Thursday, 24 July 2014

The Iron Curtain

For my generation, growing up, the Cold war was a fact. There was "us": the Americans, and the Atlantic Alliance, and there were the Soviets. And there was a line through Europe that was called the Iron Curtain.

I was born in 1977. I remember the Gerontocrats of the Soviet Union dying off. Breznhev, Andropov and Chernenko. I mainly remember it in the form of a Spitting Image skit, in which a queue of elderly men on gurneys with drips in, waiting their turn to be soviet leader. I remember my Father's plan for WW3, which given we lived close to the Radio masts used to control Britain's Polaris, later, Trident fleet, was to grab the best brandy and whatever wine we thought suitable from the Cellar, go to the top of Honey Hill, and watch the fireworks.

Then, As a young teenager, I remember the Berlin Wall coming down, and feeling optimistic about the world. We, the free west, had defeated tyranny. Again. This was a time of Francis Fukuyama's "end of history", in which a liberal, free-market democracy became the universal form of Government.

Buoyed by confidence of the times, I remember devouring the news of the first Gulf war. Having seen even their top-flight kit swept aside with contemptuous ease in the desert by the United States, UK, France and others, the Soviet Union had a crisis of will. Or rather the Crisis of will that was the logic of Gorbachev's Perestroika and Glasnost came to a head with the realisation that they no longer had conventional superiority in the European theatre. They'd long lost nuclear supremacy. It was over, the Soviet Empire crumbled, and their enslaved peoples of Central and Eastern Europe clamoured to be free. They joined NATO, and they Joined the EU. Thanks to the former they were safe from the Russians, and thanks to the latter they got rich and comfortable, From Estonia to the Black sea.

Finland shares an Iron Curtain Border with Russia, as do Lithuania and Poland (with Kaliningrad), but the rest of the Iron Curtain consists of undefended and unpoliced borders. Some people think the EU is useless, but it has entrenched and enforced democratic norms in central Europe, and set people free to move about Europe for trade and cultural exchange at will. While we need NATO to provide a credible defence against a wounded Russian Bear, it will be the EU's soft power that finally brings the conflict to a close.

Kiev will be an EU city within a decade. Putin will not last much longer as Russian leader, so completely has he flown the plane into the god-damn mountain. And whoever succeeds him will need to deliver prosperity to the Russian people. And the best way for a Russian leader to deliver prosperity will be closer economic co-operation with the rich countries to the West. Perhaps Francis Fukuyama was right, but just a bit early.

Some people think the world isn't getting better. What was the Iron Curtain, is now a cycle path.



Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Bicycle Helmet Compulsion

Whatever internet libertarians think, car use has externalities, and bicycle use doesn't. So it is a reasonable goal of Government to facilitate cycling especially for short journeys. Standing in the way of more people jumping on their bikes for short journeys (anything less than a mile, is usually quicker by bicycle than by car...), is the vexed issue of safety. The superficially obvious sticking plaster solution so beloved of nanny-stater is to ignore the crap road design and poor infrastructure for cyclists; turn a blind-eye to appalling motorist behaviour and attitudes and compel cyclists to wear helmets and high-visibility clothing, as if that would make a difference.

The evidence is clear. In New Zealand and Australia, compelling people to use cycle helmets did decrease cycling related head injuries, by about the same amount they reduced total cycling miles. So given positive externalities of substituting bicycle journeys for car journeys, society is poorer. Individuals are poorer too, since the evidence is clear that (for adults at least) cycling, even without a helmet, saves more people from heart disease than it kills under the wheels of motor-vehicles. Given there is some "safety in numbers" for cyclists, reducing the number of cyclists makes any given journey more dangerous for the cyclists that remain.

Even the motorist is worse off if there are fewer cyclists:  if short car journeys are substituted with Bicycle journeys: There's less congestion, especially around school run time, There's less competition for parking spaces, and given most congestion is in the queue at the lights, journey times fall.

The solution is to make the bicycle safe, and that means separating it from all but the slowest moving traffic, and where volumes of pedestrians and/or cyclists are high enough, cyclists should be separated from pedestrian traffic too. Unfortunately most infrastructure in the UK is tailor-made to create conflict. Most roads are too narrow for cars to pass cyclists safely, so frustrating (apparent - waiting behind a cyclist on an open road almost never delays a journey, you just catch up with the car in front a little later) delays are caused by cyclists on open roads, or the motorist is tempted into a dangerous and uncomfortable close passes. Most "cycle paths" are shared-use, and pedestrians do not often keep to "their" side of the path, leading to frustration and (apparent - cyclists whizzing past pedestrians are no-where near as dangerous as it appears to the pedestrian) danger.

