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Saturday, 19 February 2011

Booker on the recycling con

Christopher Booker's Telegraph column usefully sums up the pointlessness of the UK's recycling strategy; a con, a bluff, all smoke and mirrors, and cruelly abusive of the credulity of the public upon whom the effectiveness of the con trick depends. 

As he points out, to meet their government targets council's don't actually have to recycle anything at all, don't actually have to dispose of waste to recycling. The entire target is based on the %age of waste collected for recycling. Once a council has collected 20% or whatever, it can then burn it, send it to landfill or, in the case of old electrical waste and tyres, ship it abroad for dumping in the third world. 

If you register on you can look at your own council's actual performance, even counting the tonnage of 'recycling' collected from street litter bins. If they're only a 'waste collection authority' and not also a 'waste disposal authority' you then pretty well lose track of what happens to the waste. But even if the waste is recorded as disposed of with a recycler, there's no assurance that it's recycled - it's could be just a convenient intermediate step on the road to landfill - not a bad thing at all, but just a crooked process that lines many intermediate crooked pockets. 

As to who benefits from this gigantic con trick, who gets the £10bn investment the CBI says is needed, and the £8bn a year running cost, look no further than the big commercial waste handling and processing firms, the German rotomoulders of wheely bins, the French developers of automated waste sorting machinery and their spin-offs. 

As to who pays - why, we do, of course. 

Revolution as narcissism

You'll be aware that the one aspect of modern society that depresses and discourages me more than anything is the self-regarding narcissism of the 'me' generation. Every time some moron pipes up with 'I've got a right to be happy' I want to reach for the bullwhip; every time I hear 'I deserve it' or 'It's my right' I feel the taste of puke at the back of my throat. Andy Warhol's prediction is fulfilled on 'Facebook' as every pouting, preening semi-literate pleb on the planet is now the star of their own self-regarding universe. 

This is why I'm very wary of calls for revolution, whether made from Reading or Riyadh. You see, there's no guarantee that those that emerge to lead the new nation will be, like me, committed to absolute meritocracy, equity, fairness, justice and the rule of law. There's instead every chance that those who make the most noise and manage carefully to be in the right place at the right time - those with an indecent interest in their own advancement, the narcissists - will end up in charge. And the thought of being governed by a wunch of mediocre 'me' people terrifies me. Yet such people are at the forefront of the student protests here, and no doubt formed large parts of the Tahrir Square and now Pearl Square crowds - though carefully out of direct rifle range, and with an exit route mapped out. George Handlery also identifies them on Brussels Journal;
In every society, there is an element that finds that the turmoil of revolution is not a means toward an end but a pleasant condition. This element finds the opportunities offered by an orderly and fair society to be a threat that unmasks them as mediocre. Therefore, they have an interest in the opportunities chaos provides and in making a transitory phase permanent. Raising in Berkeley- style “non-negotiable” demands while preventing the majority to return to its business undermines order and therefore prevents progress. These “children of the revolution” are in this manner “eating the revolution”. Whether the peoples now rising shall prevail will depend on whether the new leaders can send the crowd home and have prosaic work resume “after the week end”.
John Major may not have commanded, during his time in office, the respect that his fundamental decency and devotion to his country should have deserved, but by God we know now that the lippy, narcissistic 'revolutionary' alternative and his cabal have caused untold damage to us all for generations. So be careful what you wish for ... 

What Rod Liddle can say but Éric Zemmour can't

Back in 2009 Rod Liddle was excoriated after publishing the following on his Speccie blog;
The overwhelming majority of street crime, knife crime, gun crime, robbery and crimes of sexual violence in London is carried out by young men from the African-Caribbean community. In return, we have rap music, goat curry and a far more vibrant and diverse understanding of cultures which were once alien to us. For which, many thanks.
And the reason he could say it was because it was true; he subsequently produced conclusive statistics collected by the police themselves that proved his point. It may be an uncomfortable and unpleasant fact for the many good and law-abiding people from the Afro-Carib community to face, but there it is. Let's get it into the open and deal with it. 

