Thursday, 26 November 2015

Pricing most people out of ordinary life

For all his undoubted cleverness, and ability to pull the unexpected out of his red box, George Osborne's autumn statement made frustrating listening.

More support for 'local growth' but at the same time, more money wasted on roads to make sure the new small businesses and the new enterprise zones are overwhelmed by unrestricted monopoly power in the big centres.

More stamp duty on buy-to-let and second homes, which will undoubtedly reduce prices, but more help for first time buyers which will undoubtedly increase them - and especially in London. ]

In fact, the sheer cussed blindness about house prices is franking astonishing.  Does the Treasury really believe all the rhetoric about why house prices rise? Do they not understand that, if you make houses easier to afford, you will simply push prices higher?

As for 'affordable home's - it is a fantasy to suggest that just providing  20 per cent off the price will make homes any more affordable. Nor will building more, for the reasons I set out recently.

But there are two major frustrations about this autumn statement. The first is the blizzard of pork barrel giveaways to specific places, and funds for potholes, which involves us in another Westminster fantasy: that all good things, all decisions  all wisdom comes from central government - and they are received by grateful and passive localities with a cheer and a wave.

This is the British disease and one of the reasons why change is so slow in this country. Why on earth is Whitehall constructing a fund to fill potholes, for goodness sake?

The other frustration is the growing suspicion that ordinary life is no longer possible, or affordable, without major government intervention.  The idea that people earning over £80,000 will require help with buying a home carries within it a hopeless dependency - not just a culture of doing things for their symbolic value, but a worrying look into the future of complete dependence for the majority of people.

This obsessive idea that prices represent some kind of underlying reality has priced ordinary people out of ordinary life. It isn't conservatism and it certainly isn't sustainable.

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Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Towards a whole new public service, but an informal one

This may at first sight to be an obscure topic for a blog post. I might not choose the relationship between time banks and the Department for Work and Pensions as a topic if I really wanted to boost the readership of this blog. But it may turn out to be an issue that really goes to the heart of the future of  public services.

In some ways, of course, the DWP decision to direct claimants to their local time bank isn't anything new. Since 2000, the government has acknowledged that people can take part in time banking while they are on benefits.

But BIS commissioned an independent review last year on the sharing economy, and one of its recommendations was that DWP should encourage claimants to take part in mutual support through time banks.

It is an interesting area, and growing fast through Europe - see my report for the European Commission on the growth of time banking. There are also developments of time banking through Slivers of Time and through Spice.

In the end the statement was pretty non-committal. It wasn't exactly encouragement, but it was certainly a new openness to claimants breaking out of their iron bureaucratic cage and embracing mutual support.

But this is where it gets to be difficult.  I notice that the statement is only available on the Timebanking UK website, as if the government were dimly aware of the implications too.

What if more than ten people pop straight along from their nearest Job Centre to each of the nation's 300 or so pieces of time banking infrastructure? They might be able to cope, but that's about all.  Any more than that and they would be overwhelmed.

So you have to ask - is this a gimmick? And if it isn't a gimmick, and the DWP really believe that mutual support will help their claimants - and it certainly could - then how can they make it possible to spread the idea more widely?

And before you answer 'pay for it', just think about the implications. If the DWP pays for some of the nation's mutual support infrastructure - its co-production infrastructure or its preventative infrastructure - then they will own it. It will come under their minute control and will cease to have the informal flavour that makes it so successful.

In any case, most public services need some link to the new preventative infrastructure too, and it is not in the interests of the Department of Health, for example, for these networks to be under any kind of DWP control.

This is an obvious example of where the Cabinet Office ought to intervene - to bring all Whitehall's departments of state around the table to think about how, together, they might shape this new mutually supportive, preventative infrastructure.

Should it be created by insisting that every public service contractor pays into it? Or shows that they are taking steps to reduce demand during the lifetime of the contract? Or shows how they will involve service users as equal partners in the delivery of services?

I don't know, but I do know this. A new, semi-formal infrastructure that involves service users to use their experience and human skills to support each other, especially when people come out of professional oversight, is absolutely necessary. And absolutely inevitable.

It will include not just time banking but local area co-ordinators, health champions, friends of hospitals and many other related networks - and it will underpin the sustainability of professional effort.

But it won't just happen by itself. And it certainly won't happen when one government department goes it alone, because they don't understand the wider significance of what is going on.

