if the findings that overweight people have lower mortality rates is true) to suggest that that 'normal' is actually unhealthy.


Friday, 20 November 2015

Cows aren't destroying the planet. Ignorant folk like George Monbiot are.


George Monbiot is having a go at cows. Well, not just cows but sheep, pigs, chickens and goats as well. And probably alpaca, yaks and dromedaries too.

Raising these animals already uses three-quarters of the world’s agricultural land. A third of our cereal crops are used to feed livestock: this may rise to roughly half by 2050. More people will starve as a result, because the poor rely mainly on grain for their subsistence, and diverting it to livestock raises the price.

As usual with Monbiot, the article is replete with links to assorted stuff mostly from the more scaremongering end of the climate change community. And the premise seems superficially appealing - it does require a whole load of grass to fatten a cow and, if we're growing grass we can't be growing grain crops suitable for humans to eat. The problem with this argument is that the facts about agriculture's land use don't fit Monbiot's scare story:

Ausubel, Wernick, & Waggoner (2013) argue that ‘peak farm’ is already a reality, saying ‘while the ratio of arable land per unit of crop production shows improved efficiency of land use, the number of hectares of cropland has scarcely changed since 1990. Absent the 3.4 percent of arable land devoted to energy crops (Trostle 2008), absolute declines would have begun during the last decade.’

In simpler terms, improved agricultural efficiency is allowing us to feed the world's population while using less land. The main reason for this, of course, is that there is a lot less inefficient subsistence farming (the sort of farming that organisations like Oxfam spend a lot of time trying to preserve) and a lot more commercial and industrial agriculture. Moreover, in terms of resource use, this sort of intensive farming is far more environmentally friendly:

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.

Farming - not everywhere but in too many places - is treated as if it were some sort of cultural activity rather than the means by which we feed the world's population. Monbiot talks about waste management issues associated with farming but doesn't recognise that these exist because, unlike other industries, farming has not had to capture the cost of this waste. It is not an inevitable consequence of of the business. Moreover, as those chaps at UC Davis showed, less intensive production is more polluting.

Finally can we put this greenhouse gas malarkey to bed. The cow's only source of carbon is the grass she chews. And the grass only has one source of carbon - the atmosphere. A good chunk of that carbon ends up in those fine marbled steaks we eat. So saying that a lot of the 'greenhouse gas' emissions come from cows farting might be true, but only if we believe that somehow those cows are magically creating more carbon than they consume.

As usual Monbiot is telling half-truths and peddling misinformation.


Wednesday, 18 November 2015

No Dr Pirie, you can't say that. It ain't so. Taking the Adam Smith Institute to task on the elderly.


The Adam Smith Institute is one of the good guys. I like their consistent defence of liberty and classical liberalism. Sam Bowman, the Research Director is one of those amazingly and eclectically brainy people that challenge how we look at things.

Sometimes they get stuff badly wrong:

Popular perception of the circumstances in which pensioners live is somewhat out of accord with modern reality. The image of a woman with a blanket over her shoulders, huddled over a fire and wondering if she can afford to toss another stick onto the flames does not accord with present day reality for most pensioners. Some 86% of pensioners live in households with assets in excess of £50,000. The average income of over 65s is £15,400. A young person working on current minimum wage for a normal working week earns just under £13,000. Yet the young person is taxed while the older person is guaranteed a triple locked pension that will rise with inflation, or average earnings, or 2%, whichever is the highest. On top of this comes a winter fuel allowance, a Christmas bonus and a free bus pass.

Don't get me wrong here - I have some sympathy with the argument being made (although the 'it's all baby boomers fault' schtick is a load of nonsense). But if you're to make an argument do it in a way that doesn't open you to having your argument blown out of the water.

"Some 86% of pensioners live in households with assets in excess of £50,000"

Yes. And this is a consequence of twenty or thirty years paying off a mortgage plus maybe fifty years squirrelling money away in a pension pot. Nothing to do with taking money from the young. And does Dr Pirie really think assets of just £50,000 is such a great big deal - especially since those assets, most commonly, represent the person's home and the savings they'll need to see out today's long retirement. More to the point, Dr Pirie is deliberately conflating assets with income to make his point.

"The average income of over 65s is £15,400. A young person working on current minimum wage for a normal working week earns just under £13,000. Yet the young person is taxed..."

First we've compared average income for the elderly with minimum wage for the young. Secondly most working young people are earning more than minimum wage. And while its true that the personal allowance is higher for those elderly over 77 (and they don't pay national insurance), it's not true to say that old people aren't taxed. And the basic state pension is included in that calculation.

This whole argument is out of the same box as the idea (which I'm sure the ASI would criticise) that somehow the rich have got that way at the expense of the poor. It really is nonsense - by all means say that pensioners get too much of a good deal but it's simply not the case that there's a great deal of 'redistribution from relatively poor young people to comparatively affluent older people'.

Finally most of those assets and that income will, in the end, get spent (quite rightly) on providing social care (mostly delivered by those low paid young people).