French Le Figaro columnist and journalist Éric Zemmour in contrast has just been convicted by a French court for saying on a TV chatshow talking about police stop-and-search
But why are they stopped 17 times? Why? Because most dealers are blacks and Arabs. That's a fact.
So why could Rod say what Éric can't? Because under the French system of blind equality, it's illegal for the French police to collect stats on the ethnic or racial origins of offenders; all French drug dealers are equally French. To say otherwise is to break the law. French prison governors must rely on their powers of clairvoyance in estimating the number of prayer mats and Korans that their inmates will require. 

Whilst it's absolutely right that slandering an ethnic or racial group to provoke racial hatred is a crime under UK law, all the corrective equalities and diversities training in the world won't change the reality that some ethnic groups are more disposed to commit some crimes than others or more are successful in cornering some part of the criminal market. And anyone who can read the 'Standard' over a period of time can work out that Turks dominate the convictions field for heroin dealing, Vietnamese for cannabis farming, Romanians for organised pickpocketing and so on. To hide this from us, the press would have to avoid naming or picturing the convicted. 

And why our way is better than France's is that in France I couldn't have written the paragraph above without risking criminal prosecution. 

Friday, 18 February 2011

Hop off, Froggie; you're not a real judge

Froggie civil servant / adminstrator Jean-Paul Costa, pictured below in his clown's costume replete with rosette of Satanic Stars, has likened the UK to the dictatorship of the Greek Colonels if we refuse to give child killers and axe murderers the vote as the ECHR has ordered. 

Hop-off, Froggie. We know you're not a real judge. We have nothing but contempt for your silly dressing-up and play-acting. Now go home and get Mme Costa to sew some more sequins on your costume. 

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Benefits reform: Too central, too Statist

Iain Duncan-Smith, a genuinely good and well-meaning man, assiduous and diligent, has just unveiled his new Five Year Welfare Plan. It's actually remarkably like the old, failed Five Year Welfare Plan, except they've swapped some of the coloured knobs around on the Great Levers of State, fitted leatherette gaiters and updated the old electro-mechanical tell-tales on the vast Whitehall control board with LEDs. Here will sit the Secretary of State in a James T Kirk type command-chair skilfully piloting the State Ship 'Welfare'; a tweak on the Employment Support Allowance lever, half a turn on the Universal Credit dial and cross-feeding the Earnings Cap through the Lithium Drive and IDS will smile as the Leviathan settles on a new course. Staff across the country will soon be coming to terms with the new 4,000 page instruction manual, digging for the Politburo's procedure in the case of crediting Class I NI Contributions to a Share Fisherman undertaking 12 hours of voluntary work a week. 

What a wasted opportunity. 

In preserving 'the State' as the provider of Welfare support, rather than you and I, taxpayers, IDS preserves the anonymity and sense of entitlement that such distance creates. If your welfare payments, your rent and your Council Tax come from the wallets and purses of the people you meet in the local Co-op, if assistance and assessment comes from learned and skilled local benefit officers with wide powers of discretion, and if the 'little platoons' can play their part in recycling toys and clothes, providing IT and other training, keeping the community's eyes out for job opportunities, and policing and correcting free-riding, then those in need of support will be infinitely better served than by this distant, vertical relationship between the individual and the State.  

IDS, decent chap though he is, has blown the chance of a generation in truly reforming Welfare for the better.  

PFI - it's all about risk

PFI consortia are being lined up by the government's spin machine as the next cohort of bad boys who are robbing the taxpayer; operating costs of the PFI schemes now live are running at some £8bn a year, and the government wants to see reductions. 

One of the most fundamental problems with PFI is that the contracts were all written by civil servants who have little or no knowledge of the way in which the private sector prices risk. Their explicit aim was to transfer risk from the public to the private sector, get the costs of risk off the Treasury's books, and this they have done - but at a cost. Take the example of a student's Hall of Residence procured under a DBFO (design, build, finance, operate) PFI framework. The consortium has two partners, a construction firm and a facilities management organisation. The contract period is 25 years. 

