Category Archives: Social and Relationships

Friends, family and related matters

Making Things and Knowing Things

I’m old enough to remember when Britain made things. Thousands of people worked in factories. In my childhood, I lived within 10 miles of the massive Dagenham car factory and for much of my adult life within 25 miles of the Luton car factory. In their prime, they employed thousands of workers and dominated their local economy. Thatcher killed off much of Britain’s manufacturing industry with the ill-conceived free market fundamentalism, now finally recognised by many as the cause of rampant inequality and slow economic growth for the past 35 years.

1960s factory
1960s factory

There has been much hype about the new economy: the so-called “knowledge economy”. I contend that this shift has been reinforced by the marketization of thought. In its death throes, arch-defenders of FMF have simply lost the vocabulary to discuss moral, ethical and social issues other than in market terms. This is uncomfortably close to George Orwells’s Newspeak.

Making Things

In the days when we made things and no companies were larger than national economies, the traditional mode of thinking about markets worked quite well. Some craftsperson or manufacturing company would make something. A prospective buyer would want something. Via intermediaries (the supply chain), a retailer would offer the item at a (hopefully reasonable) price.

Let’s use a washing machine for our example. It would be fiendishly difficult for the average citizen to build one from scratch. It probably wouldn’t work: making all the parts requires tools of some kind. If it did work, it would probably leak all over the floor. So the obvious thing was to go to a shop, browse, seek advice and buy a machine that met the buyer’s requirements. Both parties gain from this. The buyer gets the washing machine (s)he wants and the seller gets paid and some profit for future investment.

This may sound very simplistic, but my point is that there was a mutual interest of some sort between buyer and seller. The opportunity to haggle over price, in UK culture, is limited to very few areas, but otherwise there is a measure of balance between the parties involved.

Knowing Things

In the modern Knowledge Economy, a tiny number of all-powerful (American mostly) companies hoover up information about all of us connected to their social media and online services. Technically, we gave our consent, but in all probability, not an informed consent. (Hence GDPR.) These companies then analyse and process mountains of data and sell it to companies to target advertising at us. All this you know already.

But my point is this: the business model used by the data-gatherers goes like this. “We know a lot of stuff about you. We’re going to make money out of that knowledge”. That reduces all of us who use their services to mere pawns in a bigger game where wealth in concentrated in very few hands. In extreme cases of negligence on Facebook’s part about Cambridge Analytica, the rule of democracy is subverted. There is a complete absence of balance between the de facto power of the Googles, Facebooks, etc. and the users of their services.

Capitalism Is What Capitalism Does

The directors of limited companies still act in a way which maximizes short-term profit and dividends for shareholders. Nearly everybody seems to disregard the requirements of section 172 of the Companies Act 2006, which states:

In carrying out their duty to act in the way he or she considers, in good faith, would promote the success of the company for the benefit of its members as a whole directors must have regard (among other matters) to the following factors:

  • the likely consequences of any decision in the long-term;
  • the interests of the company’s employees;
  • the need to foster the company’s business relationships with suppliers, customers and others;
  • the impact of the company’s operations on the community and the environment;
  • the desirability of the company maintaining a reputation for high standards of business conduct; and
  • the need to act fairly as between members of the company.

In practice, we get company directors who pay themselves vast sums of money for being, at best, barely competent and a focus on dividend returns and not on long-term investment in the future (and stability) of their companies. The result is the collapse of Carillion, with the public sector picking up the pieces. We also get the likes of Serco and Capita offering very poor services which have been ill-advisedly outsourced from the public sector. There is a clear disconnect between the short-termism and profit-maximisation mind set of those at the top and the poorly paid, if dedicated, staff at the sharp end. Public services like social care, probation, benefit assessment and the like should never have been privatised for this reason. Utilities like gas, electricity, railways and water are natural monopolies and should not have been privatised for that reason.

The government and local authorities now find themselves dependent on a private sector offering poor value for money and deteriorating services. The companies themselves are poorly scrutinised by civil servants overseeing their contracts. The whole thing is an appalling mess.

