Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Coming out in hives

I've come to the conclusion that the issue of honey is not just a symbolic one. I fact, it's getting seriously worrying. There is no local honey at all coming from my huge local allotments, which we live basically in the middle of, at Spa Hill. Last year, there were at least four hives producing.

The trouble is, most of what we can do about this decline is symbolic. But I've made a little oath to myself that I won't buy fake honey any more - anything blended or imported. This is difficult because my local supermarket can sell me honey from anywhere from Tasmania to South America, but it can't sell me English honey. It can't even sell me Scottish honey.

So from now on, I will only buy honey which is clearly from the UK, and preferably somewhere in particular.

Please hold me to it...

I took this up with an important looking manager in my local Sainsbury's in Crystal Palace this morning, asking him - as I usually do - where the English honey was. Long search, and - sure enough - they don't stock it.

But he did tell me that every Sainsbury's store within the M25 will soon have its own hive, and that did take me aback. It's difficult for me to say anything good about the supermarket giants, but I thought this was rather far-sighted. The next stage is to get them to have more than one, and make their own honey locally.

More jobs for bee-keepers - the human race depends on it!

Monday, 28 June 2010

When the state can't afford anything

I mentioned a week or so ago that I was wondering if civilised government was possible any more, given the markets, the phenomenon of corporate tax avoidance, and the sheer cost of public services - and suggesting another way forward to end government borrowing.

Now comes the news that the city of Maywood in California is facing such a big budget crisis that they are laying off their entire staff, including the police, and contracting it all out:

They are not the only US city in this situation either. If the USA, the richest nation on earth, can no longer afford basic services, what hopes for the rest of us?

None of this is intended to suggest that savings are not possible in the UK - quite the reverse - I just don't know if we can ever reach the mythical point of balanced budgets.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Why Prince Charles was right

I know it is de rigeur among people on the Left to be terribly shocked at Prince Charles’ ‘interference’ in the Chelsea Barracks issue. I don’t see it like that.

For one thing, look who he was up against. One of the equally unelected demi-gods of architecture, some of whose projects are wonderful, and some of which are concrete modern bastilles that dehumanise us all. Then there are the developers, packed also with unelected power, riding roughshod over local opinion.

For another thing, he is right. Much of what gets erected in central London are phallic monuments to concrete and glass, the fantasies of powerful corporations and their client architects. Who is going to stand up for ordinary human beings against that kind of power?

And don’t tell me he should have waited for the planning committee to decide: planning committees are, in practice, often timorous, largely toothless affairs which are not allowed to take aesthetics into account. What are we, who believe that aesthetics are the proper concern of local people, to do?

Prince Charles may not be the perfect instrument for a democratic age, but he is no less democratic than his opponents.

Friday, 25 June 2010

The irrelevance of pain

I don't have an axe to grind in the abortion debate, except perhaps to agree with Bill Clinton (it should be legal, safe and rare). But anyone who puts human scale and human values at the heart of their politics, as I try to do, might have been as irritated as I was this morning by the interview on the Today programme.

This is the problem, I suppose, of asking scientists to rule on something when they have no philosophical training - but how, exactly is, pain relevant to the morality of abortion after 24 weeks?

Well, if abortion was painful to the foetus at that stage, that would rule it out - but not because of the pain. We don't decide really important moral issues because of the pain they do or don't cause - we go ahead with operations despite pain if it is the right thing to do. It is because, if a foetus can feel pain, then it is more evidence that it is a human being with the full rights as such.

Equally, would we put a human being to death because we could prove it would be pain free? Of course not. Because abortion is pain-free is, in itself, irrelevant to its morality.

It is pretty damn important that we insist on this principle too. Because otherwise there might be some utilitarians out there who might feel, for reasons of the greatest good, that maybe a few painless lethal injections might be a good idea.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

What if modern government is unaffordable?

Heaven knows, I’m not a deficit hawk – though I have Victorian Liberal’s horror of waste, especially wasteful public expenditure that is destructive: encouragement for buying cars, subsidised air travel or supermarkets, accountants employed by NHS trusts to code each treatment or to challenge each coding for each PCT.

But I have begun to get depressed by the rhetoric of the cuts debate. Has any modern economy actually managed to balanced their budget? Do we actually need to be in deficit just to operate these days? Isn’t it time we had a proper discussion about how, in practice, we can run a civilised nation when we can apparently no longer afford it.

Of course, there are still conversations to be had about why we allow our corporations to avoid paying their share – it may be that up to a third of the world’s money is now hidden offshore. But what if modern IT makes it impossible to collect now? What if we fail?

I have struggled for years about what I thought about future policy on money creation. There are radical voices – which rarely if ever reach the mainstream – which suggest that banks should now be prevented from creating money, as they currently do, because of the corrosive effect of the interest which they demand back on 97 per cent of the money in circulation.

I don’t believe this is practical or desirable. But the National Debt is a different matter. Why should a modern nation state have to pay £80,000 a minute, as the UK currently does, on interest – when it can create that money itself free of interest?