First, development risk. Given an adequate outcome specification (the Employer's Requirements) D&B is a highly cost effective way for clients to develop assets. Unless of course, as is the case with our example Hall, the government were a year late in letting the contract but still insisted on the original completion date, resulting in a cost per square meter some 40% higher than it could have been. The government are utterly crap at programming an adequate lead-in time for major capital projects, and internal client delays rather than site delays are invariably the major reason for development cost over runs for such schemes. 

Secondly, operating risk. And this is where the risk-transfer is most poorly understood. The contract is 25 years, about the same as the economic life of the Hall's building systems and roof. If the private sector is taking the risk of no down-time to the building, it will cost-in some expensive mid-term major repair and replacement work whilst maintaining occupation. Ker-chink. The private sector is also taking income risk; the government's forecasts are based on a simple 95% occupancy during the life of the facility. The private sector may estimate 75% occupancy and add something for irrecoverable bad-debts. Ker-chink. The private sector takes the risk of highly specified cleaning and maintenance standards with severe financial penalties, so costs-in the standard it thinks it can achieve consistently plus an allowance to cover the cost of the penalties. Ker-chink. The government has also transferred large parts of inflation risk to the private sector, so the FM contractor makes 'safe' estimates of cost increases; if these are just 0.75% higher each year than the reality, the contract becomes highly profitable after just three or four years. Ker-chink. And don't mention window-cleaning; the civil servants have warranted the contractor's window-cleaner access to the students' bedrooms from 8am. Ker-chink Ker-chink.

In every case, the private sector has made perfectly reasonable allowances for the risks the government is seeking to transfer; the government's desire for cost-certainty has outweighed commercial sense. The only way to claw-back costs is to re-allocate risk. Simple, no? Er, no. If the government takes back risk, the potential cost of the risk is a liability that must appear in the government's accounts. 

Which is why the government is adopting the only tactic that it can see - to bully the consortia into surrendering profits at the threat of being black-listed from public sector work. 

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

For rats you need a terrier

A cat who will take a full-grown rat or a squirrel is a rare creature. Mice and voles by the dozen, small songbirds whenever they can, but, generally, rats no. They will snatch a juvenile rat, and have a sort of deterrent effect on adult rats showing themselves, but to make inroads into a rat infestation you need one of two things - a tin of Cymag (now banned by the EU) or a terrier. Ratting with a terrier is still legal in the UK, and to see the dog at work is a joy and a pleasure. 

C'mon Dave. Keep Kitty indoors and let the dog see the rodents ... 

Mass hysteria outbreaks amongst social workers

Mass outbreaks of hysteria amongst social workers are nothing new. You'll recall the nationwide panic about Satanic Ritual Abuse, sparked when an Orkney social worker found an 'Omen' video and a celtic cross in client's home and went on to extract a confession from their child that yes, mummy and daddy did sometimes wear funny dressing gowns. Suddenly millions of kids were at risk, and social workers across Britain extracted false-memory confessions of thousands having attended black masses, or at least having seen mummy light her aromatherapy candles and daddy prepare lunch, which to your average hysterical social worker is much the same thing ("So when your daddy was sacrificing the chicken did he say anything?" "Yes - he said I can't get these sodding frozen giblets out")  

Then there was the social worker mass hysteria about childrens' anuses (or should that be anii?) after a Cleveland social worker reported that the reflex dilation of the anal sphincter when touched was a positive indication of the child having been buggered. All over Britain, hysterical social workers prodded at childrens' bottoms with their biros, snatching into care thousands of kids whose sphincters dilated, in a modern version of witch-pricking. Until someone who was actually medically qualified pronounced the whole thing as nonsense.

Now we have a new outbreak of social-worker hysteria reported in the Guardian today; they report that boys and girls exhibited scratches and bruises when observed changing after playing football and hockey, and that this is firm evidence of sexual abuse by their parents. They say 20% of all British children are being used as sex-slaves by their parents or guardians, and some children who fail to attend school may actually have been eaten. Experienced social workers across the country are nodding sagely and muttering 'Thought so' as they prepare a new wave of detention care orders and practice swinging their door-battering rams. 

