It’s astonishingly easy, it seems, for people who have the privilege of writing in national newspapers to be very, very wrong about very simple things. This is relatively easy to explain: when you’re writing for a newspaper, you’re not writing with the intention of being right, but rather to make the people reading that newspaper feel righteous about themselves. That’s how you keep getting commissioned to write articles for that newspaper: by helping it sell copies.

It’s a privilege all columnists should examine, because it can lead to them being wrong en masse. That’s happened here. To recap, Louise Mensch wrote an article complaining that British feminists spend their time analysing categories of privilege rather than getting out there and making strides for the sisterhood. It’s not surprising that Louise thought this, because she’s a Tory and many contemporary feminist battles over equal pay take place within unions, far away from her ken. However, given that even Cosmo is running a campaign for equal pay, her research may have been limited – or perhaps, given that she’s wealthy, she doesn’t even consider the enormous bulk of the female workforce receiving the same pay for the same work an issue at all. Indeed, her call for a ‘power feminism’ in which women empower themselves by making lots of money and achieving office sounds more like a girly Nietzschianism than something about securing equal rights. There’s a lot of analysis she needs to carry out on her own position before critiquing others.

Painfully, Laurie Penny responded by being nearly right, but as is so typical of the private-school-educated girl she failed to set her argument out properly. ‘Check your privilege’, the three little words that have given birth to far too many other enormous words, simply means to her ‘consider how your privilege affects what you have just said or done.’ This relatively simple phrase is far too easy to misinterpret, as Dan Hodges has taken great glee in doing, because unfortunately one has to talk about about domains and categories before something that is simple really makes any sense to anyone not versed in it. In claiming that it’s simple I’m exemplifying my privilege of having read stuff about this before. However, to start us off easily:

  • CYP only applies to a limited domain of questions. It does not, for example, mean that only a disabled albino can be right about the distance between the Earth and the Moon.
  • CYP does not preclude the possibility of every black person everywhere being wrong about the effects of racism.
  • CYP does not stop well-educated white middle class people being right about most things on account of their education.

It only really refers to the domain of opinion about how people experience things. I can claim that something’s not racist but my only experience of racism is being called a ‘Gyardee Angreszch’ (‘stupid English’) on the streets of Jaipur. That’s an indication both of my privilege and my pomposity. How I analyse and understand the experience of people being racist to someone else is through that framework, which I cannot avoid. Therefore, when someone claims that an act is racist and my initial reaction is to say that it’s not, I should check whether the framework through which I’m analysing that act is adequate. I might dismiss something as a minor sleight, but to someone who’s spent their entire life being told they’re stupid because they’re black, that minor sleight may be yet another reinforcement of a society that’s holding them down. In this instance, they would be right.

Of course, there will be lots of instances when that same framework will work against them. I’ve lost count of the number of tribunals friends and colleagues have been to when they’re trying to get rid of a useless member of staff who’s screamed racism as soon as a P45 was wafted in their direction. Just because society is racist doesn’t mean you’re not rubbish. What this implies is that ‘privilege’ is the wrong word: even if you’re less privileged, you should be aware of you’ve become predisposed to interpret society. I’d prefer ‘Check your framework’ but that’s much less catchy. It’s a useful intellectual discipline for everyone.

What this means is that the villain of this minor commentariat vignette is Laurie Penny. Dan Hodges we can forgive; he doesn’t understand what CYP means and wants the Left to win ultimate victory through the creation of a race of non-reflective Spartan super-campaigners. Louise Mensch we can forgive; she doesn’t understand what CYP means and just wants all women to become world-bestriding Dagny Taggarts. But Laurie Penny does understand what it means and despite that decided to (a) use it in a context ill suited to it (‘What is racist? is a CYP issue, ‘What is an effective way of combatting racism?’ is a much more empirical question once you’ve sorted the first one out) and (b) bemoan having to use it. Learning that you’re wrong is wonderful, because you learn something. Analysing your own position to make sure it’s correct is also wonderful, because it gives you intellectual integrity. Despite this, she used her position as a national commentator to complain about having to learn. That’s a privilege she wants to get sorted out pronto.

The Paradox of Walden

July 17, 2012

Yesterday, watching Paul Kingsnorth and Tim Worstall spar on Twitter over the price of milk, I was struck by two notions. Firstly, it’s fun to watch people who are wrong for different reasons argue. Secondly, the reasons for their disagreement are so fundamental that such a debate is pointless; there’s insufficient common ground for any kind of resolution to be reached.

Tim is a neoliberal, while Paul fancies himself as some kind of neo-Thoreau. Tim describes neoliberalism using the following:

“[Neoliberalism] does rather assume that individuals maximise, to the best of their ability and knowledge, their utility. But as any fule kno, utility and profit are not the same thing. Utility leaves room for feeling better about contributing to the care of others for example, something that profit doesn’t.”

This is actually an astonishingly weak claim; all it’s saying is that individuals aim to achieve their goals, whatever they may be, and however short-term they are. I can maximise my utility by buying either a full-fat meaty burrito this lunchtime, or a healthy snack consisting entirely of fruit, depending on my preferences and objectives. As such, it’s so tautological as to be almost entirely uninteresting: claiming that ‘people aim to achieve their aims’ is not going to set the intellectual world on fire.

