Feb 192009

As I sit here and listen to an enterprising builder outside whistle an excellent rendition of Grieg’s ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King,’ my thoughts turn to halls, and kings, and naturally thence, to the Middle Ages.

With my intellectual cap on, as opposed to my professional one, I am a medieval historian and have collected degrees in the subject in the same way that others might collect da Vinci sketches (i.e. expensively). In the hallowed drinking establishments of the world’s foremost institution of learning, I have pondered with fellow medievalists what it might have been like to live during the Middle Ages.

And, despite speculations about the scholarly aestheticism of monastic existence, or the bellicose excitement inherent in noble birth, we decided that it would have been utter shit.

So why – and I have seen this flagged up on Tim and the Landed Underclass already today – are there people, bred in luxurious modernity, who want us to go back to it?

Monty Don, the former BBC Gardener’s World presenter, said the UK could run out of food “within weeks” because the country is so dependent on imports and it was essential for the country to grow more of our own food.

He urged businesses around the country to follow the lead of the National Trust: “If every household, business, office or factory dug up a patch of land there would literally be millions of allotments made available. This is just the start of something really big.”

I will tell you when we really will run out of food, and that is when we stop depending on imports. In the Middle Ages, when importing food was impractical due to the obvious problem of it rotting in transit, local growing conditions meant the difference between a full belly and death by starvation. With the succession of overly-dry and overly-wet summer growing seasons Britain has experienced in the past four years, had we relied entirely on local produce, we all would have starved.

The other problem with eating only local produce is, of course, that delightful as these shores may be, we’d all be eating nothing but turnips and parsnips from November to March. A four-month diet of root vegetables might solve the nation’s obesity problem, but the incidence of malnutrition (particularly things like scurvy) would soar to fifteenth-century levels.

Dame Fiona Reynolds, Director General of the National Trust, said it was not just the recession driving demand for land to grow food but the desire to “reconnect” with the soil.

“More and more people want to grow their own fruit and vegetables,” she said. “This isn’t just about saving money – it’s really satisfying to sow seeds and harvest the fruit and veg of your labour.”

Oh, indeed – it’s very satisfying to till the soil and eat the fruits of one’s labour, as long as one doesn’t have to do it from sun-up to sun-down eight months out of the year, and as long as the fruits of one’s labour are sufficient to keep body and soul together. As the Landed Underclass points out, subsistence farming is hard on the body and, unless one has the luxury of farm-labourers and a horse-drawn plough, unlikely to generate enough produce for actual, y’know, subsistence.

But perhaps in addition to sharing allotments, we will all have the privilege of access to the village horse. It might even be better to have a system wherein the municipality’s food is grown entirely on common land, the care for a strip of which is allocated to every resident. Then we can all reconnect with the soil, and our roots, and our ancient heritage. While we’re at it, we can reconnect with bathing in the freezing rivers and defecating in buckets!

Christ, haven’t these people learned anything? If living off our own fucking local food was so great, our ancestors wouldn’t have escaped in relief from doing it as soon as conditions made it possible. Pardon me while I descend into teleological historicity, but isn’t one of the purposes of chronicling human development to avoid past mistakes, rather than to do the same stupid shit all over again?

Feb 172009

It’s Tuesday again, and so I wander over to the Guardian to read Polly’s latest, this time a piece about teen pregnancy (can’t fault her for the relevance factor, what with this tiny-tot father all over the news) and the failure of New Labour.

The failure of New Labour, you may ask? Indeed, she has said this very thing, although as is her wont, not in the same way most of us might say it.

She begins from the unstated premise that teen pregnancy is not a good thing, although her reasoning is a bit skewed:

Britain’s teenage pregnancy rates are appalling, with only the US worse in the west. Why? Because teen pregnancy tracks inequality. That does not absolve Alfie, Chantelle and their parents of their personal responsibilities. But the most unequal nations have the greatest number of dysfunctional families, unless the cycle is broken by determined and expensive intervention in generation after generation.

Teenage parenthood is linked to higher crime rates, poverty, and disadvantage in the children of teen mothers, as well as a greater likelihood for those children to become teenaged parents themselves. However, contrary to what Polly implies, teenage parenthood is generally correlated as the cause of those things, not a result of them. Teen pregnancy doesn’t track inequality; it precedes it.

Never mind that, though. We all agree, though perhaps for different reasons, that there should be less teenage pregnancy. Why has New Labour failed to achieve this?

First, and most disastrous, David Blunkett, at education, point-blank refused to introduce compulsory top-quality sex education. (No, don’t even stop to think about that one.) Only now is Labour at last introducing it in an autumn bill – amid fears it might get fatally delayed or succumb to the Mail’s mad anti-sex education campaign.

Translation: the government was pressured, not by the electorate, but by the Daily Mail, into not imposing a forced centrally-planned educational decree on schools.

Why else did they fail?

…money was found to provide good contraceptive clinics, but it was given to local health services with neither ringfencing nor monitoring to see that it was actually spent on teenage clinics. Why not? Because the government has been politically intimidated into ordering “less top-down” and more “local”, with disastrous results for many key programmes.

Translation: the government gave local authorities tax moneys extorted from the nation at large, but failed to impose a forced centrally-planned spending decree on those authorities.

The teen pregnancy story is a good microcosm of the Labour years. To halve the rate was a colossal ambition. It was a far harder target than halving child poverty – no simple putting of money into tax credits can change the deep culture of sexual behaviour. Of all the things the state can and can’t do, making people have sex only with the right people at the right time is the least amenable to Whitehall action.

‘Least amenable,’ take note. Not, as the rest of sane humanity might say, ‘least possible or desirable.’

