We are all in favour of clothes banks to follow food banks

It’s not just that we’re in favour in fact, it’s that we cannot find anything wrong with the idea at all:

Louise Cooke, a 46-year-old ex-teacher and community worker in Nottingham, has never been elected nor is her work funded by the taxpayer – but she is filling in the gaps left by the government.

For the past two years, volunteering out the back of her local church, Cooke has been running Sharewear – what, in austerity’s language, we could dub a “clothes bank”. This isn’t packets of pasta or boxes of veg but winter coats and children’s shoes. Cooke describes the people who come through the doors as in “crisis”: anyone from job seekers to Syrian refugees, from low-paid workers to people on benefits (“We have people coming in on disabled people’s behalf because they’re housebound,” she adds).

As Cooke says: “No one should have to walk around in smelly clothes just because they haven’t got enough money. No child should have to go to school in ripped clothes.”

We entirely agree with the sentiment: Britain is a rich country and those are things that can be solved in a rich country. However, it is important to note what the problem is: incompetent government. And this is not a new incompetence: government has not become more incompetent as the result of the election of the Conservatives, or the Coalition, or the defeat of New Labour. Government has always been this incompetent if not worse. As is the case with food banks: no one with a couple of decades of adult life under their belt is unaware of the manner in which the benefits payment system has always had great gaping holes in it.

That is, there is no new and sudden need for these charitable activities. Rather, it’s that we’ve now this new technology (and yes, a method of organisation like a food bank is indeed a technology) enabling us to solve these problems. For which, of course, a rousing Hurrah!

But we need to note the important point about these solutions. It is the little platoons sorting out the incompetence of government that is working here. Given that this is so yes, most certainly, why not have more of such little platoons working to solve this problem but don’t, whatever we do, try to hand over the solution to that government which is the original cause of the problem.

Nicky Morgan has proposed the worst possible way to calculate a gender pay gap

Back in July 2015, David Cameron announced he’d close the gender pay gap in the next decade. Proposing to take the first step by making larger firms publish their pay gap figures, I wrote up a response for the Spectator’s Coffee House, arguing that this was an ill-conceived idea:

His plan to force businesses with 250+ employees to publish their ‘wage gap’ figures will create more bogus numbers and further perpetuate the myth. It is impossible to know simply by looking at the numbers on the spreadsheet why someone’s salary is a certain figure. One’s education or training, previous work experience, negotiation manoeuvres, and unique character traits will all contribute to their salary; Jack and Jill may be headed-on-up the career hill together, but they will be coming from two completely different paths.

The government launched an official consultation to determine how, exactly, they would make companies publish their ‘pay gaps’. The ASI responded to the consultation, recommending that if the government were to go through with this policy, it absolutely must get companies to compare jobs like-for-like. Without a direct comparison of men and women doing the same job (and ideally for the same amount of time, with the same educational background, etc), it would be impossible to know if any income disparity was a result of employer-based sexism, or the many other factors that can contribute to one’s overall salary.

Today we discovered that Woman’s Minister Nicky Morgan did not take Ben’s advice. Instead, she has implemented what is probably the worst way to calculate a gender pay gap.

In 2018, businesses with 250+ employees will be forced to publish on their websites the mean and median calculations of their male and female salaries, as well as the ‘pay ranges’ of men and women (i.e. who’s at the top and who’s at the bottom).

The problem? Simply calculating the mean and median of male and female salaries controls for absolutely nothing. Without calculating in hours worked, job, department, previous experience, flexibility of hours, and time taken off work, these figures tell us nothing about whether employers are actually paying female workers less than men for the same roles.

Evidence suggests employers are big advocates of women. Indeed, when you do control for factors like background, hours and job, women are often more likely to earn more than men, and are more likely to be promoted as well.