The interesting claim is the second half of neoliberalism: ‘and markets are frequently the best way of enabling people to maximise their utility’. Tim might contrast this with an alternative, which is getting the Government to decide how best you maximise your utility. Certainly, it seems clear that you have a better understanding of your preferences than a far away civil servant in Whitehall, and that being able to decide which product or service that will be better at meeting your needs can be a preference in itself.

However, there is a problem with this approach, and it relates to the idea of untradeable goods. In deference to Paul’s position, let us consider this in the context of Thoreau’s Walden, accounted one of the greatest American novels and a forbear of modern environmentalism. Walden is a pond near Concord in Massachusetts by which Thoreau spent two years of his life in an effort to develop his understanding, intellect and spirituality through the tenets of the contemporary philosophy of transcendentalism.

Transcendentalism holds that society and its institutions corrupts the purity of Man, and that a true community can only be derived from self-reliant and independent individuals. In Walden, Thoreau goes a little beyond this to discuss the role of nature and wilderness in the introspection necessary to cultivate the spiritually self-reliant individual.

The self-reliant man creates the goods he needs to maximise his utility himself, and his utility is maximised because he created them himself. The utility provided by these goods is therefore not wholly intrinsic, but rather their extrinsic quality of being untraded.

It is this value – that a good being untraded provides maximum utility – that presents a problem for neoliberalism. If a good has utility because it is untraded, then this form of utility cannot be maximised by a preference expressed in a market. Thoreau expresses the price of the components of his hut at Walden in dollars, in order to demonstrate how cheaply it is possible to live a fulfilling life, but the actual cost of the hut should include the labour he spent creating it. If Thoreau were to buy such a hut on the open market, it would have a value, but because the utility of the hut to Thoreau is given by it being his own creation, the two are incommensurable. The paradox is that the market value of the hut is simultaneously zero and infinite: zero, because it is not offered for sale, and infinite, because no amount of money would persuade Thoreau to part with it.

This value presents a problem to neoliberalism because any dispute over a good to which some ascribe utility as a result of its non-traded status must necessarily be solved by politics. That is to say, when some members of a society ascribe value to a good as a result of it not participating in a market, the resolution of a dispute over its use can only be carried out within an agreed political framework, as the alternative is violence. If trade or negotiation is impossible, then the only way of resolving a problem is through force, whether in person or via the Government. Therefore, the Government must have a role to play in determining how we maximise our utility if such disputes cannot be resolved within a community. Moreover, if you ascribe value on the basis of goods being non-traded, it is preferable to have Government resolve disputes than leave it to the market.

It is worth noting that the wisdom of ascribing value as a result of a good’s non-traded status is not considered, I merely observe than there are people who do so. Paul’s attribution of non-tradeable extrinsic value to small-scale ‘uneconomic’ dairy farmers is something about which Tim will never be able to persuade him. I therefore suggest that both gentlemen resolve this issue in an appropriate fashion, with duelling pistols at dawn.

Monbiot’s Mistake

July 3, 2012

George Monbiot has today announced his discovery of economics. Well, that’s perhaps not precisely what he meant, but it’s certainly what this means:

“The constraints on oil supply over the past 10 years appear to have had more to do with money than geology. The low prices before 2003 had discouraged investors from developing difficult fields. The high prices of the past few years have changed that.”

You see, there’s no such thing as supply-and-demand as discrete quantities. What there is is ‘demand-at-a-price’ and ‘supply-at-a-price’. Until oil passed the $70/barrel price – and looked to remain there for the long term – there was no additional supply, because there was no demand for oil at $70/barrel. Now the market price is reaching over $100/barrel, there certainly is.

Monbiot is interpreting this to mean that peak oil, which he seems to conceive of as actually running out of the stuff, is not going to happen. However, this isn’t what peak oil actually is. Rather, ‘peak oil’ is a price of oil so high that other commodities fulfilling a similar role become cheaper by comparison. This includes, for example, renewable sources of electricity, hydrogen or electric cars, and non-oil based plastics and lubricants. In economics, these are known as ‘substitute goods’.

The increasing supply of oil from non-traditional sources spurred on by the high oil price is beginning to foster a market in substitute goods. For example, the US firm Metabolix has been in the business of producing plant-based plastics for several years now, and is the brainchild of ex-oil and pharmaceutical types. This stands outwith any Government subsidy programme, although I’m sure significant amounts of subsidy for corn in the US helped. We can expect this to continue as the price of oil rises.

As a result of this, there will not be one ‘peak’ for oil – there will be multiple plateaus and transitions in the price, as one substitute good replaces demand for oil from a particular sector. Eventually, our economy will no longer be dependent on it, as the price rises so high that we substitute it entirely. This will be long before it actually runs out; as has been said, the stone age did not end because we ran out of stones.

