Saturday, 29 September 2012


It seems to be de rigueur to praise Later and Jools Holland, if only for their ability to stay alive for 20 years. Ready Steady Go! (don't forget the exclamation mark) lasted only three years, The Tube five years. TOTP lasted 42 years, but that lacked a consistent house style or (by definition) a particular editorial bias, so it doesn't really count. Later is Holland, in the sense that the programme wouldn't work now with another presenter, much as The Old Grey Whistle Test was never the same without whispering Bob Harris, despite featuring better music after he left.

Holland is an accomplished musician but a bloody awful presenter, a talent he has cultivated over the years. The Tube gig was largely down to his chalk 'n cheese contrast to Paula Yates. He was meant to provide the working class grit to her middle class wild-child stylings. In reality, Holland is the genuine article, being far more difficult to pin down than the self-indulgent Yates. The guy's name is Julian and he plays the piano, which was borderline homosexual for South East London in the 70s, but he has the obsessiveness and magpie interest of the working class autodidact. So, just for fun, I have decided to inflict my views on Friday night's edition upon you ...

First up (indicating their current industry status and thus annual net worth) were Muse. Impressionable boys of 14 seem to be particularly taken with them, which for me is cast-iron evidence that they are Rush des nos jours. It's hard to describe to modern kids what the Canadian prog rockers were like, without being accused of Spinal Tap satire, but reference to Muse is helpful. Utterly unmemorable music that appears complex and banal by turns, and goes on too long. Like the Randian super-heroes of Rush, Muse are a three-piece of multi-instrumentalists, which means the necessary other musicians (you don't really think he's playing two guitar lines at once?) are kept in the shadows. Humourless, pompous, nonsense.

Everyone's favourite musical soap opera, the Beach Boys, were up next. Since recording, Mike Love has apparently disbanded them again, perhaps because he felt the revival of Dallas was becoming a distraction. Their appearance was reminiscent of the film Cocoon: old men with the magic, revived from senility by a strange power (pick any one from money, brand or legacy), reinforced by support staff, hangers-on and sons, who appear both as a backing group and as a proprietorial bunch of heavies. It was a genuinely weird scene, but the music was weak and quavery. You can get away with growling the blues at 70, but sophomore harmonies just don't work at that age.

Pick of the night was Public Image Limited. They started with a wonderful song about London, which had the vibrancy of William Blake. Lydon's declamatory style was in pointed contrast to his "fellow Californians", the Beach Boys. Many in the UK saw his emigration to the States as sell-out, a la Billy Idol, but in truth Lydon simply followed his nose to where the most interesting music was happening, as can be heard in the influence of Pere Ubu on PiL. As someone heavily influenced by Krautrock and Reggae, he was always going to sidestep English post-punk provincialism. His howl of personal resistance remains startling, and will outlast the obvious mannerisms of Liam Gallagher or Damon Albarn.

Next up were The XX, graduates of Elliott comprehensive, the South West London music band incubator (just up the road from me and subsequently assimilated by the academy Borg). Unfortunately, they've enjoyed success too early, which has meant their music moving swiftly from slightly better than average dream pop to backing for BBC links and adverts implying understated luxury. They are possibly the dullest band alive, plowing a relentless furrow of monochromaticism. That word is more interesting that what it represents.

And a brief word for Natalie Duncan: sorry. Nice, accomplished, undistinguished.

The abiding success of Later has nothing to do with the mutual love-in of the musos, which has disfigured the media for the last week or so. What matters is the unpredictability. Some weeks are just shit from end to end, other weeks contain multiple gems. You watch in the hope of the latter. In that sense it is not much different to the Whistle Test, but with the addition of an audience that will applaud anything and a compere who is closer to Leonard Sachs than Whispering Bob.

Friday, 28 September 2012

LibDem's sign suicide pact

The LibDem annual conference has ended without the lynching of Nick Clegg. This is seen as a sort of success. In fact, what it highlights is the gulf that exists between party members (or more precisely those activists bothered enough to attend) and the wider electorate, as it is the latter that will do the deed in 2015. The lack of fireworks can be interpreted as evidence that the LibDems are so taken with appearing responsible in government that debate has been shelved for the duration, but I think what has actually happened is that the coalition has revealed the truth of the LibDem's core policies, or perhaps it would be better to say it has revealed the policies of the core of the party.

Their acceptance of the Tory claim that the financial crisis was all Labour's fault, and their consequent commitment to austerity and bank bailouts, should be evidence enough of their essential neoliberalism, not to mention their opportunism. What government has also shown is the superficiality of their localism and commitment to civil liberties, as they have happily participated in further centralisation. Anti-state rhetoric from the party of Asquith and Lloyd George was only ever the mewling of the disempowered. Don't expect David Laws to undermine Michael Gove's policy of having Whitehall directly manage schools, or Danny Alexander to advocate cuts in VAT instead of cuts in benefits.

The relationship of party activists to the leadership is always coloured by an underlying suspicion. For Labour, the rank and file traditionally fear betrayal by a leadership seduced or gulled by The Establishment. Blair's triangulation trick was to convince enough of the party that he was the one doing the seducing, and the City and others played along with this. His fall from grace over Iraq owed much to the realisation that he was a willing stooge in a scam. He was The Establishment, as his post-PM career has shown only too clearly. For the Tories, the fear is that they will be let down by spineless aristos, wets who will appease the "enemy" within and without (Brussels, benefit claimants, gays etc). Cameron's strengths with the electorate (pragmatism, clubbability, metropolitan sophistication) are weaknesses in the eyes of the party. The popularity of Boris Johnson is purely the result of his Churchill tribute act, which deliberately plays upon this fear of appeasement.

The Liberal rank and file have tended to be more socially and politically varied that the two main parties, which is inevitable when you are a home for protest votes and have never been forced to crystallise policy through office. From Orange Book neoliberals to Northern municipalists, from West Country organic farmers to London human rights lawyers, the Liberal party is more fox than hedgehog, something they are proud off as pluralists. But the consequence is that these natural dissenters and independents have less stickability as regards party membership. Their suspicion is that the core of the party remains a socially-exclusive, upper middle class set, ever ready to shut the door on the fringe. Too proud to make a fuss about rejection, they tend to drift off when they feel out of sympathy with the leadership, more in sorrow than in anger, rarely banging the door as they go.

The paradoxical result of the LibDem's stint in office has been the narrowing of the party to the true believers, rather than its reaching out to attract more supporters. What Nick Clegg promised them this week was more Nick Clegg, and what he implied for their election manifesto was a clear shift to the centre-right. As more and more social liberals drift away, the party will be reduced to a fervent neoliberal cadre. Ironically, many will find this liberating, allowing them to finally come out as pure liberals: pro-business, anti-state, europhile and libertarian. More like the FDP in Germany. They think they will pick up disaffected Blairites and pro-EU Tories, but this will be a trickle compared to the desertion of their centre-left base. The lack of dissent at their annual conference was a sign of weakness and impending irrelevance, not a sign of a "grown up" party taking "hard decisions".

This has prompted some Tories to advocate that their party pitches for LibDem votes, presumably on the grounds that this will secure marginal seats while losing equivalent votes on the right to UKIP will make little difference in safe seats. Meanwhile, social democrats like Polly Toynbee are talking up the merits of a Lib-Lab coalition. This is misguided if the LibDems are moving centre-right, but it fails on its own terms as well: "how much better would the last Labour era have been in coalition with the Lib Dems? No Iraq, no civil liberties abuses, less defence spending, no soaring jail numbers, stronger climate change action, and bolder Europeanism". The idea that Blair would have been constrained over Iraq by Nick Clegg as deputy PM is risible, but leaving counter-factuals aside, there is little evidence that the LibDems have mitigated the Tories' austerity, dismantling of the NHS, tax cuts for rich or anything else of substance.