But now, thanks to the government, in a few years time we’re going to have a bunch of false stats that suggest help perpetuate the myth that women are victims of sexist employers, and will never be able to access the same opportunities as men. A great day for professional feminists, who have been running out of talking points as women shatter those alleged glass ceilings left, right and center. An unfortunate day for the rest of us, who will have to continue to explain why comparing the CEO’s salary to a first-year employee doesn’t do much to prove ‘sexism’.

Rupert Myers is rather missing the point about market exchanges

As Voltaire didn’t say*, we don’t believe that creationism has any truth to it at all but we’ll defend to the death your right to believe in any damn fool thing you want to. The limitation is only that whatever you do believe not cause direct harm to others. Thus nonsense about how we all got to be here is just fine, nonsense about how we treat the others with whom we share here is not, just as one example.

All of which makes this complaint by Rupert Myers something we don’t agree with:

Someone who is on the record as believing that the earth is flat would be an unlikely anchor of the BBC’s flagship breakfast news show. A news reporter who denied basic facts from the past such as the French revolution, the explosion of Mount Vesuvius, or the Holocaust would surely raise eyebrows at interview. Climate change denial, or a denial of heliocentrism, would be unlikely to find favour at the BBC. And yet they have just selected a creationist to front their Breakfast show.

BBC hires someone with odd views is not exactly a surprise.

A belief in creationism may be a religious belief, and we must allow generous margins to the holding of such beliefs, but creationism falls beyond the spectrum. It should be consigned to the bin of unreasonable, untenable fact-allergic nonsense. Creationists cannot be trusted to report objectively, or to interact reasonably with their interviewees and with the public.

Not so and sadly it betrays a misapprehension about how market exchanges work. It is only in a society that does not operate markets that we have to consider whether someone is wholly acceptable in the round before allowing them to perform a task. If jobs are allocated on the basis of belief then obviously what those beliefs are is of importance. But a market society operates on the basis of “what can you do for me?” That’s rather the joy of it. We don’t have to know whether the window cleaner supports the wrong football team, has more traditional opinions on gender roles than we might be comfortable with or is insistent that the world popped into existence last Tuesday afternoon and all memory before that is simply a general hallucination. We care only about how well they clean windows and what they charge for doing so.

The same is true of all the other interactions which make up a market economy. We don’t have to worry about the sexual preferences of the provider of our morning coffee, we care only about the coffee, the price, and perhaps the smile or not with which it is delivered. It is not necessary for the car mechanic to share our views on Che Guevara, whatever those might be, we want only that she can mechanic a car for us. And so it is with the pretty faces that mumble through the scripts to us on the television. We care only for the face and the mumble, not whatever beliefs occupy the void between their ears.

And no, this is not just some trivial matter. Humanity spent some millennia where only those who held the approved ideas on matters religious were allowed to perform certain jobs. It is only in this last century or two since the Enlightenment that this has changed and yes, it really is part of that liberal and market order which has so enriched us all. It is exactly the same thing that a creationist be allowed to read the news, a Jew to own land, an atheist to publish books and us all to be free to truck and barter across the society regardless of whatever damn fool beliefs we might have about anything at all.

* The “I disapprove of what you say” line is actually from a play about Voltaire, not from the man himself.

Yes, obviously industrial production is down

We cannot quite share this shock and horror at the news that industrial output is down:

Britain’s industrial plight was laid bare today after official figures showed output at the end of 2015 fell faster than at any time over the past three years.
Industrial production contracted by 1.1pc in December from the previous month, the biggest monthly drop since September 2012 and much worse than the 0.1pc decrease expected by economists.

And for manufacturing:

The ONS also revealed that manufacturing production fell 0.2pc in December, the third consecutive monthly decline. The last time the UK’s manufacturing sector contracted for three months in a row was during the depths of the Great Recession in 2009.
Compared with a year earlier, manufacturing output fell 1.7pc, against expectations for a 1.4pc decline.

