Making "Green" mean green

A significant part of the opposition to building more houses where there is a demand for them comes from two erroneous impressions. The first is that the UK is vastly overbuilt, and we are in danger of losing huge swathes of what little countryside remains.  In fact 5.9 percent of UK land is built upon, with a further 2.5 percent designated as "urban green," such as parks and cemeteries. This means that about 92 percent of UK land is not built upon.

Even the notion that "the Southeast is overcrowded" is an exaggeration, as anyone flying over the Southeast will have observed. Most of its land is not built upon.

The second error is the assumption that the Green Belt is green. Some of it is indeed what people think of as "green," with meadows, woods and streams and rolling green fields.  Much of it is not, however. Some 65 percent of it is agricultural, including vast fields of monoculture crops onto which quantities of fertilizers and pesticides are applied, running off into nearby waters. This does not provide a suitable habitat for birds and small mammals, and is not "green" in the understood environmental sense.

Within land designated as Green Belt there is also a significant amount of damaged or distressed land such as abandoned quarries, dumps, breakers' yards, abandoned factories, filling stations, and former car parks. Some 18 percent of Green Belt land is deemed to be "neglected," rather than properly green.

The Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 has led to a shortage of housing near or around cities. It might have been appropriate for the very different UK of 70 years ago, but it should now be updated to bring it to meet modern needs. A major step would be the classification of land within the Green Belt into three categories. Genuinely green land would be designated as "verdant," the type people like to look at and to walk through, and to feel that we are protecting nature by keeping it green.

The second designation would be "agricultural," itself perhaps subdivided into the different types of farmland given over to cereal crops, animal husbandry, or other agricultural uses. L The third designation would be "damaged" or "distressed" land.  The Town and Country Planning Act should be amended so that it protects the verdant land, but allows building, especially house-building, on some agricultural and damaged land.

Not a great deal would be needed. A recent ASI report found that building upon just 3.9 percent of London's Green Belt, for example, could allow for 1 million new homes.  A reclassification of this nature would allow for the building of the desperately needed homes, while protecting the genuinely nature-friendly green land that is part of our heritage and part of our sense of identity as a nation.

Government's not very competent - therefore it should do less

We’re just fine with this line of reasoning but we are surprised to see it in The Guardian, that home of the Panopticon state, all seeing and all knowing. For that is what would be required of government if the varied plans that newspaper proffer to us were possible to bring to fruition. We’d need to have a state which was able to know, in detail, what the problems were, their causes, and how to cure those ails.

Yet here we’ve a complaint that government can’t in fact do more than one thing at a time:

Brexit: not just a political shambles, but a disaster for all public policy

Richard Vize

Vital services in health, social care and local government are being neglected. It’s an unforgivable failure

No, the argument is not just that Tories don’t care therefore. It is instead that by concentrating upon Brexit there’s not enough government left over to look at these other things:

It’s a funny way to take back control: vital areas of public policy that directly affect our lives are being sacrificed to the obsession with Brexit, and there seems little chance of respite.

While Brexit sucks up all the political oxygen, major areas of public policy, including local government, health and social care, are drifting.

Note that it’s not even the competence of government to be able to do these things which is being called into question - something we’d question ourselves but so be it. It’s that government simply doesn’t have the attention span, the capacity, to even consider more than one thing at a time.

At which point we’d better to move to a system of government that only does concentrate on one thing at a time then, if that’s all it can do. Welcome to the minarchist state, courtesy of The Guardian, on the grounds that government just can’t handle more than the one problem at a time. Therefore only allow it to deal with one at a time.

So we've solved that women in movies problem then

There are those who tell us that there’s something wrong with the film business. That women aren’t given their due in the industry, portrayals aren’t as they should be, starring roles not properly allocated. Given that this is probably the most viciously capitalist and free market business out there, this concerns us. For we do indeed think that capitalism and free markets combine to produce the best world we’re going to get.

The thing is though, we don’t believe that the combination produces that less bad than other systems just because. Rather, we insist that it’s the error correction system which is better, meaning that the joint system approaches the right answer better than any other.

Thus this system seems to be rather solved:

Films featuring a woman in the lead role are outperforming those in which a male actor gets top billing.

The conclusion was reached by researchers who carried out an exhaustive study of the most popular 350 films released in cinemas around the world between January 2014 and December 2017.