The reality is that coalitions can only work where there is a congruence of interests. This means an electoral landscape of many parties with overlapping policies, which in turn means a PR system. In the UK system, coalitions usually damage at least one of the parties because they either find insufficient room for compromise or the leadership's willingness to adjust policy loses rank and file support. The judgement of history on Clegg will be that he blew the LibDem's best chance of securing electoral reform, being bought off by the baubles of office. Marching the party to the centre-right, from where he hears the "sound of the guns", will result in electoral annihilation. This will probably produce a split, with much of the Orange Book rump folding into the Tories and helping to counter the Euro-sceptic right (clearly in the best interests of hegemonic neoliberalism), while social liberals drift back to Labour in the hope that Milliband turns out to be less of a duplicitous control-freak than Blair.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Arsenal face Terry, and some other blokes

The judgement of the FA that John Terry was guilty of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand should come as no surprise. Not because of the lower burden of proof required by the FA, compared to a court of law, but because Terry himself conceded the game was up by his earlier decision to retire from international football. This spared the very same FA the need to instruct Hodgson not to pick him for England, which they would have been under immediate pressure to do. I doubt Terry was motivated by a desire to avoid any awkwardness for the FA, so you have to assume it was another self-serving manoeuvre by an egotist who has built a career on equal parts bullying and victimhood. A classic case of getting your retaliation in first.

The sentence has been suspended for a fortnight, to allow poor wee Terry time to consider whether to lodge an appeal, which means he will be available for the game against Arsenal on Saturday. He will no doubt be desperate to score, in order to "silence the critics", as the cliche has it, though you can be sure the home crowd will barrack him relentlessly no matter how many goals he contrives to punch over the line. It's a shame that Terry will be on the pitch, as this will probably distract from an interesting game between two teams that are evolving and in form. In Terry's head, the match will be nothing more than the latest chapter in his glorious life story: My Struggle (it sounds better in German).

I had deliberately held off airing my opinions on the Gunners until now, figuring that it would take some games for the new team to settle down and for a pattern to emerge. Man City away was my mental target for a stock-take. I still think it's too early to make any sort of confident predictions, but I've been pleased by the attitude and performances to date. The lower tally of goals conceded will be down to more than just the miraculous powers of Steve Bould, in fact my own suspicion is that it is due to the higher positioning of the full-backs. Jenkinson and Gibbs may be raw, but they are able to pose more of an attacking threat than Sagna and Clichy did in recent seasons, which has helped keep the pressure off the defence. Arteta has been exemplary in the screening role, and his promotion to vice-captain after only one season seems strangely overdue. If we can just stop the 'keepers dropping the ball we should be fine.

Cazorla has proved a worthy successor to Fabregas in terms of vision and switching the angles of attack, but what's caught my eye is his urgency and willingness to speed up play. Overall, the biggest change for me has been the greater mobility across the forward line. With van Persie, our approach play was often predictable, and too often flanking moves were held up waiting for his runs in the middle. The busier style of Podolski and Giroud, allied with Gervinho and Oxlade-Chamberlain's variety, looks like it has sharpened our cutting edge, even if it did take a couple of games to whet the blade. On this reading, it's hard to see a future for the less mobile Chamakh, while Arshavin's lack of stamina means he'll probably be restricted to the bench until he departs.

The big debate at present is the role of Walcott, particularly whether he should play as a central striker after his two goals against Coventry last night. He might well have converted one of the chances that Gervinho passed up against City at the weekend, however I've never been convinced by his positioning before he receives the ball. A central striker has to make space for himself, so he can spin and attack the centre backs. Walcott has traditionally used his pace against the full-back to make that space (i.e. he runs past them), which is not the same thing.

Assuming the contractuals are resolved (and that in turn assumes Arsene actually wants to keep him), then he may get a chance this season, but I think he'll need to learn a lot to become the heir of Henry. Ultimately, he would do better to try and become more of a hybrid, occupying the wide berth but being more willing to cut inside, much as Podolski does. I'd love it if he could engineer a one-on-one with John Terry this Saturday and leave him on his arse. While many Arsenal fans would spit at the name of Robin van Persie now, he'll always have a place in my heart because of this.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

When leverage isn't debt

On the Andrew Marr show today, Nick Clegg outlined a new LibDem scheme whereby future pensioners could use the lump sum amount of their anticipated pension pot to guarantee an up-front loan to pay for the deposit on a house or flat for their offspring (amusingly, while the Guardian and others describes this in terms of parents, the Telegraph pitches this as an issue for grandparents - they obviously know their readership). On the face of it, this sounds like a spot of inter-generational rebalancing, but another interpretation would be that "leverage is good", which isn't perhaps something they want to brag about.

The obvious trigger for launching this is the LibDem annual conference, but it shouldn't be dismissed at as a cynical PR skyrocket that will be forgotten by Bonfire Night. Though it will have almost no impact on housing or the wider economy, it plays on a number of popular anxieties and is interesting for what it indicates about both the LibDems' future positioning and the plans of the coalition government. This far out from a general election, the conference goodies of both Tories and LibDems will have been coordinated, as anything else would run the risk of embarrassing contradictions that would undermine the government over the coming months. The delineation is quite subtle.

The LibDems themselves have admitted that the number of beneficiaries will be modest, perhaps fewer than 13,000 will be helped onto the property ladder, and the macroeconomic impact will be lost in the noise. They have also admitted that many well-off people will not avail themselves of the scheme as they will have other assets or disposable income that they can use to fund the deposits of their children. In fact, there is nothing to stop a person with a private pension arranging a loan now on that future lump sum. This is nothing more than an "option", after all. Indeed, some of those better-off folk may already be doing this, as interest rates are historically low.

In other words, this policy is targeted at the "squeezed middle", those who have a potential pension pot of at least £40k and may thus anticipate a lump sum (at 25%) of £10k, but who wouldn't be prepared to gamble with it unless underwritten by the government (the details of the scheme have yet to be announced, but this is probably the key commitment, i.e. an indemnity in case your pension pot does not reach a minimum threshold come retirement age). Of course, this will only pay for roughly a third of the average deposit required nationally, and about a fifth of the amount you'd need in London, so the upper limit of the range may be a future pension pot of £150k or more.

It should be immediately obvious that if you anticipate a pension pot of only £40k, then you are looking at a retirement in poverty anyway. With current annuity rates as low as 2%, this pot will produce an annual income of £1,300 (assuming you take 25% as lump sum, otherwise it would be £1,700). The state pension will deliver approximately £5,600 in today's money, so you would need a private pension pot of at least £100k to match this and double your income, without any lump sum deduction.

The LibDems are obliged to pitch the scheme at the £40k level, as this matches the likely outcome for someone on median earnings (£21k) putting £40 a month (2.3%) into their pension, with zero employer contributions. In reality, the scheme is more likely to attract those with an annual salary nearer £50k, making contributions of 4% with employer contributions at the same rate, which would produce a pot of £350k. In other words, the professional and managerial classes and those with decent employer pensions. Those on a £40k "promise" are struggling due to low annuity rates (a byproduct of quantitative easing, in part), and may not feel confident about either future rates or property value appreciation (outside London and the South East). Those with larger anticipated pots have sufficient slack to gamble. A £50k draw-down on a £350k pot (14%) would largely pay for a deposit on a London flat. A 25% draw-down would allow for a significant reduction in mortgage repayments, which would be a good investment if you expect property prices to remain firm at worst.