Win-Lose and Win-Win

The essence of Trumpism – if such an idea can be contemplated, given Trump’s excessive narcissism and inconsistency – is that of the deal. For every deal, there is a winner and a loser. Trump, naturally, wants the accolade and adrenalin rush of being the winner every time. It’s “I win, you lose”.

The new Knowledge Economy lends itself naturally to a win-lose mind set. Yet the win-win approach is still far more in tune with how we, as humans, think about our relationships and the kind of society in which we want to live. All of this takes us right back to the very early days of this blog. Three years ago, I wrote Being Human II: The Four Cs which attempted to summarise what it means to be human in four words, arranged in two contrasting pairs: Competition and Curiosity balanced by Compassion and Conscience. Subsequent posts demonstrate how the latter two have been neglected for 35 years by the false god of Free Market Fundamentalism. It’s time we all got back into a win-win frame of mind and started being wholly human again.

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K-Street Blues: An Indelible Stain

I was born on a street whose name begins with the letter K. Unsurprisingly, no one has ever asked me “Are you proud to have been born on a street beginning with K?” I guess that everyone would agree that the question makes no sense. I had absolutely no control over the matter and it took no effort, skill or talent on my part to be born there.

There have, however, been several occasions when people have said “Are you proud to be British?” Or, sometimes, if I had been criticising some aspect of life in this country, “Aren’t you proud to be British?” I’ve always contended that these questions make as much sense as the K-street version, for the same reasons given above.

It’s pretty obvious that some form of tribalism is an evolved characteristic of human development. Whether it’s allegiance to a football team, factionalism in corporate politics, inter-gang rivalry or whatever, our instincts to want to belong to a group are strong. Nation states have been pretty effective in harnessing these instincts by instilling some form of patriotism in its citizens. I’ve always been very wary of patriotism, seeing how too often it has been commandeered into something darker, more sinister.

Multiple Identities

Depending on the context, we all carry around with us some multi-faceted idea of who we are. At different times, we see ourselves primarily in different roles: proud parent, West Ham (or Aston Villa) supporter, board member, oppressed minority member, flag-waving patriot, trade unionist and countless more. Identity and single-cause political movements have risen at the expense of traditional parties. I’m always heartened (and a little jealous) when people from minority ethnic backgrounds flex their self-identity viewpoint to the context of a discussion. Multi-lingualism can also offer a richness of perspectives from which to consider a topic under debate.

Russian dollsIn the dimension of nationality, I’ve always claimed that I take a hierarchical approach. First and foremost, I see myself as a human being, a member of the species homo sapiens. I’m interested in those matters that unite us all and in celebrating the richness that comes from cultural diversity. Next, culturally and ethically, I am a European: this brings a whole load of ideas around liberty, tolerance, democracy and respect for the rule of law – and much more besides. Perhaps I feel a slight cultural bias towards Northern Europe, but the difference is slight.

Third in the hierarchy is the identity of being British. This is primarily a legal definition, an immovable fact I have no control over. This comes with mainly – but not wholly – negative connotations of what distinguishes Britishness from European-ness more generally. Much of this is bound up in our insular outlook on the world and our failure to complete the process of becoming a proper democracy. And last, and definitely least, comes the fact that I’m English. Even before 23rd June, I would be hard pressed to come up with significantly positive characteristics compared with the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish.

The Stain

stainI was much struck by the 2000 novel The Human Stain by Philip Roth. It tells a complex tale of a professional man who slowly becomes ostracised by friends and colleagues through a combination of his actions and the revelation of his true identity. The idea of an individual carrying around an invisible but indelible stain is a haunting one.

My wife and I were recently on holiday (post referendum result) in a part of France where many people do not speak English. I had to get by on what I could remember of my schoolboy French. Occasionally people would ask me where I was from. I found it necessary, on each occasion, to say “Je suis anglais… malheureusement”. This last comment would usually elicit some sympathetic look from my questioner. My “confession” was laced with shame and embarrassment.

Those old tribal instincts had come into play. Post referendum, my stain is being English.

