Saturday, 24 March 2018

Employment quotas and state monopolies don't improve female empowerment

From a study (Breaking the Glass Ceiling? The Effect of Board Quotas on Female Labor Market Outcomes in Norway) by Marianne Bertrand, Sandra E. Black, Sissel Jensen and Adriana Lleras-Muney:
We document that the women appointed to these boards post-reform were observably more qualified than their female predecessors along many dimensions, and that the gender gap in earnings within boards fell substantially. On the other hand, we see no robust evidence that the reform benefited the larger set of women employed in the companies subject to the quota. Moreover, the reform had no clear impact on highly qualified women whose qualifications mirror those of board members but who were not appointed to boards. Finally, we find mixed support for the view that the reform affected the decisions of young women: while the reform was not accompanied by any change in female enrollment in business education programs, we do see some improvements in labor market outcomes for young women with graduate business degrees in their early career stages; however, we observe similar improvements for young women with graduate science degrees, suggesting this may not be due to the reform. Overall, seven years after the board quota policy fully came into effect, we conclude that it had very little discernible impact on women in business beyond its direct effect on the women who made it into boardrooms.
The case for quotas (other than the 'it's fair' argument) is that they provide for positive female role models and, therefore, act over time to improve the lot of women in the workforce. This would appear to be a questionable assertion - indeed when Nima Sanandaji looked at The Economist's 'Glass Ceiling Index' he found:
...that the rise of the welfare state created jobs for women as well as aided their labor market participation by offering various family-related services. Yet this same system contains disincentives for female ascension in business. One example is high taxes that make it costly to purchase household services (a strategy otherwise used by parents to “buy” time so that they can take care of children as well as focus on their careers); generous benefit systems combined with high taxes that reduce economic incentives for both parents to work full-time and public sector monopolies/oligopolies in female-dominated sectors and parental policies that give women incentive to take long breaks from the working life.
The Nordic welfare state is very good for female participation in the workforce but seems less good at improving female power in that workforce - here's Nima Sanandaji again:
Based on the Economist index, the United States has unusually women-unfriendly work policies while the Nordics have the most women-friendly work policies in the world. However, it is the United States which has the highest rate of women managers amongst all countries included in the Index, while the Nordic countries have a lower share.
Again the findings suggest that open market economies with fewer state monopolies are better for female power even when they are less good for participation. Sanandaji confirms this in showing how within the Nordic countries the levels of female empowerment (indicated by numbers of women managers) vary depending on the extent to which services operate in a competitive market.


Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Public health is a faith-based ideology not a science

And I accept that you may be happy with your faith in the tenets of the public health folk. To explain, we'll start with this from the Director of Public Health in Sheffield, GregFell:
"The fundamental point is that obesity is a complex systems problem, and the location of fast food outlets can’t be causally disaggregated from all the other factors."
This is a statement of faith, in a belief that the reasons for the increase in obesity from, say, 1980 to 2000 was a consequence of something called an "obesogenic environment" rather than by, for example, changes in human behaviour consequential on increased wealth and improved technology.

The public health position - as captured by Fell in another blog posting can be summarised:
"spot on – stop asking ‘does it work?’ and instead ask ‘how does it contribute?’”

"Complex systems adapt in response to interventions so we shouldn’t necessarily expect changes to distal outcomes."
The premise here is that the 'system' is too complicated for us to understand it - we must act on faith rather than evidence in deciding what is the right thing to do. And individual elements of the system can't be seen as in any way discrete because to do this denies the interconnectedness that is central to the public health faith.

So we persist with ineffective smoking cessation interventions because it is the "right thing to do" and because such interventions "contribute" (and in doing so ignore successful market-based development of effective substitutes). We continue "Tier One" activities despite the almost complete absence of evidence of their effectiveness because using the "wrong evidence paradigm might lead us to do the wrong thing". Now forgive me if I don't fully understand what Fell means by an "evidence paradigm" - the term is used to distinguish between RCT (randomised control trials) evidence and the process of trial and error as well as a welcome shift from the old model of medical imperialism where the doctors diagnosis and conclusion was all the patient received to a model where the evidence on which those decisions are based being shared with the patient. None of this is about doing something you think is "right" despite there being no evidence to support this belief (or worse, as Chris Snowdon observes, actual evidence to say that it doesn't work).

