Friday, 24 November 2017

The real reason house prices keep going up (it isn't what they say)

This post first popped up on the Radix blog...

The author Radical Middle, the campaigner Mark Satin, used the metaphor of roads and myopia to explain what he meant by the title. For Satin, it isn’t about a view from the right hand side of the road, or the left hand side. It is, he said, “a view of the whole road”.

That fearless clearsightedness suggests an end to the deliberate selection of evidence, which should perhaps be a central purpose of the radical centre project. Which might explain why I feel so enraged by the faulty assumptions behind the latest UK budget.

Let’s leave on one side for a moment how nurses improve their ‘productivity’, or why transport infrastructure should help the suburban poor in our cities (the Newcastle metro isn’t used to speed the city’s poorest to jobs in the car factories, the London overground or underground don’t seem to help the poor of Barking and Dagenham).

Just for now, let’s examine the big lie that everyone in the establishment seems to repeat – that high house prices are caused by too few homes. It can’t help, of course, but where is the evidence that it is the central cause? On the contrary, a glance at the graph of inexorable house price inflation shows the biggest leaps have all been when more mortgage money gets pumped in – when Geoffrey Howe abolished exchange controls in 1979, when Nigel Lawson ended MIRAS in 1987, when Gordon Brown encouraged buy-to-let mortgages early this century.

It is worrying that even the Treasury seems unable to recognise a classic case of too much money chasing too few goods. If we have to satisfy the building demands of every Far Eastern investor before we see any benefits from building more, then you can’t help feeling there may be a quicker way to tackle this urgent problem.

There are whole new estates along the Thames with no lights on, because they are owned by Singapore investors – whose money has fuelled another ratchet in the inflation of roofs over our heads in the UK. It is this discomfort which, I assume, has caused the official myopia.

I wrote about this first in my book Broke, which now seems more prescient for comfort. It was put coherently by the Stumbling and Mumbling blog last month.

It matters partly because, if we build more without tackling the fundamental problem, they ill just slip further out of reach of most of us. It also matters because the solutions in the budget – abolishing stamp duty for first time buyers – will push up price too. It is a classic Treasury fudge, trading off long-term pointlessness against a few positive headlines today.

They also matter politically. Because the middle classes will not sit back apathetically to watch their children priced out of the housing and rental market, unable to set up any kind of home in the neighbourhoods they were brought up in. These are dangerous times and, thanks to the myopia of the budget, getting more dangerous.

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Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Dear blockchain, here are your ancestors...

Vinay Gupta is a fascinating man, graduating from developing simple yurts to support refugees anywhere to working out the deeper implications of bitcoin, blockchain technologies and climate change. I was keen to meet him, and I did.

In fact, I met him at an amazing annual event hosted in Brighton called the Meaning conference, packed full of thirty- and forty-something entrepreneurs who are optimistic that enterprise and imagination – social and profitable – can develop solutions to the world’s problems.

We live in undeniably pessimistic times, so it does everyone good to be around optimists. And Gupta’s presentation was optimistic. He believed that blockchain, the technology behind bitcoin, can “solve the problems the free market is unable to solve” – including the inefficiencies that creep in with dominance by big corporates.

“Bitcoin and its associated world is now worth $200bn, printed by a collection of nerds,” he said (there has been a bit of a downturn since he spoke). “You stare at it and you keep staring at it and it doesn’t get any more sensible, and it doesn’t go away.”

I talked to him afterwards and he confirmed what I feel about the blockchain phenomenon. That, although blockchain is new, the idea of new kinds of currencies or tokens – some speculative, some practical – is not new. But few in the new wave know the story of what happened before, via negative interest currencies, stamp scrip, deli dollars, Ithaca hours, berkshares, the Club de Truque, the community banks of Brazil, the Bristol pound, LETS, green dollars, beenz, ipoints, trade pounds, time credits, e-gold, and all the rest of them.

This is an important body of knowledge. I therefore commit myself to bringing together the old world of complementary currencies with the new world of blockchain – and to see what happens as a result.

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Wednesday, 15 November 2017

The choice before the Brexiteers: open society or Chinese-style capitalism?

This blog first aired itself on the Radix blog site...

It’s a funny thing, but Michael Gove’s defence of Boris Johnson, following his damaging confusion about a British woman detained on holiday in Iran, gave me a real shiver of apprehension.

It wasn’t just the lazy way Gove was apparently prepared to undermine the slim chances Nazanin Ratcliffe has for release – by implying there was some doubt about why she was in Iran (visiting her parents), when there is none. Nor was it simply the way the Brexit establishment shoves aside vulnerable people if it helps their political chances. No, it was also something to do with the philosophy of Karl Popper.

Popper, as I may have mentioned before, seems to me to be the key to any kind of radical centre ground in politics. It was Popper who explained the sheer inefficiency of dictatorship, writing in England as a refugee from the Nazis.

Popper came up with an interim answer to the problem David Hume had set two centuries before. You can’t prove that all swans are white no matter how many white swans you see. But you can disprove it – if you see a black swan.

