Monday, 27 October 2014

Sex, drugs and neoliberalism

So let me get this straight. Our economy is deemed to be doing better than we thought because the inclusion of the sex and drugs market has boosted it by about £10 billion a year. But that's not the important point when it comes to the EU. We have been presented with a bill because the improvement in our economy is bigger than the improvement in other economies, which are all now being measured by the same rules. So, clearly, we're spending more on sex and drugs than other people do. Why would that be? I can think of several reasons but for me there are two front runners.

1) Communities and our personal economies in this country are so much more tedious, pointless and hopeless than in other countries that more of us are turning to paid sex and paid drugs in order to alleviate the migraine of the mind that our condition causes us.

2) We have so completely swallowed the neoliberal Thatcherite line that the only meaningful experiences are those you pay for that we prefer to pay for our drugs and our sex.

Laugh in your grave, Lady T. Either way you've won. More comprehensively than you ever hoped. You have completely turned the country you once governed into a place that knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing. And pays the price.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Tunnelling under you

So the Tories want to change the law so that fracking companies can tunnel under your house whenever they want without you being able to do a thing about it.

Much of the argument in favour of fracking relies on the apparently profitable experience of the United States, together with concerted and persistent attempts to rubbish reports about contamination, earthquakes and so on. A publication by IDDRI, the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations, “Unconventional wisdom: economic analysisof US shale gas and implications for the EU” suggests that the benefits of fracking to the USA are not as large as some would claim.

Their estimate is a “long-term effect on the level of US GDP (not its long-term annual growth rate) at about 0.84% between 2012 and 2035”. Not massive. And given that we know that, because of geological differences, fracking is a lot cheaper in the States than here, that suggests it really won't make any big difference to our economy at all.

They also suggest “the US shale revolution will not lead to a significant, sustained decarbonisation of the US energy mix” - and that should be the ultimate goal of all energy policy, to decarbonise so as to reduce the threat to our environment.

And finally “Shale production would not have significant macroeconomic or competitiveness impacts for Europe in the period to 2030- 2035”. So look elsewhere for a properly sustainable and effective energy policy.

I was about to finish by blaming the government for pursuing shale with reckless abandon (are we allowed to say “Reckless” now about the Conservative led coalition?), and I do think they, or at least the Tory part, are being at least silly and at most downright reckless with our future. But then I realised that I would be falling into the neoliberal trap which allows corporations to stoke spending and consumption by blaming governments for everything that goes against our inclinations. In this case the Tory half of government is to blame, but it's not all their fault: we should be consuming less, heating the planet less, and making clear to our political leaders that further fossil fuel consumption is not acceptable.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Sex and relationship education

LibDem policy to guarantee sex and relationship education for seven and up has been published to a muted fanfare and the usual prurient response. 

Broadly the idea is to ensure that from as young an age as possible, children in all schools including academies and free schools get good solid teaching about relationships and about sex as appropriate. Part of the aim is to prevent the kind of abuse that we have seen in Rotherham by enabling children to avoid getting into difficult situations. But it is about much more than that, the ability to make sensible decisions about relationships of all kinds and in all situations. Good schools do this already, but not all schools do, and good schools find the place for this kind of education squeezed by the legal requirement to do so much other stuff. Sex and relationship education is just as important, so reluctantly, as a liberal, I accept the need to put it on as firm a footing as other educational requirements. 

One of the reasons it is necessary is because British society in general and media in particular are hopeless at setting the right tone for children to make decent decisions for themselves. This is largely because the media and the chattering elements of all classes are obsessed with sex. Predictably, all the headlines on this initiative are about “sex education”, when the full title is “sex and relationship education”. Good schools, even good nurseries, start doing relationships at a really young age, teaching how to share, how not to hit, and good schools continue the process at age appropriate levels. They need to be encouraged to do so and to keep it central to the curriculum.

I think one small adjustment to the language we use might help to make debate more purposeful and rational. We should call it “relationship and sex education” rather than the other way round. The reason is that those who most need to consider it properly stop listening as soon as they hear the word “sex”, and assume that it must be about teaching five year olds what an erection is and which holes it can go in. If the phrase were the other way round, some people might start reacting more sensibly and understanding that relationship education is properly a part of what a school teaches, and that sex education is a part of that at the appropriate time.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014


I have too much stuff. I am trying to get rid of it. It's not about the space, which is lucky as I live with a squirrel. Two squirrels. And a third who was moved out but left their stuff behind. Space would be nice, but I'm reconciled to any space I empty being instantly filled by my squirrel relatives. It's more about living simply, and also more about what I acquire in the future than the possessions I have now. My motives are mixed. Partly they are a religious response to a society that judges people by their possessions, and partly they are an environmental response to the issue of sustainability. After three score years on this planet I'm slowly beginning to think all this through. And I'm going quite tentatively, as will be obvious to many people who, I am sure, have got much further than me.