The above is not an argument against environmental activism, or leaving everything to the market – far from it. ‘Peak Oil’ will not come soon enough to prevent dangerous climate change, and so activism, both for subsidies for cleantech which bring forward the date at which they’re cheap enough to be a substitute good and against oil production fromthe likes of the tar sands, which increases the cost of gaining permits and so on, makes a difference. This fundamentally economic difference made by environmental activists may yet be the difference between dangerous climate change and climate change we can just about adapt to.

The lovely folk of Occupy have finally put together a list of policy demands, which have been perhaps unfairly compared to the demands of every student union for the last century. It’s true that they are long on rhetoric and short on actual research on how their world would actually work in practice and why it’s different to the forms of socialism we’ve already tried. It’s also true that they haven’t stopped to think about how the words in their manifesto cash out once they’re translated into their underlying components. For example:

“The economy must be put to the service of people’s welfare, and to support and serve the environment, not private profit. We want a system where labour is appreciated by its social utility, not its financial or commercial profit.”

What is ‘the economy’? The economy is the labour of everyone, the products of the effort of everyone in our country and on our planet. Translated, this means that everyone must be forced to labour for people’s welfare, which while it is a noble end is hardly a noble means. Slavery in the service of virtue remains slavery.

Unless the Occupy people can find a way of reconciling this fundamental problem, their manifesto will pass into history as yet another attempt to claim socialism works. History has already had other ideas.

Green Philosophy

March 13, 2012

Today the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton is giving a talk at Policy exchange about his new book, “Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet”. The title itself is an interesting challenge to environmental philosophers – thinking about the planet is, in itself, impossible; forming a judgement about the billions of separate inputs, parameters and indeed lives that comprise our world cannot be done in same way as we decide whether to kill the fat man. We cannot accommodate planet-wide problems within the rather limited confines of our thought processes, outwith analyses of serried ranks of numbers that are not amenable to our normal moral intuitions.

Yet, the very nature of climate change means that we are forced to consider the moral issues around planet-wide problems and to make judgements about them. Such judgements may, if we are not careful, degrade into mere social signifiers – e.g. “I do my recycling to demonstrate that I am morally good”, without any broader consideration of the issue to hand. The macro scale of the decisions to be made around preventing climate change – decisions iterated across billions of people and across decades of time – means that the judgement of ‘We should do something about climate change’ will not be made by any one person at any one point, but rather through the aggregate of the choices made by everyone in the years past and the years to come.

Therefore, in considering environmental philosophy, one does not consider any particular decision but rather one’s character, which gives rise to the decisions one makes. We should consider what virtues we can cultivate that make us more likely to undertake the ecologically correct action in any given situation. In this context, Scruton advocates that we should cultivate a virtue he calls oikophilia’. This is not, as one might assume, a reiteration of Cameron’s call to ‘hug a hoodie’, but rather refers to a love of home and community, and comes from the greek word ‘oiko’, meaning house. This is contrasted with a lack of this virtue – ‘oikophobia’, which as Jonathan Ree points out, it is difficult to imagine anyone actually possessing.

Scruton’s argument for this virtue is that it motivates; people do genuinely care about their environment inasmuch as it constitutes the framework that enables their community and home to exist. Oikophilia, when cultivated, motivates one to act in stewardship of one’s community, with the environmental protections that entails. Of course, this limits judgements made in the pursuit of environmental protection to those that do not disturb one’s understanding of one’s own community, as evidenced by Scruton’s statement: “Why care for the environment, if the price of doing so is the loss of an environment that you could care for?” The virtue cannot be self-defeating; one cannot destroy one’s motivation for following it through decisions arising from it.

Scruton calls this virtue conservative. However, it has a surprising level of similarity to, if one were being kind, one could describe as the ‘neo-peasantry’ advocated by the likes of the New Economics Foundation, and with the kind of embedded social networks discussed by Karl Polanyi. Indeed, it makes for odd bedfellows with Scruton’s commitment to free markets; if I am committed to my community, why should I buy goods from people who live beyond it? Why should I accept ownership of anything in my community by someone who lives outwith it? Even more broadly, why should I accept incomers into my community from outside?

This confusion has arisen because Scruton has failed to realise that the partner ‘vice’ to his virtue is not ‘oikophobia’ – as mentioned above, it is difficult to think of anyone who hates their own homes – but rather ‘biophilia’, the love of all life regardless of its connection to your community or, indeed, yourself. Scruton has recognised a rather basic psychological truth, which is that our intuitive moral concern does diminish with distance from the self, and attempted to harness this effect to motivate pro-environmental judgements. Oikophilia is not a virtue so much as a base state of mankind; one hardly needs to go round the world to identify that mankind is adept at organising itself into communities. Even in our great cities, communities exist: they merely overlap and coexist in the same space as each other; witness this description of a community forming around the use of Twitter during Question Time. While oikohilia can motivate environmental protection, it will necessarily do so in a way in which puts the protection of the aspects and parts of the environment of most meaning to that community over and above that of other communities. Scruton clearly recognises this tendency:

“Environmental degradation has one cause above all others: the propensity of human beings to take the benefit and leave the costs to someone else, preferably someone far away in space or time, whose protests can be safely ignored.”