Scientists are unsure why these sporadic hysterical outbreaks occur; some have suggested ergotamine poisoning from eating rogue Ryvita, or an excess of bioactive yoghurt, but evidence is inconclusive. One thing we can be sure of is that we're going to have to protect our children from these poor deluded creatures whilst this latest bout of madness lasts. 

Monday, 14 February 2011

Great corrections: Iranian edition

Keeping an eye this afternoon on Iranian blogs and twitter feeds (yes, I know I don't 'tweet' but I can still look) there comes proof that humorous pedantry is alive and well;
Great post. Well researched. One minor point; I think it should be 'jury of peers' not 'pears'  
Really? Haven't they heard of a jury Conference? 

We know where we live

Most of us have a very clear idea of where we live and a pretty good idea of exactly where the boundaries of our 'ville' lie. Far, far fewer of us have a clue as to our ward boundary, let alone parliamentary constituency boundary, and I'll guess anyone who knows where the European constituency begins and ends is either an MEP or their agent. Why is this important?

Who hasn't, as a child, listed out their hierarchy of belonging? I've still got an atlas my father gave me when I was eight or nine in which I've inscribed not only my house number and street but town, county, England, Britain, United Kingdom, World, Solar System, Universe, and Galaxy. I got stuck at galaxy. Well, one would at nine. 

Identification with a locality at the lowest 'leet' or 'moot' level - parish, ville, commune, hundred, whatever - is a natural human behaviour, hard-wired. It's the first tier at which we recognise our part in a communal identity and therefore the first tier at which we recognise the democratic legitimacy of representative and decision-making bodies. Above it may come town, borough, or county. If democratic or other groups are organised in areas congruent with a commonly recognised boundary, participation is many times greater. One of the problems with a Localist future is that 'official' areas are frequently out of tune with those that inhabitants recognise. 

What's also astonishing, in the complete absence of any common process to define or agree boundaries, is the way in which such lower tier areas rarely overlap by more (in London) than a street or so; there's some process at work here, a remarkable consensus, that needs neither officialdom nor cartographers to define, as to where our boundaries with our neighbours lie.

Take Brockley here in London, an area with which I'm reasonably familiar. You may think that the SE4 Brockley postcode describes the boundaries - but oh, no. Brockleyites are quite definite that whole chunks of SE4 are outside Brockley, and equally definite that bits of SE14 - New Cross - are within it. Neither does the council ward called Brockley correspond with the area popularly recognised. The blog Brockley Central had a go last year at drawing the boundary - map reproduced below. The 94 comments to the post are worth reading. With the exception of a few aggrieved SE4 postcode holders who would dearly like to be inside the pale, most are in agreement with the line.

In contrast, the ward is much bigger - see HERE - and this is pretty universal here in London. I'll call the popular self-defined area the Natural Ward and the other the Official Ward. It's the result of the government setting an Electoral Quota that's larger than people feel naturally happy with. Now here's a difficult concept to get hold of (if you're the government). Whilst I'm passionate about EQs for parliamentary seats being equal - and ideally they should be within +/- 3% but I can live with +/- 5% - the same logic doesn't necessarily apply at the level of the Natural Ward. French communes vary hugely in size, from a few hundred electors to several thousands, and this is right, because most of the business of the commune is internal, so relative size doesn't matter. The only equalising that needs to be done is if representatives from the Natural Wards sit on a larger constituent assembly, at the borough, town or county level. Here their voting power must be governed to keep it relative to the number of electors. This is not hard to do, and should certainly not distort the most important boundaries of the Natural Ward to fit a convenient official model. 

This is all basic Localist stuff, but until the government grasps it, and resources the necessary local government changes required to reflect it, we'll get nowhere fast.   

What Local wants from Central; contracts

There is one function that central government can perform for the benefit of all, one function that will ease and oil the transition from central to local, from functions carried out by the highest level to the lowest. And it's doing it already, but hogging the benefits to itself. That function is the letting of framework procurement contracts. 

