23 December 2013

Beware the march of IDS

This winter, the Red Cross is handing out food parcels in the UK for the first time since World War II.

I'm just going to leave that out there for a moment for you to take in. If this fact doesn't embarrass or amaze you, you should probably stop reading now, because the rest of this post works on the premise that a society that cannot feed its own citizens is not one worthy of the name. The UK is the only G8 country to receive this unwanted attention, and as stigmas go, it puts us right up there with Zimbabwe and Syria, albeit on a less dramatic scale. Around half a million people in the UK used food banks in 2013, an increase of 170% since this time last year.

Someone who isn't embarrassed by this is Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, though the government of which he is a member has a somewhat schizophrenic attitude to the situation. On the one hand, his fellow ministers with less self-awareness than fungi are pictured grinning as they open food banks in the apparent belief this is something to be proud of. And on the other, Mr Duncan Smith has condemned those who run food banks for encouraging a culture of dependency. That's the problem with food of course - it's very more-ish. The poor should learn to get by without it instead of allowing themselves to become the victims of nutrition.

This week, Mr Duncan Smith had two chances to do something to at least pretend to take it seriously as a political issue. But a debate in the House of Commons on Tuesday turned into an even less edifying spectacle than usual, with backbench MPs on the government benches openly laughing at stories of food bank users' hardships, and Duncan Smith himself walked out early, after refusing to answer questions. Later on in the week, he also refused to meet the UK's largest food bank charity, accusing them of "scaremongering" about the size of the problem.

So what can we do to provoke a political reaction, and maybe get some media traction, now celebrity chefs taking cocaine is becoming yesterday's news?

Next year is the 20th anniversary of Band Aid's single Do They Know It's Christmas. How about a commemorative re-release next Christmas, but this time all the proceeds to go to food banks in the UK?  For the 'Band Aid generation', which includes most of the members of the present government, there can surely be no more stinging a rebuke than the symbol of generosity of their youth boomeranging back to remind them of the moral failings of their middle age? For politicians who equate being 'in touch with public opinion' with 'keeping up with celebrity gossip', to be forced to comment on that single being the Christmas number one, would be a beautifully ironic way to hoist them by their own petard. And the proceeds would also help half a million families know that it's Christmas time at all.

01 September 2013

For whom the road tolls

Road congestion, as my father was fond of remarking when he worked for the AA, has been one of Britain's most successful growth industries of the last 100 years. The supply of facilities to enable people to get from one part of the country to the other in a reasonable time has been consistently outstripped by demand, and numerous studies have shown how this negatively impacts both our quality of life and our economic output. Official government estimates put the opportunity cost of sitting in one's car instead of sitting in a meeting to UK plc at £8bn per year.

I was considering these costs sitting in my own car, as we crawled towards the Dartford Crossing today on the M25, shuffling forwards to pay our £2 toll. The Dartford Crossing, with its levy for users, is a somewhat singular type of highway in the UK, a country that has traditionally abhorred the idea of road taxes paid at the point of consumption. But when Parliament created the holding company to build the final phase of this river crossing - the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, opened in 1991 - they granted them a 20 year licence to collect revenue. It was naively expected that the government of the day would scrap the toll once the debt had been repaid and a suitable maintenance fund had been accumulated, which was deemed to have occurred on 31 March 2002. 

But here's the cunning bit. They were allowed to carry on charging the toll, because they stopped calling it a toll. Under an unnoticed clause of the 2000 Transport Act, they could create the catchily-titled "A282 Trunk Road (Dartford-Thurrock Crossing charging scheme) Order 2002" that allowed the continuation of the crossing fee, because it officially became a charge and not a toll, as of 1 April 2003. The underlying reasoning here being, like a dog barking in a neighbour's yard, once people get used to something, eventually they stop noticing it. So more than 2 years after the expiry of the original toll concession period, they continue to pocket a toll. I mean a charge. Plus ca change, plus c'est la exact change please...