One reason we’re not all that worried is that manufacturing output is some 10% of GDP, meaning that a 2% fall in the sector is 0.2% of the economy as a whole. Industrial output is essentially energy and mining plus manufacturing and that’s not much larger as a portion of the economy. And we have all noted that the prices of fuels have dropped recently, meaning that an index of the value of what is produced is going to fall whatever happens to the volume of what has been produced. Essentially, these are minor changes in a minor part of the economy.

A second reason we’re not all that bovverd is that there isn’t anything special about manufacturing or industrial output. Sure, they’re nice things to have but they are no more valid or valuable than any other form of economic activity. The standard trope that making things you can drop on your foot is the only important form of production is simply wrong.

And the third reason we’re not worried is this:

David Cameron has hailed Britain’s technology sector as “extraordinary”, after a report revealed companies are generating £161bn for the economy.
According to the Tech Nation report, now in its second year, the digital economy grew 32pc faster than the rest of the economy between 2011 and 2014, and is creating new jobs at an unprecedented rate.
The sector accounts for 1.56m jobs across the UK, with this workforce growing by more than 10pc over the three-year period – three times faster than the wider UK job market.

Yes, obviously, that’s being bigged up by that quango but this is exactly what we would like to be happening. The current industrial revolution is in those digital thingies, those 1s and 0s being placed in precise rows. We Brits pioneered the first industrial revolution, rather lagged in the second and third, but seem to be doing well at the fourth. And just like doing well at the first made us relatively richer than everyone else, lagging at the next two led to a bit of relative poverty, getting this one right will lead to relative riches again.

And this is what an economy is supposed to do: over time move from doing that doesn’t add very much value old stuff to the adding lots of value new stuff. Something we seem to be doing rather well. We wouldn’t say that all is lovely in the rose garden but it’s most certainly not doom and gloom.

Delusions on the NHS

Sadly, one of the reasons that the political conversation about health care in the UK is so difficult is that a number of people taking part in it simply do not know of what they speak. And example here in the Guardian:

Four flawed beliefs have dominated the actions of UK governments on healthcare over the past 25 years: personal responsibility for health supersedes government responsibility; markets drive efficiency; universal healthcare is ultimately unaffordable; and it is entirely legitimate to view healthcare as a business.

Responsibility is a moral argument and not really our point here: no one at all says that universal health care is unaffordable, only that all healthcare that everyone would conceivably like to get is unaffordable. But of course it is legitimate to regard healthcare as a business: there’re inputs, there’re outputs, there are people in the middle doing the transformation, that’s a business. But that point about markets not driving efficiency is drivel: because this is the same NHS which is now separate organisations, NHS England, NHS Wales and NHS Scotland. And NHS England has had rather more of that market stuff applied to it. And NHS England has been getting more efficient more quickly than NHS Wales and Scotland too. The very subject under discussion disproves that assertion about markets.

But there’s more too:

The 2014 Commonwealth Fund report on 11 wealthy countries shows that the UK spends least but ranks first in healthcare performance; the US spends most but ranks bottom.

Actually, no. Healthcare performance was only one of the things measured. Things like equitable access and so on were also measured and the NHS did very well on some of those measures (that the Commonwealth Fund agitates for single payer health care in the US is not a result of such studies, it is the cause of their measurement methods). On actual healthcare performance, mortality amenable to healthcare, it came near last. And oddly, we do think that how well a healthcare system is able to treat things that healthcare systems can treat is a pretty good measure of how good that healthcare system is. Or, for the NHS, not very.

In the US, one in six citizens has no health cover and inability to pay healthcare bills is the primary cause for personal bankruptcies, yet we are witnessing extraordinary, deliberate moves towards a failed US-style healthcare model.

Absolutely no one at all (and we are ourselves one of those voices shouting loudly for NHS reform) is calling for a US-like system. Instead we’re calling for a system rather more like that of France, or Switzerland, or Singapore, all of whom have rather better healthcare systems than either we or the Americans do.

So why is this a problem if piffle like this appears in The Guardian?

Neena Modi is professor of neonatal medicine at Imperial College London, and president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health

Because this piffle is being spouted by people who really should know better.