Sunday, 17 September 2017

And you thought central London was crowded?

There's a new Atlas of Urban Expansion published and New Geography review it - including this piece of information:
Dhaka's urban density has risen three percent over the last 25 years, as much of the additional population has been housed in low-rise, unhealthful shantytowns (see: The Evolving Urban Form: Dhaka), where densities are reported to be as high as 2.5 million per square mile or 1 million per square kilometer (photograph above). This is 35 times the 70,000 per square mile density of Manhattan (27,000 per square kilometer) in 2010.
The writer points out that Dhaka is an exception - most large cities are getting less dense. But nevertheless - wow.


Friday, 15 September 2017

On planning appeals (and lawyers)

Andrew Lainton reports on the Appeal Court (Mansall v Tonbridge and Malling):
Appeals should not, in future, be mounted on the basis of a legalistic analysis of the different formulations adopted in a planning officer’s report. An appeal will only succeed, as Lindblom L.J. has said, if there is some distinct and material defect in the report. Such reports are not, and should not be, written for lawyers, but for Councillors who are well-versed in local affairs and local factors.
Andrew thinks planning lawyers will have nothing left to do! An excellent outcome (although I doubt it is true).


Quote of the day: On knowledge...

From Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek:
Too many are the people who, having mastered econometrics and gathered lots of data, wrongly suppose themselves thereby to possess knowledge. Likewise, too many are the people who, having mastered mathematics and memorized the mechanics of lots of theoretical models, wrongly suppose themselves thereby to possess knowledge. Too rare are the people who correctly understand that, no matter how smart they are and how much they might genuinely learn about economics, econometrics, and ‘the data, neither they nor others can ever hope to come close to knowing the details of economic reality in the same way that, say, a physicist can know the details of some physical material under his or her investigation.
What we call facts (and they aren't always facts, especially in social sciences) do not constitute knowledge. That knowledge comes from thinking about those facts and what they mean, what they tell us about the world.


Thursday, 14 September 2017

Restoring community - an imperative for conservatives

Each day I see more and more that us conservatives, by allowing assorted Marxists to capture sociology, have done the world a disservice. This is because Marx was an economist meaning that he had little or nothing to say about sociology - as a result left-wing sociologists became activists not academics. Much - not all, a long way from not all - of the subject is arrant nonsense.

But it matters. The questions it asks are not answered by economics - for sure there's a bunch of economists splashing about pretending they can inject morality into their subject's dry modelling but this isn't asking the questions a sociologist would ask. Here's Aaron Renn:
There are a number of people in the national media who make the argument that things aren’t so bad, that if you look at the numbers this idea that things are horrible in much of America just isn’t true. It’s easy for me to believe this is actually the case in a quantitative sense. But man does not live by bread alone. When you have an iPhone but your community is disintegrating socially, it’s not hard to see why people think things have taken a turn for the worse.
There are social goods (if you want to use that dreary economics language) that are as necessary as the material benefits brought us by liberal capitalism. And most of these goods are about community rather than anything definable in the typical national politics. As I wrote a little while ago:
If conservatives are to make a difference - and what's the point if that's not the aim - we need to stop trying to make everyone's lives better by centralised fiat. And start with making our and our neighbours lives better. Conservatives should apply that old shopkeeper's adage - 'look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves'. Look after communities - the bit you can see from your front door - and the whole of society, even the bits we can't see, benefits.
It may seem trite, as Renn does, to hark back to a past age when we didn't have to lock our doors and left the keys in the car on the drive. The local concerns about burglary here in Cullingworth are real yet we have so much more than a past generation who lived lives less plagued by the fear of crime. But we can't blame the good life, the betterment of our lives as consumers - running water for folks in Aaron Renn's home county and the central heating for families here in cold, damp Cullingworth.