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Human Imagination: The Ultimate Time Machine

Occasionally I wake up in the morning – or the middle of the night – when I’ve had a really weird dream. Sometimes it takes several minutes to shake off the sense that it was real. And I think about it and say to myself: “Wow! Where did all that come from?” The situations, characters and story lines can be far removed from my life’s experiences. Dreams, of course, are some of the most mysterious aspects of that thing of wonder: the human imagination.

turner seascape and steve bell cartoonThe imagination, of course, plays the central role in works of art, used in the widest sense. From the impassioned brush strokes of J M Turner to the incisive pen strokes of a Steve Bell cartoon. From Antigone, King Lear and Hamlet to Harry Potter, Hard Times, Hobbits and Discworld. From Bach, Berlioz and Beethoven to the Beatles, Brel and Bowie. Experiencing the results of another person’s imagination is part of what binds us together as human beings and makes life rich and fulfilling.

Out of Time

But the idea I’m exploring here is how one’s imagination can take us out of our own time – and space. We use our store of memories, tidied up and altered in ways it’s difficult to assess, to analyse and reminisce over past events . We can engage in thought experiments to imagine some planned – or unplanned, hypothetical – future event. By imagining possible futures, some of our best and worst hopes and fears can be played out. When deep in our own thoughts thus, we are – literally – out of time.

His Master’s Voice and Where’s My Nuts?

So what makes human beings unique? It’s clear that other creatures have some sorts of memory. Dogs and cats recognize their owners. Any number of territorial creatures can recognize smells associated with marking out their territory. There’s some evidence, but the jury’s probably out on whether squirrels can really remember where they buried their nuts. But only humans seem likely to be able to put together a cogent narrative about past events.

squirrel and nuts
Nuts

There’s nothing unique to humans about the lived experience of consciousness: living in the present. So that just(?) leaves awareness of the future.

I Have Seen the Future

This, I think, is where human beings come into their own. To give a really bad, but current, example. The “debate” leading up to the EU referendum vote next month seems to consist almost exclusively of two rival speculations about the future. Person A says the sky will fall in if we leave. Person B says it won’t. Person X says we’ll be miles better in some respect if we go. Person Y says we won’t. And so on, and so on. It’s tedious and ultimately fatuous. One person’s “project fear” is another’s wise cautionary tale. But it is all, at heart, just competing narratives about the future. No other species on the planet could communicate in this way.

People do actually like to be told about their future, even when they know, deep down, what they’re being told is utter nonsense. I’m thinking here about fortune tellers, horoscopes, séances and such like. These rituals seem to satisfy some half-buried need for reassurance.

And It’s Murder

So from reassurance, I think it’s high time – indeed inevitable – that we talk about death. (Not about taxes today: sorry, Benjamin Franklin.) There is a generally, if not universally, held view that only humans have a concept of the inevitability of their own future death. There are some interesting discussions in the New Scientist and NY Times about other species’ understanding of death and use of rituals. A long discussion can be read in a US blog Rational Skepticism expressing a variety of ideas along the same lines. A really thought-provoking item in Wray Herbert’s We’re Only Human blog extends the discussion into more dangerous territory. It explores the reasons behind why humans are the only species prepared to commit murder and genocide on the basis of differing philosophies or world views, including religious differences.

Clash of civilizations
Clash of Civilizations

The Time Machine

time machine
Time Machine

There are a great many other avenues of thought to explore from the discussion so far – perhaps for a future blog. But my central point today is that it is our ability to think out of time and, above all, about the future that marks us humans out from the rest of Earth’s inhabitants. So I finish with a salute to that extraordinary product of evolution: the human imagination. It’s a source of our joy, our sorrows, our hopes and fears, and, inside our heads at least, it’s the ultimate time machine.

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The Luckiest People in the World

One of the dominant themes in the debate leading up to the EU referendum is that of immigration. There is much talk of this “problem” and repeated references to “controlling our borders”. There’s more than a whiff of seeing foreigners as some kind of invading pestilence from which we must be protected. The depressing old “taking our jobs” argument keeps resurfacing in one way or another. I can only repeat that those making such an “argument” simply don’t understand how national economies differ from household budgets.