The significance of this initiative in terms of the LibDem's positioning is the attempt to convince those on median incomes, many of whom will have working children at home, that Clegg & co have their best interests at heart. In combination with the much-discussed (but little seen) mansion tax, this paints the LibDems as the party of property owners of limited means. I suspect they are on a hiding to nothing here. As many have noted, the only realistic direction the UK property market can take, with the prospect of persistent low GDP growth over the near-term and stagnant wages for median earners and below, is down. When the inevitable crash happens, it will take chunks out of some pension pots and leave parents in conflict with their children. What median income earners need now is a higher income, not the ability to leverage their modest pension pot.

The reason why the Tories are presumably cool with the LibDems flying the "pension collateral" kite is that it is consistent with the belief that property values will (indeed must) stay high. Ultimately, this benefits financial institutions (i.e. lenders) and helps move capital to those who already own property assets (i.e. disproportionately the better-off and speculators). These groups, rather than median-income families, are now the key constituency for the Tories. The transition from the nouveau riche Thatcher, and her sympathy for the aspirations of first-time property owners, to the Cameron and Osborne clique of inherited wealth and City connections, is not an accidental social change but the manifestation of a more profound shift in the raison d'etre of the modern Tory party.

This reinforces the suspicion that the coalition government will not do anything to jeopardise house prices between now and a 2015 general election. That means no prospect of a large-scale house-building programme, continued support for builders of higher-value properties in London and the South East, no penalties for banking land or keeping properties empty, and continued quantitative easing and other monetary policies to cushion bank and building society balance sheets. While public debt remains anathema, private, property-based debt remains virtuous to the point of being the poster-child for growth.

Friday, 21 September 2012

The time for sadness is over

What exactly is Nick Clegg apologising for? Ostensibly it's the LibDem's failure to keep their promise over increasing tuition fees, but I'm inclined to think otherwise. Some think he should apologise for the coalition government's broader record. I think that is actually what he is doing.

Clegg and Vince Cable have both claimed that the timing of the apology was down to waiting for "the right moment", with the suggestion being that the public were not prepared to give them a hearing before now ("to be frank people were so angry they weren’t listening", claimed Cable on Newsnight last night). This is tosh. It's like Goering at Nuremburg saying the time was not right for an apology but if the Allies would give him another 5 years, so tempers could cool, he might then be able to say sorry to a more receptive audience. Is that too extreme an analogy? Consider the FA's recent decision to wait 23 years after Hillsborough to apologise for it's deadly disregard for fan safety, something which has not been in dispute since the original Taylor report. Were they just waiting for the "right moment"?

The time for making an apology is when it is demanded. So why did the LibDems delay? Presumably they hoped that the golden age that the coalition would usher in would push the memory of their inept opportunism to the back of everyone's mind. And they would've gotten away with it if it weren't for those meddling kids, banging on about it all the time. Is it a coincidence that this comes in fresher's week, when students will be distracted by cheap booze and new sexual opportunities? Has it taken two years for Clegg to master the right level of hangdog sincerity, practising each morning in front of the bathroom mirror? That might explain his near-permanent look of secret sadness.

The timing of Clegg's apology-porn-vid has to be seen in the context of the LibDem's desperate plan to avoid electoral annihilation in early 2015. They need to distance themselves from the Tories, not just to offer a distinct policy option going forward, but to allow responsibility for the coalition's "achievements" to be apportioned. That will be the subtext over the next 30 months. Clegg is now banking on Cable being able to deliver sufficient initiatives that can be cast as stimulus, and business reform that can be presented as responsible and mature (unlike the Tory lunacy), to distract attention from welfare cuts, the evisceration of the NHS, and the failure to address the structural flaws of the economy. The Tories will be allowed to take credit for all of that. Expect to see much more of Cable and David Laws, and much less of Danny Alexander.

The strategic purpose of the tuition fees apology is to reset the LibDem's focus from the past to the future, changing the agenda from the already discredited coalition agreement to the debate on plan B. This not only draws a line under tuition fees, but pushes the failures over AV and Lords reform off-stage, and even leaves health and education on the margins. The big debate will be about "responsible stimulus" and growth. The LibDems clearly won't go into the next election promising more of the same, i.e. plan A part 2. That would be suicide, not least because austerians might as well vote Tory. The person whose heart may have sank most on seeing Clegg indulge his emotions is the increasingly isolated George Osborne.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

We are the 53%

Mitt Romney's "47%" speech has presented so many shootable fish in a barrel that we're at risk of misunderstanding the barrel. Pointing to the hypocrisy of a man who only pays 14% income tax, or even the hypocrisy of an audience of investment bankers who think it virtuous to avoid tax altogether, is as relevant as criticising the Republican candidate's poor grasp of Middle East geography when most Americans would struggle to identify any country outside the USA on a map, with the exceptions of Canada and Mexico.

Given his less extreme record as Governor of Massachusetts, and his reputation for inconsistency, both of which were targeted by his opponents during the primaries, Romney has tried hard to convince Republicans that he is genuinely right-wing. The resulting gaffes may disgust those who had no intention of voting for him anyway, but they may also shore up his core support. As the video makes clear, he is actually arguing that the election will be won by whoever secures the lion's share of the small percentage of "independent" or swing voters. This is a strategy that would have made perfect sense to Tony Blair and Philip Gould. Indeed, his remarks about Palestine may well be a calculated attempt to win over Jewish independents, as well as reassuring committed Republicans of his pro-Israel credentials. There's no mileage in chasing the pro-Palestinian vote.

The claim that 47% don't pay income tax is disingenuous, but it's red meat for an audience, brought up on Ayn Rand, that thinks that everyone outside its own circle is a moocher. The belief that American enterprise has been sapped by government handouts and the evolution of an entitlement culture flies in the face of the facts. Most of the quoted figure pay payroll taxes, not to mention sales and state taxes, and only avoid federal income tax because they are low-paid. Of the much more modest figure of 18% who pay neither federal income tax nor payroll taxes, 10% are retirees (who will mostly have paid tax in the past) and 7% are too poor (and probably unemployed, so may pay tax in the future), which leaves the free-rider population at around 1% (and many of those are "well off" types with clever accountants).

The reason why there is a growing number of people in the US who pay payroll tax but not income tax is due to the combined effects of stagnant wage growth and the incremental raising of tax-free allowances. The same trend has been evident in the UK for some time. Today, you start paying NICs on annual income over £5,564, but income tax does not kick in until £8,105, and this latter threshold is due to rise to £10,000 in 2014. On both sides of the pond, the policy of "lifting millions out of income tax altogether" has been pursued by both conservatives and liberals, thereby reinforcing the view that income tax is uniquely bad, but also leading in practice to its growing social exclusivity. As revenue is a necessity, this has in turn led to greater reliance in the UK on NI and VAT, both of which are more regressive than income tax.

As I've noted before, removing people from income tax is a double-edged sword. One moment the beneficiaries are hard-working families emancipated from the dead weight of government, the next they are free-loaders sucking the blood of the virtuous tax-paying majority. We're the 53%, and we're not going to take it any more! As night follows day, the small band willing to defend Romney (or at least wind-up liberals) have deployed the cry "no representation without taxation". This is the mean truth at the heart of Romney and his audience's worldview. Tax is for the little people, but government is for the rich. It's a real threat to democracy. That is the barrel.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Education as an STD

Once upon a time, there was a general assumption that teachers mainly read the Guardian, with the Times restricted to headmasters, the Telegraph to psychotic games teachers, and the Daily Mail to the nice lady who taught home economics. That appears to have changed over the last decade, not just because of evolution in the press and the growth of alternative distractions (inappropriate flirting with students on Facebook), but because of the impact of New Labour's education ("power of 3") policy. There was a perfect example of it in a teacher-unfriendly piece in yesterday's Guardian by Martin Kettle, praising the new book by Andrew ("my friends call me Lord") Adonis. What made me hold the paper at a slight angle, to get a better perspective, was a coincidental blog post by the American academic, Corey Robin, who asked the question: Why do liberals hate teachers?