Many idiots think cyclists are a significant danger to pedestrians. "One nearly knocked me over..." This is risible tospottery spouted mainly by the kind of contemptible wanker who thinks UKIP isn't a bunch of contemptible wankers.

The key is to get more people cycling, creating a virtuous circle where cycling infrastructure generates cyclists. This encourages councils to build more, which encourages more cyclists and so on. Everyone gets used to having cyclists about. Everyone is better off. There's less noise, congestion, stress, and people are healthier and better-looking. Forget gastric bands, prescribe cycling on the NHS for being a disgusting land-whale.

What helmet laws do, however, is put out the message that cycling is DANGEROUS. Parents don't let their kids do something that's so dangerous the Government has made protective equipment mandatory. Instead, kids are cocooned in a steel cage, until they get their own at 17. Secondly by criminalising occasional cyclists who just want to pop to the shops and don't have a cycle helmet, they never get on their bikes and so jump on the car. It also discourages short, urban journeys.

The reality is simple. Plastic hats aren't much cop in a serious collision. In any given crash, a Bicycle helmet helps in around 16% of cases (more in children, who have more low-speed, sideways tumbles, for which the design of cycle helmets is optimised. Because of the very specific tests helmets are subjet to, their benefit is greater at low speeds, and especially off road. But there is a flip-side: it is probable that bicycle helmets increase the likelihood of getting into a crash - both the motorist and cyclist engage in risk-compensating behaviour. Cyclists take more risks and go faster, motorists pass closer to helmeted cyclists. Even the fact that the helmets are bulky increases the risk of a collision.

The more upright the bike, the less you need a helmet. The sportier and faster your bike, and the rougher the terrain, the more you need a helmet. Think about what happens in a front wheel skid at speed at the bottom of a hill on a "dutch bike" with a basket, compared to a racing bicycle where the rider's weight is significantly borne by the hands. The latter ends up with the cyclist falling head first. The former lands on their feet.

Most of the assertions and statistics made in this post are peer reviewed, and can be found here.

In summary, There is little benefit to helmet use in urban utility cycling. In a collision with a motor-vehicle, a helmet is next-to-useless. In a crash not involving a motor vehicle helmets sometimes help. If you're likely to have the former, helmets don't matter, and the latter they might. It really should be up to the cyclist.

Helmets may help prevent injury, especially minor injury, in any given crash, but may, in some circumstances make serious crashes with motor vehicles (where helmets are not efficacious) more likely. The main effect of bicycle helmet compulsion, is fewer cyclists, an effect which dwarfs any other safety effect of such legislation. Encourage the use of cycle helmets, at least until the UK cycle infrastructure looks like the Netherlands', by all means, but don't pass a law making it compulsory. To compel helmet use is the single biggest thing a government can do to put back the cause of utility cycling.

If you want a take home you can tweet, here it is: If your bum is higher than your hands, wear a helmet, it might help in some crashes, but helmet law mainly reduces the number of cyclists.



Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Some Strikingly Weak Arguments against Cannabis Legalisation

James Snell wrote the "no" piece on this online poll. I don't know whether he's writing for pay, or whether this is actually what he believes, but the arguments are strikingly weak. What's also remarkable is that he writes for HuffPo, Left Foot Forward and so on. The political left are the authoritarians, and openly so. In the past they are always the ones who argued for liberty against the overweening, overmighty state, but now, the Gramscian march through the institutions is complete, with lefties dominating the legal profession, the quangocracy and much of the civil service, Lefties now feel comfortable advocating the state force people to behave as Fabians think they ought.

Cannabis legalisation, it seems, is the current cause célèbre for those who don’t have consequential things to advocate. Compared with other – more urgent and more important – issues the world over, making certain substances legal seems trivial and self-indulgent. However, it is not just my job here to denigrate the question itself; I am also required to actually argue against the unleashing of this dangerous and untested drug on the public at large – which I will attempt to do now.
It is not "dangerous". There is no lethal dose for THC, as there is for alcohol. Or salt. It isn't good for you, and I will come to that later, but THC isn't dangerous. Nor is it "untested". People have been smoking hemp for at least as long as they have been drinking booze.
The first statement I shall offer is one I believe to be obvious. Cannabis is dangerous, and therefore making such a dangerous thing legal would be bad. The reasoning behind this is pretty simple: the evidence for a causal link between cannabis use and irreversible mental illness is growing
No it isn't. Few studies that I can find (which aren't funded by overtly prohibitionist government organisations) conclude a causal link. Most regard schizophrenia as the main potential problem, but sufferers take all and any drugs more often and in greater volume than people who don't exhibit symptoms. Cannabis use and schitzophrenia are a co-morbidity, there's no evidence Cannabis CAUSES the condition, though it may trigger the already prone, and even the evidence for that is weak. The symptoms of schitzophrenia first manifest themselves in teenage years. Most pot smokers start.... in... oh. Andrew Wakefield was struck off for concluding cause of autism by MMR vaccine on just such spurious grounds, yet the massive violence of the law is deployed on similar logic.
and it is self-evident that legalising a drug will increase the number of people who use it,
No it isn't. With legal drugs, you can have some control over who you sell them to. With illegal drugs you can't. The drug is universally available now, despite decades of draconian enforcement against suppliers.
the frequency of its use and the total quantities concerned.
All the evidence from Amsterdam, Colorado, Uruguay and Portugal seem to suggest that Cannabis is a substitute for alcohol and the vast majority of users moderate their income. The point is anyone who wants pot right now, when it's illegal, can get it. You just go to a pub, and discretely ask about. Young male bar-staff with tattoos are usually a good bet, so I'm told.