But my point is this: there’s a whole, better way of discussing the subject of immigration and which needs to be presented in a positive and uplifting way.

The Way We Were

I was a young child in the 1950s. Looking back now on old black-and-white film clips from the time, the past, in the words of L P Hartley, “is a different country”. The landscape and the people have a uniform monochrome appearance – in more than one sense of the word. It was a world of deference, of knowing your place and never challenging authority. The moral certainties of the former Empire were still largely intact, although crumbling at the edges with shocks like the loss of India and the Suez debacle. Frankly, it looks pretty boring!

women in smog
Smog in the 1950s

The World Comes to Leicester Square

Let’s move on – to the late 1990s. I was waiting outside Leicester Square tube station for a friend in the early evening. I’d arrived early and had about half an hour to wait. I stood watching the people as they poured in and out of the station entrance. I’d obviously chosen a popular meeting point to stand. What struck me was the sheer range and diversity of the people I saw: in age, ethnicity, style of dress and so forth. They were meeting and greeting each other – with smiles, with hugs and kisses and with an overwhelming sense of people happy to see each other. It was just people meeting people, from all walks of life and from who knows where.

people greeting
Hello!

Different Cultures, Fresh Insights

I spent several years on the committee which interviews and appoints candidates for the magistracy. As is common in public sector appointments, we were expected to follow a fairly structured and common list of interview questions. After a while, a certain pattern often emerges in the answers given to particular questions: a certain air of predictability. One candidate was a Nigerian-born man in his 40s who had arrived in the UK around the age of 20. When the interview was over, the three of us on the panel turned to each other and together said something along the lines: “Hey, what did you make of his answer” to a particular question. We all agreed it was a fascinating new insight into the issue that none of us had ever considered before.

Economists are pretty much unanimous that immigrants bring a net boost to an economy. But here was an example of something much richer than just the numbers: this man’s cultural heritage brought a new and refreshing way of thinking about an issue. The benefits of the interactions between people in a diverse population are obvious in creative fields such as music, dance and art. But here was a further example from the rather more formal world of the administration of justice.

Doing the Crap Jobs

Bedfordshire has a long tradition of brickmaking: it’s to do with the type of clay. The social history of the brickworks is a fascinating story. Different waves of immigrants, principally (and chronologically) from Italy, Poland and Bangladesh, have come to work there, prepared to do the dirty and physically demanding jobs that longer-standing residents would rather not do. As each immigrant group matures, they and their children move on to a more varied range of occupations, become more middle class and integrate into the community. This appears to happen typically over a period of around 20 to 30 years. There’s then the need for a fresh wave of immigration to keep the kilns firing.

bedfordshire brickworks
Bedfordshire Brickworks

Celebrate!

Partly as a result of the brickworks, the nearby former county town of Bedford is surprisingly diverse for the area of “middle England” in which it sits. By some accounts, around 100 different nationalities are represented. I’m proud and feel really privileged to be Chair of Governors at a school which positively celebrates the diversity of our students. We have kids with around 45 different nationalities. We encourage all to value, explore and celebrate the diverse histories and culture that enrich school life. It’s a joy to watch as, for example, a deeply traumatised and diffident child whose family escaped war-torn Afghanistan blossoms over a few months into a motivated, more confident and welcome member of the school. We don’t give up on the ones with more challenging behaviour, either: we haven’t expelled a child for over 8 years. It’s great to play a small part in the development of the next set of enlightened, confident and well-informed citizens.