Robin's answer is that liberal parents despise teachers because they exemplify the mediocre. "Liberal" in this US context means upper middle-class professionals. Most of what he says goes for the UK as well, but without the "upper" qualification. Despite the obvious talent of many, and the high value accorded to education as a social good, the people who teach our kids are seen as failures by other professionals. I think he puts his finger on it when he says: "Teachers had opted out of the capitalist game; they weren’t in this world for money". Once we would have admired this, but in the neoliberal order we interpret it as an admission of inadequacy. When teachers, through a union, show that they do care about money, at least to the extent of ensuring a decent living standard for their efforts, we see this as a betrayal of our self-serving image of the profession. They then become little better than paedophiles, out to damage the poor little kiddies.

Culturally, the teacher is a far more rigid stereotype than most professionals. Even doctors are accorded more variety in terms of personal motivation and behaviour. Teachers are objects of benign pity at best, and outright contempt at worst. A common trope has been the teacher's vulnerability to irresponsibility and self-delusion, from Mr. Chips (sentimentalised) through Jean Brodie (tragic) to Brian Glover's PE teacher in Kes (comic). In recent years, fictional treatments have tended to show teachers as undeveloped adolescents (TV's Teachers) or damaged personalities reverting to the role of pseudo-child (Notes on a Scandal).

Alan Bennett's The History Boys is a symphony of caricatures: the narrow-minded, social-climbing headteacher; the tragi-comic, aesthetic pederast; the insincere, flawed Oxbridge coach; and the cynical, resigned woman. The epilogue contrasts the varying degrees of success of the boys in their adult lives not with each other so much as with the teachers, the embodiment of anti-success. Though it is the most sympathetic character who has chosen teaching as a career, his choice appears preordained and the consequence of his nature: "I'm a Jew... I'm small... I'm homosexual... and I live in Sheffield... I'm fucked". The aesthete Hector's exhortation, "pass it on boys, pass it on", implies that the love of learning for its own sake (and by extension pedagogy) might be a sexually-transmitted disease. It's hardly an advertisement for the profession.

Reading Kettle's piece in light of Robin's is a revealing exercise. He starts by contrasting Adonis with Chris Huhne as "two of the brainiest men in British politics". Given Huhne's blustering stupidity over policy and motoring points, you have to take this on trust. The purpose of the deeply unfunny anecdote is to praise Adonis both for his general scepticism and for his enthusiasm for continued educational reform. Cake and eating it come to mind. Kettle notes that the academy model initiated by Blair and Adonis, and enthusiastically continued by Gove, has resulted in just over half of secondary schools being converted. Consequently, "the independent state school model is here to stay". Kettle does not stop to wonder at the oxymoron of "independent state", instead he exhorts us to "get used to it".

In summarising Adonis's case for the original reform (why does he feel he still needs to make this?), Kettle throws up symptoms without causes: educational inadequacy, lack of expectations and discipline, bureaucracy etc. These are just rhetorical cliches, often based on myth. The academy is the non-sequitor panacea. Professional vested interests and the failure of public service reform under Labour, due to union pressure, also figure prominently in his potted history. You may have forgotten how the academy programme was successfully kyboshed by the teaching unions, and how their 10% per annum pay increases every year for a decade ballooned the public debt. Maybe you blinked.

Kettle, as an impeccable liberal, rolls out a panegyric that would have done justice to Lloyd George: "The overall track record of academies is so clearly successful that it becomes perversely reactionary to focus on the failures, albeit genuine ones ... This is less left-right than reform versus the status quo". The privileging of "reform", as a species of progress above the muddy fray of ideological politics, is central to the liberal ideology. Neoliberalism has made a speciality of attacking the "reactionary" stance of organised labour: "dinosaur" unions, "standing in the way of progress", "taking us back" to a horrible past (rubbish in the streets, hospitals without power etc, etc). Kettle and Adonis seem to be still fighting the last war.

As any fule kno', only those academies that could guarantee better results were allowed through in the early waves. The recent examples of poor results, and the increase in aborted launches of free schools, indicates that the low-hanging fruit have largely been picked. Kettle himself recognises that "the more schools become academies or free schools the greater the likelihood that overall score improvements will slow", but fails to draw the obvious lesson that either academy performance will regress to the mean or academy status will not be extended to the under-performing rump. Maybe he didn't do GCSE maths.

The outcome is likely to be a tripartite system of fee-paying schools, academies/free schools and a residuum of "bog standard comprehensives". The original liberal critique of the old tripartite model (grammars, technical schools and secondary moderns) was that it was a pyramid, which resulted in too many middle class kids failing the eleven-plus and ending up in a secondary modern. The comprehensive system was meant to move these up the scale. "Comprehensive" meant teaching kids academic as well as applied subjects. It was only later that the term was interpreted as "young Johnny has to mix with those kids from the council estate".

Kettle finishes with a vision of Adonis's phase two, which the good lord may get a chance to implement if Labour win a majority in 2015 (Adonis won't be standing himself, of course): "a radical renovation of teacher training, based in the best universities and schools, not lower status colleges. Will it work? The unthinking left and the vested interests will hate it, as usual". This returns us neatly to the point about social standing and Corey Robin's observations on contempt. Kettle (and Adonis's) vision is elitist and technocratic. Teachers must evolve into higher status professionals who wouldn't dream of going on strike. Regardless of whether you think this is desirable, you have to be blinkered to believe it is even remotely possible. A profession based on the cream of graduates, disincentivised to industrial action, would require a doubling of salaries. Given the all-party consensus on the increasing cost of the welfare state, this is cloud-cuckoo stuff. More realistically, we will see the fragmentation of the profession through the introduction of variable pay, with the cream being reserved for fee-paying schools and top academies, and the rump schools left with poorly-paid "losers". From a pyramid to a diamond. That's progress, for you.

Though there are real differences in principle and practice between the Tories and Labour, the core features of education policy are common across the (liberal) political spectrum. Labour will push for a smaller rump, but it won't challenge fee-paying schools or the pernicious role of religion. Gove will resuscitate grammar schools as academies, so the middle tier will be further stratified and petty school badge snobbery entrenched. Labour will push for more GCSE passes, the Tories for fewer. The curriculum will be further homogenised to raise standards across the board (Labour) and to ensure standards don't drop (Tories). Universities will continue to accept students disproportionately from fee-paying schools. Most teachers will continue to be despised.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Hillsborough: it was the Sun wot done it

There is poignancy in the publication of the Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel after a summer of feelgood sport was topped-out by Andy Murray's victory in New York. It has taken 23 years, almost Murray's entire lifetime, to confirm what was common knowledge, particularly among football fans, shortly after the disaster (see this editorial from When Saturday Comes in June 1989): Sheffield Wednesday FC and Sheffield City Council were culpable for an unsafe ground, the FA didn't care about spectator safety, the police saw fans only as a public order challenge and made fatal mistakes on the day, the ambulance service was inept, and politicians and the media eagerly assumed that fans were to blame.