Except of course the very ill people, who might benefit from the drug's powerful effects on appetite and chronic pain. They can't get the drug. They must live in unnecessary pain.
Legalising cannabis might not just prove to be the first nation-wide test of the gateway drug hypothesis: it might also be gateway legislation as well.
The Gateway drug hypothesis is absolute bollocks. How many people smoked pot at university? 60%, 70%? How many of those ended up smack-addled derelicts?
I dislike the terms ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ drugs, due to the fact that this sort of classification inevitably makes cannabis look like a healthy alternative to the really bad stuff: the Diet Coke of getting high – but this is a not insubstantial point. As we all ought to know by now, such illusions are simply too good to be true.
Is there an argument there? If there is I can't see it. Cannabis is, according to people without a stake in the status quo, like professor of pshycopharmacology, and former UK Government drug Czar, David Nutt regards Cannabis as significantly less harmful than alcohol.
Another irritating thing about the campaign to have this particular substance accepted by the statute books is the self-righteousness.
...Absolutely no "self-righteousness" from prohibitionists. No sir....
Bill Maher, in the US, declared on his show (the modestly titled Real Time with Bill Maher) that cannabis legalisation is the new civil rights struggle - after those of marriage equality and the ever-present fights against sexism, racism and the like. His audience-in-a-can duly applauded, by the way.
The US locks up millions of (mainly black) people for non-violent drug offences. Black and White teenagers are roughly equally likely to smoke pot, but Only black people are likely to suffer gaol time for doing so. To suggest (and by a lefty no less) that this isn't a civil rights issue is telling. We might not be quite as egregious in punishing people for getting high on this side of the pond, but there are still distinct racial differences in the likelihood of incarceration for drug offences. It is a civil rights issue.
To me, this remark is not only stupid: it also represents a hideous degradation of the aforementioned: the real civil rights issues.
I think I've demonstrated why it doesn't....
A statement such as this demonstrates the rottenness at the heart of the pro-legalisation lobby: a hedonistic bunch masquerading as martyrs. While there is real suffering, and real hardship, going on elsewhere – an apparently major concern for some people in the West is the ability to make use of recreational poisons without fear of the police getting involved. It is a parochial concern, at best. At worst, it is a deliberate desire for legalisation-endorsed selfishness.
What a vicious, bigoted, small-minded argument, which pre-supposes the state's right to legislate behaviour which harms no-one else, and may even be a substitute for less harmful "poisons" like alcohol. Why is getting high on pot any more "selfish" than getting pissed on wine or beer? Why allow one, and not the other.
To sum up then; Cannabis use is being increasingly demonstrated to be harmful.
No it isn't
The harm it causes is not insignificant.
Yes they are, and many of the "harms" are caused by prohibition, not the drug itself.
For that reason it ought to be banned.
Even if you accept the harm argument, it doesn't follow that it ought to be banned. The aim should be to minimise harms. If cannabis, which is widely, nay universally, available despite viciously-enforced laws against it, causes harms aside from the law-enforcement effort, then these may be better mitigated at lower cost in a situation where the drug is legally available.
I’m not defending the status quo; how we control the supply of drugs has to change (although I reject the misleading use of ‘prohibition’ to describe the current government’s drug policy), but caving in to Russell Brand or Nick Clegg’s demands for ‘reform’ will not lead to less consumption, nor to less damage. It will only create a wider potential scope for harm, and a greater amount of actual suffering.
The status quo is indefensible. Not one single argument used in the rest of that summing up stands up to any scrutiny at all. The habit of prohibition is so ingrained in some minds that the illegality and the harm have been bound together. It is, or should be, clear to any graduate who smoked pot at university that "harm" from cannabis use is rare, and concentrated in people already prone to mental health issues, who often tend to be multiple substance abusers. Is cannabis a cause or a symptom to these people? Most harm is caused, not by the drug, but by prohibition.