However, he fails to realise that it is the partner of the virtue he advocates. Oikophilia can, and has been, harnessed in the cause of local environmental protection, but only incidentally in the cause of global action. Scruton rejects any imposition on communities from outside of, for example, a penalty on the use of fossil fuels, but simultaneously claims that those communities will accept that cost if it is imposed by themselves, even when the actual ‘cost’ of fossil fuels will, in all likelihood, not fall on that community for many years. There is no rational reason for a community of oikophiles to accept a cost that will fall on other people, and Scruton does not seem to provide one.

A true Green philosophy is to cultivate the virtue of biophilia, to possess a love of all life powerful enough to impose costs upon oneself in proportion to the costs of climate change across the planet, not simply their likely impact upon one’s community. Scruton’s rather narrow variant of this will do nothing beyond hand his fellow conservatives the justification to reject any remedy they dislike. Which may, perhaps, be the point.

With regard to the current fad for looting, Ken Livingstone said:

“The economic stagnation and cuts being imposed by the Tory government inevitably create social division. As when Margaret Thatcher imposed such policies during her recessions this creates the threat of people losing control, acting in completely unacceptable ways that threaten everyone, and culminating in events of the type we saw in Tottenham.”

There are two ways of interpreting Ken’s position here:

(1) The looters (oh, how Randroids must be loving drawing equivalences today) are the product of a given social context and are not responsible for their actions. Confronted with feelings of inadequacy and social failure, they react by lashing out with the only thing they know – violence. They are fundamentally incapable of determining their own actions.

(2) The looters have assessed the social contract, and determined that it is underperforming with regard to their share of resources. Having taken a view that a negotiated solution – i.e. traditional democratic politics – has failed to deliver what they regard as an adequate outcome, they have decided to use force to redress this balance.

On (1), Ken is describing the looters as fundamentally less than himself; as incapable of expressing moral agency. This is functionally equivalent to Tories dismissing them as feckless savages; both dehumanise and belittle the individuals involved. If all the looters were black, it would be racist; as it is, it’s a particular variant of misanthropy.

The claim that a particular subset of society is less human than oneself is evil. It permits sectarian division, it permits violence, and – of particular relevance when talking about Red Ken – it permits forms of social control that are fundamentally illiberal. So let’s be charitable to Ken, and assume he’s taking position (2).

I would support position (2) on a purely descriptive level. This was not a riot against an injustice, however it started, but a very clear effort to redress a perceived economic imbalance. The looters will have rationalised this to themselves by their perception of their social worth and economic opportunities in relation to the better off. Unlike (1), this is a rational human choice in a given context. This, of course, does not make it the correct choice.

Ken appears to be saying that policies which create social division through the removal of a given percentage of the proceeds of growth from a subset of society should expect to see that subset react violently. This is not an argument based on justice, but rather on social stability. It is not the case that last night’s looters ‘deserve’ new laptops, trainers and televisions purely because they live in a society in which other people possess these goods. The fact that they believe they do is the problem, not the imbalance of goods. Ken is supporting this position by saying that riots should be expected, instead of working to counteract that belief. That is fundamentally unwise – not evil, but certainly not clever.

Your share of society’s resources should be in proportion to the effort you put in to increasing them, above the fundamental level necessary for the development of judgement. Advocating a position other than this – that the relative wealth of others creates an additional share for you – is to advocate looting. And here, I do mean in the Randroid sense.

Few things are more irritating than otherwise sensible people claiming that they read the likes of the Mail and the Telegraph in order to get ‘all the sides of a story’. Newspapers don’t present sides of a story in terms of a measured weighing of pros and cons, they present the range of feelings you could have about a particular story. They certainly don’t, especially in the case of the Mail, bother to argue about why you should have them.

I’ve always felt that if you genuinely want to try to see other points of view, you should try to understand the philosophical underpinnings behind him. Unfortunately, not all points of view have proper philosophical underpinnings, so in those cases it’s better to understand the emotional case that lies at its root.

Last year I blogged my way through Atlas Shrugged, perhaps the most famous libertarian polemic. I did this initially with the hope that Ayn Rand had a proper philosophical backing for the internet’s most popular religion, but was rapidly disabused of this idea. Instead, what I found most fascinating about the book was the emotional case it presented; the virtues of the industrious presented against the moral cowardice of the feckless and avaricious. It is this emotional case which has led to its appeal.

Going to the opposite end of the political spectrum, I have recently finished reading The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. This book is in many ways the mirror of Atlas Shrugged; a morally compelling account of how capitalism has screwed the working classes over and how only socialism can afford a release. Originally, I considered blogging my way through it, but decided against it for two main reasons. The first is that the standard of prose in TRTP is much better than Rand’s work, which shuts down a whole avenue of potential mocking. The second is that the book is so much less overtly philosophical than Atlas Shrugged, and is set very firmly within a real town at a real period in history. Much of its content makes reference to contemporary legislative and political issues, and a blog of it would prove incomprehensible without providing enough ancillary material to fill a second book.

Nonetheless, it presents a very powerful picture of how capitalism can fail the worst off in society. There are two pieces of it I’d like to explore: The Money Trick and the Co-operative Commonwealth.