What the latest report now confirms is that there was an organised conspiracy after the event to shift primary blame from the police onto the fans, leading to the infamous Sun front-page that claimed they were drunk and violent, urinating on police officers and stealing from the dead. Following Cameron's formal and fulsome apology on behalf of the current government (to whom no blame can attach), we can expect some of those involved in the campaign of denigration (though probably not all) to make further public admissions of error and regret. Kelvin MacKenzie and Boris Johnson have got off the mark early with mealy-mouthed claims that they acted in "good faith" or were "sloppy" in repeating the lies of others. A right pair of Jeremys.

The passage of time means that some have dodged the verdict of the panel, notably the then South Yorkshire Chief Constable, Peter Wright, who died last year. Others may well face prosecution for perverting the course of justice, though those guilty of mere incompetence or poor judgement, such as the coroner, Stefan Popper, and Graham Kelly of the FA, have probably now avoided any damage to their professional careers. The Jeremys.

The political context of the time was a government that had consistently displayed a contemptuous attitude towards football fans, culminating in the barking-mad plan for supporter ID cards, which was only aborted in the aftermath of Hillsborough. This stupidity was shared by the administrators of the game and many club owners (Ken Bates's plans for electric fences and his equivalence of fans with cattle was a standout). Ultimately, it was the ready willingness of the government to accept the lies of the police (relayed in part by the Tory MP Irvine Patnick) that led to the initial miscarriage of justice and the subsequent official inertia. The police told the politicians what they expected to hear. The politicians' prejudices reinforced the cover-up (see this telling anecdote about the then Home Secretary, David Waddington. The utter Jeremy).

One comment in the report, a quote from a briefing given to Margaret Thatcher, that the deception and unreliability of the South Yorkshire Police was "depressingly familiar", gives a clue to the wider historical context. The was the same police force that distinguished themselves at the "Battle of Orgreave" five years earlier. The similarities in their aggressive behaviour on the day, and their subsequent fabrication of evidence (the prosecution of 95 miners for riot collapsed as a result), are obvious. The force's established reputation as a bunch of lying thugs was a major factor in the widespread scepticism among football fans that greeted the Sun exclusive and (let's not forget) the equally unsympathetic TV reports. In the papers released to the inquiry, Thatcher responded to the preliminary Taylor report by writing: "The broad thrust is devastating criticism of the police. Is that for us to welcome?" The possibility that the deaths of 96 fans might trump concerns over the police force's reputation does not appear to have entered her head. It is hard to imagine a modern politician being so tone-deaf as to describe strikers or football fans as "the enemy within", whatever the provocation, though Boris Johnson might try if he thought he could excuse it afterwards as a joke. The Thatcher years were vicious.

Why did it take so long for the state to admit what was widely known at the time? One theory is that this was a cynical strategy of delay. The Thatcher, Major and Blair governments all knew enough to have justified reopening the inquest, but it was only in the last days of the Brown administration that Andy Burnham and Maria Eagle got the green light for the independent review to inspect papers held secret under the 30-year rule. I'd like to think this reflected Brown's and Alan Johnson (the Home Secretary's) empathy as football fans, but Blair's oft-touted affinity with the Magpies bore nothing, so perhaps it was just a metaphorical clock running down. The rationale for delay would be to allow the systemic failures to be addressed in an orderly fashion behind closed doors (we are assured that it's a "different police force today"), allowing any eventual opprobrium to be heaped on long-retired individuals. Of course, without real independent oversight, it's difficult to say whether the rotten barrel has been replaced by a sound one. To judge by the recent performance of the Met police in relation to phone-hacking and Ian Tomlinson, you don't get the impression that the police's traditional culture of contempt for the less powerful members of society has been wholly extirpated the length and breadth of the land.

Mention of phone-hacking should shift the spotlight back to the media. The real crime of the Sun was not their peddling of the police's lies, or the systematic collusion between the two, but their role in creating the climate of contempt towards football fans, and other "enemies", throughout the course of the 1980s. Without this, it is unlikely that the flimsy police claims would have been given credence at the time. As someone who regularly attended matches both home and away in those years, the gulf between the "hooligan hell" of the media and the reality (rucks happened, but infrequently) was accepted as just one of those things. A reflection of the stupidity and remoteness of power. It is only with time that you appreciate how much this was a concerted campaign to instill fear among non-fans, to drum up support for draconian laws, rather than an unthinking expression of anti-plebian prejudice.

Today, football fans are seen as cuddly consumers, decked out in club shirts and felt hats rather than DMs and Harrington jackets (I'm strictly old school). The archetypal TV or photo shot is the contrast between delirious joy and tears as relegation is avoided or confirmed, rather than running street battles or pitch invasions. A trope of the Premier League era is the takeover by middle-class fans, particularly at grounds such as The Emirates, supposedly displacing working-class males and thus the hooligan element. This is over-stated. Many of those middle-class fans were there in the 80s, they just didn't fit the stereotype so they were ignored. The above-inflation increases in ticket costs will have squeezed out some fans, but the bigger impact on demographics at the leading clubs has been the move to all-seater stadia, the increased share of season tickets, and the advent of cheap flights bringing footy tourists to the UK. Football has become a less casual pastime, focusing more on die-hard regulars and high-spending groups and families on an outing.

The reason why the campaign for justice for the Hillsborough 96 has finally succeeded is, in part, because so many of the affected were middle class or articulate working class. While the political isolation of the miners in 1984 was effective because they were a separate and clannish community, the miscalculation in 1989 was that football fans could be as easily segregated and made an object of popular hatred. The clue that this wouldn't work was the solidarity shown by the city-wide boycott of the Sun in Liverpool. What's depressing is that the tactics of the press remain fundamentally the same. The enemy within have evolved from the three-headed monster of miners, IRA and football fans into the hydra of public sector workers, Islamic terrorists and benefit cheats. The regular stories about the feckless and workshy robbing the public purse are no more the product of fearless investigative journalism than the ironically titled "The Truth" from 1989. But don't hold your breath in expectation of a News of the World-style self-immolation. The Sun's contrition will last for just the one issue.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

iPhone 5 set to save the World

Apparently, the anticipated release of the iPhone 5 later today is going to boost the US economy, possibly by as much as 0.5% of GDP. As the Washington Post claims, "That could mean the difference between a disappointing economic expansion and a half-decent one". This story originated in a JP Morgan analyst report and now appears to be have spread like wildfire. The analyst calculations are speculative as the retail price of the device, the release date, new features, and the components that will count as imports (and thus not contribute to GDP) are all unknown at this time. The boost scenario also relies on zero substitution - i.e. the belief that people won't spend the money they've been carefully collecting in their piggy-bank on something else. The money has been earmarked for a new iPhone so only a new iPhone can produce the increment in GDP. The analyst report even posits a "hedonic premium", the idea that because the new phone will have better features, this will make people happier and more productive, leading to greater GDP growth. It's utter cobblers, of course.

The significance of this is not that it might be true but that so many are willing to believe it, or more accurately to suspend disbelief. There is a palpable desire for good news, and specifically for a story that has an element of "market-making" about it. While this will be the first big product announcement (assuming the iPhone 5 actually is announced) since Steve Jobs's death, there remains an expectation that this will be the same old time religion, a fanfare followed by the waving of a magic wand. This is what Keynes termed "animal spirits", an "urge to action rather than inaction" that is "characteristic of human nature". Personally, I've always thought that this urge was driven as much by boredom as positivity, but "spontaneous optimism" sounds nobler than "I'm bored, let's do something", which calls to mind the Scouse vultures in Disney's The Jungle Book.