The pragmatic evidence about public health leads us to reject the main thrust of this faith's adherents:

The evidence on smoking cessation tells us that reductions in smoking rates are consequential on three things - public education, price and substitutes. Advertising bans, cessation programmes, bans in public places, standardised packaging - all the rigmarole of modern anti-smoking - simply aren't making a difference

Alcohol consumption is for 90% of drinkers almost entirely benign (and arguably health positive) so reducing the whole population's consumption does not reduce harm. Again public education, price and substitutes matter more that warnings, packaging, advertising restrictions and intrusive licensing

The rise in obesity is not a consequence of that "obesogenic environment" (or, if you prefer, "complex system") but rather the result of reduced levels of every day physical activity resulting from the largely beneficial introduction of new technologies (there's a clue in the term 'labour-saving device'). Average calorie intake has fallen while average weight (and weight/height ratio) has risen - this change is not the result of a social shift from cooking and eating our own food to getting someone else to do the cooking for us

You are, of course, welcome to disagree with what I say here but I'm confident there is evidence supporting my position. This means that, if I'm to change my view, you need to produce evidence that falsifies my argument that much of what we're doing in public health is purposeless fussbucketry based on blind faith in the view that public health problems (drinking, smoking, burgers) are caused by problems in the social environment. And therefore that any intervention in that social environment must 'contribute' to reducing its negative impact even if we can find no evidence to support this belief.


Tuesday, 20 March 2018

A last speech as leader - love where you live...

Today marks my last Council Meeting as Group Leader in Bradford - here are my last words in that role:

"Unless something odd happens, this will be my last speech from this chair. And I think speaking about pride in Bradford is a good topic to close on.

We’re going to vote for this motion but I’ve a few concerns – not with the spirit of the motion or what it proposes but rather that the focus on enforcement puts a bit of a dampener on the idea of civic pride.

My philosophy – for the avoidance of doubt, Lord Mayor, it’s called conservatism – tells me that we should approach making society better, not by grand theories of human perfection, but by looking out our front door and fixing what we can see from that doorstep.

If there’s a stone fallen off a wall, pick it up and put it back. Don’t wait for someone else to do it.

If there’s a piece of litter. Pick it up. Put it in a bin.

If there’s someone who needs a lift, give them a lift

And if what needs fixing is beyond your power don’t shrug and move on but ask whether you and your neighbours – together – can fix it.

And smile. Have fun.

Most people here – and lots of people in Bradford – understand exactly how neighbourliness and loving the place you live really make a difference. And this motion points at some of that love – I do also think love is a better word than pride too.

The problem is that too many people don’t. They’re the ones who drop the litter, do the fly-tipping, graffiti the walls, vandalise the bus stops, spit in the street, park on the pavement, ignore the yellow lines, push to the front of the queue, complain when they don’t get what they demand, place the blame for problems on other people.

The enforcement we spend so much time on is because of these people.

It’s also because too many people walk on by. Telling themselves that the Council, the police or just someone else will do something.

They’re very quick to tell us that the place is a dump but not so quick to try and make it better.

There’s an American organisation called the Knight Foundation who ran a programme called “Soul of the Community” studying what they called “community attachment” – let me read you a quote from the lead researcher, Katherine Loflin:
“…from 2008-2010, we received responses from 43,000 people in 26 communities across the US, in cities large and small. What we saw were findings, year after year, that for many seemed counter-intuitive—even radical at times. We not only found out that resident attachment was related to solid economic outcomes for places, but that the things that most drove people to love where they live were not the local economy or even their personal civic engagement in the place (as one might expect), but the “softer sides” of place.”
Making a place better – making Bradford better – doesn’t start with a strategy for the city, it starts with making your and my neighbourhood - just a few streets - better places to live. Where parties happen, where children play, where life is lived with a smile. Things that the Project for Public Spaces calls “lighter, cheaper, quicker”. Not grand festivals or great events but galas, playgrounds, impromptu games of cricket and even a snowball fight.

