Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Left-Wing Stupid Attack...

Often, you'll find yourself debating with a lefty, finding yourself faced with the same tired, idiotic arguments abour how evil markets are, and supporting their application to public services makes one a baby-eating bastard. It's total nonsense of course, and just demonstrates a complete lack of imagination on the part of the person saying it, but the arguments against left-wing stupid attacks are time-consuming to make, so I thought I'd write this post as a handy cut out and keep reference for linking to when some idiot pops up on twitter calling you a baby-eating bastard for making a perfectly sensible proposal.

#1 "But a market means the rich get better treatment than the poor"
or variations thereof, will be one of the first things you will hear when debating with lefties about the introduction of proper functioning markets in public services.

Markets do not mean the total retreat of the state from provision, nor do they mean the poor will lose out. A market, and this does actually need explaining to even a well-informed lefty, is merely the measurement of people's choices. There's no market in the NHS, because if you get ill, you take the service you're offered. You don't choose your GP, you accept the one nearest you. This is also true of schools.

If you have competing providers on the other hand, the customer, you, me and the poor too, will want to get the best service possible. Providers will want as many patients as they can get (if you structure the market right...). It is perfectly feasable for the Government to intervene in a market to ensure equal access to the services for rich and poor, for example by providing vouchers to, or subsidising insurance of the poor, and services can indeed be free at the point of delivery.

The important thing is that providers - an this can include state provision - competes. If it's up to snuff, the people will flock to it and the service will flourish. Provide sub-standard care, or a poor education, and you will fail. Thus the poor service providers fail, or get taken over by new management, and the good expand. This doesn't require any more money, just a different way of moving the money through the system. Instead of a bureaucracy planning services, the orgnisation of the system happens organically through the actions of the invisible hand.

#2 "But that's duplication of service, that's inefficient. People want good local services, not be forced to shop around" That's what they Say, yes. But when offered choice, do people ever want choice taken away again? No. As for inefficiency, well where has state planning offered a better service than a private sector operating in a competitive market? This is nothing but economic flat-earthism.

#3 "But this is ridiculous" scream the lefties "the state must ensure access, not leave it to random chance". Just like the state ensures everyone has access to food or clothing? the only things in which there are shortages, housing, healthcare, decent education are markets in which the state has a significant or dominant role. Marketisation has failed occasionally, but only when the barriers to entry are too high, as in the railways, when the structure of the market was wrong, as in the railways, or when the "market" is directed by bureaucrats, not customers, as in some NHS reforms of the past two decades. & the railways. The fact is everywhere. Markets when properly regulated to ensure competition & prevent monopolies, provide services such as food distribution better than state planning, ever has, because the service is directed by the underlying consumer directing the flow of money. This is so true, most people don't notice it when it works. But it is markets which ensure that you have access to African fruit in December & New Zealand lamb in June. If the state directed it, you'd be eating seasonally. And that is neither as healthy nor as fun as Hugh Fearnly-Wittingstall pretends.

So, in education, vouchers ensure everyone has equal access to the market. Legislation can ensure that schools do not charge more than the voucher & compete only on service if equality needs to be maintained. In health, governments can, and do all over Europe, step in to provide insurance to the poor, to ensure all have equal access yet services have a mixture of public and private finance and crucially private provision is semlessly integrated into state provision. Obviously such radicalism won't be acceptable to our brainwashed population. But the source of the finance isn't the important thing - marketising health doen't even mean an insurance model. It means breaking up the NHS into competing providers. People will be free to choose their GP, who will then act as the guide to specialist care with the patient. There will be less need for a central NHS bureaucracy, and competing providers will ensure standards are higher than they are now. A Market can still be free at the point of deliviery, and if it's still free at the point of delivery, who cares whether it's a bureaucrat directing services, or a market.

I'll repeat that. Markets in Health & Education can still be free at the point of delivery.

And once more, so that even the most blinkered, tribal lefty can understand. MARKETS IN HEALTH & EDUCATION CAN STILL BE FREE AT THE POINT OF DELIVERY.

#4 "But the profit motive is wasteful. I want money going on services, not shareholder returns" The profit motive isn't the only means of running an organisation, though, and in a properly functioning market in health or education, perhaps people may trust non-profit organisations (like BUPA), or charities (like Eton) more than a profit-motivated business. Let's see them compete on a level playing field shall we rather than let prejudice decide? Even if profit remains a motive, Shareholder returns are not the only way of deriving value. The John Lewis Partnership, which includes Waitrose, is mutually owned, a structure I'd like to see much more of, and healthcare may lend itself to this model, as the practice of law does. The market is neutral when it comes to organisational or capital structure. In a market in which patients decide where they go, we could see from results, rather than having to guess, which is best.

The "left-wing stupid" attacks on markets often aren't attacks on markets, but on something else - the profit motive or shareholder capitalism, usually. Or they're representations of an idiot belief that complex services can be planned by Government, which they can't. Or they're a belief that a market always involves the rich muscling out the poor, which is just a lack of immagination on how Government works in the countries with the highest living standards. Public services are best when government works with the private sector to deliver services each doing what it does best.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

The Case Against School Vouchers.

As education policy is in the news at the moment, I was looking for evidence for school voucher programs around the world, I came across an academic book The Case Against School Vouchers. Contrary to the Amazon review, which said

[The authors] were also able to state their case based on facts and research rather than opinionated rhetoric...
...the abstract demonstrates the book considers nothing but political questions and completely ignores the performance of school voucher programs in increasing the educational attainment of those let down by state-run schools, and its arguments aren't even internally consistent.
Controversy over whether public funds should be used to support nonpublic education has raged since the early 19th century. In the 1990s the debate centers around elementary and secondary school tuition vouchers or tutorial assistance grants. This book summarizes the case against vouchers and provides evidence and documentation for each argument. The chapters argue that voucher proposals undermine religious liberty; clash with the Establishment Clause of the Constitution; run counter to public opinion; provide funding to fundamentalist Christian schools that teach bigotry; conflict with the major tenets of American democracy--respect for diversity, intellectual freedom, and religious tolerance; create additional transportation costs; and exacerbate inequities among school districts.
Let's look at this in detail.