When companies retrench and reduce expenditure, a point eventually comes when their operational management find that they have finished the "cutback" project and start to look around for what to do next. A certain amount of maintenance and housekeeping will keep them occupied for a while, but this quickly palls. Gradually, the gripes and suggestions start to filter up: "we need to do something about X", "we've been meaning to do Y for ages; now would be a good time" etc. If the suspicion that businesses have been hoarding skilled labour during this recession is true, then the bounce-back to launching new projects may happen quite quickly. However, by the same token, this may not lead to a rapid expansion in employment because there is plenty of spare capacity.

Boredom also affects the way the economy is reported. Analysts get bored of worrying about a Chinese hard landing, journalists get bored of the Eurozone crisis. A "good news" story (and Apple product launches have been the acme of this over the last decade) is doubly attractive in the current climate because it provides variety. The iPhone story is indicative of two beliefs. First, the idea that if we could all be positive then we might beat this recession. This is the "confidence fairy" criticised by Paul Krugman, but it also echoes the modern notion that positive thinking alone can beat cancer. It's the power of secular prayer. Second, the failure to account for substitution shows a belief that many of us, i.e. individual consumers as well as businesses, are sitting on a (modest) cash pile. Demand is latent and just waiting for the right product to come along.

Household debt levels have dropped in the US following the sub-prime shakeout (i.e. due to defaults and foreclosures), however this is not grounds to believe that people have spare cash or are willing to incur debt to get a new phone. In the UK, household debt has not come down, in no small part due to bank and building society forbearance as property prices have remained high. Again, there is no evidence that people have money burning a hole in their pocket or are keen to cane the credit cards once more. It is possible that a seriously innovative and desirable iPhone 5 might perk up demand a bit, but it would have to be a game-changer to produce the sort of boost being talked about. A replacement for Google Maps isn't going to rock your world.

Monday, 10 September 2012

How are we to live?

In an otherwise blameless review of a book on urban transport systems, I came across another sighting of one of the most persistent misattributed quotes of modern times, the claim that "Margaret Thatcher once declared that 'a man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself a failure'." The quote is thought to have originated with the minor British poet Brian Howard, a part-model for the character of Anthony Blanche in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, and was given currency in the memoirs of Loelia Ponsonby, Duchess of Westminster. The remark's tone of Lady Bracknell-like condescension is what you would expect from some called Loelia Ponsonby. What is baffling is why anyone would expect such an aphorism to drop from the lips of Margaret Thatcher.

For many, Thatcher's chief feature was her utter lack of empathy and corresponding lack of a sense of humour (conspicuous by its absence in her actual quotes). Though her martial spirit at the time of the Falklands and during the Miners' Strike earned her plaudits from many, those on the receiving end saw her as "unfeeling" and "cruel". I've often wondered if she wasn't actually on the mild end of the autistic spectrum. Her exceptional status as a woman meant that she was easily treated as a collection of props (the handbag, the hairdo, the haughty disdain), which deflected attention from the emotional void. Even the Soviets labelling of her as "The Iron Lady" is a literally superficial description, as well as a sarky reference to Stalin, the man of steel.

What got me thinking about the old bat, in a roundabout way, is the current BBC adaptation of Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End. In a review, the historian David Priestland focused on the lead character, Christopher Tietjens. Priestland has a book to sell, which attempts to interpret history through competition between three "castes": warrior aristocracy, technocratic sages and commercial merchants (with the workers largely off-stage). This substitutes boring old economic classes with modern personality types (Which one are you? Take our quick test!) Tietjens in this reading combines warrior and sage (he quits his job as a statistician for the trenches), while the target of Ford's satire is the unprincipled and venal political establishment, a Liberal administration that represents the commercial interest.

Priestland sees the success of the adaptation, and that of Downton Abbey, as a longing for "gentle Toryism" and claims that "the last time we saw such an epidemic of Tory nostalgia was in the 1930s. After the merchant-driven Wall Street crash of 1929, the conservative-voting middle classes faced a frightening world of social and international conflict. They rejected a failed commercialism, and sought instead a return to an imaginary world of idealised hierarchy – paternalistic, yet free of the old aristocratic warmongering that had brought them the suffering of the trenches". But the "last time" was surely the early 1980s under the first Thatcher administration, and specifically the success of Brideshead Revisited. This caught the zeitgeist in part because of the contrast between Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte. Not just the tension of class, middle versus upper, but Tory fogeyism versus amoral hedonism. Sebastian's aesthete crowd (including Anthony Blanche) may have been a bunch of arty poseurs of flexible sexuality, but they also exhibited a cupidity and taste for champagne that foreshadowed the coming house style of the City. Even Harry Enfield's "loadsmoney" plasterer had some common DNA. The unrepentant disregard for the working class, and the revelling in the material trappings of wealth, were what made Brideshead a TV hit, not the Catholic notion of divine grace.

There is a thread that runs from Ford's Tietjens in the 1920s to three characters published in the 1950s, just before the apotheosis of the bus in the form of the Routemaster. Evelyn Waugh's Guy Crouchback, the hero of the Sword of Honour trilogy, is the closest in style and mood, even sharing multiple plot similarities. At the extremes are the bathetic Jim Dixon of Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim and the caricature of Ian Fleming's James Bond. The common theme is that breeding and conservative principles are a bulwark against a changing world, though this outlook is presented through the virtues of authenticity and anti-pretension in the case of Dixon. These characters are all variations on the theme of powerlessness, with Bond's superiority in violence, tailoring and means of transport a compensatory daydream. Coincidentally, Fleming was a friend of Loelia Ponsonby and used her name for Bond's personal secretary in the earlier novels.

Benedict Cumberbatch is physically wrong for the part of Tietjens - too feline, not stolid enough, not enough of an Eeyore. The direction makes him look bigger, as it makes Stephen Graham (Combo in This is England) look smaller - a preening mouse. Rebecca Hall looks like a sleek thoroughbred - Tietjens loves horses and finds them more congenial than most people, a classic romantic Tory trope. It is a well-written, directed and acted production. The need to compress 3 out of the 4 books into a total of 5 hours produces a rapid series of miniatures: beautifully-shot scenes, witty dialogue, heightened emotion. You are never less than entertained. But what (if any) is the message? After 3 of the 5 episodes, it looks like it will be the consolations of love, even though the omitted fourth volume's coda concerns the practicalities of life: "How are we to live?" Ultimately, I think Ford's point is that "gentle Toryism" is not enough and leads to a retreat into the cultivation of one's garden. As we look forward to a decade of austerity, nostalgia looks as irresponsible and selfish now as it did in the 1980s.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

A plan for growth (in your back garden)

The government's plan for growth now appears to be centred on home extensions. Invest in RSJs now. The announced easing of planning restrictions will cover business premises too, and will also allow builders to sidestep the affordable homes quota currently needed to secure planning permission for large housing schemes. There will also be more money to help first-time buyers, and a further £40bn for "shovel-ready" infrastructure projects. This is pitiful. The extra infrastructure money is in the form of guarantees, not cash (so it doesn't count as public debt), and the FirstBuy scheme largesse (actually loans) will help only 16,500 buyers (there are usually 1 to 1.5 million house sales per year, with 869,000 in 2011).

Longer-term infrastructure projects, such as HS2 or more airport runways, won't have an impact till well beyond 2020. Even a commitment to other major projects that could start soon, such as fibre to the home and upgrading sewers, would have only a weak effect on growth over the next 5 years. It is a popular myth that infrastructure projects provide growth themselves, as opposed to providing the base for future growth. The experience of the public works programmes in the USA in the 1930s is illustrative. Despite a huge investment in both short (WPA) and long-term (PWA) projects, the immediate impact was palliative at best, shown by the recession that resulted after the premature scaling back of investment in 1937. The real benefit was that the WPA schemes tided workers over till the rearmament boom in the late 30s created new jobs, while the big PWA schemes (roads, schools, dams and bridges) provided the world-class infrastructure that underpinned the US boom in the 40s and 50s.