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Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Will the real Alan Turing please stand up?

I have finally got round to watching The Imitation Game, and the acting is ferocious. Benedict Cumberbatch is completely convincing as Alan Turing and the whole business was extremely moving.

I felt I had to watch it last night - having so far avoided doing so - because today I am taking part in the London History Festival and sharing a stage with Sinclair McKay to talk about Turing and Bletchley. I was afraid somebody would ask me about the film.

I've been writing about Turing and Enigma for nearly two years now and I didn't want the film to get in the way. But I needn't have worried. The film was so detached from what really happened that it might have been about other events, based loosely around the characters involved.

I always find dramatisations of naval history frustrating, because there usually includes lots of very familiar clips that I know perfectly well refer to another time or place, and certainly another ship. Why was the burning of the Graf Spee included in a clip on the later stages of the Battle of the Atlantic, for example?  Why did we get so many mock-ups of what appeared to be an American battleship?

But you have to expect this kind of thing,  What The Imitation Game does is to squeeze the story of cracking naval Enigma into a format where the cast can be extremely limited, and as if the entire war was won by one individual. This is also frustrating, but it gets the gist across.

Where the film goes wrong is over the portrayal of Turing himself. My impression is that he was considerably more gregarious, popular and self-assured than he was portrayed here. I feel vindicated in this partly by his nephew 's new book The Prof and partly because he was sent to represent the British cryptographers to the USA after they came into the war, and I can't believe he would ever have been entrusted with such a mission if he was unable to handle himself in social situations.

But, then, I'm assured by one of my neighbours, whose father-in-law was in the room at the time, that Turing actually ended his engagement with Joan over the phone.  So who knows.

Either way, we are talking about Turing tonight, so do come along.  It is at Kensington Central Library at 7pm (24 Nov). Hope to see you there.

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Monday, 23 November 2015

Powerless against the screen pushers

I am having one of those moments of disaffection which is the real experience of English middle class life these days.

What do I spend more time doing than anything else, as a parent of pre-teenage children? I'll tell you. I am policing their screen time.  It takes huge energy and angst and negotiating skills. It prevents me from being much more productive. I resent it.

If it weren't for me on some days, when I'm looking after them by myself, they would spend the whole time being educated by Google and whoever happens to use their facilities.

They would be off laughing all night at the pre-teen humour of some of the Youtube stars - Yogscast spring to mind: people from Bristol who swear rather more than they would if they realised most of their viewers were eleven, and who think blowing things up is the apogee of humour.

They would be being abused online by their classmates, and - if we make the mistake of reporting the abuse to Youtube, one of those vacant corporations where nobody is at home - we will receive back the empty, helpless silence we have come to expect.

I suppose you could imagine a couple of answers to this.  First, perhaps I am wrong and they should plug into the virtual world as much as they like, on the grounds that it improves hand eye co-ordination or something or other.

Second, a little more seriously, I should set more elastic limits because they need computer skills if they are going to achieve the school system's highest ambitions for them - and become either a scholar or a machine minder (no other alternative seems to be encouraged).

Third, why should my children be different? How dare I cut them off from what is laughingly called kid's culture, as mediated by Murdoch and his equivalents.

You only have to write those out to see they have flaws. Don't they - or am I wrong? It is true that I was probably glued to screens more intently than they were at the same age, but with more control over what I am seeing.

But what really annoys me about this is that we kind of assume - as middle class types - that the government is at least vaguely on our side, shares our values, wants to support us to bring up our children in the best way that we can.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The government is firmly on the side of the screen pushers. The school system is dedicated to buying and pushing more Apple iPads - Apple itself acknowledges that their profits for iPads in 2013 were boosted by the UK school system.

Whitehall isn't interesting in my family life, They want my children to be entirely open to whatever rubbish sells more schlock.

I wrote in my book Broke last year that UK governments had long since turned their back on genuine middle class values.  I don't think I understood the half of it.

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Friday, 20 November 2015

Thank you, crowdfunders - I will do you proud!

Before Enigma: The Room 40 codebreakers of the First World WarI haven’t crowdfunded a book before. It has its embarrassing elements, asking friends and family for money for example – something I try hard not to do in normal circumstances.