The Money Trick is an argument about how capitalism by its very nature screws over the worker. If one considers the capitalist class and the working class as two separate entities, one can understand this argument very clearly. The working class labours for the capitalist class to produce the necessities of life, which on production are owned by the capitalist class. The capitalist class pays the working classes for their labour. The working classes then have to use the money thus paid to buy back the necessities of life after they undertook the work to produce them. The capitalists end up with both the labour they paid for and the money they paid for it. The working classes get to exist.

It’s very clear from this argument that this arrangement is actually worse than slavery. An owner of a slave has an interest in their wellbeing, to ensure that they get maximum value out of their asset. A capitalist employer doesn’t need to care if his employees get sick or die, as there’s plenty more where they came form.

The obvious rejoinder is that the class analysis is wrong; class is a confused inchoate thing, and people on various levels of income have different roles within the economy, and can genuinely see their living standards rise. This is correct, but it’s also important to recognise the fundamental truth contained within the argument: if you’re working all the hours you have to merely sustain your existence, then you’re worse off than a slave. You have no means by which you can improve your prospects if you’re at the top of your field already, as the author’s painters and decorators are. It’s clear that if capitalism is to work for people like that, an element of redistribution is necessary to permit at a minimum some form of advanced training.

The Co-0perative Commonwealth is the author’s vision of a future socialist society, in which all industries are managed by the State and everyone is paid the same, regardless of the work they do. It is presumed that more prestigious jobs will be rewards in themselves for those who choose to take them up, while for jobs such as rubbish collecting, the hours of labour will be constrained to reflect their low status. Pay will remain the same regardless.

There are many other details of this future society in the book, which I will not go into here. However, it’s important to be clear that the society envisioned by the author is inherently romantic. It is an idealised society in which everyone has a chance to flourish in line with their own wishes. And – let’s be clear – it is a wonderful vision of how society might work. Absolute freedom from worrying about the cost of living is something that capitalism will never be able to offer by itself.

The book was written before the formation of the Soviet Union, so it’s wrong to call it to account for not anticipating the horrors that socialism actually brought. However, while socialism never worked in practice, the Co-operative Commonwealth provides an argument that the Right will never be able to refute: that a society in which everyone is free to flourish by any means of their choosing is a wonderful vision. It’s an impossible vision, but that doesn’t stop it being a wonderful vision.

This discord lies at the heart of many of the disputes in politics: an impossible but just society is still something many of the Left would argue politics should be directed towards, while those on the Right argue that politics should be directed towards the possible. The conflict of impossible justice against vicious reality is eternal, and unlike Rand’s doorstopper, this is a book I can heartily recommend.

I love The Daily Mash.

The wonderfully satirical website was kicked off in 2007 by Neil Rafferty, a former political correspondent for The Sunday Times, and Paul Stokes, former business editor of The Scotsman. As former journalists, they clearly have a good grasp of the inherent absurdities in much of what their former comrades churn out – and the capacity to subvert it on a daily basis.

It’s a lucrative business – two-thirds of their readers earn over £30k, a great statistic for attracting advertisers. Rafferty and Stokes clearly know their audience well. They know how they think, and what appeals to them.

For example, this article on the possibility of lower-ranking universities closing is right on the money. The title, “Closing bad universities could exclude people who did nothing at school” is an adequate summary of what many people who went to higher-ranking universities secretly think. Secretly, and sometimes overtly. We’ve all had those conversations.

It’s almost as though it’s actually targeted at a particular set of opinions held by a well-off demographic, and serves to confirm those opinions while secretly laughing at everyone else. The analogy would be the Daily Mail, which is again set up to confirm the opinions of a particular demographic by expressing horror at the antics of everyone else.

The founders are journalists. Journalists don’t report the truth any more, that’s what agency reporters are for. Instead, journalists shape the truth into something so tasty you’ll want to gobble it up and come back for more of their news hors d’oeuvres. It just so happens that the tastiest form of news for a particular demographic, amongst whose ranks I count myself, is humour. This very particular market covers the increasingly successful The Daily Show, and – I suppose – 10 o’clock Live.

It’s a bit worrying when a significant number of people actively seek out opportunities to view the world through some sort of ironic detachment, as though everything outwith their immediate circle is some sort of silly mistake and will be sorted out as soon as right-thinking people get onto it. On the other hand, it is very funny.

Following their election victory last year, Islington Labour set up the Islington Fairness Commission. Great news, I said. I am entirely in favour of fairness; after all, where would we be without abstract nouns?

The Commission’s job was to investigate how Islington could be made a fairer place, and, familiar as I am with Islington Labour’s incredibly high opinion of itself, I anticipated that they viewed it as something that should eventually be rolled out across the country, and to be something that people should think of in the same way that we now think of the NHS. If you think I’m exaggerating, you should check out their record on free school meals for all, which they genuinely viewed as the triumphant capstone of the welfare state.

Party politics aside, the Commission was designed to be inclusive, incorporating inputs from a variety of stakeholders including Lib Dem councillors and the Chamber of Commerce. This was the right thing to do – my cynicism aside, a better society can only be built by bringing everyone with you. The news of this approach cheered me. I was less cheered when I heard that the chair of the Commission was to be Professor Richard Wilkinson, co-author of The Spirit Level.