If you're a local voluntary group after a new minibus, you may get quotes from local dealers who will offer perhaps 2% - 3% discount from list price, yet the government has framework contracts in place that could allow you 15% - 17% off list price if only you could use the contract. The government's Buying Solutions (incredibly just one of several central government purchasing bodies) boasts that it's contracted the price of 500,000 products and services through a network of 1,500 suppliers, including IT equipment and software, catering equipment, cleaning and janitorial supplies, lawyers, office supplies and equipment, accountants, surveyors and valuers, lamps and protective clothing. Yet local groups who are being invited to run local services can't use them. 

This is such an obvious home-goal I can't understand why the government hasn't dealt with it. It's the perfect eBay / Amazon model with minimal staff and costs at the centre, the drudge of setting up credit accounts, ordering, delivery, invoicing and payment all devolved to the suppliers and users. The greater the aggregate buying-power, the greater the discounts. 

There are of course a couple of arguments against, neither of them good ones. First is the local minibus dealer, a stalwart of the local Tory party, who makes a good profit from selling minibuses on a local 'who you know' basis and can't compete with a regional fleet supplier offering 16% off list. Then there's the risk that the fake charities that are little more than tax-efficient private firms will distort the market even further by enjoying bulk purchase prices that their truly commercial rivals can't access. As for the first, tough, sorry. For the second, it's high time Cameron appointed a new set of charity commissioners with a remit to 'comb out' all the fake charities from the register. 

Localism is about choice - and that means taxes

Cameron's Localism Lite™ has run into trouble long before I thought it would. His attempt to short-cut the necessary process, which must involve both the devolution of formal democratic structures to their lowest level and with them tax-levying powers, has left the initiative isolated and perceived as merely central government cutting local services. With the devolution of formal democratic structures to the level of the parish or ward, together with tax-setting powers for property taxes and the responsibility for environmental and cultural services, and together with the devolution of VAT receipts and VAT rate-setting to the level of the existing county or metropolitan borough with responsibility for schools, hospitals and libraries, the initiative could have been so different. It would be local electors, not central government, who make decisions on local services; it's one thing complaining about 'the government' shutting your town library, it's quite another to decide not to raise local VAT by 3% to pay to keep it open. 

For Localism to work, local people need to own tax and spend decisions. The devolution of real power also makes tax and spend on local services a matter for local parties, not Westminster. The news media will find little to report; "On the news tonight, Chillington Parish Council is raising parking charges by 60%" isn't going to make the ten o'clock bulletin. By the same token, there must be real financial incentive for local communities to take back the functions assumed by the central State - it's not enough to step into the breach to preserve local services in return for a vague thanks for keeping the Treasury's budgets in line, there must be a real, immediate and worthwhile financial return in terms of lower taxes locally. Or a willingness to pay higher taxes locally. 

All the fripperies of Localism - the Big Society Bank, the transition fund and all the rest - just won't work without a real devolution of democratic power and tax power. The reform of local government, the creation of a new tier of democratic structures at the level of the commune, may be a difficult and demanding change that will be hungry of resources, but without it Localism is going nowhere.       

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Beyond the Big Society

Will Hutton in today's Observer has spotted a pertinent analysis revealed in Tyler Cowen's new 'book'; that our post-war wealth is the result of industrialising the production of inventions made between 1910 and 1940. Economies and efficiencies are made continually by lowering factor costs and by micro-technological changes in manufacturing technique. Whilst research and scholarship has expanded our understanding of the tiniest and most complex details, we're in a spiral of diminishing returns. Big Pharma research produces lower and lower returns, the web hasn't created replacement jobs (he cites Google, Apple, Microsoft, eBay and Amazon as between them having created fewer than 100,000 direct jobs in the US). However, Hutton's own commentary on what this all means is flawed - he still favours the State over the markets, wilfully ignoring the essential reality that this period of human stagnation comes at the end of a phenomenal post war period of growth for Statism. 