Popper’s philosophy of science implied that societies, governments, bureaucracies and companies need to make this falsification easier. Because they work best when the beliefs and maxims of those at the top can be challenged and disproved by those below. That’s how we learn. Closed systems discourage learning – openness encourages it. That’s why Popper said that open societies are the one guarantee of good and effective government.

It means that people on the front line will always know better about their own lives or their own work than those at the top. The more open you are to them, the flatter the hierarchy, the more the challenging information is available to move forward.

Popper’s open society idea is simultaneously the only possible justification for Brexit and an explanation for why the highly centralised structure of the UK is not designed for a post-Brexit world. The Brexit government represents the very opposite of the central idea of the Brexiteers, a kind of languid sense of entitlement to absolute power.

So here is why Gove and Johnson’s behaviour matters. Because there are two models of market-orientated trade – the western and the Chinese. For a long time, we assumed that Chinese capitalism would be vulnerable because of the open society factor – they would not learn as fast as we do. For a long time, liberals assumed that democracy and open markets necessarily belonged together.

But now, with Chinese-style authoritarian capitalism – which tends towards enslaving their own people – on the march, we have to ask which way the Brexiteers in government intend to jump. Will they go with Popper’s open society as the basis of a learning market, or will they opt for authoritarian capitalism – which is happy to lazily sacrifice individuals and consumers just so they can prove themselves right?

Will individual rights matter in Brexit Britain – or are we to be sacrificed on the altar of Gove’s and Johnson’s quest for some kind of justification?

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Monday, 6 November 2017

A century on from the Cottingley fairies...

When I wrote my first novel, Leaves the World to Darkness, I had been determined to write a novel for grown-ups about fairies. A serious subject, after all.

The consternation and confusion the whole idea seemed to cause was irritating and finally rather amusing. One fiction editor, interested in publishing the book, asked me if I was prepared to excise the fairies out of the plot – the whole purpose of the story.

I nearly lost one ghostwriting job because the subject (actually the subject’s father-in-law) saw I had written a book about fairies, and they weren’t his cup of tea. I never brought it up when I was working in the Cabinet Office. Perhaps that was just as well.

Fairies play such a central role in English and Celtic culture, so it seems a pity that they have been reserved for children. And the moment this may have happened may have been exactly a century ago this year when two little girls from Cottingley in Yorkshire claimed to have take photographs of them.

What happened next, the furore of the world media and the involvement of Arthur Conan Doyle and the Theosophists, has kept the incident before us for a century. Even then, the recantation by the girls overshadowed the fact that the youngest of the two maintained to her death that one of the photos was genuine. I’m not sure that the serious study of fairy belief has ever recovered.

So the work of Simon Young and the reformed Fairy Investigation Society is extremely worthwhile, and their Facebook page and their surveys about people’s experience of fairies are going very well – and their last newsletter (I can’t find a link to this) was devoted to Cottingley.

In the meantime, there is Hazel Gaynor’s new novel The Cottingley Secret. There is also my own Leaves the World to Darkness, in paperback published by the Real Press or on Kindle as published by Endeavour.

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Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Why The Death of Stalin seems worryingly familiar

This post first appeared on the Radix website.

We had what my youngest son used to call an ‘insect day’ at my eldest son’s school on Monday, so we spent the afternoon watching The Death of Stalin, the new Armando Iannucci film.

It is rather fabulous, with a extraordinary performances by the main cast as Khruschev, Beria, Molotov and the rest of the gang. The film could equally have carried the title ‘The Death of Beria’, who is played magnificently by Simon Russell Beale.

I found myself haunted by the experience, by its black humour and what Hannah Arendt called the ‘banality of evil’, but also perhaps wondering why aspects of it seemed so familiar.

I have come to the conclusion that this was only partly because the same style of tyrannical wrestling with reality was the subject also of Iannucci’s TV series about UK politics, In the Thick of It, with the fearsome Malcolm Tucker in the proto-Beria role.

It was also because of the phenomenon, identified by the French philosopher Jacques Ellul, that – if you fight someone – you get like them. So by fighting the Cold War, by engaging in eyeball to eyeball confrontation with the Soviet Union for so many decades, we began to imbibe some of their thinking.

I mean partly the way we conduct our politics, like great separate Kremlin style soap operas, with Westminster operating with a whiff of the same centralised, struggling incompetence, without talent or trustworthy institutions. Of course, our professions have not been sent to the gulags, but most institutions regarded as threatening the establishment’s right to rule have still been gutted.

Also perhaps the technocratic, not to say Stalin-esque, way we approach the problem of services, requiring people to stay still and passive to make them easier to process and subjecting the professions to detailed thought control.

There are also the extraordinary stories now emerging from the undercover work by Channel 4 on the front lines of universal credit (“I got brownie points for cruelty,” said one Jobcentre advisor).

It is a disturbing but undeniable aspect of human nature that if lazy cruelty is ever allowed, by those put in charge of a class of being, with tacit permission to behave as they want, then they will be tyrannical. From Huntingdon Life Sciences to Universal Credit, via Beria’s secret NKVD, the rule still seems to apply.