In films with small, medium and large budgets, all averaged better global grosses at the box office when a woman was listed as the lead star.

The study was carried out by Creative Artists Agency, the talent agency that represents many of Hollywood's biggest stars, male and female.

We do not claim that capitalist free marketry is perfect, nor that the world is. Only that this system aids us in zeroing in on what will make it better. Before this information was collated perhaps people didn’t know it. Now it has been collated therefore people do. We need do nothing more - that capitalist pursuit of profits in a market system is going to lead to the production of more movies with female lead roles, isn’t it?

Which is why the system does work, why it does correct errors. For it contains with in it, that ability to profit from getting things right, its own error correction system.

It's not the one limit, it's the total package, that counts

We’ve pointed this out before, that it’s not the drink drive limit itself which determines how many people drink drive and thus the accident rate. Human incentives don’t work that way. This is thus not surprising:

Cutting the UK drink drive limit would not reduce the number of accidents on our roads, a new study suggests.

Researchers from the University of Glasgow have found that the lowering of the legal blood alcohol limit for drivers in Scotland in 2014 has had no impact on the number of road traffic accidents in the country.

The research, published in The Lancet, evaluated the impact of the change in Scottish law in December 2014, when the blood alcohol concentration limit for drivers was reduced from 80 mg/dL to 50 mg/dL.

Broadly, the weekly rates have stayed relatively stable, with between 5 and 9 road traffic accidents per 1000 traffic count in Scotland between Jan 1st 2013, and January 31st 2016.

In England and Wales, the number of accidents was proportionately similar over the same period, according to the study in which the University of East Anglia, the NHS and the University of Stirling also collaborated.

What matters, as people like Gary Becker have repeatedly pointed out, is the total package here. Yes, the drink drive limit matters. But so does the punishment for breaching it, so also the likelihood of being caught if over that limit. The expected cost of a crime is, obviously enough, the punishment for being caught times the probability of being caught. A 20 years sentence for burglary combined with a 0.1% chance of being convicted might deter less than 7 days in the cells and a 99% chance of capture. No, we’ve not checked the maths there.

The British system did have - England still does - a limit which is high by international standards. We also have a high probability of being caught. And we have, by those international comparisons, very heavy punishment for the crime. Yes, automatic 12 month licence suspension is, while perhaps entirely righteous, high by the standards of other places.

The end result of all of this is that Britain has a low incidence, again international standards, of the crime itself, drink driving. Unsurprisingly, a low accident caused by booze rate as well.

In fact, that former British system of heavy punishment, high likelihood of being caught, produces what we desire, low incidence of the crime and its corollaries, those accidents. Moving the limit doesn’t seem to change that at all. So, perhaps not moving the limit, given that the system already works, is the right course of action?

We've studied poverty, now let's study wealth

Numerous studies have examined poverty and the lot of poor people. Now Rainer Zitelman has studied the psychology of the super rich. His study, based on in depth interviews and questionnaires, looks at wealthy Germans who gained their wealth, not as employees of large corporations, but as entrepreneurs and investors.

It reveals significant factors. For example, the parents of 60 percent of them were self-employed, which is ten times the average for Germany. They were not necessarily rich, but they worked for themselves.

School or education did not play a key role in determining their future status as super rich, but extra-curricular activities did, notably competitive sports or entrepreneurial activity. As youngsters, they tended to be difficult, even rebellious, unwilling to subordinate themselves to authority or established organizations.

They all had sales skills in the broad sense: selling ideas, or selling themselves. They exhibited the ability to explain things clearly. They showed a pronounced optimism, and had early acceptance of high levels of risk. They were reliant on intuitive as well as analytical knowledge, and they showed a readiness to learn from experience and “turn the page” on negative experiences.

Zitelman’s research reveals that they had personality traits that went with success. They scored high in self-discipline and deliberation (advance planning). They tended to be conscientious (thorough, meticulous), as opposed to negligent or careless. They were hardworking as opposed to lazy. They tended to be well-organized, punctual, ambitious and persevering.

The upshot is that although luck, of course, plays some role in determining who will succeed, it mostly comes down to personality traits. They have drive and determination. They succeed because they have the qualities that often lead to success, and in doing so they create the wealth that enriches society as well as themselves.

