How a poverty meme gets created

We're privileged to be at the birth of a new poverty meme. We can actually watch how it is done. First, you create your own definition of some form of poverty. As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have done here. They define destitution as being the following:

The number of destitute people in the UK isn’t measured officially, despite growing concerns about rising use of food banks, homelessness and other indicators of severe poverty in recent years. In fact, when we started this research we found there wasn’t even a widely accepted definition of destitution which we could apply to everyone in the UK. The research team at Heriot-Watt University worked with experts to develop a robust definition, which was then tested with the general public.  Using this, we define destitution as being when someone lacks two or more basic essentials in one month, and so has experienced two or more of the following; slept rough, had one or no meals a day for two or more days, been unable to heat or to light their home for five or more days, gone without weather-appropriate clothes or gone without basic toiletries.

We agree, those are not things which should be happening to people in a rich country. We would also note that the major cause of all and any of these things is the incompetence of the anti-poverty bureaucracy run by the government. But do note that there is an important point about the numbers here:

This week we have published the first comprehensive study into destitution in the UK, which shows that 1.25 million people, including over 300,000 children, were destitute over the course of 2015. 

I any one month the number being failed by that State is some 100,000 people. 100,000 too many, of course, but it is 100,000 who experience perhaps a couple of days of that "destitution" in any one month.

And then, only a week later, see how this meme has subtly altered in the popular press (to the extent that The Guardian is popular of course):

This is what destitution looks like. More than 1 million people in the UK are so poor they can’t afford to eat properly, keep clean or stay warm and dry, according to new research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF). What’s emerging in austerity Britain is a new level of class inequality: not simply between the wealthy and the poor, but between people who have enough money to buy toilet rolls and cook a hot meal and people who don’t.

They're referring to the very same report. And yet that meaning has hugely changed, hasn't it? From this destitution being a brief period for that 1 million over the course of a year to something that is happening to that 1 million all year.

And thus are memes created. Invent your own definition, however reasonable, attach a caveat, a qualification, and watch everyone run with the uncaveated, unqualified, extreme version. This has been done for decades now with the definition of poverty itself: the modern definition means "not as much as others" rather than the older meaning of poverty of "not much". 

We don't hold with it ourselves, think this is tantamount to lying to us all. But just look around, it's a very common tactic.

Naomi Klein just doesn't understand the real world

Naomi Klein just doesn't understand the real world

We've had our differences with Ms. Klein before. We recall a central tale in her most recent offering: she complained that the WTO's insistence on lifting local content rules on Canadian solar power reduced in some manner the fight against climate change. When, of course, allowing people to install cheaper Chinese made solar panels rather than more expensive Canadian made ones will, presumably, increase the number of such panels installed.

Whitehall should manage the what, not the how

BIS may not have noticed the British steel industry going to the wall but they at least deserve sustained applause for getting something right. For twenty years and more they have been assessing their International Trade Advisers on how they spent their time, not what they have achieved.  Critics have been suggesting that, as ITAs were supposed to be turning SMEs into exporters, maybe they should be assessed by the number of new exporters, or the value of exports they produced.  Now, UK Trade and Industry, under the leadership of the excellent Dr Catherine Raines, has done exactly that.
We taxpayers give Whitehall our money for things we could not otherwise achieve for ourselves. Is it not blindingly obvious that value for money should be assessed by what that money achieves, not by some contrived analysis of  how public servants spend their time?
Yet department after department has not got the message.  The Department of Health thinks it knows how to be a doctor better than doctors do.  Education likewise thinks it knows how to run schools better than teachers do.  The most disgraceful, perhaps, example is safeguarding children, or perhaps failing to do so.  The Department’s response to each child abuse scandal is to commission another enquiry.  This then further complicates the way child workers are supposed to spend their time which in turn leads to more safeguarding failures and so it goes.  Rotherham at 1,400 abused children and counting may prove an all time high but child workers are so busy with redundant admin that you can bet the abuse continues willy nilly. 
One such enquiry was headed by Lord Laming who, in 2003, said:
 “17.65 There was no doubt that the work of each of the key agencies supporting children and families should be rigorously monitored. In the past, the tendency has been to concentrate on the measurement of inputs; for example, the size of the budget, the number of staff, or the range of equipment used. This approach is of limited value and does not address the more important question of what is actually being achieved, and whether the lives of children and families are being improved by the investment.”
13 years later that attitude has not changed. This summer we are expecting another “Single Inspection Framework” from Ofsted setting out how social services should spend their time to please Ofsted, not how outcomes should be measured, still less how they should be used to assess child workers’ achievements.
When the Minister’s attention was drawn, again, to the need to monitor outcomes, the response (19th April 2016) was, if the status quo was inadequate, to consider “alternative models of delivery”, i.e. having child workers spend their time differently and, no doubt, confusing them further thereby.  Please, Minister, just establish the required outcomes and let child workers get on with it.  