From a productivity point of view this creates a dilemma for the government. The Dartford Crossing is very much a part of the £8bn problem of economic inefficiency - and one that is deliberately created in order to raise revenue. There is nothing accidental or random about the travel delays caused to some 50 million journeys every year; in effect, the £100m or so raised is an indirect subsidy by motorists to the cost of economic underperformance. How much money would be injected into the UK economy by removing the tollgates and letting the traffic run freely? Sir Rod Eddington, in a 2006 report for the DfT, estimated a total closure of a single junction of the M25 cost the economy about £64,000 per hour. What's the opportunity cost of that congestion vs the value of the tolls to the Exchequer?

A similar problem dogs the controversial HS2 rail link, which came under further attack last week when a report by the Institute of Economic Affairs claimed the actual cost could reach £80bn. Even if we accept the government's assurances that costs will rise no higher than £42bn, their own calculations have promised a mere £48.2bn of economic gain over an unspecified period of time. A highly likely slip of a mere 15% to the budget will wipe out any overall profit.

Maybe, as a backstop measure, the government can look to the example of Dartford to recoup some of the costs, by installing toll booths across the HS2 tracks south of Birmingham, and passengers can file through the train to pop a £1 coin into the coin buckets each time they pass through? This would obviously reduce some of the economic benefits to the country, but would provide some much-needed revenue to fill the government's coffers. In fact, it would probably negate any economic gains to be made, once the construction itself had stopped, but, as they found at Dartford, no matter how inconsistent it may be to levy a random tax, after a while people don't really notice that sort of thing when you have no choice in whether to pay.

25 July 2013

Rule of dumb

Outside my house, there is a bus stop. This is not in itself unusual, except this bus stop is a little out of the ordinary. It was erected by my local council at considerable expense, but has never been used as a bus stop. It sits there with a plastic bag over the offending sign, like a gallows prisoner awaiting the drop, to prevent people from making the quite reasonable assumption that where there is a bus stop, there will also be a bus. Like a piece of surrealist art, ceci n'est pas une bus stop, and no public transport will stop there. Because, having planned a route and erected the stops, the council made the unfortunate discovery that our road is too bendy for buses to navigate without the real possibility of striking a pedestrian on the pavement, as they lurch, Italian job-style, around the curves of Gavin Way (the buses, not the pedestrians).

To continue the dual themes of buses and official incompetence, if you drive along Colchester High Street, you may anxiously look for traffic wardens, because it appears you are, unavoidably, driving in a bus lane - the only through route available. Happily you won't get a ticket, despite the road markings, because this is another example of the council putting on its trousers before its underpants, as they decided to ban private vehicles from driving through town, in a half-baked notion this would transform the place into Las Ramblas. Sadly the street cafe lifestyle failed to materialise when it was pointed out the ban would also extend to lorries delivering to the very shops the scheme was supposed to promote. So instead, the landscape has been enhanced with temporary road signs urging drivers to ignore the road markings. Ceci n'est pas un Bus Lane.

Two local examples that, I am sure, could easily be topped by other authorities all over the world. The sort of thing that makes good copy for local journalists, and conversation starters in pubs across the town. But I prefer see these things as positives. For where there are unnecessary bus stops and road markings that need making, so there are jobs for people making unnecessary signs, and mixing vats of unnecessary paint. Incompetence (or maybe, more kindly, jumping the gun), when applied across strategic sectors of the economy, might be just the catalyst we need to kick on the sluggish recovery. I have a feeling that, in 2029, when HS2 is finally completed, late and over budget, and obsolete after the successful launch of the personal jet pack in 2023, a similarly self-serving excuse about economic stimulus is the sort of thing a government minister will grasp at, when pressed as to why his predecessor thought getting to Birmingham quicker for £32bn was a good idea.