There is no new economics, just more examples of the old

We are told, endlessly, that we’re in a new economics here. Growth only goes to the rich, the entire structure of what we thought we knew is wrong and thus, well, thus we’ve got to do all the things we previously knew were wrong.

This is, umm, wrong. We do not have a new economics these days, we just have ever more examples of the old:

The jobs market has defied Brexit worries and fears of an economic slowdown to add another 79,000 posts in the three months to October.

A record 32.5m people are now in work, a rise of 396,000 on the year.

Pay growth also accelerated to a new 10-year high, with regular pay up 3.3pc, its strongest rate since the end of 2008.

Bonuses, which are volatile, rose by 4.2pc year-on-year. Once those are included, the average worker’s earnings came in at £528 per week.

This means wages are outstripping inflation, as prices increased by 2.4pc over the same period.

Wages rise when unemployment is low, wages don’t rise when unemployment is high. This is such old economics that even Karl Marx managed to get it right with his comments about the reserve army of the unemployed.

It’s entirely true that we don’t know economics well enough to know everything but we do indeed know some things. The old verities apply simply because they are verities.

A backdoor to the backstop?

If the EU will not modify the proposed Brexit agreement to allow the UK to end a backstop when it chooses to do so, it seems unlikely that it could command a Parliamentary majority to implement it. In which case the UK would leave on March 29th under WTO rules.

David Singh Grewal, a professor of law at Yale University, and Richard Tuck a professor of government at Harvard University, have written an intriguing piece in the Irish Times suggesting a possible course of action the UK might then undertake, much to its advantage, and providing a solution to the apparent impasse.

They point out that WTO rules allow for a “national security exception.” It is in article 21 of the general agreement on tariffs and trade (Gatt). “Nothing in this agreement shall be construed . . . to prevent any contracting party from taking any action which it considers necessary for the protection of its essential security interests . . . taken in time of war or other emergency in international relations.”

These are somewhat uncharted waters, and it isn’t as clear as one might like what would constitute an “essential security interest” or an “emergency in international relations,” but the UK could argue that free access of goods across the Irish border was indeed vital for our security interest, which is true, or would prevent an emergency in international relations, which is also true.

It would not be completely unprecedented, however, because President Trump has claimed that the preferential tariffs imposed on some foreign goods are need to protect the security interest of the US.

If this reasoning were sustained it means that the UK could, under WTO rules, allow goods from the Irish Republic free access across the border into Northern Ireland, without allowing goods from the rest of the EU similar free access until a free trade deal had been completed. There would thus be an open border that honoured the Good Friday Agreement.

How the Republic of Ireland and the EU chose to respond to such a unilateral initiative remains to be seen, but it would be to the advantage of both to accept it. They would not be able to prevent the UK from doing this, even should they perversely wish to do so. The UK could use this approach to prevent a backstop from inhibiting its future freedom, or from requiring the consent of the EU to end it.

This would seem to be a valid and attractive alternative if no deal can be agreed that can pass through Parliament.

We can't afford social care already so let's promise ourselves more

From The Guardian, an example of quite gloriously missing the point:

As the characters and plot of Care show, quality care and support costs huge sums, and local authorities have never been under such a relentless onslaught, with budgets ravaged and social care suffering horrifically. As a result family members are forced to care for older relatives full time, putting on hold their own children, jobs and lives.

More and more people are forced to remortgage or sell their homes to fund care, at a time when parental homes are expected to provide both a pension for the home owners and a foot on the housing ladder for their children: eventually, the money runs out.

That people pay for their own lives out of their own resources doesn’t sound all that objectionable to us. Nor does the idea that families care for families - we always though that was rather the point of that most basic of human institutions.

But then this:

Here, we have a jobs crisis and a care crisis: why not push for a Grey New Deal? It could be a charter of rights each citizen should expect, a formalisation of respect across institutions and socially, and a long-term budgeted cash injection to create the skilled jobs and develop the technology needed to make sure we can care properly for older people. The people delivering that care should receive a decent wage for decent work, and expect job security and job satisfaction.

We’ve already agreed that we cannot afford what we’ve already promised ourselves - that embracing welfare state - within what we’re all prepared to cough up to pay for it. Thus promising ourselves more isn’t one of those things that’s going to work, is it?