In Denholme, when the road was blocked in the snow, dozens of people helped out. Some with pick-ups and 4x4s, some just by bringing out cups of tea to stranded motorists, and lots by clearing snow, by just being part of a community.

This is what community pride is about – community attachment. Love. And we need it every day not just when it snows."


Sunday, 18 March 2018

"You have to be able to imagine yourself unwatched" - how smart cities threaten freedom

There has been a great deal of "isn't it scary" discussion about the pretty clunky on-line targeting systems developed for political campaigning. We're told that there are sinister forces at work out there conspiring to undermine democracy by scraping Facebook for psychographic profiles allowing intimate knowledge of everyone:
A whistleblower has revealed to the Observer how Cambridge Analytica – a company owned by the hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, and headed at the time by Trump’s key adviser Steve Bannon – used personal information taken without authorisation in early 2014 to build a system that could profile individual US voters, in order to target them with personalised political advertisements.

Christopher Wylie, who worked with a Cambridge University academic to obtain the data, told the Observer: “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.”
I'm not going to say much about this, it adds nothing much to what I said previously about what this company did - they used the Facebook API to create a profiling tool based on responses to a psychometric test. This is not really any different, other than its source, from the psychographics that profiling systems (e.g. SuperProfiles) have been employing since the 1990s - the lifestyle data back then was gather from questionnaires sent as parcel stuffers and inserts but it served exactly the same purpose as the data collected using Facebook's API by Cambridge Analytica.