I have reduced the amount of stuff I have by a considerable proportion. That is partly illusory as a lot of my downsizing has been the replacement of physical copies of books and music with electronic copies. Interesting questions arise as to whether e-books are more sustainable than paper ones...  (Apparently, they are, but I want to check exactly what is taken into account in the calculation.)

So I suppose it's partly about stuff and partly about my footprint. I could get rid of a lot of stuff, and I wouldn't miss it. But there is still stuff I would miss, much of which is darned expensive to keep going. My life has gone largely digital. I don't miss paper any more (and I really like the fact that I don't get a newspaper any more, ever). But I do want to be in touch and that involves the internet. That involves a massive capital structure of electricity generation, hardware development, mining and production of materials for manufacture, delivery of goods, even the launching of satellites into space so that I can get the signal I want, further development of the apps I use, development and agreement of protocols, construction of security systems, administration and management of the spaces I use. I could live very simply with just a mobile phone, but the scientific, industrial, economic and environmental impact behind that one device is massive.

The same in a way is true with food and drink. I could eat and drink only local produce, which would be fine for me, but a bit precious when it wouldn't work if we all did it, as there isn't enough food in the UK for all 60+ million of us. So, even if I use my local shop, I'm get supplied from a field worked by a tractor and a combine harvester, via a lorry, possibly a ship or a plane, another lorry, a distribution centre, with a  whole lot of refrigeration along the way, to another lorry that gets it to the shop I'm going to buy it from. Big footprint there. Or perhaps tyre track. And there are plenty of other examples, like drug development.

So I could change what I do a lot without having much impact on the economic and environmental structure of the world I live in. But in a way that is not the point. I'd like to find a way to consume less that would be possible not just for me but for everybody. I've no idea how far I'll manage that. But, I've started, so I'll see where I get to.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Bedroom tax, sanctions and other benefit issues....

The news that Liberal Democrat policy has turned against the bedroom tax is very welcome indeed. My only regret about it is that it does not go far enough, but it probably went as far as could be reasonably achieved. Largely this is a move in a political game, using a formal report that tells us what we already knew (and only some of it) as cover for a change of policy that is carefully designed to distance us from the Tories enough to be able to make a separate space for ourselves, but not so far as to endanger the coalition. That being the case, I doubt that we will see much more in the way of policy differentiation on benefits until a few weeks short of the election. I live in hope but I'm not holding my breath.

It always was a crap policy. Nice idea to share out housing more equally, but the key way to do that is to build more houses. Nice idea to reduce the benefit bill, but the key way to do that is to build more houses and reduce the market price. You get the picture. The brainlessness of the policy, as hatched in the thing IDS calls his mind is exposed here, and in many other places, better than I can do.

I do hope for more because, looking across the whole breadth of the coalition's endeavours, I see nothing that has been as destructive as the DWP's war on claimants. Tory shenanigans on the NHS have hurt a lot of people, and cost a lot of money. There is little evidence that they have caused as much misery and even shortening of life as Iain Duncan Smith's pernicious policies and practices. His mantra has been fairness, “It can't be fair that...”. Fairness works both ways; there has to be fairness for claimants as well as for tax payers. They are often the same people, which IDS seems to ignore.

I hope the next step we take is to repudiate the sanctions regime. Of course you need a bit of stick to deal with the few recalcitrants who have no intention of taking a job. But there are very few of those, and hundreds of thousands of ordinary decent people are being clobbered hard with sanctions for the most minimal of reasons, and sometimes not even that. Let's remember, a sanction is not just a slap on the wrist. It is the loss of four weeks of benefits (the first time). The claimant is rendered destitute for a month. And that is supposed to help them look for work. And it is a totally unfair system. Make a thought experiment with me for a moment, please.

Suppose you are at work in a good steady job, 9 to 5, 5 days a week, doing well, no complaints. One day you turn up five minutes late for work. Your boss fines you a month's wages. Once you've got over that, your boss gives you a date for an appraisal. You tell your boss you can't make it as you have an appointment with a customer, and you keep the customer appointment. Your boss fines you a month's wages for missing the appraisal. When you finally have your appraisal - bear with me, this one's a corker - when you finally have your appraisal, you have a heart attack in the middle of it and have to be sent home. Your boss - you guessed it - fines you a month's wages for not completing the appraisal. You would not think any of those decisions were fair, would you? Every one of these is documented as having been done to claimants.   The heart attack one is a bit of a one off, but the others are not exceptional, they are being done repeatedly to thousands of claimants by job centres and their outsourced agencies  every day, every week, every month. It is pernicious, it is nasty,  it is completely ineffective in helping anyone to get a job. It should cease if we want to claim any kind of civilisation in our policy.