In any case, harm is no reason to prohibit with the full violence of the law. People do things that are "harmful" but fun, from skiing to horse-riding. They take the risk of harm on board, but people derive utility from these activities. Horse-riding like smoking pot, is fun.

No increase in crime and disorder has been associated with decriminalisation or legalisation experiments. Often quite the opposite. And consider the opportunity costs of the money currently spent policing supply, and interdiction; money which could be better spent dealing with the small number of problem users. Instead of paying for policing, users could be taxed to pay for any externalities.

Finally and most obviously, James fails to deal with the potential medical uses of Marijuana. My late Grandmother had multiple sclerosis. Cannabis helped her. It appears to be excellent at mitigating chronic pain, and for cancer sufferers counteracts the appetite-suppressing effects of chemotherapy. Any stoner, jonesing for cookies would be able to attest the latter. Yet BECAUSE it cannabis is illegal, what little research is allowed into the medical uses, has focussed on separating the enjoyable from the medicinal. Does no-one else think this absurd, because to me it sums up the utter perversity of the whole damn system.



Friday, 18 July 2014

A "One-State" Solution for Israel/Palestine?

The Israel/Palestine question splits neatly along left/right lines. The rights and wrongs of this conflict are characterised by grievance-mongering from the supporters of either side. For the left, it's axiomatic that Israel is an aggressive, invasive, occupying power, and an outpost of the American Imperium, guilty of war-crimes and even genocide. For the right, the Palestinians are terrorists, who're using their own people as human shields while Israel stands as a doughty democracy floating in a sea of ignorance and tyranny.

Were I brought up in Israel, or on the West Bank, no doubt I would think differently. But it is the role of the outsider, without a dog in the fight, to try to cut through the issues and seek to understand why people act as they do, rather than counting dead babies to score cheap political points.

You'll often see the following graphic:


Which is designed to show that Israel is an aggressive, imperial coloniser. But this is a wildly dishonest picture, for a whole number of reasons. Palestine in 1946, had a bit of Jewish OWNED land in a British-run mandate territory called Palestine. The second picture, takes the whole state of Israel post independence as "Jewish" despite the significant (>20%) Arab population, who can and do own land in Israel. That's before you take into account the enormous migration into Palestine which coincided with widespread Jewish settlement of the Palestinian mandate, and the consequent economic opportunities as the desert bloomed. The Third picture is the Israel borders Israel was prepared to accept, but which Arab countries weren't, and who sought to push Israel into the sea. The Arabs have never recovered from the humiliations of having the combined might of the Arab world have its arse handed to it on a plate in 1st Arab Israeli war in 1948, 6-day war in 1967, and again in the Yom-Kippur war of 1973. The settlements in the Palestinian west bank, the wall, and so forth have been effectively annexed since in a half-century of low-level conflict, which, It has to be said, Israel is winning, hands down. It is quite remarkable just how utterly inept the Arabs have been. Because defeating Israel in war, a small nation without natural barriers, with huge internal divisions and few reliable international friends, should be a cake-walk for the hundred million or so neighbouring Arabs.

Palestinians' paramilitary organisations cannot stand up to Israeli conventional military in a toe-to-toe conventional battle. The Egyptians, Syrians, Lebanese and Jordanians show little appetite, and the Iranians know Israel's (alleged) nukes are pointed at Tehran. So they've done what the underdog has done since time-immemorial and fought an asymmetric war. This explains the human shields, the tunnels, the rockets indiscriminately thrown against southern Israel. Their strategy is to provoke an over-reaction from the Israelis, and so cut Israel off from their half-hearted support in the west, and undermine the legitimacy of the entire Israeli state. It is stupid to suggest the Palestinian use of asymmetric tactics is any less "moral" than when used by the Maquis in 1944. War is immoral, and only victory ends it. The Palestinians face a mighty military with what they believe to be the moral high ground, and with near total population buy-in to the struggle. Whatever you think of their beliefs, their beliefs are a fact.

But Israel's borders in 1967, which they were prepared to accept, as they were in 1948, were militarily indefensible. Given the demonstrated attitude of the Arab world, to treat the west-bank as a foreign, sovereign territory is to invite an invasion from there, which would easily cut Israel in half. The main road along the coast is within artillery range of the West-Bank, from which it would take a tank 30 minutes to drive. So Israel's military policy, faced with Neighbours who wish to destroy her, requires defence in depth. The West Bank will, while Israel exists, never be independent. Sure, Israel pays lip-service to a two-state solution, even as they strangle and annex the west bank bit by bit. To do anything else would, for the Israelis, be suicide. What is true of the West Bank is equally true of the Golan heights, a strategically vital buffer between Israel and Syria, which helps the Israelis combat the militants of Hizbollah in southern Lebanon. Given the current situation in Syria, I cannot see there being a return of the Golan Heights any time soon.