The willingness to be a community is still there but it is suppressed by the manner of public service management, by the transformation of voluntary organisations into agents of the state, and by the permissions and regulations laid down by the state between ordinary folk and helping their neighbour:
That's right - permission to care. That professionals in the employ of the Council, the NHS or their satellite agencies needed to allow people to look out for their neighbour. In this I saw a dead culture - one murdered by the good intentions of public agencies. That we might not be allowed to pop in on Mr & Mrs Jones to make sure they're OK, maybe make them a cuppa and have a chat for half and hour. Unless we've undertaken the official "befriending" course, got the required clearances from the state and been attached to an organisation that "delivers" looking out for the neighbours.
We need to look again at the risks of individual social action and start to err in favour of community and its capacity to self-police rather than respond to every bad case with more rules, controls and regulations. It is the suppression of social innovation, suggesting it is only possible through endorsement by the sate or its agents, that damages community. Anyone who has been involved in local communities (and I've been a local councillor for two decades) will know they are buzzing with ideas, filled with people who want to be involved. We have a generation of wealthy and healthy older people who aren't just looking to have extended holidays, yet so much of public rhetoric seems to be about how those folk are uncaring and selfish.

For me the biggest lesson from things like the Brexit vote isn't about divisions but rather about distance. Government - nearly all of it - is distant, complicated, unapproachable, opaque and thoughtless (and this is a large part of why we dislike the EU so much). We look at what happens and wonder why decisions are made the way they are, why no thought is given to neighbourhood, why the word community is used without, it seems, even the vaguest understanding of what it means, and why the narrow interests of a small economically-successful class seems to dominate the thinking of every political party, every academic and every pundit whose number the BBC producer has in her mobile phone.

When we talk about social capital, we tend to do so in a sort of abstract way - as if it it something that can be bottled by middle-class academics and civil servants and poured onto struggling communities. But social capital is all about people standing on their doorstep, seeing something that could be better and saying "we can fix that, we can do that". It's not about local councils having 'community strategies' or lottery agencies funding middle-class experts to administer to places needing help. Nor is it about trying to turn that willingness to help into the new vanguard of the proletarian revolution let alone the need to resist neoliberal hegemony.

The starting point is simply giving places - local communities, neighbourhoods - the capacity to do what they think will make where they live a little better. From fixing some fences, clearing paths and picking up litter to helping mind neighbour children or doing what Mr Sparks did for me, my brothers and dozens of local children in the South London suburb of my youth - took us to play cricket in the summer and swimming in the winter. So long as people think they have to wait for permission to do these things, they won't do them. The imperative in building that social capital we say we've lost is to get government out of the way of people who want to help.


Wednesday, 13 September 2017

One Hundred Years of Socialist Evil

There. I've said it. This doesn't mean that socialists are evil just that they have been seduced by the Marxist nonsense of what Deirdre McCloskey called 'this secular religion'.

Why is it evil? Because from its outset it has desired the forced transformation of man through the action of authority. There is only one socialist truth and this is owned by those who lead the people - there is no democracy here, no recognition or respect for freedom, or for the fabulous idea that we have individual identity and agency. And this - as we approach the 100th Anniversary of socialism's most extensive trial - is what it means:
"Hang (hang without fail, so the people see) no fewer than one hundred known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers," Lenin ordered in 1918. "Publish their names. Take from them all the grain. Designate hostages. Do it in such a way so that for hundreds of versts around people will see, tremble, know, shout: They are strangling, strangling to death the bloodsucker kulaks." (The term "kulak" referred to peasants well-off enough to hire workers.) "It is necessary secretly—and urgently—to prepare the terror," he ordered shortly thereafter.
And this is not an accidental correlation between an evil man and a noble ideology, it is the direct consequence of the hatred that drives socialism. Hatred of individual success. Hatred of enterprise. Hatred of initiative. Hatred of liberalism. Hatred of free thought. Hatred of independence. As another evil man inspired by socialism said - "everything within the state, nothing without the state". You, me, all of us, are but pawns in the state's direction. A control that brooks no opposition.

If you are tempted by socialism examine your conscience. Look at the 100 years since that fateful November day in Moscow and ask whether the experiment has run its course. Look around and consider that the people living under liberal capitalism are healthier, wealthier and happier than those who languish under socialism. I know you care about justice. You want rights protected and enforced. You dislike profiteering and rent-seeking. And you feel too many people still fall through the cracks of our rich society into some form of poverty. But socialism is not the answer to these problems - it is a siren voice tempting you onto the rocks of social collapse, authoritarianism and decline. Tie your self to the mast and sail on into calmer seas where people are free, enterprising, independent, innovative and caring. Reject the evil doctrine of socialism.