Can National Pay Bargaining in the NHS Kill?

Pay for NHS clinical staff (nurses and physicians) is set nationally, with very little variation to take into account local labour market conditions. This is a problem because in the UK regional pay differences are high, even when you control for things like education and skills. As a result, there are large differences in the UK between wages inside and outside sectors where pay is strictly regulated like the NHS. In some regions NHS clinical staff are overpaid relative to local labour market conditions, while in others (London and the South East) clinical staff are underpaid and would get higher pay if they left the NHS for the private sector.

This leads to worse outcomes for patients according to a 2010 paper from Propper and Van Reenen. Looking at the hospital death rate for heart attacks alone, they find that national pay setting for NHS clinical staff (nurses in particular) leads to 366 extra deaths every year.

In effect, national pay setting in the NHS for nurses acts as a price ceiling in high wage regions, which in the absence of other countervailing factors should generally lead to an undersupply.

There are two major predictable effects of this defacto price ceiling.  First, we should expect nurses to move from areas where their wages are relatively low (London and the South-East) to areas where their wages are relatively high (South-West and the North-East). Second, we should expect nurses in London and the South East to leave the regulated sector (NHS) for the unregulated sector (private nursing homes) where they can expect higher pay. Put simply, we should expect the NHS to get better in low wage regions, and get worse in high wage regions. 

Now this alone doesn’t really tell us much about the overall effect of setting pay nationally in the NHS. Perhaps the benefits of better service in the North-East outweigh the harm of worse service in London.

However, the data implies that regulating pay leads to worse outcome across the NHS on balance. Part of the problem is that people have strong area-based preferences: they aren’t willing to just up sticks and move across the country unless they’re getting a serious jump in wages. So instead they’ll be more likely to stay in the high wage region and just leave the NHS altogether to move into the nursing home sector where pay isn’t set nationally. 

On balance, this leads to 366 extra heart attack deaths each year across the NHS. But the authors suggest this figure might, if anything, be understating the harms of national pay setting:

If we were able to calculate the fall in quality across a much wider range of illnesses (deaths and more minor loss of quality of life), we would scale up the social loss by a very large amount.

If we devolved pay negotiation and hiring powers to trusts, we could raise standards across the NHS and most importantly, save lives!

New paper: Evolution not revolution

The ASI has a new paper out today from our Brexit unit, written by Brexit unit head Roland Smith, aka "White Wednesday". In this paper he makes a positive case for Brexit—based on Britain's liberal tradition and how it clashes with the EU—and explains why, if we leave, the EEA is the only attractive option. We should aim for 'evolution, not revolution'.

Read the paper online here.

Download the paper here.

The government is killing 80,000 people a year apparently

And it's all because of austerity, privatisation and the distressing lack of Environmental Health Officers. No, really, that is the claim:

Thousands of people are dying each year because of the government’s failure to tackle food poisoning, health and safety breaches and pollution, a thinktank is warning.

A new report from the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (CCJS) claims that lax regulation and weak enforcement are failing to hold businesses in check and are tantamount to state-facilitated “social murder”.

The report, by Professor Steve Tombs, head of social policy and criminology at the Open University, claims that some 29,000 deaths in the UK are attributable toairborne pollution alone. A further 50,000 people die as a result of injuries or health problems originating in the workplace. Each year food poisoning results in 20,000 people being hospitalised and 500 deaths.

The report itself is here. There's ever so slightly a logical problem with the claim though. Let us assume that the evidence presented to us is correct. There are fewer inspections being carried out by those Local Authority employed EHOs. There is also that number of deaths from those causes. This is the result of Tory austerity and Yah! Boo! How Terrible!

However, the important thing we need to consider is whether this change in the regulatory regime is leading to more deaths from these causes or fewer. It is possible that having more private sector inspectors, more industry involvement and less LA, is improving the system, not making it worse. We don't say it is doing so you understand, only that it is at least potentially feasible. Just as the case being made, that less LA involvement is making the system worse is feasible. But that is the case that needs to be studied. Is the new system increasing or reducing the number of people dying from these causes? 

We don't know and on a Sunday morning we're not inclined to go look it all up. Which is why we would rather hope that a report trying to make the case one way or the other would provide some evidence. Which this report does not. It doesn't even begin to discuss the subject. It simply states that there's less LA and EHO involvement and also that this number of people are dying. There isn't even a start to an examination of whether those numbers of deaths are rising or falling.

The paper thus fails the most basic logical test of its own assertions. We're not very interested (not unless we're the union that EHOs belong to) in how many EHOs there are: we're interested in how good the regulatory regime is. Which is the one thing not considered in the slightest here.

Seriously, measuring the effectiveness of regulation by the number of bureaucrats employed to regulate isn't the way to do it. Must try harder, F - is your grade, see me after class.