Most of the criticisms coming from both sides, aimed at either the Palestinians or the Israelis are spurious, or utterly neglect the context of the decisions being made. What is important is what WILL happen, not what should. I cannot see Israel allowing a viable Palestinian state for the reasons outlined above. As they see it, they tried negotiating borders in good faith, and got the 6-day war for their trouble. Israel will therefore create facts on the ground and negotiate around these. And the slow plantation of the west bank is part of that strategy. Gaza is irrelevant. Sinai has been de-militarised, and a weakend, unstable Egypt which in any case has typically been the Arab state least ill-disposed towards Israel, poses Israel no signficant threat. But the rest of the Arab world DOES pose a threat, and to secede their buffer-zones to their east and north
would be for the Israelis to invite annihilation.

Many people see the Israel Palestine situation as though it is Analogous to that in Northern Ireland, and hope that a shiny Democrat president can bang some heads together and forge a deal. This is wishful thinking. Though I deliberately used the term "plantation" for what is happening in the West Bank, it doesn't mean the solutions which worked in the province will be applicable to Palestine. Equally, charges that Israel is an Apartheid state are ludicrous, and the hope that some Mandela figure can use towering moral authority to create a solution, is likewise a pipe-dream. Moral authority is nothing next to military necessity.

If you want a historical parallel, it's one that no-one will thank me for. The crusader kingdom of the Holy Land was an expeditionary military outpost of Anglo-French feudalism in the levant, which maintained itself in the face of overwhelming odds for nearly 200 years. I Suspect the Israelis will have more luck than the Kings of Jerusalem.

In my view, the Palestinians are brave, but misguided. They have been lied to about the feasibilities of the "right of return" and they have been used for half a century as human shields by a leadership which is not primarily interested in their well being. Herded into cities that are still ludicrously referred to as "refugee camps" they are denied so much economic opportunity, they have been cruelly used by the Fatah and Hamas alike as bargaining chips. The Israeli response to provocation from Hamas has at times been cruel to the Palestinian people. But the people most often forgotten by everyone are the Arabs citizens of Israel who are the richest, freest and least oppressed Arabs in the middle east. Druze Israelis serve alongside their Jewish compatriots, and the Bedouin have a long tradition of voluntary service in the IDF.  Syrians in the Golan heights are applying for Israeli citizenship in ever-greater numbers. By far the best solution for the Israelis and Palestinians alike would be a secular democracy of Israel/Palestine, encompassing both entities within the borders of the Old Mandate, which can live at peace with its neighbours. Peace is something I don't think is possible with Palestine still in existence. It will just take some time.



On "Assisted Dying".

I don't like Euphemism.

Let's be absolutely clear what "assisted dying" is. It is asking a Doctor to kill you. Sure, a terminally ill patient, in theory, pulls the trigger, but it's the doctor that sets up the drip, inserts the catheter and explains exactly how the drugs will kill you by suppressing your respiratory function after you drift out of conciousness. The principle that doctors don't deliberately kill people is valuable, and should not be thrown away lightly.

I see no benefit in prolonging suffering. But equally, the fears that pressure will be put upon vulnerable old people to tidy themselves up, are not invalid. I think about my Late Nana who went into hospital shortly after her husband died, and who, at that time had very little interest in life, but who fought off her illnesses and went on for another quarter of a century of much-loved political incorrectness and cantankerousness. Would she have come out of hospital in the late '90s were the pain too easy to take away?

Death isn't tidy or comfortable. For some it is a blessed relief from suffering. But I suspect that is less widespread than campaigners for changes to the law believe. Life itself is precious. We shouldn't create a situation where a neat, tidy death is expected of an old person, as soon as they become "a burden". Whether this is as prevalent in the Netherlands as anti-assisted dying campaigners believe, I simply don't know. I suspect it's going to be very difficult to tease any truth from the statistics. There are families, tired of the burden of visiting an elderly relative who will be tempted to bump of granny before she spend the inheritance on care-home fees, even as the vast majority couldn't even conceive of anything so vile.

I don't think people who help terminally-ill loved ones, suffering unimaginable pain, to die with dignity should be convicted of murder. The relief of suffering by killing someone who clearly and demonstrably wants to end their lives should be a defence against murder. But I still think it should be tested in court, and taking lives shouldn't be commonplace.

Do I support the change in the law? I simply don't know. Both sides have compelling arguments. I'm not a religious man, but I don't, in general, think it's healthy to pick the time we die.