The other major pillar of the government's strategy is to allow the Bank of England to continue with quantitative easing (QE). There is every reason to believe that this was the right monetary policy intervention in 2009, when it put a floor under the crash by repairing bank liquidity, but the evidence is mounting that it is ineffective at stimulating growth (because businesses are reluctant to borrow and the banks are reluctant to lend), which makes Mervyn King look increasingly like a "one club golfer". What QE has done is protect the value of specific asset classes, notably property and shares. While the BoE claim this is to everyone's indirect benefit, it is clearly biased in favour of those who already own those classes of asset, while it is punishing savers and new pensioners buying annuities

QE is pretty much the only club available to Mervyn King because the traditional lever, the interest rate, is currently stuck to the floor. It cannot go any lower to stimulate borrowing and investment. If monetary policy is ineffective, then focus should turn to fiscal policy (i.e. tax and spend), which is the central argument of Keynsians like Paul Krugman, but the government is hemmed in by their demonisation of debt (whose defeat is the core rationale for the coalition) and the popular unpalatability of further tax cuts for the self-proclaimed wealth creators. This is why so much angry energy on the right has turned to supply side reform, notably slaying the dragon of regulation around hiring and firing. Unhelpfully, the free-market World Economic Forum (the Davos crowd) has just issued a report ranking the UK as highly competitive and singling out its flexible labour market for particular praise.

The Tory strategy for growth, insofar as they can be said to have one, appears to be based on looser employment law, easier planning permission, fewer graduates, lack of credit (though combined with cheap money), minimal government pump-priming, and financial services still preferred to manufacturing. You can therefore see why a free-for-all in home extensions looks attractive. It has the merit of appealing to their core constituency (home owners with cash to spare or access to credit), it can have a near-immediate impact, it doesn't obviously benefit bankers, and it isn't premised on a fantasy.

Unfortunately, the results will will be minimal in terms of GDP growth, and may even be counter-productive. There are some home-owners who may now decide to extend rather than move, which means the rate of churn in housing stock might decrease. This will serve to keep prices up, which will please asset owners but won't help first-time buyers. Most businesses are not champing at the bit to expand their premises because they face a lack of demand. A change in the planning regs will only embolden the already confident. Those businesses struggling to get loans won't be any better off either, though presumably the banks may look more kindly on builders who specialise in extensions and loft conversions (so happy days for some).

A more courageous short-term strategy would, I'd suggest, do three things. First, introduce a land value tax. This would penalise builders who have banked land (waiting for higher prices) and so stimulate housing. It would also be a far more effective wealth tax than a "mansion tax" or a one-off Clegg-style levy. Second, introduce higher tax rates for financial businesses and speculative activities (i.e. a Tobin tax and more), to encourage investment into other sectors. Third, reduce VAT. The more money we put into the pockets of the less well-off, the better the multiplier effect will be on the general economy. This could be a fiscally neutral strategy.

A more courageous medium-term (5-10 year) strategy would include the likes of a basic income (so people were emboldened to start businesses), an education and qualifications system geared to developing potential and social mobility, the abolition of UK tax havens (including the introduction of a general avoidance principle), and a massive council house building programme to overcome engineered scarcity and so start to push down property prices (which we all know has to happen sooner or later). But that would require a change of government, not to mention a revolution within the Labour party.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Change here for Heathwickton

The demotion of Justine Greening is being taken as evidence that the Cameron-Osborne buddy act are now committed to a third runway at Heathrow, something that the astute self-publicist Michael Ryan (now champion of Stansted) has conceded. That other noted self-publicist, Boris Johnson, has stuck his ample oar in, favouring as he does "Boris Island", a vanity project on a par with his hero Churchill's disastrous Dardanelles plan, though hopefully with less scope for casualties.

The idea of an airport in the Thames Estuary was first mooted back in the 1940s. This is not some brilliant new idea that Boris has come up with, any more than the "Boris Bike" scheme was. The reason it has never got off the ground is not because of worries about birds nests being trampled but because of more fundamental issues, namely: the increased likelihood of bird-strikes and fog in an estuary; the remoteness of the site from London (the idea’s reappearance owes much to the presumed handiness for the High-Speed 1 line at Ebbsfleet); and the fact that users would generally prefer to go via Heathrow, or any other airport nearer Central London.

The problem with airport capacity is not primarily that we are travelling more (the big increase in domestic use happened decades ago), but that the rest of the world is doing more travelling, most of which has to connect via a small number of international hub airports. London is one of the world's primary hubs, offering a connection between the western and eastern hemispheres, as well links between Africa and Europe, and polar routes to the Far East. It is vulnerable to competition from Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt, but it is better positioned for intercontinental travel and, Britain being an island, there will always be significant domestic traffic to build on.

The ideal location for London Airport is to the south, giving easy access west, south and east, with only the smaller volume of traffic to the north flying over the capital itself. Today, the bulk of traffic flies over the city, most of it along the Thames. London's first major airport was to the south at Croydon. The decision to relocate to the west was a mixture of poor planning (expansion land around Croydon was built over in the 1930s) and opportunism (a large military runway had been built at Heathrow in 1944). An eastern position would be next best, however that would be costly because of the need for additional transport infrastructure, and would only be viable if Heathrow and probably one other airport closed altogether (i.e. 3 runways replaced by 4). There isn't a lack of capacity across the London airport system as a whole, just a bottleneck at Heathrow. Boris Island's 4 runways would actually deliver over-capacity, which is why the economics don't stack up.

The problem with the London area is the poor rail connections between the airports, which makes it difficult to disperse connecting traffic to other runways with available capacity, produing the Heathrow bottleneck. It's worth remembering that the London area has 7 runways spread over 6 airports: Heathrow (two), Gatwick, Luton, Stansted, Southend, and City; and that's without counting the currently non-commercial runways at Northolt and Biggin Hill. The idea of linking Heathrow and Gatwick by a high-speed rail link, creating a single virtual "Heathwick", has been mooted, however this is less popular with the airlines. They'd rather expand Heathrow and keep low-cost flights running out of Gatwick.

In fact, there's an argument to increase the virtual airport to include Luton (Heathwickton, perhaps). Not only does this increase capacity (assuming low-cost flights migrate to Stansted), but it means that further runway growth can potentially occur in two locations before Heathrow need be considered. This becomes even more compelling if the HS2 link is diverted to run via Luton airport, thus providing fast access to Birmingham as well as London. (There is also a case to be made for extending Crossrail, which is due to terminate at Shenfield in Essex, to Stansted in the longer-term.)

Without a high-speed link between Heathrow and Gatwick, London airport transfers will continue to be a major hassle. There are fast connections into Paddington and Victoria, but you need to sit on the Circle line for half an hour in between and cart your luggage through two stations. Crossrail will extend the high-speed route from Paddington to Tottenham Court Road and Liverpool Street, but it won’t help transfers via Gatwick or Luton. There are plans for a Crossrail 2, which will provide a spur from Tottenham Court Rd via Victoria to Chelsea (and possibly Clapham Junction), but that is years away and the economic case looks weak. This might get the Heathrow-to-Gatwick transfer time down to 1 hour. A high-speed rail link close to the M25 would be a lot easier (and cheaper) to build than more routes in Central London, which would have to be largely tunnelled, and it offers the prospect of transfer times closer to 20 minutes.