Anyway, while everyone is having kittens about the use of data analytics in political campaigning (and rightly asking questions about data security and data protection - there's genuinely a question as to whether the data collected using Facebook quizzes is allowable as a data source for marketing), there's something else happening that should be just as concerning - so-called "smart cities":
Across the UK we are seeing more and more examples of smart city transformation. Key 'smart' sectors utilised by such Cities include transport, energy, health care, water and waste. Against the current background of economic, social, security and technological changes caused by the globalization and the integration process, cities in the UK face the challenge of combining competitiveness and sustainable urban development simultaneously. A smart city is a place where the traditional networks and services are made more efficient with the use of digital and telecommunication technologies, for the benefit of its inhabitants and businesses.
Wonderful. The application of all that clever and disrupting digital technology to making cities work better can only be a good thing, can't it? And I guess that, in a utilitarian, people-as-units, prudence-only way, it is a good thing:
Utrecht has become a tangle of individual pilots and projects, with no central overview of how many cameras and sensors exist, nor what they do. In 2014, the city invested €80m in data-driven management that launched in 80 projects. Utrecht now has a burglary predictor, a social media monitoring room, and smart bins and smart streetlights with sensors (although the city couldn’t say where these are located). It has scanner cars that dispense parking tickets, with an added bonus of detecting residents with a municipal tax debt according to the privacy regulation of the scanner cars.
These systems can be directed to nudging people along the city authorities preferred choices: "...a smart traffic app that rewards people for good behaviour like cycling, walking and using public transport." Brilliant stuff taking the city closer to that mythical "walkable, livable, sustainable" utopia beloved of today's City Managers, the "Mayors who Rule the World". But at what cost?
In the eastern city of Enschede, city traffic sensors pick up your phone’s wifi signal even if you are not connected to the wifi network. The trackers register your MAC address, the unique network card number in a smartphone. The city council wants to know how often people visit Enschede, and what their routes and preferred spots are. Dave Borghuis, an Enschede resident, was not impressed and filed an official complaint. “I don’t think it’s okay for the municipality to track its citizens in this way,” he said. “If you walk around the city, you have to be able to imagine yourself unwatched.”
Some are concerned that much of this data is being collected, analysed and employed by private businesses - the smart city is a privatised city, they say - but we should also be concerned about the state having such detailed information about the citizen - "Big Brother is helping you" says Peter van de Crommert from the Dutch Institute for Technology, Safety and Security. But let's imagine - as we always should with state power - what happens when the wrong sort of person gets hold of this information and these systems (if you're me, then the government is, by definition, the wrong sort of person)? And who exactly is the city being run for - citizens, business or the convenience of public officials?
The city also keeps track of the number of young people hanging out in the streets, their age group, whether they know each other, the atmosphere and whether or not they cause a nuisance. Special enforcement officers keep track of this information through mobile devices. It calls this process “targeted and innovative supervision”.
The aim seems to be management, preventing such sins as "hanging about", reducing activities deemed anti-social such as having a drink or making a noise (other than in constrained places where some of this is allowed).
This “smart” urbanity revolves around surveillance and relentless data-gathering. Swarms of monitoring sensors inside and outside buildings and on streets will be constantly on duty. Google would collect data about everything from water use to air quality to the movements of Quayside’s residents, using that data to run energy, transport, and all other systems. In this controlled environment, consent over pillaging personal data “goes out the window straight away”...
At the heart of all this is the essentially autocratic and anti-democratic idea that the behaviour of the citizenry should be controlled, managed and directed towards a culture determined by those in charge of the city (and those with access to those in charge). This draws on the idea of corporate culture, Peter Drucker's thesis that business success is, in large measure, determined by culture has been stretched to form an ideology of the city as an entity requiring management, organisation and direction. As the smart city folk say:
"...combining competitiveness and sustainable urban development..."
This conveniently marries the obsession with dense, piled up cities (and the idea that agglomeration - cramming people together - is the secret of economic success) and the belief that cities, regions and nations are in competition, part of that 'global race' David Cameron liked to talk about. The symbol of this world is Singapore, that little autocracy on the equator where utilitarian control has been elevated into a state system - a pseudo-democratic de facto police state where producing is easy but consuming is frowned upon and the election unit is based in the prime minister's office:
"Meanwhile, although present to some degree, civil society plays a much less active rule in Singapore’s political sphere due to governmental attempts to stifle civil society’s maturation. Specifically, the institutions that constitute Singapore’s government are largely structured to undermine the expression of critical voices. Not only are the vast majority of media outlets controlled by the state, but the country’s Sedition Act also criminalizes any publication or even expression that seeks “to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the Government."
The price of this city state ideology, the premise of the smart city, is the relegation of people's lives to a place akin to employees of a benignly controlling corporation - bounded, directed, managed and only free within the limits determined by the corporation. It is the neoliberal city where maximising utility takes on the form of a religion, a smart city where data directs what people do, where they go and what resources they use - made possible through an unholy alliance between intrusive technology and what we used to call municipal socialism. And most people are either inside these cities consuming the bread and circuses but unable to secure a real stake or outside and unable to access the shiny wonders of the smart city:
...the city is a failing model - at least the idea of the concentrated, centralised, mayor-led city. These things are parasites, sucking away all the good from small towns with the promise of riches, opportunities and better bars while giving little back when it comes to the long-term quality of our lives. Urbanists talk about 'liveability' and 'walkability', about public spaces, even about play - yet the reality of the city is selfish, focused on the here and now rather than on creating places to which people can relate, where they might want to spend their whole lives.
Instead of creating places that are safe, sustainable and social because the people living there feel that way, we try to make places like this through control, clever technology and ever more restrictive regulation. The smart city may be clever but it's a place where corporations - public and private - control technology, where citizens are motivated by petty rewards (a day's free parking or a discounted theatre ticket), and where democracy is a facade covering up a society run by the new data kings, the controllers of the system.

UPDATE: If you think I'm being a scaremonger, try this:
Police in Raleigh, North Carolina, have presented Google with warrants to obtain data from mobile phones from not just specific suspects who were in a crime scene area, but from the mobile phones of all people in the area, reports Raleigh television affiliate WRAL. The request will trouble Fourth Amendment advocates as it could be seen that police are carrying out unreasonable searches on people who just happened to be in the area at the time the crimes were committed. And the area sizes the police requesting the data on are not small. In one instance, police requested user data from Google for anyone within a 17-acre area. For its part, Google has not revealed whether it has complied with the police request.


Saturday, 17 March 2018

Drinking is central to civilisation...

Alcohol - wine, beer, cider - has been part of human life since before written records began. More than anything else it is the lubricant of society, the cause of conviviality and the begetter of truth. It's also the likely reason we're civilised:
For a long time, humans traveled often and foraged for food, rather than growing it. And that worked pretty well, so anthropologists have long puzzled over why people started settling in a single spot. One benefit to nesting: growing grapes and grains, and staying in a place long enough to brew beverages for weeks or months, as beer and wine require. "Some posit this as the reason that civilization began in villages surrounded by golden fields of barley and rows of grapevines on the hills," Money writes.
And that natural fermentation process, the divine blessing of yeast, made possible those other things central to the pleasures of our lives: bread, chocolate, coffee. Drinking really is central to human civilisation - taking it away, prohibiting its blessings is a terrible, terrible sin.


Thursday, 15 March 2018

Fast food shop bans - public policy as virtue signalling

Banning new hot food takeaways is a favourite policy of local councils these days. It's driven by a thing they call "wider determinants of health" (tip to aspiring nannying fussbuckets - this phrase should trip from your tongue nearly as often as "cost to the NHS") and, as I was told by Bradford Council's leader in January, the policy is self-evidently "common sense". I'm guess that this is another example of the words 'common sense' simply meaning 'not based in any way on actual evidence' - all I'd done is ask how the council intended to measure the effect of its policy on levels of child obesity (given this was the validation for its introduction). As there is no evidence and no means of measuring the impact of the policy, shouting 'it's common sense' is the only remaining fall back position.

And the evidence? Seems there ain't none:
The evidence that fast food availability causes obesity among children is even weaker. Of the 39 studies that looked specifically at children, only six (15%) found a positive association while twenty-six (67%) found no effect. Seven (18%) produced mixed results. Of the studies that found no association, five (13%) found an inverse relationship between fast food outlets and childhood obesity. Two-thirds of the studies found no evidence for the hypothesis that living near fast food outlets increases the risk of childhood obesity and there are nearly as many studies suggesting that it reduces childhood obesity as there are suggesting the opposite.
And I'm guessing that, since most of these studies merely assess correlation, anyone looking at these findings would have to conclude that the evidence doesn't support the contention that the availability of fast food doesn't relate in any way to levels of obesity in children (or indeed grown ups). All we get is a protected environment for existing fast food businesses and the active prevention of new businesses in this market. In the end we have a smaller economy and just as many fat kids. Evidence-based public policy? What we have is just public policy as virtue signalling.


Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Densification policies won't solve London's housing crisis

Here's Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox:
Nowhere, here or abroad, has densification materially improved housing affordability, whether for low income households or the larger number of middle-income households. Density-oriented policies have helped drive prices up so high that Bay Area, $200,000 salary engineers cannot afford a home near their headquarters. In the meantime, many young families are increasingly leaving the state for less heavily regulated and less expensive states like Texas, Nevada and Arizona. Among those under 35, 80 percent of all homes purchased nationwide are single family houses and virtually all surveys of millennials express an overwhelming desire for this kind of residence.
This reality is lost on our planners as they seek to square the circle of providing family housing in an ever denser planning environment. So what do those pesky millenials want in a house?
“This is very likely because a huge majority are now married (66%) or in permanent relationships (13%, and almost half (49%) have children under the age of 18 living with them. In other words, it appears that they are seeking to raise their families in suburban rather than mid-city environments. And the NAR figures confirm this, showing that in the past year 57% of buyers under the age of 36 opted for suburban homes – and that the most popular type of home purchased (83%) was the single-family suburban home with three bedrooms and two bathrooms.”
So in response to demand for the sort of suburban environment my generation enjoyed, the planners tell us they want denser development, flats above shops, tower blocks, garden-free apartments or town houses. This makes no sense yet it's precisely what the latest iteration of the UK's National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) expects.

At some point we have to start asking people living on the fringes of London's suburbia (and other cities too) just why they have such an issue with some of the land near them being used for new suburban homes. Is it simply a matter of 'build 'em somewhere else'? Or are the common concerns - school places, traffic, medical centres, drains, floods - genuine? Maybe it's more visceral - some people in Cullingworth feel it isn't a village any more because of the new development.

There are lots of options and alternatives - new towns, garden communities, new villages, urban extensions - but none of these involve densification, piling people up on top of each other, cramming them into "walkable", "sustainable" tenement communities, a 21st century version of the crowded housing we cleared in the '50s, '60s and '70s. Build more suburbia, dammit!