Thursday, 10 July 2014

On the Legitimacy of Strikes

My good friend Joel compares the turnouts in Strike Ballots with the turnouts in elections. Obviously, it's ridiculous to say a person "was elected by 25% of the electorate" when 50% of those who voted voted for him. Abstention is a legitimate democratic choice. The same is true of strike ballots. Perhaps 30% of members return their ballots. Of whom there might be a majority in favour of strike action. This doesn't mean the "strike is supported by 15% of the members" to take the rather dishonest Tory line. What is more reasonable is the line taken by the Tory MP on the Today programme this morning, who said in an election, everyone affected can vote, and can choose not to. However a strike affects people who do not have a vote.


The Union barons are whining that Margaret Thatcher's evil anti-union legislation, which demanded postal ballots for strike action is preventing high turnouts. Why, they ask, can't there be work-place ballot boxes? Had anyone bothered to look at why all-postal ballots are insisted upon in the legislation, they would know that it is a measure to prevent intimidation by Union organisers in the workplaces. Who would oversee those secret ballots? The Union reps, who would then be tempted to influence the result.... 

What the Union Barons want is for people to turn up to work, and vote on a strike ballot overseen by the union, so the union members can be subject to the same intimidation and thuggery that they were in the good-old days of the 1970s, which increases union power in negotiations with "the Bosses", supposedly for the benefit of the workers, but in practice so the Union barons can feel all important.

Strikes, though romanticised by the Union movement and the broader left as part of the "Workers Struggle", have actually achieved very little in the way of improvements in pay or conditions. What has driven pay and conditions is productivity and investment. What a strike does is encourage the bosses to fire people and, where possible, employ machines. The people running the machines will be paid well enough so they regard themselves as one of the bosses, and so don't strike.

The very point of a strike is to impose costs on the bosses, and broader society so that the monopolistic power of employers can curtailed, and the rewards for labour are more evenly shared. But employers don't have monopolistic power any more. Educated people especially don't need Unions, because there are plenty of people hiring. UK unemployment is low thanks, in part, to flexible Labour markets that allow people to be taken on "on risk" because getting rid of them should they turn out to be unsuitable is not too costly either for the employer or employee. The idea that "bosses" still have the power, absent any legislation or unions, to drive down pay and conditions in a "race to the bottom" is risible. The strike then, is a 19th century solution to a 21st century problem. 

The problem is not bosses beating up on the poor, downtrodden worker, but the workers in safe, secure jobs, pulling up the drawbridge behind them. Every time there's a strike, there's an incentive for workers not yet hired to never be hired, and their wages spent on a machine instead. Or in businesses folding because the labour relations are too much bother, or not being started in the first place, because even taking on one member of staff, risks bankruptcy.

If you don't like the pay and conditions in your current employment, get your lazy arse to City and Guilds, the Open University or whatever, and call your head-hunter. Yes, be prepared to move, if necessary. But if you want to enjoy the moral high-ground of "serving the public" in tax-funded (secure, well-paid relative to the private sector, and enjoying a gold-plated pension) public sector, please don't expect me to have any sympathy when, following the strike, you're outsourced to the lowest bidder. For that is the logic of strikes.

If you're on strike, feel my contempt for your spiteful, economically illiterate, selfish stupidity. 



Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The Tour De France in Essex

Yesterday, the world's biggest sporting event (live audience measured in Millions... there's nothing else that comes close) travelled through Cambridgeshire, Essex and into London through the rolling countryside that the Tour organisers call "flat" but actually sap strength with lots of short, punchy little climbs that tempt you into going anaerobic to keep your speed up and which eventually cause you to 'bonk', especially if you forget, as I did, to eat.

I set off from home just before 8, arriving in Finchingfield at about 11.15, just as the tour procession was about to go through, scattering bits of merchandising. I reckon there were 20,000 people in Finchingfield alone. Apparently Saffron Walden was packed to the rafters and the roads were lined with people. Everyone who owed a bike within 20 miles of the course had cycled to the route, and many thousands more had driven, the lanes were lined with cars for miles around. All I wanted was a coke, because I'd ridden 42 miles, I had an empty water bottle and no food, and needed some sugar. My bike and I got separated as the procession came through, and I watched helplessly as the floats squeezed past it. Thankfully, despite it being on the course, leant up against the railings, it wasn't confiscated or crushed by a frenchman driving a float cart. I recovered it, and set about finding somewhere to watch the race, Jersey pockets bulging with haribo and coca cola.

I very kind Farmer had put a trailer next to the route, and when I asked whether I could join them on it, I was asked whether I wanted a beer. Talk about landing on one's feet! A hot dog was subsequently thrust into my grateful hands and the only payment was to pass on my far-from-exhaustive knowledge of cycle-racing.

You can see my trusty steed, and the gang with whom I watched the race.

What's remarkable is the length of the procession, there are cars and motorbikes passing through for a good hour before the first cyclists arrive, in this instance Jan Barta for NetApp Endura (in blue) and Jean-Marc Bideau of the Bretangne team (in white), who were around 4 minutes ahead of the peloton at this stage.

