Monthly Archives: October 2011

The Seven Billion Itch

So then, some point this week the people who guess these things reckon the planet will pass the 7 billion people mark.
The debate sparked is predictable.  On the one hand you have folk  who really, really fret. “Too many people, too few resources”.  Their rants will variously make mention of global warming, deforestation, fresh water limitations, the inefficiencies of farming meat over the energy returns from arable crop yields, you’ll often hear the words ‘peak oil’ and increasingly, though it isn’t really linked, ‘the collapse of capitalism’.  Yada, yada, yada.  Most of all you will hear the word ‘sustainability’.

On the other side you have folk who roll their eyes at this laundry list of angst.  They point out the doom mongers have been wrongly banging on about “too many people, too few resources” since even before Malthus wrote his ‘scientific proof’ we passed that tipping point 200 years ago.  Malthus was spectacularly wrong because he underestimated his fellow man’s ingenuity and innovation. Breakthroughs in agricultural techniques blew out his calculations on crop yields, just as breakthroughs in GM will blow out the calculations of his modern successors. ‘Progressives’ in the literal sense of the word, rather than the hijacked political version, believe that technological advance will continue to provide answers to the problems we encounter, and acknowledge that at the same time those solutions create whole new issues for the next generation.  Thats ok. That’s the cycle.  It was ever thus.  It’s why we no longer fret about how to spear dinner and instead fret about the weather and iPhone battery life. Yada, yada, yada.

The debate has morphed into a battle of ideas on the natural human condition between two schools of thought:  one pessimistic the other optimistic.  The trouble with these ideological battles is that they tend to polarise those who engage to the extremes.  If you’re a natural pessimist you get lumped with the loons who would have a ‘year zero’ and retreat to Amish or North Korean lifestyles yelling ‘stop’ at history and frowning at human breeding.   On the other hand if you’re an optimist, like me, and engage on the debate you quickly get lumped with the loons who would open-cast mine the pristine Antarctic if there was a quick buck in it.

Big issues need clear heads.  There are a number of reasons not to panic about the level of population.  Not least of which is that the evidence suggests once a society gets to a certain level of development, the rate of childbirth per woman falls bellow two. Once you reach that number you will see the population fall over the span of a natural lifetime.   Japan is already there.  Britain, France, Italy and the US would be there if you took immigration out of the analysis (2009 ONS stats showed the average UK-born woman has 1.84 children, while women living here who were born abroad have about 2.5 children).   Put simply, when they reach a certain standard of living, healthcare provision and opportunity people choose to have fewer kids without government intervention.   It strikes me that the best way to stabilise and lower the population is therefore to help under-developed nations develop.  It is development that brings that standard of living, healthcare provision and opportunity.  That means a firm commitment to global trade and an outright rejection of protectionism.

At the same time, we shouldn’t mock the word ‘sustainability’.  Natural resources are indeed finite.  Eventually, over the long-term course of history, the doom mongers will be right and man-kind will destroy itself with a generous helping hand from nature. We have an obligation to our children to make sure we’re not hurrying that day along.  So the development we strive for does indeed need to be ‘sustainable’.  We just need to be very careful that we’re not held hostage to the word ‘sustainable’ by pedlars of bad science.   Over-zealously embracing this weeks trendy ‘sustainabilty’ thinking will slow development, delay our goal of population reduction and be harmful to the life outcomes of billions of people.  Not paying regard where there is sound science could end the life chances of our entire species.  That’s quite a balance to navigate.  As I said earlier, big issues need clear heads – I’m never sure when I follow these big environmental debates that the usual spokespeople on either side of the debate have ‘clear heads’.  That leaves us all with an obligation to take an interest in these issues and nudge our policy makers to approach these big questions based not on lobby pressure, but upon clear-headed reason.

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Who Hi-jacked the Word ‘Poverty’?

So, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies 2.9 million children in the UK will live in ‘Poverty’ by the end of this Parliament (up from 2.2 million at the start).  That means  22.2% of  the whole child population in the UK.  Really? I’ve bitched about the use of the word ‘poverty’ before. Here we go again.

To be crystal clear my rant is not about the methodology applied, policy points, conclusions of the report and certainly not a  pop at the authors.  It is a sobering read.  Nobody will take any comfort from the raw data presented.  Every reader will gain a greater sense of urgency to address our economic weakness. I have a wife and 2 kids. I would not want to try to live on a total family income of £347 per week after tax is taken and any benefits added.  My rant is entirely about language.  Language matters.  Particularly when it informs political debate.  And so we get to the language of ‘poverty’.

Since at least the early 1990s NGOs, Academics and ‘think-tanks’ have been using various flavours of the concept of ‘relative poverty’ for these types of reports.   For example, the definition the IFS use today:  “An individual is considered to be in relative poverty if it lives in a household whose income is below 60% of the median in that year”.   If you just pause and think about that you realise  that it’s not a measure of ability to buy essential stuff – it’s a measure of the income distribution gap.   By that model everyone in the UK could get a pay-rise, prices could go down, and you could still see ‘poverty’ go up.   Conversely you could theoretically reduce everyone’s wage to 50p a day, with rising prices, and poverty would be deemed defeated.  Does that sound right to you?

Without wishing to belittle the quest for more equitable income distribution – I can’t help but think that such subtle manipulation of common language cheapens the word ‘poverty’ and by widening the net draws attention away from those millions in the world (including the many thousands in the UK) who, very literally, do not know where their next meal is coming from. There is an important national debate to be had about income disparity and this data could be used to support the case of those who believe the gap is far too wide – however to hijack the language of ‘poverty’ seems a cheap way to point-score in that debate.