Yes We Khan

All of which brings us quite nicely to the welcome result in the election for Mayor of London. Congratulations to the voters of our capital city for rejecting the mean-spirited, racist campaign of Sadiq Khan’s main opponent. Even the former chair of the Conservative Party, Sayeeda Warsi, has raised the spectre of the “Nasty Party” label again – and rightly so. With London now the most diverse capital city in the world –  40% of Londoners were not UK born – the town is a living example of what can be achieved if people live and work together in an attitude of mutual respect.

sadiq khan
Sadiq Khan: New London Mayor

This positivity is a welcome antidote to the other side of the coin. Large sections of the Tory party embody the mean-spirited values of the xenophobe. Cameron’s grudging concession on allowing a paltry number of unaccompanied refugee children from Syria and Britain’s opt-out of the arrangements to share immigrants between EU members are examples of this aspect of modern Conservatism. Is this what they mean by “British Values”?

neil and christine hamilton
Did the Welsh Really Vote for This?

But the pinnacle (is that the right word??) of this mean-spirited, ill-informed negativity has to be UKIP and all its works. I find it deeply depressing if I try to imagine what it must be like to live your life holding such negative, soul-destroying attitudes to our fellow human beings. Yuk!

People Who Need People

“Ah!” some may say, but how can we afford to build the extra school places and other items of infrastructure needed for new immigrants? The short answer is that we can if we choose to. Austerity is a political choice, not a necessity. We could choose to tax the rich more and to change our spending priorities – who needs a new aircraft carrier with no aircraft?

But my main point has nothing to do with economics. It’s all about people – people needing and welcoming other people. They’re the luckiest people in the world.

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Hey You! Get Off of My Cloud!

My earlier blog post Stuck Inside of Mobile aimed to dispel the myth that grammar schools were an engine of social mobility 40 to 50 years ago. The piece provoked some dissent at the time. New information has just been published in the Observer newspaper which supports my earlier assertion. It also adds a new twist to the tale.

ladder to the top
Ladder to the top?

John Goldthorpe is an eminent sociologist from Oxford. Now emeritus fellow of Nuffield College, he is best known for the Goldthorpe class schema, still used as the main classification system for socioeconomic class. Goldthorpe gave a lecture at the British Academy this week on social class mobility. An Observer piece summarizes his position. Goldthorpe’s article encompasses new research by Professor Erzsebet Bukodi at Oxford.

Room at the Top

Goldthorpe’s talk and Bukodi’s research deal with social mobility and the role of education in improving it. Contrary to popular belief, they conclude that social mobility has not reduced over the past 60 years or so. This period was one where access to education, in particular higher education, has expanded enormously. Using his classification scheme, he concludes that the overall rate of mobility has not changed over this period. What has changed are upward and downward components of mobility. 50 to 60 years ago, upward mobility was more frequent than downward, as the number of managerial and professional jobs increased rapidly. In Goldthorpe’s words, there was “more room at the top”.

What’s changed now is that there’s no expansion of top jobs in the economy. People are as much at risk of downward mobility as upward. In fact, it’s worse than this. Technological change and economic policies that export middle-tier skilled jobs (whilst importing the goods produced by them) have hollowed out this medium-skilled sector.

Role of Education

Education is necessary for individuals to aspire to the “better” (and better paid) jobs. But expansion in education alone is not sufficient. For social mobility to improve, Goldthorpe argues, two things must happen. Firstly, the effect of social origin on educational achievement must weaken. Secondly, the effect of educational achievement on social class outcomes must strengthen. Both are needed for the brightest young people to get to the top. At present, too often, it’s the sons and daughters of the richest parents who do so. I can think of a whole load of cabinet figures who confirm this point: supply your own list!

Fear of Falling

Get Off my cloud
Get off!

With no expansion in jobs at the top, there’s only one way to increase upward mobility. That’s by increasing downward mobility. But therein lies the problem: what Goldthorpe calls “psychological asymmetry”. The theory of “loss aversion” strongly supports the notion that parents are even more concerned about their children avoiding movement down the social ladder than they are about them going up. Pretty much all parents want what’s best for their children. Advantaged parents will use their resources – economic, cultural and social – to give their children a competitive edge. They have the sharpest elbows.