For those who haven’t read it, The Spirit Level is an attempt to explain every social ill as a product of inequality by comparing countries with different levels of inequality against different social ills, like crime or ill health. As with most theories of everything, the book starts off in its comfort zone, attempting to explain increased mental illness as a product of increased social anxiety brought on by increased inequality. This sounds at least mildly plausible, but then the book goes on to try to claim that everyone is made more unhealthy by increased health inequalities and it devolves into a series of scatter graphs with questionable ‘best fit’ lines running through them. Gerry Hassan has this to say about it:

Yet, it is almost impossible to compare these countries on equality; they are very different in their cultures, values and histories. Wilkinson and Pickett claim that ‘more equal societies almost always do better’—a universalist, sweeping statement—which cannot be substantiated by most of their data…. Part of the success of The Spirit Level is liberal guilt, part the retreat of the left, part wish-fulfilment and projection.”

There’s a good series of eviscerations over on The Spirit Level Delusion, a blog by Christopher Snowdon. Despite being a libertarian, Snowdon appears to like proper facts rather than the made-up research fond of the climate sceptics so dominant in his creed.

Given that the Commission was to be chaired by Wilkinson, I anticipated that its product would be a combination of wishful thinking and impractical suggestions. Its final report has now been released, and it contains 19 recommendations. Let’s go through these to find out how right I was.

Recommendation 1: Wages
No-one in Islington should do a hard day’s work for less than they can live on.

– Employers in Islington should pay all their directly employed staff as a minimum the London Living Wage (currently £8.30/hr). Employers should also review their procurement, contract and best value policies to ensure that, as far as possible within UK and EU law, the London Living Wage is the minimum paid to all their contracted staff as well.

There is literally no recommendation about how this is to be achieved. None. The only body this could apply to is the Council as a consequence, which while being a step in the right direction was already a Council policy.

Recommendation 2: Pay differentials
Tackling income inequality is crucial to forging a fairer Islington.

– All major employers in the borough should publish their pay differentials to enable them to be scrutinised and challenged where appropriate. In the case of Islington Council, this should mean establishing a formal subcommittee, including officer, member and union representation, to review pay differentials within the organisation with a view to reducing income inequality where possible.

Nothing wrong about transparency in the private sector around pay, but again there’s no recommendation as to how you’re going to get them to do this. The report also recommends that the pay differential in the Council should be 1:12 between the lowest and highest paid, which is an odd ratio and nothing at all to do with new CE’s salary level.

Recommendation 3: Debt
Personal debt compounds poverty and inequality, and may worsen as people in Islington lose their jobs.

– Islington Council should explore the possibility of passing a by-law to prevent payday loan companies from operating in the borough. And it should vigorously use its enforcement powers and those of its partners to take action against illegal activity by loan sharks who prey on vulnerable Islington residents.

Ah, an actual policy! And I bet it’s one the pawn shops lobbied hard over. This will make them a fortune, as people trade in Granny’s silver until payday at similarly usurious rates of interest as the now banned payday loan companies. I’m also disappointed to learn that the Council isn’t already using its powers of enforcement vigorously; the implication being that previously it just couldn’t be arsed to take action.

This one really annoys me, actually; people sometimes need payday loans, and there’ll always be a market for them. Why they didn’t want to encourage existing credit unions to expand is beyond me, but of course it has nothing to do with credit unions being genuine examples of civil society that aren’t Council-driven.

Recommendation 4: Employment
Employment for Islington’s residents is the best way to tackle poverty in the borough.

-Employers in Islington should, by means of legitimate positive action (such as advertising job opportunities in local media before national media) increase the proportion of local people they employ, especially among currently under-represented groups, such as disabled people. In the case of Islington Council this should mean increasing the proportion of Islington residents in its workforce from 23 per cent to 30 per cent by 2014.

Islington jobs for Islington workers! It’s a good thing that Islington isn’t surrounded by similarly deprived boroughs containing people desperately in need of work within travelling distance.

Shit, Hackney exists. Someone should’ve told them that. Luckily I’m sure better-off people in Islington won’t go for lucrative Council jobs just along the road from them, and will certainly defer employment to poorer people from other boroughs.

Recommendation 5: Jobs for young people
No young person in Islington should be altogether out of education, employment and training.

– Employers in Islington should do more to support young people who are at risk of falling into the cycle of poverty. In particular, they should support the new initiatives being developed to this end by Islington Business Board, including their programme of mentoring and work experience which will support young people into employment or training or help them to start a business of their own.

Ah, that Wilkinson, he does love his wishful thinking. On the other hand, the Council offering more mentoring and work experience placements isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Recommendation 6: Corporate social responsibility
We need businesses and charities in Islington to be on the side of fairness.