"Undermining religious liberty" by allowing people to send their children to a school of their choice. I smell bullshit.

"Clash with the establishment clause of the constitution" if you're funding private schools at the direction of parents, how in the name of all that's holy, does that create an established church?

"Run counter to public opinion" People don't like change & they've been told by the teachers that vouchers are right up there with the holocaust for pure, unadulterated evil. "Look.... LOOK. Pinochet supported them...". Of course this is a non-argument.

"Provide funding to fundamentalist Christian schools that teach bigotry" Freedom, if it means anything is freedom to teach stupid things to your kids, who, if exposed to actual freedom may well, and often do, end up making up their own minds. The truth outs eventually. Frankly if you're already teaching a kid that a sky pixie will lightening him if he has a wank, then it's a short step from there to creationism. Bigotry's already allowed; the Rubicon's already crossed.

God, punishing onanism, yesterday.

"Conflict with the major tenets of American democracy--respect for diversity, intellectual freedom, and religious tolerance" So allowing people free will in how they bring up their children disrespects diversity? Creating a varied school system which includes religious schools, if the parents want, is against religious tolerance? Instead, ensuring every school sticks to a centrally dictated syllabus supports intellectual freedom? Check out the pinko double-think.

"Create additional transportation costs" America is the world's largest, richest economy where people drive 40 miles to get milk; so who, really, gives a fuck?

"Exacerbate inequities among school districts", mainly between those that do have a voucher program and those that don't. That "inequality" is the genius of the voucher system. Parents will be able to see good schools, and crucially be able to send their kids there. Good schools expand, poor schools fail. The result, everyone gets a better education, just not everyone gets better at the same rate.

The fact is school voucher programs have at worst not done any harm, and have at best achieved great improvement amongst the worst-performing demographics. This isn't important to the ideologues who wrote that book. Nor is it important to any opponent of free schools anywhere, who are usually motivated by the producer interest.

With a proper free schools voucher program, teachers either teach what the parents want, or get fired. The Unions' opposition to Free schools in the UK is nothing short of Evil. Tories know that in order for this to work, as it does in Sweden, or the Netherlands, schools must be allowed to make a profit. Failure to speak up for this is nothing short of abject cowardice.

No-one comes out of this looking good except uncle Milt, who is, as ever completely right on absolutely everything.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Thoughts on Evidence on the National Minimum Wage.

In general, the classical economic view is that by pricing people whose labour is worth £5.92 or less per hour out of the market, a National Minimum wage increases unemployment. And the economic evidence from other countries is pretty compelling: a minimum wage does indeed increase unemployment. Increasing the cost of labour, you decrease the demand for it. This falls hardest on those whose productivity - the poorly educated, those without experience - is most marginal. Such people will NEVER get any job because the jobs they can do have been outsourced to low-wage countries or otherwise destroyed. As a result, the poor will never get the training and experience (especially important is the experience and track-record of reliably turning up to work) necessary to move on up to better-paid work.

So, how does the evidence support these two views? Now because the introduction of the National minimum wage didn't cause an immediate spike in unemployment, it can be argued that the minimum wage was introduced without significant effects on the labour market. One nil to Gordon Brown against the evil capitalists who want to bring back slave labour? Well no. 1999, when the Minimum wage was introduced to 2002 is not exactly the long run. It also coincided with a steady recovery running into a boom, and as I often argue, marginal government intervention is very, very difficult to tease out of the economic effects of the business cycle. In addition, it's very difficult to tease out the effects of the minimum wage within a country because so many other factors - international effects, the price of oil, the rise of China as an economic power etc... will all have effects which distort the data. Better use two similar countries or states and see if there's any effect where you can isolate minimum wage legislation over a long time period between two or more otherwise similar jurisdictions. Effects on employment effects can also be more easily deduced when looking at individual industries care homes for example, which may have been masked in the economy as a whole.

Secondly there is the effect of the business cycle on employment: Companies whose business involves low wages to marginally productive workers will see margins fall as a result of minimum wages. They will be able to ride this out when times are good, but go bust when times get harder. Such businesses will not be started subsequently, and so you'd expect low-skill & youth unemployment to rise faster in a recession and not fall in the subsequent recovery.

Thirdly a national minimum wage becomes the de-facto low-skill wage, causing the wages of some people just above the minimum wage to fall creating a cartel effect on employers who utilise low-skilled labour. The government says it's OK to pay £5.93. We will pay £5.93 where we used to pay £7 because everyone else is. This is called 'Wage Compression'. The incomes of some rise, the incomes of those just above the minimum wage either fall, or rise less quickly than they otherwise would have done. Though this paper concludes that the lowering of inequality between workers is a positive effect, I doubt those facing a life-time with no prospect of much in the way of pay rises agree. I'd rather start a career earning a pittance with the prospect of hard work being rewarded by pay rises, than being at the tender mercy of the Government's minimum wage legislation for the rest of my adult life.

So did the minimum wage increase unemployment? No, in the short term, probably in the longer term. Has it had other effects on the Labour market? Of course. My argument is not that low wages are good, but that they're better than unemployment. In the UK's case, my view is that the minimum wage was set low, and this means its effects are minimal. However the temptation is to appear munificent and raise the minimum wage to levels which WILL have an impact on unemployment. Or you can do what Gordon Brown did: Freeze tax levels & raise minimum wage, whilst abolishing a low introductory tax band with the result that minimum wage workers received almost nothing from their "pay increase".

The other side of the low-wage coin is the benefits system which means that workers on the minimum wage, full time face 90% marginal tax/benefit withdrawal rates. The disgusting perverse incentives in the UK welfare state are far more important than minimum wage effects. I'd abolish the minimum wage, and introduce a citizen's basic income. This would ensure the state's obligations to the poor were met, whilst allowing people to sell their Labour for whatever they could, without perverse incentives and intrusive monitoring.

My view on the minimum wage is therefore: Meh. It's low enough at present not to really matter, but presents a huge temptation to idiot politicians, especially on the left. Anyone on the left who thinks it prevents abuse in any significant way without any negative effect on unemployment are wrong and guilty of typically left-wing wishful thinking. Anyone on the right who thinks it's the main cause of unemployment is also wrong, and guilty of a small truth, big error. Anyone who thinks it a moral, A Priori issue, is an idiot. Anyone thinking this is possible to discuss reasonably on Twitter, is not only an idiot, but a total twat too. And if you're looking for views on Philip Davies' comments, Tim Worstall sums it up nicely.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

The Banality of Evil

Hiding behind "lack of discretion to give warnings", brave customs officials pounced on a wicked Farmer who mows a local football pitch once a fortnight. For free.

Because he's a farmer, the fuel ALREADY IN THE TRACTOR'S TANK will be cheaper, low-duty red diesel. This however can, by law only be used for farming, or forestry purposes. So Mr Thorne is breaking the law, by mowing a football pitch, for free, once a fortnight, unless he siphons off the red Diesel in the tractor, replacing it with normal diesel to do the job.

I can understand if red diesel was being used for commercial lawn-mowing. I can understand why farmers are expected to put normal diesel in their cars. (Surely wouldn't it be better to remove the whole invitation to fraud and oppressive inspection and enforcement by simply refunding farmers' fuel duty, if such a subsidy is necessary?). however any law which says a farmer cannot use his vehicle, normally used for farming, for the benefit of the community without being fined £250, it is the law that is wrong, not the guy helping out Hartland Football Club.

The question I'd like to ask Bob Gaiger, the nasty, petty-minded little Gauleiter of an HMRC spokesman who pointed out, as if it were some kind of explanation, that revenue & customs officers "had no choice in the matter", whether he thought this was an appropriate use of HMRC officers' time. Who, pray, is he protecting by this zealous law-enforcement? If Government, as we are so often told, is there to help, protect and support the people (ha!), who benefits? Not the local kids, whose football pitch will no longer get mowed for free. Nor the revenue, whose officers will be paid more than the £250 it raised in fines. Certainly not Mr Thorne who's just had his money taken from him otherwise his tractor would have been impounded.

Do you think a reasonable person (i.e. not a despicable little state apparatchik) thinks Gritting the roads for free is an acceptable use of Red Diesel? Who benefits from this? A local community in a remote rural area, down the bottom of the list of destinations for the Council-run gritters. Of course All it requires is that the law allow Farmers to use red diesel for non-profit, or occasional community support activity, so long as this is not the main use of the vehicle, and allow the Customs officials a bit of discretion in deciding who is taking the piss, and who is helping their local community.

Nothing annoys me more than officials' overzealous enforcement of rules. This may give satisfaction to the kind of dull-minded inadequates who populate the civil service, but is exactly what makes people resent the state and it over intrusive interest in people's lives. The same people who think that fining a farmer for mowing a football pitch are the same people who think locking up opposing politicians is "just doing their job" because the state says so. "Banality of Evil" is a phrase first used by Hannah Arendt of Adolf Eichmann, who wrote that states can achieve great evil only by normalising the actions which lead up to it. It's a warning that just because something is written in Law, doesn't make it right. The law has only a passing, tangential relationship with justice. Banal, unimaginative people in a sensible state like the UK may only be fining farmers a few quid for a minor transgression such as using red diesel to grit the roads or mow a sports pitch, but this is of negative utility. No-one benefits. Indeed a number of people's lives are made a bit worse. Villagers who can't get to town until the council get round to gritting the road near them, or a sports team whose game subs have to go on commercial lawn-mowing, not an end of season piss-up. The HMRC should not be in the business of preventing people helping out their neighbours. No-one should pretend that this is the same as the people who enforced the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi for example, but it's on the same slope. Someone who is capable of enforcing such a manifest, if petty injustice, is capable of much, much worse.

The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, so Bob Gaiger and your ilk: we have our eyes on you, you banal, unimaginative, vile, totalitarian squit.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

British Manufacturing - It is about the Bike.

I've just finished reading Rob Penn's It's all about the Bike, about one man's perfect bicycle, based around a hand-built British Frame. In doing so the book reveals the history of the Bicycle, and how the bicycle was the invention which built the modern world. Indeed the car would not have been possible without inventions which sprung from the Bike: Pneumatic tyres on wire spoked wheels, driven by chains. Nor would cars have been able to navigate pre-bicycle roads. Cyclists have long been agitators for smooth roads. Most of the early car makers sprung out of Bicycle makers: Pugeuot, Hillman and so on. Bicycles generated a corps of people skilled with metal & machinery which enabled the early unreliable cars to survive a journey. Even aviation owes its early days to the bicycle: Orville & Wilbur Wright were bicycle mechanics, and based the principles of stable flight on the self-centring mechanism a bike uses to stay upright.

Because I am in the market for a new Bicycle, I have been researching of the custom frame-builders. For the same reason I buy Tailored suits (I can highly recommend GD Golding of St. Albans) I would like a custom bicycle to replace my aging Condor (whose bikes are made in Italy). There are plenty of guys out there who can build bikes & make a living from it. Rob Penn went to Bob Jackson in Leeds, but there are others: Woodrup, also in Leeds, Wilson cycles in Sheffield, Mercian cycles in Derby, Roberts in Croyden, Villiers in Kent. Burls' steel frames are UK made, but their Titanium frames are Russian (the same company which used to make Soviet submarines). Only Enigma makes Titanium frames in the UK.

By far the most popular frame tubing for high-end bikes is made by a British company, Reynolds, who make their tubing in Birmingham, and remain along with Brooks, who make saddles, as the few remaining remnants of the once mighty West-Midlands bicycle industry.

So British manufacturing may have declined, but it ain't dead, and what's left is amongst the best in the world. Most volume bicycle production has moved to China & Taiwan, even Raleigh, and as a result, you can get a lot of bike for £500. However some companies have managed to maintain British volume manufacture, albeit in clearly defined niches, Pashley and Brompton are two, and have done so using design and commitment to quality and have developed a loyal following. I am a proud Bromptoneer, for example. But even in the list of fine companies listed above is perhaps the reason we, as a nation, by and large don't make things any more.

Have a look at the websites of the companies listed above. They are catalogues, not a shop window. They are utilitarian ways of saying "if you want it, this is how much you pay". The bespoke frame-builders have waiting lists and see little point, it seems, in SELLING. Compare the British frame-builder's shop-window with his Italian or American equivalent, whose websites ooze "lifestyle" and desirability. Mercian, Condor and Enigma at least make an effort, but they're still lacking in imagination. Roberts cycles may make beautiful bikes, but you'd hardly know it from the website, which does not linger on the details like the welds and lugwork which set them apart as objects of desire. It's not just frames, it's true of components too. Hub manufacturer, Royce whose beautifully machined wide-flange hubs come with a track & racing pedigree in excess of that of Chris King (whose hubs, by the way freeze in cold weather unless you use the right grease) could be a global components business, if he could get out of his machine shop comfort-zone and SELL with half the alacrity with which he MAKES. If you didn't know about Royce hubs through word of mouth, or reading Robert Penn's book, you'd quickly end up with Campagnolo, Chris King or SRAM. The British craftsman presumably thinks that 'selling thing' vulgar, and maybe he's right. Perhaps the British Frame-builder is happiest brazing tubes together, not creating an image.


Business is, in part, creating the image. It's about creating desire for your product. If a British Frame Builder could make an image and sell a brand, he could sell 100,000 frames a year with his brand on (even if they're made in Taiwan) as Gary Fisher did and then he could charge even more for a frame hand-built by the MAN HIMSELF. Ralph Lauren doesn't tailor all his own suits. He does however still cut SOME for his most important clients. As a result of failing to invest in the most basic of marketing such as SEO, the guys with the real skills are missing out on business which is being taken by hipsters making for hipsters, and worse, people making the cheap mountain bike whose sole purpose is to put people off cycling. Try googling "British Frame Builder" First up is Wilson Cycles halfway down the page, whose informative but dated-looking site inspires beard-growth through talk of headset angles, rather than desire with high resolution picutres of his handiwork. The bicycle is coming back, whatever my co-blogger thinks. It's a British invention and we're bloody good at making it, but because there's little magic dust being sprinkled, the industry nearly died.

This is what went wrong with the British car industry. Who, really, honestly wanted a rover? Vauxhall is not an object of desire. This is more a problem of marketing than engineering. And where the craftsmen operate - really good engineers in TVR, Hillman, Marcos, Lotus they lacked the marketing & business skills to make their businesses really work. It's not about the product selling itself. It's not, unfortunately, about what you want to sell. The best businesses create their own desire, and make their customers feel a bit special. Ferarri do this. TVR didn't. Cielo does, Woodrup - well you wouldn't know, unless you walked into their Leeds shop.

The mountain-bike revolution was apparently led by a bunch of pot-smoking bums in Marin county California who enjoyed racing old balloon-tyred cruisers down a hill called Repack. Despite this background, Gary Fisher built a successful mass-production business, though eventually sold the bike busiess he started to Trek, who subsequently killed the brand, but Ritchie, the original MTB frame builder's business still lives on as do Orange, Specialized, Marin are all names from the early days of the MTB revolution, a revolution which changed the bike industry for good. Why are so few British craftsmen able to create a brand? Chris Boardman has made a brand, but on Bikes made in China - it's more an endorsement than a business. Now, with single-speed bikes fashionable, Oil pricey and exercise difficult to fit into the day, Car design crippled by environmental and safety legislation, the moment for the bike has arrived. It just needs a bit of thought from a few people to make a British hand-built bike as much an object of global desire as a British handmade suit or British hand made luggage. Or shoes. Or Cars.

I want to go to these British frame-builders and shake them for their spelling mistakes on their sites, for their cluttered and ugly web-pages. If they took half the care over their Internet shop-window as they did over their lug-work, the best guys could charge twice as much, and in doing so, there would be more people seeking the work, and so more choice for someone wanting a bike. Hand-build bikes needn't be a luxury out of reach. Bike shops across the land would not be selling on auto-pilot mass produced stuff from Taiwan, instead they would be selling beautiful objects which could be fixed, not thrown away. More frame-builders would create more demand. Carbon fibre may be great for the racer, but it's to brittle for everyday life - it's not the best you can buy. Tailoring your frame to your dimensions & riding style (like my first Condor - how I miss that bike, damned BMW) means comfort and stability. And you get a bike which lasts, and which no-one else has.

It's not just bikes, but the whole of British industry needs to have the self confidence to sell. 'Made in Britain' should be about quality and is, if the naturally diffident British craftsmen & engineers can be persuaded to shout about what they do so well.

Anyway. Seeing as you've read this far, and in the unlikely event that you're interested in my dream bike, here's what I'm going to go for, as and when I can afford it: Either an Enigma Ti or Mercian in reynolds 953 audax frame. British Racing Green as the main colour & Yellow details. Campagnolo 10 or 11-speed (depending on budget). Bottom bracket by Royce, Chris King or Campagnolo. I will go for a traditional Quill stem, unless someone can suggest a reason to not go for one. I already have a brooks saddle, but I might put that on the Brompton & splash out on a Green Ti Swift. Speedplay frog pedals. Wheels with Royce hubs, DT swiss spokes, Mavic rims with 2-cross front, crow's foot rear lacing and I'll build 'em myself. There's a "donate" button to the right if you want to help me get my dream bike sooner...

Thursday, 9 June 2011

More on the Legalisation of Narcotics

Thanks to 'Stranger Here Myself' who left a comment on my recent post, in which he asks some intelligent questions.

1. What do you envisage being the legal minimum age for the purchase and use of narcotics? Will it be a single minimum age for all narcotics (including heroin) or do you intend imposing different minimum ages for different drugs (i.e. one minimum age for marijuana and a different one for crack)?
In general, people use the word "narcotic" to mean any psychoactive substance taken recreationally which is currently illegal. Pot and Crack have nothing in common, except their legal status. In general, though the age of majority, 18 makes sense. Clearly some narcotics do more harm than others, but as I approach this from a libertarian viewpoint, there comes a point where society considers everyone an adult. It would be difficult to restrict legal products to anyone older. Clearly the legalisation of Heroin, which causes major social and personal problems is going to be politically harder than Marijuana, and may be available through the health care system to addicts rather than as a recreational product. This would be vastly preferable to a criminal supply chain.

2. What enforcement mechanisms do you intend to ensure your laws regarding minimum age are adhered to? What penalties do you anticipate being levelled at those violating your laws?
Similar to those covering alcohol and tobacco for narcotics. Supply to minors would be an offense, but, again, as a libertarian, I'd tend to allow supervised use in the home, like the law surrounding alcohol. Clearly with Heroin administered through the health care system would be subject to a different regime. Are you really, honestly fussed if someone smokes a spliff with their 16 year old child?
3. What do you believe the minimum levels of narcotic presence should be for driving under the influence? Currently police can test drivers for alcohol use with minimal inconvenience but the basic test for 'drug driving' is crude physical co-ordination tests. Are you comfortable with police conducting random tests as they currently do for alcohol--cars lined up as drivers wait their turn to walk up and down lines, stand on one leg, etc.? Drivers required to provide urine samples because a police officer spots a pack of '20 Hash' on the dashboard?
The only coherent argument against legalisation is one which almost never gets an airing. There is no effective roadside test for 'drug driving'. The development of one is probably necessary to allow legalisation. Work would need to be done on the level of impairment. It's unlikely that small levels of cocaine are more dangerous than fatigue, for example to a driver. Pot does impair reactions, but also tends to make people drive slower. Legalisation would encourage research into narcotic's effects with a view to safe use, rather than brute detection. How long before you're unimpared after smoking pot. Difficult to know. It would be easier were such things legal.

This is certainly a problem for proponents of legalisation, but I doubt it is beyond the wit of humankind to come up with a solution.

4. What about exporting narcotics? Are you going to prohibit that? If not, how do you think the rest of the world--Europe, the U.S., etc.--will react to your country cultivating and manufacturing narcotics and supplying it to their countries' criminals? Would you risk your libertarian utopia being deemed a pariah 'narco-state' by the international community and subject to sanctions? Your libertarian government being terminated by American, French, Russian and/or Chinese special forces to the relief of the remainder of the civilised world?

The UN convention on narcotics is probably the biggest over-reaction in history. More energy has been put into stopping people getting high than was put into ending the slave-trade or child prostitution. I suspect were a major trading nation, and member of the Security Council, Britain for example, were we to unilaterally legalise drugs, an awful lot of other countries would breath a sigh of relief and follow suit. Who really gives a shit what a totalitarian regime like China's thinks?
5. If you are going to prohibit the export of narcotics, how will you enforce that prohibition? Are you satisfied that the present effort at (unsuccessfully) stopping the import of drugs would have to remain in place--prosecuted with greater vigour, even--but now aimed at stopping the export? What penalties would you deem sufficient to deter and punish those exporting a substance that is otherwise legal to purchase, sell, cultivate and manufacture?

I would like to see a regulated trade. Like that in Alcohol.
6. Are you not perturbed at the idea of narcotics--from marijuana to heroin--being advertised in a manner similar to alcohol? That similar adverts--many amusing and clever--could be aimed at promoting the sale and use of narcotics? ('Time for a sharp exit--time for a cool, sharp crack'; 'I bet he smokes skunk', etc.) Just as one now has '3-for-2' and 'buy A and get B free' deals, are you okay with sellers endeavouring to expand their market? That we might see signs in shops offering to the effect of 'Buy one sachet of heroin and get a rock of crack cocaine absolutely free'?
Tobacco advertising is banned. Alcohol advertising is strictly regulated. Legal recreational drugs including cocaine or Marijuana need not be any different.
7. Are you content with manufacturers, just as they now expend effort to retain and expand their current markets by producing ever-better computer games, MP3-players, etc. with which people enjoy themselves, applying the same effort to create ever-better varieties of recreational pharmaceuticals?
One of the principal benefits of legalisation would be a supply chain where quality, particularly of Cocaine or MDMA, would be up to pharmaceutical standards. Mixers would be biochemically inert. Brands would be known and trusted for safety. Diageo, for example does not kill people with wood alcohol. Bootleggers during the prohibition era were not so fastidious.
8. Finally: assuming that you are serious about 'libertarianism' and would like to spread the philosophy outside of bourgeois liberal circles, do you really believe that drug-legalisation is the platform on which to do so? Do you really think those making up the majority in this country--the cleaners, bus drivers, plumbers, infantry soldiers, etc. (the ones with real jobs)--give a flying damn about legalising drugs? When they look around for someone with answers--to the daily crime, to why their country has turned its back on them--and they see you lined up next to the criminal-friendly Guardianista brigade--will they flock to your side?

I am serious about libertarianism. But I accept that it is a marginal political view point. The Guardianistas are every bit as authoritarian as their Daily Mail reading Nemesis. The legalisation of pot in particular seems to be strongest supported in Conservative circles: It's been the Daily Telegraph, Spectator and Economist view for a long time. This is a question for a politician, which I am not.

All I am doing is looking at the 'War on Drugs' and seeing the horror, murder, death, crime and ruined lives it has caused out of all proportion to the harm (which I am not denying, by the way) of widespread drug use, and saying "there must be a better way". A third of Americans in Gaol are there for crimes which ONLY involve drugs - no violence, theft or even victims, just supply or possession. Is that really the best use of scarce law-enforcement resources?

People like to get high, drunk, stoned, or otherwise alter their mental state. In final analysis, there have been 40 years of the "war on Drugs" at the end of which drugs, Pot, Cocaine and MDMA from different sources are available freely to whoever wants them. Shortages - it's apparently nigh on impossible to get LSD these days - are due to changing fashions, not success in policing. Problems caused by "drugs" are difficult to tease apart from the problems caused by ever more draconian law enforcement. Locking a person up for posession or small-time supply effectivly ends that person's life on the right side of the law. It's time to admit that Drug supply cannot, in a free society, be interdicted. So stop trying and find another, less painful way to mitigate harms, and take the most profitable business the world has ever devised out of the hands of criminals.

I hope this answers your questions.

Ditch the Car, Bike to work.

I've been mulling the issue for a while: Why don't more people cycle to work? There are a number of excuses given. I thought I'd have a go at dealing with some of them.

1) It's too far. Fair enough - 10 miles is probably the longest reasonable daily commute by bike (though some do much more), but this is something of a cultural and life-style choice. People endure long commutes at the cost of health, marriage, fitness and time in order to gain an extra bathroom, used rarely.

I've avoided a long commute, after enduring one of 2 hours for a few months, I'd never go back. I've set a strict upper limit of 20 minutes each way. If I can't get to work in 20 minutes, I move. It is that simple. I'm happier, though probably poorer for it. Move to your job, or move your job to nearer home. It's not a decision you'll ever regret.

There are a lot of issues here. These range from planning law: Zoning actually prevents people living and working in the same area; to Public transport, which is poor. These policy decisions have the effect of forcing people to the car, and so car-friendly policies which often preclude other forms of transport, become the norm. This has the effect, over a couple of generations of encouraging people to make a bad choice of a nice house far, far from work. People don't take into account the economic and emotional cost of their TIME when factoring the utility of house purchases, and having bought a house 30 miles or more from work, agitate for more road-building to mitigate the inevitable congestion of near-mandatory car use. This is an economic error made by people & governments which probably costs "the west" more in happiness than any other.

If you cut your commute to less than half an hour from 2 hours, it's like getting a 80% pay rise in terms of happiness. If you think your long commute makes sense, or you think it suits you, you're probably wrong. You also probably think you have no choice. You do.
2) I arrive all sweaty. Not necessarily. It is possible to cycle at a lower cadence using no more energy than walking. This is what most Dutch and Danish commuting cyclists do, and makes sense for short, urban commutes of less than a couple of miles. If you do want to thrash yourself on the way to work over a long journey, many offices have showers and lockers. Or it maybe possible to use a nearby Gym. Once you're used to rolling out of bed into cycling gear, and showering at the office, it's easy and makes a lot of sense. You get your exercise in before coffee & breakfast. Breakfast at the desk isn't all bad.
3) It's uncomfortable. No it isn't. Well, you just need to acclimatise your sit-bones, which takes a week. And the kit needs to fit you and the job you want it to do. You need the right saddle. That comfortable-looking wide, gel filled saddle which looked and felt so great in the shop actually prevents blood getting to key muscles causing cramp and soreness on any more than a trip to the shop. Mega-distance cyclists are almost unanimous on Brooks as the way to go as it moulds to your sit-bones after a couple of hundred miles. A thinner, stiffer saddle is actually more comfortable than the big soft one. Look at what people who spend all day in the saddle use. Saddles needs to fit. Spend a bit of money on it.

Make sure the saddle is the right height. That probably means putting it up a couple of inches. Most inexperienced cyclists have the saddle far too low. This causes back and knee pain. Ultimately the cycling position you choose is a compromise: the more efficient pedalling action is upright, like a dutch bike, but as you go faster, the more hunched over you need to be to combat wind resistance which increases with the square of speed. Utility bikes are more upright than tourers, which are more upright than audax bikes, road racer, Time-trial and triathlon bikes, which are uncomfortable and unsuitable for traffic, are the most 'bum-in-the-air' geometry widely available. There is a bike for every occasion: from Downhill mountain bikes to Track bikes. From touring bikes to fixies, don't go into a bike shop and let yourself be sold what's available to them. Research what it is you want to do, and talk to cyclists who are already doing it.

Above all, don't ever, ever, ever buy a cheap mountain bike. They are shit, when you can get a perfectly serviceable hybrid bike for £300. Halfords' £300 'full suspension' 'mountain' bikes are probably the cause of more people abandoning cycling as a means of transport than anything else. They're heavy, have knobbly tyres, which whirr along the road. That sound energy is being taken from the energy propelling you to the destination, yet the bikes are completely unsuitable for off-road work, where they are unsafe as the forks and frame just aren't strong enough. If you want to start commuting to work, get a bike designed for the job. Remember this: Light, strong, cheap: choose two. Knobbly tyres aren't safer, and fat tyres may be more comfortable, but at the cost of a lot of extra work.

If you start to enjoy cycling then you can decide whether you want to go knobbly & off road, or skinny, bendy-barred and on-road. Or both, but remember you're using an engine with about 1/3rd horsepower. Everything is a compromise. Before you start making decisions as to which expensive bike to get (and you will...) make sure you've thought of the compromises you are actually making. In general though, a touring bike or Audax bike will be suitable for most people who don't go off road/track in most circumstances. 4) Weather. There is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes. Spend money on the right kit, you'll be comfortable in all weather. There's a certain hero value in winter commuting on a bicycle. Whenever I saw footage of snow on the news in the UK, there's always a hardy cyclist getting through it.

5) You can't carry much stuff.
How much stuff do you actually need? And you would be surprised how much you can get on some bikes. Golf-clubs for example have never been a problem for me. I can carry a week's shopping in a back-pack. If you add panniers and racks a family shop shouldn't be a problem. If you invest in a cargo-bike, you've got more capacity than a small car boot.

So after years of cycling what do I do? For the daily commute I use a Courier Bag which I had custom-made by Bagaboo. The Large workhorse messenger bag is quite beautifully designed and keeps kit dry and can easily carry enough kit for a weekend away. I have a handlebar bag and saddle-bag by Ortlieb. On the Brompton, I have the front luggage, and use the rack to carry a rucksack if necessary.

6) Cycling kit looks ridiculous. Yes, it does, if you think the clothes worn by the mobile advertising hoardings of the Giro D'Italia & Tour de France are all that's available. However there are plenty of people supplying clothes cut for cycling, which look normal off the bike. They are expensive, but so's any specialist kit. Outlier and Rapha are two which spring to mind.

Rapha's urban cycle range.

It's perfectly possible to throw a pair of trousers over your bib-shorts at your destination. You can even get cycling shoes you'd be able to wear in the pub or a reasonably dress-down office. Dromarti & Quoc Pham's leather offerings look pretty good. And a Merino wool cycling shirt looks ok with jeans in the pub. It's not all Lycra and polyester. I've even eschewed the helmet for a stylish cap.

7) I like the freedom of the Car. So do I. No-one is saying you have to get rid of it, as I have mine. But consider this: Insurance: £600+ per year. Tax: £200+, MOT/Service: £600+. Depreciation: can be thousands a year. If you replace the car with the bike for a daily commute, how often do you actually need a car? Once a week? You can hire a car for £33 a day. You're still in pocket and you don't have to worry about it when you're not using it. When you need a small car, hire a cheap small car, when you need a van or estate, hire one of them. You're more flexible. And faster. Everyone knows hire cars are the fastest vehicles on the road.

8) It's dangerous. But not as dangerous as being fat. In any case, cycling is only dangerous to the inexperienced. Teenagers especially. Cyclists in general face lower mortality per journey than motorists, and lower mortality per KM than motorcyclists or pedestrians. When you consider how much of the "danger" of cycling is concentrated in a few demographics - teenagers especially, the statistics for adult cyclists who know what they're doing on properly maintained kit will look even better.

Give it some thought, ditch the car, and buy a bike.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

The War on Drugs: The Dam is Breaking.

So, following the rare outbreak of sanity earlier this year from our very own Bob Ainsworth, a few more serious people have put their heads above the parapet and called for an end to the War on Drugs. This time the signatories include the former President of Columbia, who you'd think knew a thing or two about the subject, George Shultz, Javier Solana and Kofi Annan. This adds to the declaration by Juan Manuel Santos, the current Columbian president that he would "not be against decriminalisation". It's not just international NGO grandees and superannuated politicians either. Law Enforcement against Prohibition now boasts thousands of members. Several unserious people added their voice too. A few Countries around the world are decriminalising drugs, and not seeing their societies collapse into anarchy, though the US ensures that outright legalisation is off the table for the time being, and the White House described the report as "misguided" it is clear the it is standing Canute*-like against a rising tide.

Whatever Gil Kerlikowske thinks, the dam is cracking in the global establishment position that drugs eradication by interdiction of supply is the best means to mitigate the harms of illegal drugs. The evidence is mounting that supply cannot be interdicted in any meaningful way, and that most users do not cause problems.

There are still pillars of resistance which will remain standing long after the cracks become a flood. The law-enforcement community has invested huge sums in prohibition, and vast bureaucracies, some with global reach like the DEA which have huge lobbying power, will resist decriminalisation, which amounts to a declaration that 40 years of effort and sacrifice from their officers has been a failure at best, and probably massively counter-productive.

Our own dear Inspector Gadget condemns the "well heeled" who call for the legalisation of drugs, arguing that "the reality" of drug use amongst the criminal underclass is different. Of course, if poor people admit to drug use, they get locked up. Unlike Dame Judi Dench or Sting.

"At least when it’s illegal we can do something about it, unlike the widespread alcohol abuse which causes so much damage to society."
He says. Of course, it may not be the Police's role to "do something" about drugs and alcohol apart from locking up problem users who nick things or beat each other up. Just because something is bad, or harmful, it doesn't follow that it should be illegal. Much of the crime associated with drugs is either 1) acquisitive crime to fund a habit. or 2) violent crime as dealers defend their patch.

The law enforcement communtiy is not known for radical thinking, and has a lot of political capital tied up in prohibition, not to mention jobs and funding. Their knee-jerk response to any call for decriminalisation is to condemn it as "misguided" or "dangerous" and to dismiss the person making the call as a (probably drug-addled) crank. Such reports as today make this approach more difficult, and the truth is coming out: Legalised drugs would reduce the cost, reducing the level of acquisitive crime needed to fund habits. It would eventually eliminate drug related violent crime as dealers would be undercut by the local legal supplier. Booze may cause fights, but it's not the publican beating up the manager of the local branch of Sainsbury's.

But wouldn't legal drugs be more available? No. Drugs are easier to get hold of (especially after hours) than Alcohol in most urban areas. In terms of oblivion per buck, Heroin's cheaper than booze. If anything a legal supply chain would REDUCE availability to problem users.

But drugs are Harmful, wouldn't legalising them mean more use, more addicts and be detrimental to society? That's not the evidence of Portugal's or any other decriminalisation experiment (the supply chain is still in criminal hands). In addition to the crime reduction, by imposing pharmaceutical standards on drugs, many of the medical problems associated with use will be reduced even more by legalisation and regulation as opposed to mere decriminalisation.

The fact supporters of continued prohibition must contend with, is, after 40 years of the 'war on Drugs' has failed. Coke, weed, heroin are more plentiful and cheaper than they have ever been. Whatever the answer to the "drug problem" more of the same ain't it.

*Yes, I know Canute was making a point to his courtiers.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Heroes and Anti-Heroes.

In previous generations, Americans have enjoyed mafia anti-heroes, morally questionable wild-west lawmen & outlaws. They've celebrated the guy running from the law, they've thrilled at rule-breakers and loners who get the job done. Investigative journalists were once a staple hero of film and TV as they uncovered the truth about what those in power did to those without. Authority was always suspect.

America's cool new fascism

What does the current output of america's TV studios say about the country now there are more shows about people WITH power, doing unto those without. There seem to be a lot of shows about law-enforcement. From the sinister conflation of Policing and entertainment of Police! Stop! Kill! (or whatever), reaching it's apotheosis with Steven Segal actually becoming a Lawman and the even more ridiculous Dog the bounty hunter which feature real-life shoot-outs.

Policing as entertainment is troubling enough, but it is the raft of interchangeable shows showcasing the myth of an alphabet soup of ultra-competent hi-tech law-enforcement agencies which trouble me the most. Does anyone imagine the world's forensic labs are staffed by genius savants with a thirst for the truth a-la CSI? Or are they banging out DNA matches to order on a production line? 'The Mentalist' and 'Lie to Me' at least have interestingly flawed characters at the centre, but still essentially support the authoritarian submission to law-enforcers, who are ultra-competent, all-seeing and incorruptible. Then you have the deeply creepy NCIS, a spin-off from the equally suspect JAG in which military legal people are trying to be cool, whereas everyone knows everyone hates the monkeys. Even court-room drama, like Shark, is now more likely to see the prosecutor as the hero, not the defence lawyer, nor the guy uncovering mal-practice against the wishes of those in power. The investigative journalist is just as likely to be portrayed as a traitor than a hero these days. Finally you have the 192 episodes of 24, which serve together as an apology for the Bush/Obama policy of extra-judicial execution, rendition, torture and extra-legal detention. The metaphor of the ticking bomb made into highly a watchable televisual torture-fest.

The myth of the the ultra-competent, all-seeing intelligence agency able to swoop on "terrorists" who in these shows are rarely anything like the terrorists in real-life, and are instead generally painted as "the guy next door" serve to make people watching them comfortable with the idea of surveillance being for our own good because it helps the good guys catch the bad, who could be anyone, anywhere. This is a comforting myth to hideously overweight middle America that there are young, good-looking people protecting them while they sleep amongst their fast-food cartons in front of the telly.

The reality is a different. Forensic labs are understaffed, by underpaid biology graduates. Police are more interested in performance targets, overtime and the location of the nearest doughnut emporium than they are in 'justice'. They are more than happy to fix-up the usual suspects if it means they get home in time for 24 on the telly. Intelligence agencies rely on guess-work and hearsay and certainly don't have access to all the nation's cctv from one central control room with inexplicable cool-blue underfloor lighting. Have you ever beein in a Government building that looks like CTC/LA from 24?. Intelligence operatives are not cool, they're civil servants who are 43% fatter & uglier than the national average*. No-one ever, in any public-secotr organisation anywhere, has ever used a fucking Mac, let alone an iPad.

America is sleepwalking into facism. They already lock up 1% of their adult population, mostly for possession of small amounts of drugs, mainly of the kinds used by poor people. They are developing a surveillance culture as bad as our own, and as for bureaucracy - well you think Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs is bad? Wait till you try dealing with the US equivalent. This is all OK because thanks to the Black Propaganda of NCIS, 24 and the like, all that oppressive apparatus of the state is deployed for people's "security". If you can persuade them of the existence of bogeymen, they will pay and suffer intrusive surveillance to protect themselves from bogeymen.

Western power comes from wealth; our wealth comes directly from our liberty. Our freedom to think "how can I do this better" and freedom to apply those insights leads directly to economic growth. Freedom to question the Government's policies and those acting in it's name means an absence of piles of corpses in western political discourse. How long can this last? Timid and cowed people, brainwashed into not rocking the boat, not questioning why that camera is looking at me, nor why there's armed men at the airport, are less likely to question their boss's stupid man-management or the government's latest plan to lock up ever more 'bad people', and shoot in the head those it can't catch. Not only is everyone a'frit to go out but everyone's doing as they're told. No-one's happy. And we get poorer. As we get poorer, we get weaker, magnifying the threats and yielding more excuses for repression.

The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, but it seems everyone's watching the wrong shows.

*Some statistics may have been made up.

There was an error in this gadget