Boris Island would leave cross-London transfer times little better than they are today, even with an extension of Crossrail to Kent. This would argue for the minimisation of transfers, which means building the maximum 4 runway capacity from day one. The green light for this folly would therefore be the death knell for Heathrow. While a few nimbys in Putney and Twickenham would be happy enough with that, the impact on the local economy of West London would be traumatic, and arguably the entire Thames Valley would suffer. Should businesses consequently relocate from Maidenhead to Maidstone, this would further leech opportunities away from the Midlands and the West Country. The UK would become even more unbalanced.

The commission of inquiry into the Dardanelles Campaign failure reported in 1919. This sums it up neatly: "It concluded that the expedition was poorly planned and executed and that difficulties had been underestimated, problems which were exacerbated by supply shortages and by personality clashes and procrastination at high levels". The solution to London's airport conundrum is not more runways, but better railways. Now we just need to convince Boris that it was his idea all along.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Toilet Humour

There should be no surprise that the passing of Neil Armstrong has seen an upsurge in the techo-pessimism meme, as well as the more general fears that America is in decline. The publication of Robert Gordon's paper, "Is U.S. Economic Growth Over? Faltering Innovation Confronts The Six Headwinds", has provided the coincidental occasion, however it is interesting to note that while some media reports crowbarred the Apollo programme in as an example of modern decline, most focused on his provocative thought experiment that seeks to prove that the inventions of the last decade are small beer compared to running water and indoor toilets, a variation on Ha-Joon Chang's washing machine riff. Gordon's proposition is that you'd happily surrender your netbook to avoid reverting to a netty. But before we explore the s-bend of innovation, a last thought on Armstrong & co's achievement ...

The title of Gordon's paper packs three assumptions: first, the focus on the US and the implicit fear that it may have had its "turn in the sun"; second, the belief that economic growth is sputtering because of faltering innovation; and third, the belief that there are structural "headwinds" that will make matters worse. Despite the gloomy tone, this is still an essentially optimistic American perspective, encapsulating exceptionalism (it's still all about the US) and the belief that the situation can be remedied ("if we can just sort out those goddamn headwinds ...")

Gordon's fundamental premise is that there were three industrial revolutions: 1750-1830 saw steam engines, cotton spinning and railways; 1870-1900 saw electricity, the internal combustion engine, central heating, air-con and indoor plumbing; and 1960-1990 saw computers and the Internet. He believes that the second was the most impactful and that the third lost momentum as productivity gains weren't sustained beyond the 1980s and post-2000 development focused on entertainment and communication devices. He also follows the idea, popularised by Joel Mokyr and others, that innovation is a process punctuated by macroinventions followed by long tails of microinventions, or the dynamic between what (discovery) and how (invention). In effect, he is arguing that the second revolution, whose breakthroughs were not fully exploited till the 1960s, was an exception in human endeavour and that subsequent macroinventions will not have as profound an effect on the economy or the median standard of living.

He picks a dubious example to highlight this: "The audacious idea that economic growth was a one-time-only event has no better illustration than transport speed. Until 1830 the speed of passenger and freight traffic was limited by that of "the hoof and the sail" and increased steadily until the introduction of the Boeing 707 in 1958. Since then there has been no change in speed at all and in fact airplanes fly slower now than in 1958 because of the need to conserve fuel." He completely ignores Concorde, but you get the point. Since 1958 the revolution in transport has been the extension of flying to the majority of the population in the developed world and a significant minority elsewhere. It's about quantity not quality. (As an aside, he wistfully mentions the Jetsons as well).

The US-specific "headwinds" Gordon lists are: the end of the "dividend" of the 50s/60s baby-boom (more male workers and more women moving into the labour market) and the increase in retirees; rising income inequality (which means growth for the majority is much lower than the average); "factor price equalization" due to globalisation and the Internet (i.e. global convergence of labour costs, which means wage repression in advanced economies); cost inflation in higher education and poor secondary student performance; the burden of environmental regulations and taxes (which he assumes China will sidestep); and the overhang of consumer and government debt. These choices reflect certain prejudices (e.g. anti-debt, with the emphasis on public debt), though he has tried to be politically even-handed. Some is just silly. Though increasing education costs are a problem, we shouldn't forget that vastly more kids are securing further education now than ever before, while relative performance reflects the system as much as innate intelligence, as this year's English GCSE results have proven.  

He assumes that the faster spread and earlier petering-out of the inventions of the third industrial revolution, compared to the second, is indicative of the relative weakness of the more recent surge. In fact, the cycle of penetration of innovations has always accelerated, for two reasons. First, the more developed a society is in terms of technology, the more opportunities will exist to marry an invention with the existing base. The effect is cumulative. This can perversely result in us belittling inventions because they are more likely to appear as adaptations or step-changes rather than unprecedented novelties. Thus the steam engine was sui generis, while the internal combustion engine was initially seen as just a better engine. Second, better communication, and more developed institutions for the dissemination of technology (government, education, large businesses, civil society etc), make each successive wave easier to propagate. This is a triumph of exploitation, not proof that the inventions lack stamina. 

It's also worth bearing in mind that that the tail of microinventions following the macroinvention breakthroughs in computing and communications in the 60s and 70s may have some way to run yet. The first and second industrial revolutions (in Gordon's scheme) had different durations (80 and 30 years respectively), but they appear to have had a similar length tail of 70 years. That implies that the current tail may well stretch to 2060, though I personally suspect there will be another macroinvention surge well before that. Gordon quotes Robert Solow's 1987 paradox, "We can see the computers everywhere except in the productivity statistics", but he fails to challenge Solow's assumption that an IBM mainframe was a sort of robot, capable of replacing human workers. Computers improve individual human productivity, they don't substitute for people, any more than abacuses did.

This points to Gordon's fundamental beef, which is that recent innovations have not replaced labour: "Attention in the past decade has focused not on labor-saving innovation, but rather on a succession of entertainment and communication devices that do the same things as we could do before, but now in smaller and more convenient packages. ... These innovations were enthusiastically adopted, but they provided new opportunities for consumption on the job and in leisure hours rather than a continuation of the historical tradition of replacing human labor with machines". There's a strong whiff of protestant distate for all this wired jollification, but there is also a failure to consider that the non-appearance of androids (and the coincident appearance of new white-collar jobs) may actually have been a willed outcome.

Gordon doesn't consider the possibility that we humans were better prepared during revolution number 3 (having learnt lessons in revolutions 1 and 2) to channel/direct/sabotage the course of development to meet wider social and economic objectives. He is also guilty of historical simplification, claiming that prior to 1750 growth was negligible for millenia. In fact, there were periods of rapid technological advance in the past, notably in China and the Roman Empire in the first century AD. This included printing, concrete, central heating, the compass, flush toilets and indoor plumbing. The point to remember was that these were elite goods, while the achievement of the second of Gordon's revolutions was to provide such benefits for ordinary people, though this took a century to achieve extensive penetration (I first experienced central heating in the 70s, while I last used a shared outside toilet, in Leeds, in the early 80s).

His focus on the benefits of running water and indoor toilets is rather American. As a Brit, I wouldn't for a moment suggest that these weren't major advances, improving public health as well as delivering real comfort, however there is no doubting our (how I shall I put it) more relaxed attitude. Compare a British pub toilet (mens) to an American diner restroom and you'll see what I mean. Americans are distinctly more anal (there's no other word for it) than Europeans when it comes to toilet hygiene. We've developed a taste for central heating (two millenia after the hypocaust first appeared in Britain), but we see air-conditioning as something for offices or Mediterranean holiday villas. This obviously reflects our more temperate climes, so you can forgive a citizen of Chicago or Minneapolis for being a little more sensitive about HVAC. Of course, American pessimism may just reflect the realisation that even in the area of toilet technology, they have now been surpassed by the Japanese.