And it seems that others have also picked up on the idea of incompetence as a business strategy: Chipotle, an American Mexican food restaurant chain - the thinking man's Taco Bell - this week garnered a heap of publicity, after its twitter account was apparently hacked:



The apparent inability of Chipotle to use twitter went viral, and these tweets earned over 12,000 retweets (against a usual weekly RT number of about 75). Many people who had never heard of Chipotle were caught up in the apparent hamfisted attempts to grasp social media, and spread the story. Today, the restaurant admitted this was actually a deliberate strategy to spread awareness of the brand ahead of more formal publicity promoting its 20th anniversary celebrations (story here). Chipotle had managed to cut through the competing media noise not by being slicker than everyone else, but by being deliberately rubbish.

They may have been inspired by MP and Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, who achieved similar, perhaps less wanted, attention after he accidentally tweeted his own name, on 29 April 2011 (he was trying to search for what twitter was saying about him). This inspired an Internet meme of people tweeting the hashtag #EdBalls, culminating in "Ed Balls day", two years after the event, a mass retweeting of the original posting (story here). Once again, idiocy and incompetence had gain traction with the wandering attentions of the world wide web.

From economic recovery through to business and media strategies, random acts of stupidity might be the way forward. Forget planning, forecasting, careful analysis and competence, it seems what the world actually needs is a greater number of idiots in charge of everything. To that end, when I look at the current crop of pinheads with their hands upon the levers, maybe things will turn out okay after all.

17 July 2013

Dawkin the walk

I'm going to stick my neck out here: I like Richard Dawkins. I like his writing, both the polemic tilts against religion and the more considered scientific writing. His contribution to the public understanding of science is profound, and if you ever doubt the scientific explanation of the universe can be poetic, I'd recommend you buy a copy of his "Unweaving the Rainbow". His refusal to kowtow to absurd woolly-mindedness because it happens to wear a dog collar, kippah or Qutwani is as necessary as it is un-English, and is, I am convinced, one of the reasons he is disliked by people who Don't Like To Make A Fuss. His desire to hold religious beliefs to the same burden of proof as any other belief systems often earns him the hilariously unoriginal sobriquet of "Atheist fundamentalist". You know, like one of those atheist fundamentalists you see all the time in England, barracking churches and blowing up vicars.

But he can be a terrible dick on twitter. Overbearing, Pooterish and, in accordance with bad twitter practice, retweeting others' praise of his work. This is particularly true when he steps outside the bounds of his usual academic interests and picks up something from current affairs or, even worse, sport. This week, he rather unwisely stepped into the debate about cricket and the morality of "walking". In a test match this week, an England player, Stuart Broad, was inexplicably not given out by the umpire, despite very evidently been caught after he hit the ball.

By way of background for the non-aficionado, in some quarters it is seen as being in the "spirit of the game" of cricket, that if you know you are out, you should walk off the pitch without waiting for the Umpire's signal, much less wait around on the off-chance that you might get away with it. As the debate over "walking" raged across the social networks, Prof D waded in with his size-10s:
So far, so Dawkins. But for an academic, he was playing remarkably fast and loose with some loaded terms. "Cheat", for example. So I asked Prof Dawkins:
To which he replied:
At this point, many people gently informed him that Australian cricketers have, historically, never walked in a test match (with a couple of notable exceptions). More interestingly, the perspicacious former England Rugby player Brian Moore chipped in the excellent observation that, if Broad declares himself out, despite the umpire declaring him not out, he is putting himself above the rules of the game, appealing to a higher morality. Which means, in the future, should he be given out by an umpire when he didn't hit it, by the same principle he would be entitled to refuse to leave the pitch, and declare himself still in. Clearly appealing to a higher power is sailing dangerously close to the wind for Professor Dawkins, so it was curious that at this point, he fell back onto the line of reasoning adopted by folksy preachers who can't cope with a contrary point of view:
This is like the populist firebrand claiming he doesn't need learning, evidence, strong arguments or thinking - he just knows what he knows, and has his faith to protect him against straw man arguments.
Which steered the conversation back towards something Professor Dawkins does know something about: competition, and its role in the evolution of life. Was not Stuart Broad's action natural in an environment that represents the pinnacle of competitive achievement? Was this not *whispers* Darwinism in action? Apparently not:
I couldn't resist it:
So far I have yet to receive a reply...