And so, Polly finishes up, the problem has not been Labour’s disastrous policies of rewarding teen parents with social housing and child benefit, thus creating an incentive for teenagers to procreate, nor the complete failure of a patriarchal society to get over its Puritanical hang-ups about sex. No, no! The problem is that Labour have not done enough to force top-down social planning, paid for by punitive taxation, on a society that does not match its ideal of equality and conformity for all:

Labour has tried, but most of Europe, under more decades of social democratic governments, has worked harder for longer. Too often Labour thought it could move mountains with teaspoons, making Swedish promises with neither Swedish taxes, nor the will to force social democratic policies on to local services. There will be plenty more Alfie, Shannon and Baby P stories – testaments not to a worsening “broken Britain” but to a low tax, weak social policy century that Labour has only started to improve.

Fucking hell, Polly: even when you get it right, you get it wrong.

Feb 092009

Via Tim Worstall (yes, again), I find this piece in the Telegraph, in which the General Teaching Council for England indicates that it would very much appreciate it if all private school-teachers acquired an official teaching qualification as teachers in the state sector are required to do.

Such a qualification can be obtained on a one-year post-graduate teaching course, a one-year qualification-cum-experience course, or a degree in education.

Tim rightly takes issue with the box-ticking, hoop-jumping nature of this sort of requirement, labelling it ‘part of the spread of the hateful credentialism of our times.’

My own criticism is related to something else entirely, and not in any way influenced by the fact that I myself am an unqualified private-school teacher. According to the UK immigration website, teaching is a shortage occupation. Which means – I think I’m right in saying this – that there aren’t enough teachers.

So the solution to the teaching-shortage problem is to make it even more difficult for people to become or remain teachers. Riiiiiiiiight.

Paul Krugman: the Polly Conundrum?

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Feb 062009

Highlighted by Samizdata.net, this op-ed by Paul Krugman of the New York Times makes me wonder whether he is actually an idiot, or just a disingenuous fucktard.

The lovely peeps over at Samizdata flag up his logical and mathematical nonsense much better than I could, but I do want to take issue briefly with the question of how much the jobs created by the stimulus will cost.

Krugman says:

First, there’s the bogus talking point that the Obama plan will cost $275,000 per job created…The true cost per job of the Obama plan will probably be closer to $100,000 than $275,000 — and the net cost will be as little as $60,000 once you take into account the fact that a stronger economy means higher tax receipts.

The post over at Samizdata points out:

What about Krugman’s own estimate of $100,000 per job if you look at the program in a multi-year basis? He claims this cost from the extra millions of new jobs that would be created after the first year. As the cost of the program is $820 billion, this implies that he believes that the Obama plan will actually create over 8 million new jobs. If this is true, why is the White House claiming only 3 million new jobs from the plan? Making arguments based on the official claims of its government proponents, as the critics have done, are not deceitful as implied by Krugman. Well, not quite as deceitful as calculating costs based on an extra 5 million jobs that do not appear in the program.

So yes. There’s something dodgy with Krugman’s maths.

He needn’t have bothered, though; not being an economist, I’m not entirely certain of what he means by ‘cost per job created,’ but he makes a stupid mistake by engaging with this criticism in the first place. After all, is not the point of a fiscal stimulus to spend lots and lots of money? Does it really matter what it gets spent on or how much that thing costs?

To be absurdly simplistic: if the US government really wanted to, they could divide up this proposed $1 trillion and give an equal share to everybody. According to my handy calculator, and assuming I’ve done all the zeroes correctly, that comes to about $3300 for every man, woman, and child in the US. Exclude the children, and that equal share goes up. Stimulus accomplished. (I should point out that I’m not actually advocating this plan.)

And, contrary to what Krugman apparently believes, people do apportion their own money more efficiently and usefully than the government does. So every one of those $3300 apiece would be well spent.

But my knowledge of economics is minimal, and my mathematical skillz permanently arrested at the level of a 14-year-old, so I’ll leave the rest of Krugman’s article aside for now.

Except for this, which is the part that bugs me:

As the debate over President Obama’s economic stimulus plan gets under way, one thing is certain: many of the plan’s opponents aren’t arguing in good faith. Conservatives really, really don’t want to see a second New Deal, and they certainly don’t want to see government activism vindicated. So they are reaching for any stick they can find with which to beat proposals for increased government spending.

(1) ‘Conservatives really, really don’t want to see a second New Deal.’ The way this statement is phrased makes it sound as if the New Deal saved the nation; conservatives don’t want it; ergo they don’t want the nation to be saved. Presumably, in Krugman’s mind, this is not because they have anything against the idea per se, but because they don’t want the credit for doing it to go to Obama. Is this ‘arguing in good faith’?

(2) ‘They certainly don’t want to see government activism vindicated.’ Naturally they don’t. Once the power and reach of the government grows, it’s very difficult to scale it back again; doing so takes someone like Margaret Thatcher, and observe how beloved she is by the British! Observe how long her achievements lasted! Any American conservative who truly believes in limited government (and there are few of them these days) must oppose the stimulus, whatever its plausible merits, on principle, because it extends the competency of the federal government far beyond what it ought to be.

There is a third problem with his remarks, and that is the latent advocacy of bipartisan consensus. In times of crisis, supposedly, partisan squabbling weakens a nation and saps its confidence. Whatever their opinion of the stimulus, Krugman seems to imply, its critics should suck it up and present a unified front with Obama, because to do so will improve the mental outlook of the country and bolster confidence in its public servants.

As my brother would say, fuck that shit.

I want partisanship. I distrust consensus. I want the party without power to throw every question, argument, and criticism it can come up with, no matter how sly, at the party in power. I want debate – robust, contentious debate. Why? Because without it, the electorate are deprived of choice. And times of crisis are precisely when conflict and argument are most necessary, as crises are exactly when governments are most liable to implement the most illiberal policies.