My language gripe isn’t new and the academics always point out that there is a distinction between ‘absolute’ and ‘relative’ poverty that us common muckers are slow to get.  To be fair, report footnotes usually do clarify that they are using a ‘relative poverty’ measure and authors will say it is beyond their control if news editors don’t draw the nuance to the reader’s attention (though the editor isn’t helped  if they make the definition hard to find in their press release and are banking on ‘churnalism’ reportage of their work to further their agendas!).

Anyway, the concept of ‘absolute poverty’  is what a non-academic would  imagine is meant in ordinary language if the word did not have the ‘relative’ or ‘absolute’ qualifier. By example the World Bank used to use the metric of an income of  $1.25USD or less per day as their global ‘absolute poverty’ marker.

The freaky thing about today’s report is that it breaks the trend by tracking both ‘absolute’ and ‘relative’ poverty and here’s the scoop:  In 2015 more UK Children will apparently be living in ‘absolute’ poverty than ‘relative’ poverty! (see note 8 at this link).  Again, if you stop and think about that it sounds nuts and counter-intuitive and raises all sorts of questions.  Safe to say they are not using the World Bank metric here.  So what calculation are they using for ‘absolute poverty’ to get such a quirk?  Well, it turns out their definition is: “[a person who]  lives in a household whose real-terms income is below 60% of the 2010–11 median”.   Come again?  We define our ‘absolute poverty ‘ metric by a ‘relative poverty’ frozen snapshot from the past?   What clowns came up with that one?   Well – it isn’t the IFS.

Actually, it turns out the clowns who came up with that one are our MPs.   The definitions that the IFS are using are the ones that are defined in the UK Child Poverty Act of 2010.  It’s there in the Act’s definitions.  There is no party political point here – this Act had all party agreement.    The legally binding target for the Government is to get absolute poverty as defined in the act down to less than 5%.  They are projecting for 24.4% by 2020!  Talk about a government making a rod for its back.   The whole Act is a political device to compel a focus on narrowing the income gap ahead of prioritising generating more wealth.   The two are not mutually exclusive, and many will think that focus on the former is no bad thing – but the point is that it effectively shuts down our ability to have a healthy debate about the relative merits of  a priority choice.

That’ s why language matters.  Deciding exactly where to draw the poverty line was always going to be subjective – but once drawn and enshrined in law any attempt to query it  creates the impression you are ‘in favour of child poverty’ – much as if you query quirky  provisions of the Human Rights Act you are ‘against Human Rights’.  That invites intellectual dishonesty and stifles the quality of our political debate.

My personal obsession with the word ‘poverty’ aside, we should still  heed the report itself rather than just react to the headlines.  The last paragraph of the summary:

“The Government might consider whether it would be more productive to set realistic targets for child poverty, along with concrete suggestions for reaching them, verified with a quantitative modelling exercise such as this one. The authors also suggest that the Government consider how best to adjust the absolute poverty line over time to reflect changes in the cost of living faced by poor households.”

Quite.

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Hurrah For Weekly Bin Collections

Eric Pickles is Coalition marmite.  His bluff northern manner oozes the kind of ‘tell it like it is’, ‘no-nonsense’, ‘wont suffer fools gladly’ demeanour that the traditional Tory faithful love.  Those who don’t love him will instead perceive him as arrogant, aloof and missing any emotional intelligence.   He is the John Prescott of the right.  I’m sure both men will be aghast at the comparison but there it is.

Being a ‘character’ in a political landscape devoid of them can be a real advantage climbing the greasy pole.  The flipside is the rod for your own back when you’ve made it and it’s time to start delivering stuff.   Eric has a twin curse.  His lovers all have unrealistic expectations that he can and will ‘just wade through the crap and get stuff done’.  His haters meanwhile will leap on his every effort with extra venom to ensure anything he comes up with will fail.

The announcement by Pickles on the weekly bin collection underlines his personal challenge.  You can feel tangible disappointment from his supporters in Manchester that he had to go down a very costly incentive route.  The old guard can’t understand why ‘no-nonsense Eric’ couldn’t just impose it as a ‘must-do’ for councils.   Aside the legislative challenge of making such a requirement there would also be the glaring contradiction between being champions of localism and any top-down dictat.  It had to be an incentive route.  The trouble is that this requires the money to be seen, and this is an absolute gift for his detractors to yell ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ and point out all the other things that a Government could spend a quarter of a billion pounds on in a time of financial crisis.  He’s been on a hiding to nothing.

For all the reality of the politics I really believe he’s done the right thing.  Refuse collection is the most basic core service for a council to deliver.  Yes, you absolutely can just about get by leaving your rubbish fortnightly but the reality for many of us nowadays with shift work or working away from home in the week is that it is often impossible to get your rubbish out every time on the specific due day.  On a fortnightly cycle if you miss one collection you’ll go a full month.  Never mind the stench – that is a public health issue.  The biggest winners from fortnightly collections are rats and foxes.  Public sanitation gains have been hard won over the last century, the national drift to fortnightly collections has risked surrendering them.

And yes, I know there are many out there who take huge pride in their recycling efforts and somehow manage to get their rubbish so that they only actually have to leave black bags out once a year or whatever.  Hey – all power to your elbow.  Well done.  I salute you.  You’re great, and I’m sure you feel it.  But for the rest of us flawed lot, who honestly recycle with best endeavour rather than fervour, who have kids with disposable nappies, and who shamefully do buy convenience food and takeaways and other modern stuff that generates waste – and carry our share of liberal guilt for doing so – we nevertheless don’t want that (or our equally guilty neighbours share) festering in our neighbourhood.  So hurrah for the weekly bin collection, and hurrah for Eric for doing whatever he realistically can to preserve it.

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