Fixing the Ladder

Over the past 35 years, income inequality has increased. Using the image of a ladder, the distance between top and bottom and the spacing between the rungs have both grown. The “hollowing out” of middle-tier jobs means many of the rungs in the middle have broken off. If we want to improve upward mobility, we need to do one, or both, of two things. One is to make it easier to move up and down the ladder. The other is to make more room at the top. To do the first, we need to reduce the level of inequality, narrowing the gaps between the rungs. To do the second, we need to increase R&D investment to expand good, well-paid jobs.

The trouble is, since 2010, we’ve been doing the opposite of this. Tax and spending priorities have favoured the better off. Investment has fallen dramatically and productivity growth has ground to a halt. These have been deliberate policy decisions by a government elected on 37% of the popular vote, run by a party with over 50% of its funding from the super-rich in the City.

Don’t hold your breath: things aren’t going to get better any time soon.

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Is This Why Tunbridge Wells Votes Tory?

One of the traditional media stereotypes was “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells”. He – it was invariably a “he” – wrote letters to the Telegraph or Times. In response to some recent event, the theme of such letters was always one of moral decline, disrespect for authority and such. Sir Herbert Gussett, although not from Tunbridge Wells, plays the same role in the pages of Private Eye. The image is of some retired military type or traditionalist civil servant.

Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells
Disgusted again?

These characters came to mind when I was recently alerted to a fascinating piece of scientific research from 2014. Neuroscientists at the Virginia Tech Research Institute found a close connection between political views and the degree of brain response when shown disgusting images. The more right wing a person’s views were, the more their brains reacted to the images. The team found that they could predict a person’s politics to 95% accuracy by measuring their brain’s response to a single disgusting image. (The full scientific paper can be read on the Current Biology website.)

So What?

The team who carried out the research used an MRI scanner to detect brain activity in 83 volunteers whilst subjecting them to a range of images: disgusting, threatening, pleasant, and neutral. They also got each volunteer to complete a questionnaire known to give a standardised measure of political outlook. Systematic differences between liberals and conservatives were only observed for the disgusting images. Clearly, it’s not practical to carry out this experiment routinely on the population at large. So, of what use is this knowledge?

Well, it’s interesting to think around the close association of the apparently rational: political views and the apparently emotional: disgust. Intuitively, it does seem to fit with the intolerance associated with a right-wing position. Examples of such intolerance:

  • Attitudes to sex before marriage
  • Children born outside marriage
  • Same-sex marriages (my view: if you don’t approve, don’t marry someone of the same sex – problem solved!)
  • Not singing the national anthem
  • Not wearing a poppy for weeks before 11th November each year
  • Lack of deference to authority
  • Dislike of the other, e.g. foreigners
  • Going to the wrong sort of school

And so on. By contrast, a liberal outlook results in a more “live and let live” approach. A clear danger for the left is the paradox that openness to difference tends also to encourage factionalism. The right, on the other hand, generally keep their differences suppressed, or in private.

Nature v Nurture?

Sadly, the research doesn’t really throw any light on the age-old “nature v. nurture” debate. Does being easily disgusted cause someone to be right wing, or is it the other way round? Or is it our environment, or our genes, which influence both?

Tunbridge Wells has a Tory MP. Perhaps a lot of voters there conform to the “Disgusted / Gussett” stereotype, perhaps not. Maybe it boils down to this. It was an interesting research finding, but it raises more questions than it answers. More research, anyone?

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Worth Every Penny?

My eye was drawn to one small detail in the recent story about the embarrassing error in an online form on the Ministry of Justice website, for which minister Michael Gove has apologised. An error on the form, used in divorce proceedings, meant that the financial position of one or both parties in a divorce was miscalculated. This in turn, would mean that many a judge had directed a party to pay an incorrect amount. The error was reported by a woman working for the Family Law Clinic in Ascot. This happened almost a year after the form was first published on its website by the MoJ.

The detail is that the woman spotting the error was a McKenzie Friend. These are people with experience in family law who offer mentoring services to people who cannot afford solicitors’ fees. It is ironic that no solicitors, barristers or academics in university law departments had spotted the error before.

lawyersMy son had cause to use a McKenzie Friend a few years ago. The other party to the case had a solicitor using legal aid. My son reported that the solicitor was contemptuous and rude towards the McKenzie Friend, who was obviously considered inferior. You might call it professional bullying or professional misbehaviour.