– Islington Chamber of Commerce and its partners should develop a plan to promote the following important activities among businesses and charities in the borough, for example through a Fair Islington kitemark scheme:
o Pay at least the London Living Wage to all staff
o Have a pay differential of less than 1:20
o Ensure access to both premises and opportunities for disabled people
o Offer apprenticeships and/or paid internships
o Offer work experience placements
o Have employee representation on remuneration panels
o Recognise trade unions
o Offer family-friendly employment practices, including flexible and part-time working and job-sharing opportunities
o Offer support for childcare, including childcare loans
o Support workless people to prepare for the world of employment

Ah, so this is their enforcement mechanism. A badge. Schumpter was taking the piss out of socialists using badges as a reward for good behaviour in their ideal societies back in the 50s, which as a scholar I’m sure Wilkinson is well aware of. But, to give the scheme its due, let me tell you exactly what’s going to happen. Businesses invited to take part in this will add up the cost of all the above against the extra trade attracted by having a badge in their window. The ones that do do this will be businesses catering to middle-class customers who can afford the extra cost, and who already do most of these things already, especially with regard to pay. The least well-off, those family members working for poverty wages in their uncle’s takeaway, will not be affected. But little Johnny who’s working during his summer holidays will be quids in.

Recommendation 7: The first year, and before
What happens during pregnancy and a child’s first year is crucial to a child’s life chances.

– There should be a major review, convened by the new Health and Wellbeing Board, of all public, private and voluntary sector activity in Islington to support parents, and parents-to-be, from the point of a child’s conception to his or her first birthday. In particular, this should look at significantly improving the coordination of services, especially those delivered by GPs, Midwives, Health Visitors and the Council.

Shit, they’re having a review. Well, I bet child poverty will just give up and go home. The reason quoted for better co-ordination between various services is to reduce the complexities encountered by new parents. This is a laudable aim, but it falls under the heading of, “You mean they’re not doing this already?!”

Recommendation 8: Affordable childcare
A lack of affordable childcare is a serious barrier to parents returning to work.

– Islington Council and its partners should establish a local ‘Childcare Coalition’, involving schools, public sector organisations, the voluntary sector, for example Islington Childcare Trust, and employers to increase the amount of affordable childcare available in the borough, especially during school holidays. This should include, for example, protecting the extended schools offer despite cuts to its funding. The ‘Childcare Coalition’ should also work to persuade employers to support parents in working flexibly around childcare provision.

Actually, this is a really good idea. I’m not going to knock it. To be fair to socialists, they’re normally pretty good at looking after kids, whereas child poverty is something the Right really doesn’t understand.

Recommendation 9: ‘Islington Reads’
The ability to read is essential for a fairer Islington.

– A new community collaboration should be set up, organised by a partnership of public sector and voluntary sector organisations, to share reading skills across communities in Islington. This will help both children and adults to improve their literacy.

On the other hand, this is utterly meaningless. I presume they mean some sort of voluntary teaching arrangement – I did this once for kids that had difficulty reading – but given they’re wrapping it up in Council clothes I’d bet that it’ll be nearly impossible to engage with. This is something that’s really better left to the schools and the voluntary sector.

Recommendation 10: Giving time, giving money
Giving time and giving money is a good way of challenging poverty and inequality in our borough.

– Islington Giving should be supported to:
o champion Islington’s needs and encourage residents and businesses to donate time and money to the campaign
o continue its efforts to recruit, train and deploy 500+ new volunteers in the borough by 2014
o establish a new ‘Good Neighbours’ scheme to reduce social isolation, particularly among older and disabled people, and build community spirit in the borough
– Islington Council should, with Voluntary Action Islington, coordinate the valuable volunteering time it affords its employees, so that such efforts are targeted at Islington recipients in greatest need.

The charities mentioned here are doing great work. Pity that the Council wants in on the act.

Recommendation 11: Public space
We need to reclaim, protect and maintain communal spaces in Islington for community use.

– Islington Council and partners should identify all unused communal space in Islington, especially on estates, to free it up, make it accessible and use it, following the example of successful projects such as Edible Islington and the London Orchard Project.

You mean the Council doesn’t already have a register of all the land it owns and maintains and its current status? What on earth are they doing?

Recommendation 12: Antisocial behaviour
Antisocial behaviour damages communities and contributes to social isolation.

– A single telephone number should be established for reporting antisocial behaviour, requiring collaboration between Housing Associations, Homes for Islington, Islington Police and the Council. This should improve residents’ experience when reporting antisocial behaviour and simplify the route to getting concerns addressed. The resulting coordinated response should enable a more effective and efficient approach to tackling antisocial behaviour, particularly on estates.

Actually, this is a pretty good idea. Full marks for understanding the efficient use of force.

Recommendation 13: Fallout from crime
Tackling crime is about more than just punishing its perpetrators.

– Islington Council, together with its partners in Victim Support and Islington Police’s Safer Neighbourhoods Teams, should enhance the work done with individuals and communities that are victims of crime and antisocial behaviour to resolve local problems. This should include further work to implement restorative justice, acceptable behaviour contracts, community payback and reparation, and the return of the proceeds of crime.

Aren’t all these things happening already? ‘Enhance’ pretty much means, “Keep it up chaps, well done.”

Recommendation 14: Overcrowding
Tackling overcrowding needs to be a top priority in Islington.