This is the stuff of heresy of course, but what is the argument against creating it rather than borrowing it? It is that governments cannot stop themselves from borrowing too much, and that is bound to create inflation. It will not create inflation in itself, any more than allowing commercial banks to create the money will do so. It is the failure of government control that we need to beware of.

So is it really beyond our skills to devise a branch of the independent monetary committee of the Bank of England that can decide each month – as they have been doing with quantitative easing – how much they can safely create?

At least this should be part of modern debate. Because it is quite possible that civilised government, that heals and educates, may become impossible without it.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

A perigrination in the catacombs

In the library of the Treasury, there is an ancient copy of one of Keynes’ pamphlets, and it has been scrawled over by Treasury officials with the words ‘bankruptcy’ and ‘insanity’.

Keynes was challenging the Treasury idea, which seems to have been in their DNA since time immemorial, that the way out of recession is to get people to save not spend. The money has to be in the banks, ready to lend.

Keynes’ view was that, in the end, this kind of puritanical retrenchment led to death – “a peregrination in the catacombs with a guttering candle”. But we don’t have to worry because that was back in the 1930s. Or do we?

A little bird told me recently that the attitude in the Treasury has reverted to type faced with the recession and deficit. Once again, the official view is that people should be encouraged to save not spend, so that the money is available for lending.

Since Keynes’ day, there are two extra problems with this, and they are not small. There are hardly any banks left, and those that survive have long since dismantled the infrastructure they need for local lending. Their attention is elsewhere. They can’t do it.

So when the Treasury persuade George Osborne to raise VAT to 20 per cent, this is the agenda: don’t spend, save. Unless he and Cable and Danny Alexander can stand up to the Treasury, and tackle this hideous and ancient mistake, I fear it may be the peregrination in the catacombs for us.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

A very British blindness

Perhaps this is very curmudgeonly of me, but we seem to be slowly drowning in that dreadful version of English nationalism called The-Best-In-The-World-Syndrome (after the well-known cliché about British bobbies).

Why is it that our commentators assume that England is always set to win every World Cup, and that everything less than that is a crime for which somebody needs to be disembowelled in the tabloids? It isn’t as if we have much of a track record for the past four decades or so. Where did this strange idea emerge from that we somehow deserve to win?

Worse, this bizarre blindness probably prevents victory, because the combination of smugness and stodgy chutzpah filters through to the players.

Then there is BP. Why on earth should we let the company off the hook for its safety record and hideous pollution? Because they are British? Because it may affect our pensions? Give us a break.

In fact, isn’t this combination of arrogance and blindness precisely why we had to put up with such appalling government for the past few generations. Don’t tell me, because we are in this – and all things – the envy of the world?

Where I have some sneaking sympathy, not for BP, but for those who criticise the equally sanctimonious American politicians, is about who we should blame for oil gushing all over the Caribbean. A nation which has consistently failed to release itself from such a dangerous addiction to oil really has to take some of the blame. Why else are BP drilling into the ocean floor at increasing depths?

Friday, 11 June 2010

What if we just cut targets?

Two things are a bit odd about all the debate over spending cuts in the last week.

One is that it seems to have been disconnected from the debate about the economy. The cuts are required partly because of the huge banking bail-out, and the abuses that led to that are still going on. Yet that debate seems to be happening in another universe somewhere.

Worse, the BBC seems to have decreed that this is not an issue that might be tackled by encouraging local enterprise – which will require some kind of break-up of the big banks.

Second, and odder, we still seem to be living with the usual Treasury assumption that spending cuts require iron central control. The argument that iron central control is actually incredibly wasteful in practice does not seem yet to have got through.

So here is my contribution to the debate. Not the costs of centralisation – that’s a much longer project – but the costs of the whole edifice of targets, standard, inspections and audits which drive the centralised state. What if we just cut that?

Well, we know, for example, that the total cost of the various standards and auditing agencies was £600 million a year back in 2001, when they had barely begun to create the system which now now so frustrates the effectiveness of public services.

That figure may even have doubled since then. The Audit Commission itself costs just less than £200m, the Commission for Social Care inspection costs £99 million, though that is now being merged with the Healthcare Commission (£67 million) and the Mental Health Act Commission into the new Care Quality Commission (£167m) which began life with an inherited £17.5m IT system with what was described as ‘major malfunctions’. Another £38m is being spent just on transition.

We also know, thanks to accountants Pricewaterhousecoopers, that each local council spends an average of £1.8 million just preparing for an inspection and on showing that they comply with targets – the cost of the effort of collecting figures and reporting back. That is just local authorities.

We don’t know the equivalent costs for health authorities, primary care trusts and police authorities, foundation trusts and other local quangos. But if you add that to the cost of the auditors themselves, and you might get to a figure somewhere between £4-5 billion a year to pay for the basic infrastructure of target compliance.

That is a very conservative estimate, and it is easy to forget what it means in practice inside public service, where we should add in the cost of the time spent on compliance by frontline staff and the extra staff in local authorities or primary care trusts assigned to enforcing each target.

Like the trading standards officers who must subdivide all their visits into 30 different categories which they must report on. Or the police who have – according to systems thinker John Seddon – now passed the point where most of their activity is related to meeting standards and reporting requirements.