03 February 2013

A speedy recovery

Through the recent icy weather people have been able to keep themselves warm by harnessing the cubic metres of hot air being released over HS2. For those not familiar with the hot topics of British infrastructure planning, this is the sequel to HS1, a high-speed rail line connecting London to Birmingham, that, like a teenage delinquent, needs somewhere else to be moved on to once it reaches the midlands. So this week HS2's twin paths to the east and west of northern England were announced to the usual cries of joy and disdain from the NIMBYs and YIMBYs who believe they will lose or gain from its proximity.

To bolster its case as a piece of strategic thinking, and not merely jam tomorrow from a government desperate both to look visionary and to be seen to be investing in infrastructure projects, all sorts of projections of wealth generation are being cast about like fishing lines. These sort of calculations are speculative at best - not so much back-of-an-envelope as back-to-the-future, as we are betting a £33billion farm on a time we cannot see: no-one will actually be able to experience signal failure at Toton until at least 2033. But that hasn't stopped HS2 itself (which seems to exist as an independent entity, with its own website) reckoning it will generate £47 billion in user benefits to businesses when the entire network is completed, as well as between £6 billion and £12 billion in wider economic benefits. And all this from the ability to get from London to Birmingham 30 minutes quicker.

We've become used to spurious economic externalities being blamed for downturns in recent years: royal weddings, snow days, hot days, cold days, bank holidays, sick days, all of which make the difference between businesses staying afloat or going bust, it would seem. But the prospect of an economic boom coming on the back of the next generation getting to Brum 30 minutes sooner seems generous at best. What can you do with an extra half an hour - have a piano lesson? Are we going to rebuild our flagging economy by cramming in extra piano lessons in the time we saved not being slumped dribbling on the 08.45 out of Euston?

Recently I've taken to cycling to my local train station rather than driving - it saves money and gives me exercise, though it does add probably half an hour to my commute. I worry that, given the apparent solid link between time and money confidently predicted by HS2 that I am now contributing to the economic malaise in the country. How much more money would I make for UK plc if I drove? Better still, I could take a helicopter and be in London in half an hour. If the price of the recovery is simply getting somewhere else a bit quicker, why aren't they laying on 12 trains an hour, 24 hours a day across the country?

My second doubt about these predictions is the same as my doubts about any soothsayer or, god forbid, "futurologist". In 1993, who was predicting that by now you could do a week's grocery shopping and tape your favourite TV show from a telephone you could carry around with you while you waited for the train? No one could even see the future of the tablet market 6 years ago, never mind 26 years ago. My son's headmaster reckons that, by the time he graduates from university, around 25% of the jobs he could do wouldn't have existed before he started his first day at school.

When I was younger, I went to Portsmouth to look around HMS Warrior, the less glamorous younger sibling to Nelson's flagship. It is perhaps the best-preserved example of an Ironclad Ship, the successor to the ordinary, and very penetrable, wooden war vessel. Within a few years of its completion, it was completely obsolete, as full iron ships showed counter-intuitively that metal that floats was the future. Ironclad was definitely the future until we saw it was just a bridge to something else, with the wisdom of our hindsight. Similarly, I can't help thinking that, in twenty years time, when we'll all have hoverboards AND jet-packs, plus dinner in pill form, the idea that we would want to get to Birmingham any quicker than we had to might seem a curious one.

And in 100 years, my great, great grandchildren will take school trips to visit HS2 like I went to see Warrior, to marvel at the uncertainty of betting on a sure thing.