Alvin Toffler (remember him?) covers the same analytical ground in Revolutionary Wealth; the reason Google, Amazon, Apple et al employ so few direct staff is that they've outsourced all the time and labour intensive transactional and commissioning tasks to us, the consumers. I'd add IKEA and MFI as obvious local supplements to the list. As knowledge has grown exponentially, so the technologies have made it more widely and instantly available than ever before - 'trade secrets' are a thing of the past. Toffler terms this 'prosuming', a combination of producing and consuming. 

At this point I need to guard against a certain smugness, for I'm a consummate prosumer. I have tools and knowledge and physical ability. I can restore battered sad old furniture to add 1,000% to its value at a cost of less than 100% of its purchase price as long as I don't cost my labour. If I want to use an absolutely specific type of bath salt I can make it. I can transform the cheapest and least popular cuts of meat into exquisite meals. I can cook, sew, decorate, grow, join, plumb, tile, brew, bake, wire, craft and create, make all my own picture frames, fix engines and computers and anything I can't make or adapt I can procure on the best possible terms because I can use the internet effectively. It may not be worth my while - yet - to make my own pins, but the benefits of the Division of Labour established by Adam Smith at the start of the industrial nation is now everywhere in reverse. And Toffler is right in one thing; no government, no State, can capture by economic statistics the 'value added' by prosuming. It's a choice, of course; a trade-off between time spent and value gained. And its impact is grossly underestimated. 

Between Hutton and Toffler neither have quite got it, but I can't offer a pathway to the future either. It's not just a renaissance in 'invention' as Hutton would have it, though this may be part of it, nor Tofflers 'new wealth system' that will advantage the US, though this is also part of it. Just as when we could individually no longer afford domestic servants to clean and cook for us and had to learn to do so ourselves, so now collectively with policing, social care and a whole panoply of public services. This on the face of it is the Big Society. But beyond this we're into developing a whole new social system, one in which we will radically re-value time. How we value time, our own and that of others, will be the key. 

Some inverts are nonces. Get over it.

In my naif undergrad days, a favoured response by an experienced old tutor to some radical declaration of mine was always 'define your terms'. So here goes. Paedophiles are adults of either sex who are sexually attracted to children, and when I say children I mean those in the infants and juniors type category. Paederasts, such as Jonathan King, are specifically adult men who are attracted to post-pubescent boys. I'm not aware of a specific term for deviant adult males who are attracted to post-pubescent girls (magazine editors? TV producers? comic geniuses?) but there really ought to be one. However, in the argot of South London, all of them are simply 'nonces'.

The invert lobby some years ago waged a campaign against HIV being termed the 'gay plague', pointing out that heterosexual transmission was indeed possible. They were correct. The at-risk group for HIV in the UK is sexually irresponsible adults, amongst whom inverts and Africans make up a disproportionate part. Then came the campaign against assuming that all inverts were nonces. Again, correct. Most inverts are sexually attracted to other adult males. But most isn't all.

The Home Office published a report entitled 'Sex Offending Against Children: Understanding the Risk' that stated  "Bradford et al (1988) suggested reasonably that approximately 20 to 33 per cent of child sexual abuse is homosexual in nature". A Dr Raabe, a Manchester GP, also authored an academic paper that suggested that 25% of child sexual abuse was homosexual in nature. For this, he's just been sacked from a drugs advisory body by, er, the Home Office.

A Home Office spokesperson told the Indie yesterday:

"Dr Raabe's failure to disclose a controversial report which, among other things, links homosexuality to paedophilia raises concerns over his credibility to provide balanced advice on drug misuse issues and impacts on the smooth running of the ACMD."

You couldn't make it up. Look, some inverts are nonces. Fact. Get over it. 

Halal meat is dirty

Dirty, unclean, impure and taboo for Christians, tainted with the heathen superstitions of benighted savages. I would rather saw off my tongue with a bread-knife than knowingly eat Halal meat.

Um, unless it's in a kebab, of course. When by definition one is drunk and it doesn't count.