The logic being presented to us is that of the restaurant diner who agrees that they can’t afford the mackerel, or the sardines, so why not order the lobster? An entirely wondrous starting point for a phantastical short story perhaps but not quite the way to interact with reality.

Fuel poverty, proof of how much richer we are

The dreadful incidence of fuel poverty in Britain is taken as evidence of how uncaring, unequal, generally undesirable, we are. The truth is the opposite, it’s proof of how much richer we are these days:

Can we please have a focus on the dire state of our housing stock? This will mean investment by the government in energy efficiency, with money from the Treasury. There are millions of fuel-poor homes – each requiring tens of thousands of pounds spent on them if the occupants are to be warm despite their low incomes. We should be spending billions of pounds to reduce fuel poverty.

There’s a certain bitter sweetness to the idea that standard policy is to drive up the cost of energy to beat climate change while also insisting that everyone be able to have cheap energy to heat their housing.

However, fuel poverty is defined as being able to heat a certain amount of the dwelling, to a certain level, on less than 10% of income. The areas to be heated, the temperature they’re to be heated to, being far above those normal in a middle class household of only one generation back.

Actually, very much higher than was normal anywhere before the widespread adoption of central heating in the 1970s and 80s. Which is indeed proof of how much richer we are, isn’t it?

Adam Smith and the linen shirt. A society which goes from yhe lack of one not marking you as poor to doing so has become richer by those very proliferating linen shirts. A society that used to live in cold houses and now regards doing so as poverty is a richer one.

The standards by which we measure fuel poverty are proof that we’ve become richer this past generation.

Testing recreational drugs for purity saves lives so let's legalise them

We have been pointing this out for some time now, that proper and rigorous testing of illegal drugs saves lives. For the basic cause of most overdoses is that people don’t know what they’re taking, at what purity level. If those little packets of fun - and yes, they are fun, why the heck do you think people take them - are tested to see what’s in them then here will be fewer such mistakes over dosage and fewer deaths.

Thus the answer is to make drugs legal:

An alarming rise in drug-related deaths at music festivals can be countered by testing illicit substances onsite, according to the first academic study of its kind, which has triggered calls for similar services to be rolled out at all major events.

Testers found that one in five substances sold at the Secret Garden Party, a four-day festival in Cambridgeshire in July 2016, were not as described by dealers.

Samples contained ketamine instead of cocaine, while a drug sold as MDMA turned out to be n-ethylpentylone, a long-lasting cathinone that can cause anxiety, paranoia, insomnia and psychosis.

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Others contained pharmaceuticals and cutting agents such as anti-malaria medication, as well as less harmful ingredients such as brown sugar and plaster of paris.

Chemists from the non-profit social enterprise The Loop analysed 247 drug samples brought in anonymously by festivalgoers. Two-thirds of people who discovered they had had substances missold to them subsequently handed over further substances to the police, according to the study.

Knowledge saves lives so let’s have more knowledge.

About as far as most liberal opinion is prepared to go is that such street pharmaceuticals should be decriminalised. We, being proper liberals, insist that proper legalisation is the route. For only when producers can in fact advertise - yes, advertise - their brand will they have that skin in the game. They’ll have something valuable which they don’t wish to destroy, a reputation for not killing their customers. Thus they won’t, we’ll get drugs which actually are what they say on the packet.

The analogy here is to the early days of food brands. 1830, 1840, saw that England had been rapidly urbanised and the old methods of food provision didn’t really work. No one did buy repeatedly from the bloke next door in the village any more. Adulteration was rife. Brands arose competing upon the quality and purity of their ingredients and proliferated in the 1850s. The first serious laws about food adulteration came in the 1870s, by which time the problem was largely over.

The same, but in inverse, came with the slightly later technology of canning. A hit and miss affair to start with, those brands that are still with us and still valuable - as examples, Heinz and Campbell’s - distinguished themselves by getting canning right and killing fewer to no consumers. They became valuable as a result, a value the owners have preserved.

Once there’s a value to having a drug brand then people will produce clean and dose controlled highs. They can and only will gain such value when it’s legal to have a drug brand.

Thus we wish to have legal drugs. Assuming, that is, that we wish to reduce the danger of drugs rather than just insist that other people shouldn’t be doing what we think they shouldn’t.