 Once they were through, there were a couple of service cars behind them, then another wait for the Peloton. Blink and you miss them. Then there's the convoy of team vehicles, service vehicles and so forth, and a few groups of cyclists who're drafting them to get back into the peloton following a comfort break.

Once they're gone, it's time to pack up and head home, after a stop in a pub to have a bite to eat and a few beers, and watch the rest of the race. I'd like to thank Miles and Stuart a couple of Enfield CC lads who then took it upon themselves to drag me me to Bruntingfield (halfway home for me, the location of their car) far, far quicker than I could have done it myself. It's odd, pace-lining (OK, wheelsucking) on a fully-dressed touring bike. I descended quickly, but struggled as soon as the hill went uppy. I'd like to blame the weight, but also being a fat knacker didn't help! 



Once they'd departed, I faced a long, lonely 20 miles or so in the rain, completely forgetting to eat, I started bonking with about 10 miles to go. I arrived home at around 7 o'clock. I sat in the bath eating a sausage roll and haribo. All in all a great day in the saddle, and amazing atmosphere around the course. If the Tour comes back to the UK, and I am sure it will, I highly recommend going to see it.




Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Britain in the EU after Juncker

Obviously David Cameron's defeat over the Commission presidency is a disaster for him, right? Daniel Hannan wrote

The game is up. No one will now believe that the United Kingdom can deliver a substantively different deal in Europe. The FCO's ploy of doing a Harold Wilson – that is, making some piffling changes and presenting them as a significant new deal – has been discredited almost before it began. If David Cameron couldn't prevent the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission, no one will believe that he can deliver a more flexible EU, with more freedom of action for its member nations
And he may have a point. But the problem is, I've seen no-one who isn't already a Eurosceptic make the same point. Hannan thinks we should leave the EU. Nothing's changed, and he's found it easy to hammer recent events into his narrative. Obviously UKIPpers are cock-a-hoop. They've always said Cameron was "weak" and re-negotiation is a pipe-dream (comments saying this will be deleted as utterly uninteresting...). Fine. Certainly the election of the Luxembourgeois arch-federalist doesn't directly contradict this narrative.

But I suspect reality may be more complicated.

The EU was never going to give Cameron much when there is a realistic prospect of a Miliband administration in 2015, to whom nothing would need to be given and from whom much could be taken.

But assuming Cameron is still Prime Minister in June next year, having thrown him under the bus, Merkel would be forced to give way on other matters in any re-negotiation she's already admitted as such. Juncker's red-lines are likewise reasonable. He says free movement of people isn't up for negotiation, and nor will Britain have any veto over further integration in the Eurozone, but otherwise he'll listen and is open to negotiation.

The "Spitzenkandidaten" system by which the commission presidency goes to the pre-chosen head of the largest "party" in the European parliament is a power-grab by the parliament against the heads of Government. Supposedly a response to the charge that the EU is undemocratic, but actually allows the Bureaucracy power over the process, it's a form of cargo-cult democracy, aping its forms, but without any of the substance of democracy. This is why Merkel initially sided with Cameron in opposing Juncker. She too, along with most of the executive heads of Government in the EU oppose the Spitzenkandidaten system. She was effectively forced to back down by her own domestic party. If anyone's "weak" it's Merkel. Cameron stuck to his guns, not, I suspect because there's anything wrong with Mr Juncker; no other candidate is any less federalist, but because failure to do so would mean the implosion of the Tory party.

If the EU bureaucracy sought to wound Cameron by publicly humiliating him, it is they who miscalculated.

As it transpires, near Isolation in EU summits is a very comfortable place for a Tory PM to be. He returned, defeated 26-2 in a vote, to cheers of support from the entire Tory party, including the awkward squad like Peter Bone. Far from having his tail between his legs, Cameron, by raising the prospect of the UK leaving the EU, seems to have taken the wind out of UKIP's sails. It's certainly not obvious the "defeat" has hurt the PM in the polls and may have even given him a boost. A UK PM sticking two fingers up to the Eurocrats is rarely unpopular.

Whatever Cameron gets by way of re-negotiation will be painted by Daniel Hannan as "insufficient", making Britain's exit inevitable. I think he, and UKIPpers can be ignored on the subject. Again, don't bother commenting about what you think will happen in negotiation, if you think there's no chance of success, I'm not interested.

For my part, the EU needs to be reasonable. It needs to acknowledge the UK's history of independence and act accordingly. Unless there is a significant return of powers including some movement on the primacy of EU law, and the EU negotiating with respect with our elected head of Government, I will vote "out". Cameron has relied on the conditional - "if there is significant movement, then I will say 'in'" and this was taken as a clear and outrageous threat by the Eurocrats.