Of course, a McKenzie Friend is considerably cheaper than a lawyer. Around these parts, solicitors routinely charge £240 per hour (including VAT) for their services. This incident makes you wonder exactly what it is you are paying for!

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A House Is Not a Home

… when it’s an investment.

The rot started before Thatcher: she merely picked up on a changing public mood.

We’ve been talking about houses as investments for many years now and it distorts completely any rational discussion about Britain’s housing needs. The idea of “an Englishman’s home is his castle” has been around for centuries. But then people started seeing houses as more than the place where you put down your roots, live your life, bring up a family, socialize with friends and become part of your community.

For most goods and services, a price rise is generally seen as a bad thing, reducing people’s disposable income and risking a rise in inflation. Not so with housing, where a reverse logic applies. This upside-down view comes naturally for richer politicians, economists and journalists who are on the (capital) gaining side of the equation.

Housing Divides Us

But the practical result is that, as Britain becomes a more and more divided society, one of the stark distinctions between the “haves” and the “have-nots” is the ability to afford a home of your own. Those lucky enough to be homeowners already have been able to use their unearned capital gains in a variety of ways. But would-be first time buyers are being put in an ever more desperate position. The maps below show the contrast in housing affordability over the past 20 years, based upon average* incomes and average house prices, area by area.

Spread of unaffordability mapsWith blue the most affordable and red the least, the change is dramatic. In 1995, an average earner would need to spend between 3.2 and 4.4 times their salary to buy an average-priced house in their area. In 2014, the corresponding figures are between 6.1 and 12.2 times salary. In both years, unsurprisingly, the highest ratios are for London. Here, average earners now stand no chance of getting onto the housing ladder without the help of rich parents or some other equivalent advantage.

Too Few New Houses

How we came to this ridiculous state of affairs is easy to see when you look at the graph below, showing UK house building over the past 45 years. From an annual figure of around 300,000 new homes in the 1970s, often higher, the rate drops sharply following the oil price shock of the mid-1970s. After a small rally in the early 1980s, it falls to 180,000 at the end of the Thatcher and Major governments. A steady but modest rise occurs in the housebuilding rate in the New Labour period prior to the 2008 financial crisis. The crash resulted in new lows of fewer than 150,000 new homes a year, a rate which failed to recover under the 2010-15 coalition. Housing experts state that we need 200-250,000 new homes a year to keep up with demand.

housing completions

The Rise of the Private Landlord

Matters have been made worse by a huge rise in the buy-to-let market. A significant proportion of former council properties, sold off after Thatcher’s “Right to Buy” policy, have eventually ended up on the buy-to-let market. The graph below shows trends over a 10 year period to 2012.

Housing shared tend graphDuring this period, the total housing stock has risen from 25.6 million homes in 2001-2 to 27.8 million ten years later. The proportion of public sector homes fell from 21% to 18% as new public sector house building failed to keep pace with the loss through council house sales. A more dramatic drop in owner-occupied properties, from 69% to 64% demonstrates the increasing problem for first time buyers to enter the market. The slack, as can clearly be seen, has been taken up by the private rented market. Its share of the housing stock has nearly doubled, from just under 10% to 18%.

Increasing Benefits Bill

The insufficiency of house building over a long period, together with a major swing to the private rented sector has driven up housing costs dramatically, even more for those renting than for owner-occupiers. The consequential rising cost of housing benefit is one of the two major causes of the rise in social security costs over the last decade or two. (The other is our ageing population, whose pensions have been protected.) The extra public spending has gone to private landlords.

Conclusion

It does not need much mental effort to conclude that:

  • The UK housing market is dysfunctional
  • Those suffering most are those least able to afford decent housing
  • Benefit caps pile more suffering on those same people
  • Osborne’s plan to sell off the more desirable Housing Association stock simply makes the problem worse:
    • It will shift more housing from public to private rented
    • It will drive up average rents
  • Jeremy Corbyn’s “People’s Quantitative Easing” to pay for more public housing looks quite sensible:
    • It will increase the supply of genuinely affordable housing
    • It will reduce the benefits bill.