But the ghost of Stalin’s Russia is alive and well, perhaps even more so, in the corporate world – with their great marble porticos, their manipulation of reality (Tesco’s auditing, VW’s emissions tests) and their tyrannical treatment of staff (take Amazon for example). Or the sudden disappearances, the airbrushings out of corporate photos. Or the dismissal of Barry Lynn and his team from the New America Foundation for having the temerity to criticise Google, the great monopolists.

There are also parallels with the great lies the establishment tells itself – like the delusion that there are bank managers, individual doctors, youth services, probation officers, supportive job centres, to help and support us through life. There are not, or not any more.

The question is whether these parallels were in Iannucci’s mind when he gave us this vision of the inner circle of the Soviet Union, squabbling and lurching from one great blunder to the next. The stakes were higher of course, for them personally, but perhaps not for the rest of us.

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Monday, 30 October 2017

The energy and experience of small-scale publishing

Regular readers of this blog, should there be any, will know that I also run a small - not to say micro - publishing enterprise called The Real Press. Well, I've learned a little in recent weeks about the sheer energy in small publishing. But first, have a read of this...

Thysse message is o’er long. It doth comprise two main parts, a briefe note from one of mie oarsmenne on the findinge of the Spaniartt’s papers and the translat’d papers themselffes. These are in onlie part sensible order as the oarsman had yet to right them and the manne that translat’d the Spanish writinge simplye retold the tale in the order receiv’d. The originale paperes have disapper’d thysse xi daie of September 1589. They were soak’d butte legible and found bound at the stern of a small craft adrift in the baie call’d Coumenole.
So begins the new novel we have just published, by Craig Newnes. You may notice that at least half the novel is written in a language which has been invented by the author so successfully, and authentically, that we sink into the 1580s as if we had never gone away. Craig is also an eminent psychologist, and the book is as much about human relationships and love, erotic and otherwise, as it is about the Armada. But the language this adds depth to the whole experience.

We wanted to publish Tearagh’t because of this sense of another reality, moving under the surface – and because believing you are in another moment of history is a rare experience. Making it possible is one of those underlying purposes that the Real Press was set up to achieve. Personally, I think Tearagh’t succeeds triumphantly – so let me know what you think…

But the real lesson to me of the experience of publishing Craig’s book was that – perhaps for the first time – I became fully aware of the possibilities and importance of small publishing. The manuscript for Tearagh’t has sat on the desk of a New York literary agent for nearly ten years. It could have been issued by the biggest and most prominent publishers in the world. But somehow they seek out the safe and the formulaic instead, and it falls to the new wave of small publishers like the Real Press to issue it. We are certainly proud to have done so.

By whether I am right or wrong about this, Tearagh’t is a brilliant read and something that lives with you long after you reach the final page. And that makes it a rarity. See what you think!

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Thursday, 26 October 2017

Will Corbyn's Labour go for central control or diversity?

This post was published today on the Radix site...

Maybe a decade and a half ago, I was a member of a committee set up by the Lib Dems to report on the party’s philosophy. It was chaired by Berwick MP Alan Beith and included no less a personage than Ralf Dahrendorf. It’s report was called It’s About Freedom. I seem to remember that the title was my idea.

We all suggested the names of modern thinkers who built the modern foundations of Liberalism. I had rather less confidence than I do now so I did not press my suggestion, which fell by the wayside, of the philosopher Karl Popper and his open society – and the idea that only a society where it is possible to challenge authority from below can learn as it needs to.

Popper’s political ideas emerged from his philosophy of science and were enshrined in his 1945 magnum opus, The Open Society and its Enemies. It is the most important justification of modern Liberalism, and also an explanation of why the totalitarians lost the Second World War and the Cold War. Because of that all-important challenge from below.

And all around me, the possibility of challenge from below is under threat. The Right never liked being challenged by the front line, but it is also under threat from the Left.

There are some obvious examples of both, whether it is the unpleasant implications of gathering the names of academics teaching about Europe, or – also in universities – the banning of some feminists who don’t toe the current line on a range of issues.

But what are we to make of the two examples, both published yesterday, of Labour councils that have signed away the rights to protest by people affected – on the issues of the mass felling of much-loved trees in Sheffield or the massive new Lendlease regeneration programme in Haringey.

In both cases, the programmes are promoted by apparently enlightened council leaders who had been much respected on the issues of inclusive growth. In both cases, also, they find themselves trapped by corporate contracts that lock them into a certain set of actions, for reasons we are not allowed to know. They are unwittingly promoting a kind of capitalism in the style of President Xi, centralised, secretive and thoroughly bad.

They also fly in the face of Popper’s open society. All the defensive leadership of Haringey and Sheffield are likely to learn is not to sign those PFI contracts again – yet they knew what they were signing.

Where is the dividing line between the all corporate Left and the Left that believes in diversity for its own sake – including diversity of opinion. Is it between New Labour and the Corbyn leadership? Or is it, more likely, a line drawn unseen within Momentum, between the old left and the new activists? Between Corbyn himself and his enthusiastic supporters?

And perhaps more urgently, why don’t we hear these issues hammered out inside the Labour Party? Because Chinese capitalism seems to me the very antithesis of Popper’s open society. It is also on the march, not just in China but also here. Tolerance and diversity work; they also need defending.

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