Quote of the day - transport technology and strikes

We are in for a decade and more of transport strikes as those working in that industry resist the technological changes - here's Tim Newman commenting about Paris and driverless cars:
I seem to recall Parisian taxi drivers rioting, tipping over cars, and burning tyres when Uber came to town, leading to the government caving in by lunchtime and banning the app in Paris. Presumably they’re going to take the introduction of driverless cabs without a murmur.
Add to taxi drivers the bus and tram workers, the train drivers and the lorry drivers - a recipe for industrial strife if ever there was one. And the nation that manages this change most swiftly and with least disruption is the one that will reap the quickest and earliest changes. It won't be France for sure and probably won't be the UK either.


Saturday, 9 September 2017

Obesity strategies ignore obese people

Some time around 1990 I was involved in some work for Bradford Health Authority that touched on the use of data to improve the impact of public health messaging - we were looking mostly at HIV/AIDS and diabetes. The difficulty for the health authorities came when we pointed out that AIDS really wasn't an 'all population' risk except in the very broadest of definitions. There were some groups in Bradford - gay men, intravenous drug users, African immigrants - where the risks were far higher. We suggested profiling and targeting so as to get the best value from the limited pubic health funding available (especially since there were extensive national media information campaigns about AIDS at the time). This was rejected because of 'stigma' or a risk of being perceived as racist or homophobic.

The consequence of this refusal to use profiling is a belief that, not only are the risks equal across society, but that public health strategies should be directed to the whole population regardless of the truth about those risks. This 'whole population' approach has been widely debunked with alcohol consumption (although its advocates continue to use models to pretend that the merest sip of the demon drink lead inevitably to ill health) and we see it also with obesity where the public health focus is on what they call Tier One Intervention - stressing the 'social determinants of health'.

With obesity, the result is that health funding is directed primarily to seeking behavioural change in the whole population - weighing children, getting shouty chefs to bang on about school dinners, browbeating restaurants to make portions smaller or offer salad, banning kebab shops anywhere near children and getting Lucozade to make their core product taste awful. This is despite the fact that 95% of the population isn't facing any serious health risk from our weight. We use 'scare statistics' about how two-thirds are 'obese or overweight' and then illustrate this with images of a 25 stone person rather than the reality that 'overweight' (BMI 26-30) really isn't anything that 'a little more exercise and fewer puddings' wouldn't sort out and probably isn't unhealthy either.

At this point the Guardian notices that the UK, compared to other places, doesn't do much bariatric surgery on obese people:
What’s going on? The procedure is the most effective way of helping people who are obese to lose weight and can have a radical impact on their quality of life. At approximately £6,000 per operation, it’s relatively cheap and saves the NHS significant amounts of money on more expensive procedures such as hip and knee replacements further down the line. But here in Britain, it is being reserved only for the most extreme cases.
This situation is entirely a consequence of stressing Tier One rather than looking at higher tiers. You could call this 'fat shaming' but I prefer to call it massively stupid public policy. There are around 5% of the population with a serious, health-threatening weight problem but public health is too busy making out that obesity is the biggest health problem in society (and getting schools to write unpleasant letters to parents about their children's weight) to do its job of helping those people who really do have a problem with their weight.

None of this Tier One effort makes a blind bit of difference to levels of morbid obesity. If you take the sugar out of fizzy pop, obese people just switch to another calorie-loaded drink or food. Campaigns about fizzy pop, pizza or burgers result in thin people changing their diets (and talking endless rubbish about 'low carb' or 'clean diet') but do not look at the reasons why some people - maybe one in 20 - are very fat. And the same goes for exercise - it's probably a good thing that active living promotions have helped shift a further 3-4% of the population into regular (the approved 30 minutes a day) physical activity but it isn't working for the 50% of folk who do next to no exercise.

For all that the NHS bosses say obesity is their number one priority, we see that actually doing something to help people who really are obese isn't included within that prioritisation. Instead we get an increasing pile of pointless and intrusive fussbucketry masquerading as an 'obesity strategy'. While all this righteous lecturing about food (and attempts to make out that it's not fat people's fault that they're fat by blaming the food industry) is going on, the option of targeting efforts on the very obese is ignored. Public health wants to change the behaviour of the whole society - despite most folk's behaviour not seriously risking their health - rather than help the people who, for whatever reason, are riskily overweight. It's perhaps time we started talking about the problem - and helping those with it - rather than making up a sort of moral panic about lots of people being a few pounds heavier than they used to be.