The UK is going to leave, unless the EU gives way, a lot, which it still might.



Friday, 20 June 2014

Bracken's Law and the NHS

Everyone knows Godwin's law:

"As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1". 
Some then suggest the law says 
"and whoever does so, has lost the argument".
In discussing healthcare, I propose this law: 
"The longer any discussion about the NHS goes on, the closer the probability a spurious invocation of the US system of healthcare gets to one, and whoever does so has lost the argument".
If you are reading this post, there is a good chance you've been sent this way, by me, during an exchange on Twitter. Before we go further, let's be clear what I actually believe on the subject. 
  1. I am in favour of free(ish) at the point of delivery services.  By Free(ish) I don't rule out the likes of Prescription charges and nominal charges to see a GP or charges for missed appointments, which seem like reasonable demand-management to me.
  2. I am in favour of Tax Payer funding of healthcare. I cannot see any practical difference between compulsory insurance and tax-payer funding. Insurance is just risk-pooling. Taxpayer funding is a bigger risk pool. 
  3. The NHS isn't very good. And it isn't very good principally because of its vastness and consequent bureaucracy, not because of its funding mechanism.
  4. More competition is necessary. And competition isn't about firms competing for government monopolies, that's mere crony capitalism, a kind of cargo-cult market that achieves nothing a market should do, and simply allows firms to profit from state monopolies. Competition means the funds following the patient, with the GP as gatekeeper and advisor to the patient.
So, if you accuse me of favouring insurance companies, or wanting companies profiteering, you're arguing against a straw man. 

In international comparisons, the NHS often comes out well. The recent study by the commonwealth fund, whose report led the Guardian to proclaim the "NHS is the World's Best Healthcare System". However that is using patient-satisfaction survey data, and measures of cost. The Guardian's own report contains the remarkable passage: 
The only serious black mark against the NHS was its poor record on keeping people alive. On a composite "healthy lives" score, which includes deaths among infants and patients who would have survived had they received timely and effective healthcare, the UK came 10th.
Basically, the commonwealth fund finds the UK healthcare system cheap. This is because private-sector, insurance-based provision is effectively banned in the UK as co-payments are not allowed. You cannot top-up your healthcare. We spend about the same as most of Europe on state healthcare, without asking people to top up through insurance, as most of Europe do. Thus we have barely adequate healthcare, but which is very inexpensive. This is why the UK scores well on "efficiency".

Ease of access and equality are based on Patient-reported surveys. And as the NHS is healthcare in the mind of most Britons, and such surveys are skewed towards patients who, ahem, survived, then I can't see such data's all that reliable. It's just a reflection of the almost mythical, religious support Britons have been brainwashed into giving what politicians STILL call "the envy of the World".

Where the data does stack up is the NHS's excellence in dealing with Chronic conditions. Here the ability to marshall resources and the bureaucracy to back it up helps. The problem in the NHS is the customer facing bit - particularly diagnosis and A&E. This is where patient choice and a functioning market with competing providers would make all the difference. Once in the machine, the NHS functions as a first-world healthcare system. Getting into the machine requires sharp elbows, luck and knowledge. Delays in getting into the machine are behind the NHS's poor record in combating cancer in particular. There is very little immediate punishment for failure, which is too easily covered up; South Stafford Hospital for example.

The sooner the NHS starts treating its patients as customers for whose business they compete, not an irritating cost to be borne by the long-suffering nurses, the sooner the NHS will warrant the plaudits lefties so desperately want to give it.

But in prioritising "efficiency" over "keeping people alive" in order to give your pre-chosen answer (a state-run system) a big gold star is a bit desperate, and nothing short of policy-based evidence making. Or as I prefer to put it, immoderately, LYING.



Thursday, 5 June 2014

On the Right of Recall

I'm not a fundamentalist on this issue. We have a right of recall, it's just we might have to wait a few years to exercise it. Neil Hamilton was booted out by the electorate in Tatton in 1997 and now pathetically plods along, embarrassing UKIP rather than the Tories. Tatton was the fourth safest Tory seat.

The problem is how to deal with politically-motivated, opportunistic attempts at recall. It's easy to see a situation where an MP in a marginal constituency could face a recall petition simply at the behest of a (and it probably would be Labour) party in order to discomfit the Government and take advantage of mid-term unpopularity.

So while I like, in principle, a right of recall, In practice, I'm comfortable with a committee of MPs as a filter for vexatious recall petitions.

I expect lots of "How can you call yourself 'Libertarian'?" rants from the perma-outraaged in the comments. Democracy doesn't mean giving the people what they want, all the time. Nor does 'freedom and the rule of law' mean pandering to every whim of the mob. Indeed quite the opposite. We have a responsive democracy in the UK. It ain't broken, so doesn't need much fixing.




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