Along with the vindictiveness, there is the sheer incompetence with which much of this is being managed. See here for more details.   And the story of David Clapson is just one example of the effects of Mr Duncan Smith's poisonous policies.

Maybe a good strap line for LibDem policy would be “a Britain free of food banks”. Much as I have great respect for the Trussell Trust (particularly after they stood up to IDS) and their brethren, I hate the fact that we live in the sixth largest economy in the world, and we cannot find enough to keep even working people away from the need to beg for food. And I am sure that there is much good that the Trussell Trust and their like could do once the need to feed people was done away with. Most people who can work really want to find a job. It is the lack of jobs, not the number of applications they send in which is preventing them from getting one. Most people who cannot work really cannot work, and lead lives far more painful than most of us can imagine. It is time we pledged respect within our benefits system, and a decent minimum benefit for all.

Footnote: we have a LibDem minister in the DWP as in most other departments, and the LibDem minister's job is to keep an eye over the whole range of departmental policy and mitigate where necessary. Our man at the DWP is Steve Webb, who has done an excellent job carrying through much needed reforms to pension policy. He has achieved widespread recognition for what he has done. Even Labour have kept very quiet about what he's done, which means there is nothing there for them to attack. I do not know what Steve Webb has done on the mitigating front, but I think two factors come into play. When made minister for pensions, Steve would have recognised that there was an opportunity for him to take pension reform by the scruff of the neck, but also that that would be an all consuming job. Secondly, I think he would have seen very quickly that IDS was unstoppable and also capable of being extremely nasty to people he didn't like. (None of that “quiet man” stuff any more.) I'm sure Steve can look after himself in a fight, but it's a massive waste of energy that can be more profitably spent elsewhere. It would have been very rational for him to focus on pension reform and not try to get in the way of the IDS juggernaut. Even his junior ministers had that glint of “if it hurts you, it must be good for you, and actually we don't care if it turns out not to be good for you anyway” about them. Remember, at the start of this government DWP had Chris Grayling as well, whose bare faced lies outstrip even IDS's.  

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Did Douglas Adams get the idea from Don Cupitt?

I've been reading Don Cupitt lately. For a lot of it, that really means I've been looking at the words in sequence rather than actually reading it. It's been very good for some things actually. Very thought provoking. Currently, I'm reading The Leap of Reason. Here is a page from it.

Note the section heading at the bottom "The Meaning Of Life". Now note the page number.

The Leap of Reason was published in 1976 (though this is a later edition). Hitchhiker's Guide was published in 1978. Just a thought.

Update 5th August to include another curious coincidence. My attention has been drawn to Douglas Adams' creation Oolon Colluphid, author of such works as  "Where God Went Wrong", "Some More of God's Greatest Mistakes" and "Who is this God Person Anyway?"  While a lot of people think Adams had Richard Dawkins in mind, Cupitt apparently says in  "The Great Questions of Life" that he, Cupitt, was the inspiration for the character. Hat tip to Chris Griffiths for that one.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Student loans and the economy

The Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee warned today that the student loan system is at tipping point. The amount that the government will not get back is apparently likely to rise - at the moment it is forecast that 45p out of every pound will not come back as opposed to an initial estimate of 28p. The Committee also questioned the efficiency of the Student Loan Company's collection process, but that is a minor issue compared to the prospect of many student loans never being paid back.

Perhaps I'm being simplistic, but it seems to me to be quite logical that the amount of unreturned loan will rise. The right wing half of this government has a vision of the economy which is at odds with the (still) stated purpose of higher education policy. Their policies over the last four years have been moving us very effectively towards a low wage, low security economy, with a relatively small managerial and technical sector (for which university level education is necessary). While we apparently have more people than ever before in full time work, it is also the case that a very large proportion of them are in low paid work. (Hence also the benefit bill is not coming down as much as the poisonous IDS wants, because hefty amounts of tax credits and housing benefit are still being paid to people in full time work whose employers ought to be paying them a decent wage.) We are producing more graduates than this type of economy needs, so many of the graduates we produce may never earn more than the threshold for repayment.

In my view it is very short sighted to aim for this kind of economy, but that is what it seems we are being stuck with, so it will be very interesting to see how far the student loan policy unravels before politicians start rethinking it. Either that, or we need a change of economic tack which neither Conservatives nor Labour seem likely to provide.