But I am now down to the last 48 hours of the project to crowdfund a short ebook about the Room 40 naval codebreakers in the First World War, and the fascinating lessons they provided for Turing in the Second. It is called Before Enigma. And I've found it quite exhilarating.

There is, in fact, still time to contribute, should you be so moved. And although we may not finally reach the publisher’s target, we are now approaching enough to kickstart the project.

So here are three final reasons why this particular book needs to be written:

  • It will provide a way of understanding Turing and the Enigma codebreakers a generation later, because those who managed him cut their teeth in Room 40.
  • It will tell the fascinating story of the war at sea – rather ignored by the BBC these days – through the eyes of the peculiar bunch of brilliant amateurs collected together by the Admiralty to crack codes from 1914 onwards.
  • It will allow me to tell the tale which fascinates me most – the emergence of the twentieth century phenomenon: the huge hierarchical corporation (in this case, the fleet) and how the mavericks learned the hard way how it might be provided with the information it needed to be effective. It is a lesson we keep forgetting, even in the twenty-first century.

So if you are among those who have helped fund this project, I am really ever so grateful. There is still time to contribute if you still want to, but not much time. Either way, I will do you proud...

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Thursday, 19 November 2015

A Liberal economic breakthrough. It’s about time.

There may not be any obvious traction that the Lib Dems are bringing to themselves at the moment, no obvious attention from the media or speaking for the nation. But there are shoots emerging.

One of these was the speech on economics that Tim Farron made today at IPPR in London. The most important element of this story is the mere fact that Farron chose economics for his first keynote speech.

But it was also important the way he framed it – the idea of Liberals as the party of challenge, of enterprise and entrepreneurs, as the "party of Small Business, the party of wealth creators, the insurgents, the entrepreneurs".

“The Liberal spirit is the entrepreneurial spirit and entrepreneurs are natural Liberals,” he said. Quite so.

It is important because it is both positive and forward-looking, and rooted in traditional Liberalism – and, because the party has been timid about economics in recent decades, this is for me something of a breakthrough.

He also understood the implications of this stance for the banks. It is indeed extraordinary that the government is not breaking up the failed brontosaur RBS to turn it into an effective regional lending infrastructure – that the enterprise economy so badly needs.

By coincidence, the Welsh Lib Dems have launched an excellent paper on how to rebuild diverse high streets – and Wales has been more wedded to the failed out of town retailing regeneration ‘solution’ than almost anywhere else in the UK.

So this is rather a good day, as far as I’m concerned. It is a long-awaited glimpse of a different approach to economics, understanding for the first time in half a century that the main economic purpose of Liberals is to promote diversity and fight monopoly.

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Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Time for a bit of economic archaeology

I have always been fascinated by those social movements that rise and fall, leave their mark permanently, and are then forgotten. I have had a soft spot for the 1920s movement Kibbo Kift as a result.

So imagine my surprise when I opened my Guardian last week and found a big feature about them, and their charismatic leader John Hargrave. I dropped everything and read through it immediately.

There are three reasons why I’m especially interested in this peculiar mixture of Scouting, Egyptology, outdoor ritual and back to the land.

First, because it was an early breakaway from the Boy Scouts (Hargrave had been a frustrated head of camping).

Second, because of their amazing sense of design. The logos look modern ever now, with just a hint of Art Deco about them.

Third, because Hargrave changed his mind – transforming Kibbo Kift overnight in 1929 into the militaristic Greenshirts, much more numerous than the Blackshirts, dedicated to changing the money system to prevent banks from creating money, in the way that they do now.

The article did not communicate all of this (this isn’t a criticism). But it is hard to quite recreate what Hargrave meant because, as D. H. Lawrence used to say, he spoke in a kind of sloganising gobbledegook.

It is also, in my book, not exactly ‘back to the land’, which is about growing things. Hargrave was more part of the conservation movement. He wasn’t interested in crops, just – in that rather Germanic, Romantic way – that it was important to be outside.

Being outside is important, but not as a relief from modern, urban life, it seems to me – but as a way of reforming it.

Why am I writing this? Because it seems to me extraordinary that we allow ourselves to forget these movements, because they carry within them important truths which have to be reinvented all over again by the next generation. Especially, it seems to me, in economics.

I hereby dedicate myself to the task of economic archaeology – the exhuming of forgotten innovations which our economics establishment was just too boneheaded to notice or discuss at the time.

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