And all because we’ve been conditioned into seeing houses as financial investments instead of homes!

*median figures used throughout

Acknowledgements to: theguardian.com (03/09/2015), Channel 4 and the Office of National Statistics for source data

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Joining the Dots

This is a tale of Visions and Signs from God, and of the Tiger Who Came to Tea – eventually.

Jesus?

Throughout history, signs and visions from a God or gods have been reported in all sorts of places: lights and cloud formations in the sky, entrails, tea leaves (in pre-teabag days!) and other natural phenomena. They often lead to amazing acts of bravery or compassion – sometimes even to being burned at the stake.

Here’s a fairly typical example of a miraculous “vision” which made the press a few years ago:

image / likeness / jesus face on a piece of toast item sold on ebay no date available web grab no fee

Yes – it’s a representation of a classic portrait of Jesus – on a slice of toast.

Now look at this picture:

Random dots

It’s just a random set of dots. But, now watch this short video:

We can’t help but “see” moving human figures doing a variety of actions: it’s just moving dots. But our brains are very good at joining the dots. What’s going on? Why do our brains trick us in this way?

Tiger?

In evolutionary timescales, it’s but a blinking of an eye since our hunter-gatherer days.

Imagine a scene from this period. Times are hard for the tribe. Food is scarce. Two hunters are out looking for food to kill. In the middle distance, Hunter A notices a movement in the bushes. The subtle changes of light and dark patterns in the leaves and branches alert him instantly. It’s the tell-tale pattern of movement of a tiger on the prowl. He runs for cover. Hunter B notices nothing and carries on hunting.

Nothing happens. It’s just the wind in the trees.

The same story is repeated for ninety-nine days. Hunter A is hungrier and more tired than his companion, because of all the unnecessary running around. But on the hundredth day, there really is a tiger!

So the moral of this tale is:

  • Hunter A, tired and hungry though he is, goes on to pass on his genes to his children.
  • Hunter B is eaten by the Tiger Who Came to Tea on the hundredth day.

And that, dear reader, is an example of what Charles Darwin first called “natural selection”.

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First Doubts

Her name was Vicky, and I thought she was gorgeous! I was a shy 13 year old; she was the vicar’s daughter.

My sisters sang in the local church choir. We weren’t at all religious as a family – it was more of a social thing: meet up with friends, have a laugh at rehearsals, sing a few hymns, that sort of thing. There was talk in the group about going to confirmation classes. Rumour had it that Vicky was attending.

This is a sad tale of those early pangs of what we, rather drily, call sexual attraction. Those awkward, angst-driven days with strange yearning feelings, but without the social skills or experience to know what to do. Confirmation classes: that sounded tempting. Lots of opportunities to sit in the same room as Vicky – perhaps a glance, a smile, and then what?

There was one problem: this religion business. The school I went to was run on traditional lines: daily assemblies, two hymns, a bible reading. I was beginning to think that this didn’t make sense: that the belief in something or someone “out there” was not for me.

I already had the evidence to bust the two main myths that parents tell children. As an older brother, I was in on the secret that the tooth fairy was really my mum. (Incidentally, she was also the fairy who left sixpences under turned-up eggshells on the kitchen window sill, for no other reason than we’d had boiled egg for tea.) As for Father Christmas, I can still remember the Christmas Eve when, pretending to be asleep, I saw my dad come into the bedroom, torch in hand, to place the stockings and Christmas presents at the foot of the bed.

There was no such evidence proving the non-existence of God, but still I felt uneasy. If I went along with the confirmation classes, I would be doing it for an ulterior motive. Worse, I would be a hypocrite. As you can guess, I didn’t go, and Vicky never found out about my unrequited love.

Or at least, that’s the way I tell myself the story went. Truth to tell, it was probably my shyness that did it for Vicky and me.

But that’s how I can remember exactly how old I was when I first had serious doubts about God.

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