– Planning policies and the Council’s new-build programme should prefer family-sized housing.
– Tenancy audits should continue to establish the potential for down-sizing.
– Islington Council should do even more to enhance its downsizing offer to under-occupiers. This could include three-way swaps; holding local swap meetings; ensuring a move happens within a year; getting people who have downsized to speak to people who are eligible to do so about the benefits; and offering a tailored package of support to help older people downsize from properties they can no longer manage (while making clear to those who may be concerned that evictions and forced transfers on these grounds are out of the question).
– Each year the council should estimate the maximum potential number of under-occupation moves, based on the supply of smaller homes, and provide incentives and support to reach this maximum.
– Reviews of allocation policies and lettings processes should ensure that priority for overcrowding is maintained, and where possible increased.

Let me translate this one: “We know proper tenancy reviews are necessary for the fair allocation of a limited resource, but we haven’t got the balls to recommend anything that might possibly result in someone getting hurt, so instead we’re going to go for a rather pathetic half-way house that’ll cost more and be less effective.”

Recommendation 15: Housing supply
Increasing the supply of decent, genuinely affordable homes is essential.

– Islington Council should strive to bring empty space into residential use by:
o Eliminating empty space above shops through writing to all shop owners to discuss the opportunities and benefits and requiring relevant staff, for example Town Centre Managers, Trading Standards officers and Environmental Health officers to enquire about space above shops as part of their routine
o Identifying empty space in commercial and office buildings for conversion for residential use, especially properties that have remained empty for some time and those that are in residential rather than commercial areas
– The Council and Housing Associations should maximise their efforts to eliminate housing fraud and illegal sub-letting, so that social housing is used fairly, according to need.
– The Council should work with Housing Associations to ensure a supply of genuinely affordable social housing and discourage rent levels that are out of reach of people on average or low incomes.

God forbid that they would recommend that more houses be built.

Recommendation 16: Health inequalities
Islington’s stark health inequalities demand a more active and targeted response.

– The new Health and Wellbeing Board should draw up a clear plan of action to address well-documented health inequalities in the borough. This plan should include targeted responses to populations in need, including preventive programmes tailored to the needs of deprived or excluded groups, such as people with learning difficulties or serious
mental health problems, homeless people and older people.

While it’s a bit mealy-mouthed to say, “Other people should work out what we have to do here”, the fact that they’ve identified a body to do it is a legitimate move.

Recommendation 17: Children’s health
Good health in childhood is essential to a fairer Islington.

– NHS Islington and Islington Council should:
o support all schools in Islington to achieve ‘enhanced healthy schools’ status and all children’s centres to achieve ‘healthy children’s centre’ status
o ensure every child has free vitamin drops up to the age of 5 years
o undertake an inequalities analysis of immunisation uptake, to ensure that effort to support this programme is adequately targeted
o and seek to reduce the number (or at least check the further proliferation) of fast food outlets near schools

These are actually pretty sensible suggestions. I’d have preferred a stronger commitment on the opening of new fast food outlets, but hey, well done on this one.

Recommendation 18: Mental health
Times of economic hardship are particularly stressful, so we must increase support for mental health.

– NHS Islington needs to increase the number of people accessing support for depression and anxiety, particularly with levels of unemployment rising and increasing financial hardship which will increase mental ill-health in the borough.

Yes. But how?

Recommendation 19: Exercise
Islington’s health would improve significantly if more people exercised.

– Islington Council should:
o negotiate with the Mayor of London and Transport for London to make it easier to cycle in Islington by getting the Barclays Bikes scheme extended further north into the borough, by encouraging people from all backgrounds to use it, and by getting the Freedom Pass and/or other concessions to work on it
o explore with schools, Aqua Terra and other relevant partners how to make it easier for local residents to use the excellent school sporting facilities, including swimming pools, we now have in the borough
– Islington GPs should use to the full their ability to prescribe exercise.

These are all solid suggestions, but I’m surprised to see the most obvious one isn’t there – “Make it safe to use the parks when it’s darker during winter.”

Overall, it’s exactly as I expected – mostly wishful thinking with little real content. But everything in it is entirely well-meaning, and I worry that I’ve come across as snidely kicking a communist puppy. It is for this reason that I expect my fellow Lib Dems will vote that the Council adopts it on June 30th.

The State of Aid

May 29, 2011

You know, if I was in charge of a Government which anticipated an upswing in stories about the poor and disabled being hard-done by by your policies, I’d probably find some way to pre-emptively mitigate that. I’d ensure that if things did start getting worse, I’d have some previous decision people could point to, just so people might say, “That Prime Minister, you know, he’s not such a bad chap. All that dreadful stuff about the poor – at least he’s looking after the worst off in the world. I feel safe to keep voting for him in the knowledge that he’s compassionate towards the most deserving.

“After all, if people in the UK are suffering but still have access to housing, food, and healthcare, we clearly should be spending more on foreign aid to people who genuinely need it. They’re starving, homeless and without medicine.”

Coincidentally, foreign aid spending gets this sort of result much more cheaply than UK welfare spending.

EDIT: I have decided to call this political philosophy ‘One World Conservatism’.