Plus their own checks on every action and report to make sure there is no cheating. Or the child protection staff who spend up to 80 per cent of their time in front of computers, doing administration.

The American reform writer, David Osborne, a trenchant critic of command-and-control, estimated in the 1990s that 20 per cent of American government spending is devoted to controlling the other 80 per cent, via armies of auditors and inspectors.

When Vice-President Al Gore led the National Performance Review in 1993, they found that one in three federal employees were there to oversee, control, audit or investigate the other two.

So let’s look at the question another way. About 800,000 new public sector jobs have been added to the payroll in the UK since 1998. If one in five of those are managing, auditing or inspecting at the average cost of a public sector job (£40,000), the cost is £6.4 billion. If it is one in three, then that is £10.6 billion a year, and that is only the new employees.

If you take Professor Michael Power’s estimate that ten per cent of public spending goes on auditing – again that estimate is more than a decade old – it might come to around £50 billion in the UK.

There is some confirmation of this because, if you work it out round the other way, it comes to somewhere around the same figure. The wage bill for one in five of UK public sector staff is around £48 billion.

This is not to suggest that you can magically avoid all this by removing the infrastructure of standards and audit – we need some kind of management, auditing and inspection, after all – but some is definitely going to be avoidable.

So, if we must have major cuts, let’s at least make it revolutionary.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

This isn't localism

I’ve never met Michael Gove, but I grew to respect him over the last few years. I defended his policy of free schools. I struggled to keep something like that – something eminently Liberal based on the Danish and Swedish models – in the Lib Dem manifesto. I still think its an important idea.

And every time I wander around Croydon where I live I feel confirmed in that feeling. There was nothing so disempowering to parents than the Blairite roll-out of ‘choice’ of schools. It has left us as pathetic, powerless supplicants in places like south east London where there are not nearly enough places, and certainly not where anyone civilised might consider sending their children.

When the state doesn’t work effectively, people need to be given the power to do it themselves. That’s the energetic, imaginative and above all Liberal way.

But it seems to me that Gove has misjudged the academy business. It is all very well dressing up academies as some version of localism, but – in fact – making schools shift from being supplicants to their town hall to being distant supplicants to Whitehall isn’t localism at all. It is the most disempowering centralisation.

Yes, give teachers the flexibility they need, but give them the context where they can actually exercise control, and persuade people who have some local knowledge if they need more money. Don’t cast them into the Whitehall jungle.

The new government has not yet grasped the key idea about localism, for all its localist rhetoric: centralisation leads to sclerosis. You can’t win just by letting go, but you have to start that way. But you can’t win either by tightening your grip and paying quango-style salaries to a new generation of headteachers.

Free schools are right. You improve schools by letting the parents in, and the local business community, and all the other locals, and - if they don't come - then you go to them. You don’t improve them – not in the end – by handing them over to the quangocrats and corporates and the Whitehall controllers.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

A new kind of Wizard of Oz

What is it about The Wizard of Oz that makes it so popular now? There was the new production at the Festival Hall last year. Now there is the success of Wicked. Well, I have a suggestion. It is to do with economic collapse.

The idea that Frank Baum actually wove his tale around the monetary battles of the 1890s only emerged in 1963, but I’m sure it is right. Although Oz stands easily on its own as a tale, it was also a subtle tract urging more money in circulation on behalf of the agricultural workers (the Scarecrow) and the industrial workers (the Tin Man).

Baum was involved in the battle between the supporters of gold standard money – authoritative and scarce – and silver money (much more plentiful). So Dorothy sets out on the Yellow Brick Road wearing the Witch of the East's magic Silver Shoes (they were red in the Judy Garland film) – shoes that neither she, nor the Witch of the North, nor the Munchkins understand the power of.

The poor deluded residents of Oz are required to wear green-tinted glasses fastened by gold buckles. They see the world through the colour of money. Oz, of course, was the well-known measure of gold – the abbreviation for ounces – and the Wonderful Wizard, the personification of the gold standard, was finally revealed as a fraud.

This is how Baum saw the wizard-bankers who defended the gold standard: “Toto jumped away ... in alarm and tipped over the screen that stood in a corner. As it fell with a crash they looked that way, and the next moment all of them were filled with wonder. For they saw, standing in just the spot the screen had hidden, a little old man, with a bald head and a wrinkled face, who seemed to be as much surprised as they were.”

All of which is a way of saying that The Wizard of Oz is about economic crisis, and about the hope of a different way. The 1939 film certainly implies that, but the original tale is also about the pomposity and delusions of bankers.

So, there I was in upstate New York a week before my eldest son was born, giving a talk about the future of money and referring liberally to the Wizard of Oz. Afterwards, an American publisher took me aside and suggested I write an updated version, still a mythic story in its own right, about also about money – a Wizard of Oz for the age of derivatives trading and Goldman Sachs.

Well, five years on, I have done. It’s on sale now, published through The Real Press. It includes a short essay about the meaning of the original Oz, my speech at the launch of the Brixton Pound last year, and some wonderful illustrations by Karin Dahlbacka, which are worth all the rest put together! Take a look at it: