söndag 25 februari 2007

British kids are not 'miserable'... they're arsey

I really liked Barbara Ellen's article in last Sunday' (18 February) Observer. She was commenting on the UNICEF report that put Britain at the bottom of the league.

Her piece was headed

British kids are not 'miserable'... they're arsey

"Our adolescents are vile, stroppy, sarcastic ingrates, which explains exactly why their lives are worth living.."

She really pulled the UNICEF report to bits, with a well-aim swipe at countries like Sweden and the Netherlands which came at the top of the UNICEF league. I was in Scandinavia last year. It is a horrible part of the world. The trains have brushes in the toilets, would you believe? And alcohol gel to clean the seat with. How prissy can you get? And paper towels, which people use to wipe their hands on instead of shoving them all down the pan and blocking it. And they take their shoes off if they put their feet on the seats.

Cyclists are another thing. In Copenhagen there were all getting off their bikes and walking when they came to a pedestrianised area. How feeble can you get?

At a seaside resort I was at, again in Sweden, I found a public changing room and showers for swimmers, built out of timber - the picture at the top of this blog. Seemingly the local kids don't have the gumption to smash up the showers and burn the thing down, which would have been pefectly easy to to do, especially as you hardly ever see the police. What's the matter with them?

Again in Sweden, although it is reassuring that people leave lager cans strewn around, I spotted someone picking them up so they could get the deposit back. How daft is that - giving people an incentive to collect up rubbish? Whatever next.

The last straw was in a town called Halmstad, again in Sweden, where there was a stall in the market square, selling garden buildings. There was a timber shed and glass house left on display as samples. I couldn't believe it. They were still there on a Sunday morning. I mean, these kids aren't even up to the simplest challenge. Who wouldn't enjoy smashing up a glasshouse for fun? What a ghastly country.

So it's great to be in Britain, where if anyone complains if kids are acting with total disregard for anyone, they get a good mouthful of Anglo-Saxon for their impertinence, and it is normal to put your muddy shoes on the seats on the seat opposite when travelling by train. Good on you, Barbara Ellen.

If you missed this gem of perceptive and incisive analysis, here are a few selected paragraphs, but you can read the whole article here

"And so, in the only parents' race that really matters, we limp in last, egg fallen from the spoon, potato sack tangled around the ankles. Last week, the Unicef report (An Overview of Child Wellbeing in Rich Countries) placed our children overall bottom of the world's 21 most developed territories, behind the top-ranking Netherlands and Scandinavia, and countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic.

"Not only were British children ranked 'worst off' in the developed world - with the highest rates of drunkenness, obesity, bullying, early sexual intercourse, cannabis-taking, and teenage pregnancy - they made it clear that they felt worst off: unhealthy, unhappy with family relationships and friendships, more likely to feel left out, disenfranchised. Ultimately, the picture painted by the Unicef report was of British childhood as the 'toxic' equivalent of a nuclear-waste dump, oozing through the soil of this green and pleasant land - the makings of a true asbo nation. It was time for British parents to feel ashamed and responsible, and of course we did. At first, anyway.

"Hand-wringing aside, are British children really the most deprived in the developed world? The last time you looked in a school playground was it bursting at the seams with drunk, stoned, pregnant, friendless manic depressives? Would our adolescents really be better off cultivating acne in Holland or Sweden, or queuing for Clearasil in Poland? While no one would deny our tragic levels of child poverty, the devastating teenage pregnancy rate, and not least the recent child-shootings in south London, common sense dictates that this cannot be the whole story.

"The Unicef report has already come in for criticism for ignoring younger children, and using out-of-date data, as well as (shame on them) seizing upon lone parenthood as a surefire barometer of social degeneracy (thereby branding huge numbers of children as 'failures' before they even begin). Unicef also chose to employ a bizarre 'relative poverty' grading system that conveniently ignored the fact that most of our children live the life of Master Brooklyn Beckham compared with children in less economically stable nations...

"Indeed, British teenagers are, have always been, by nature, rebellious, stroppy, and a lot less interested in being fair than they are in being interesting. Which to my mind is much less creepy and disturbing than the thought of all those sucky-up kids from Holland and Sweden (henceforth known as the apple-polishing nations) chirruping away about how much they respect their elders. Bearing this in mind, this was the only possible result for this study...

"Unlike their Dutch or Swedish counterparts, British children were never going to answer such questions as 'Are your contemporaries kind and helpful?' with po-faced sincerity; to piously and publicly abhor the idea of sex, drugs, and other 'bad behaviour'; and pour anything other than molten scorn upon the status quo. Indeed, the vast majority of British adolescents are as they always were, as most of us were - vile, stroppy, preternaturally sarcastic ingrates, who would doubtless be labelled dangerous, disaffected sociopaths in any other European country. And this is supposed to be a bad thing..."

Congratulations on a great piece of journalism.

lördag 24 februari 2007

Sweden 'needs to shake up jobs and housing'

"Sweden needs to deregulate the housing rental market and changes are needed to employment rules in order to stop the exclusion of immigrants and other groups, a new survey of the Swedish economy from the OECD has said.

"The report, issued every two years, praised Sweden's 'strong and steady' economic performance, saying that the country's economy had done better than most other European countries. The report said that the country's response to the economic crisis of the early 1990s had laid foundations for current successes.

"But the OECD reserved strong criticism for the housing market, calling for the abolition of rent controls.

"Heavy regulation of rent levels forces people who might have preferred to rent into buying property instead, particularly in Stockholm, the reports said. Rent controls also force people onto the black market, lead to the conversion of rental flats into tenant-owned apartments and lead to low construction levels of rental flats.

"Eight percent of the population of Stockholm is queuing for an apartment, with an average waiting time of 10 years, while well-connected people are able to jump the queue. This benefits insiders and people who are already privileged, the report argues.

" 'Our main concern over rent controls is that prices do not respond to demand and supply,' said Felix Hüfner, one of the report's authors. They could also have an effect on labour mobility, thereby having an impact on other areas of the economy," he said."

This is all very well, but as so often happens with economists, those at OECD are only looking at half the picture. Reform could go badly wrong, as happened in Britain in the 1950s when rent control was abolished by a Conservative government and the result was large scale eviction and the homelessness which continues to this day. Landlords exploited the situation and we had what is known as Rachmanism, named after one notorious landlord; another notorious and more recent case is the landlord Hoogstraten.

If rents are not allowed to rise to current market values, economic theory predicts that a secondary market will develop, legally or otherwise, which is exactly what can be observed and is what OECD is criticising. But if rentals are set by market conditions and no other measures are taken, then they will rise to artificially high levels as landlords will keep a lot of property empty and off the market whilst attempting to find tenants who will pay the extortionate rent.

The only way round this problem is to liberalise rents, and at the same time, to introduce a property tax based on the land value element of the rental value - such a tax to be based on current rental values and paid annually.

This is known as land value tax (LVT); potentially, it could raise very large amounts of revenue, thereby enabling other taxes, for example, on labour, to be cut or even abolished.

About land value taxation

fredag 23 februari 2007

Land and the Catholic Church

Land has always been an important concern to the Catholic Church. In feudal times, much land was held by the church with the aim of providing it with an income from the rent, to support the religious orders, who provided the services which are nowadays the responsibility of the state - care of the poor, the sick, teaching, etc.

The land issue was raised in last week's edition of the Catholic Times; the writer, who works for the Institute of Economic Affairs, a "right wing" think tank, was making the case for private ownership of land as essential for development.

Land tenure is indeed key to both economic justice and to the use of resources in a sustainable way. But this is not the whole story. What people need for development is secure tenure, which is a different thing from land ownership. In fact, land ownership gives benefit to some at the ultimate expense of others.

Wherever injustice, extremes of wealth and poverty, and political tyranny exist, we find land ownership concentrated into the hands of a few. And widespread prosperity and democracy flourish best where land ownership is also most widely diffused - even though, paradoxically, those places often lack natural resources.

Although Catholic Social Teaching has asserted the right to private ownership of property, it has balanced this view with another: "God gave the earth to the whole human race" - (Rerum Novarum) and "Every person has the right to glean what they need from the earth" - (Populorum Progressio, 1967). The same principle lies behind the biblical Law of Jubilees: "Land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land belongs to me, and to me you are only strangers and guests". - Lev 25:23.

At first sight, there is a contradiction. This difficulty has perhaps arisen because modern economists regard Land as a species of Capital. This is a mistake. By Land, we have to understand that this means God-given natural resources and sites in their undeveloped state: agricultural land in its state of natural fertility; virgin forest; minerals in the ground; and so on. Capital is a product of individual human labour: planted trees; farm animals; ships and aircraft; factories, office buildings, and the machinery in them.

Property, which consists of buildings standing on plots of land, thus comprises both Land and Capital. Once this distinction is acknowledged, the apparent contradiction in the social teaching of the church is resolved.

The Church can affirm the natural right to ownership of Capital precisely because it is a product of human effort, and people have a natural right to the full fruits of their labour. But if Land is not the product of the individual's labour, then there can be no natural right of ownership. The social teaching of the Catholic Church has repeatedly linked land ownership to the concept of stewardship, pointing out that property ownership carries obligations: "The right of ownership is not absolute" (Quadragesimo Anno, 1931); "There is a social function inherent in the right of private ownership" (Mater et
Magistra, 1961).

The profound truth of this principle can be appreciated when we remember that land values arise from the presence of the community and the desire of the community for the products of land, and that these land values are further sustained by public services such as roads, railways, schools, parks and hospitals.

Here is the core of the moral issue raised by land ownership. Not all land is equal and not everyone can own land. Land owners can exact a payment - which we call rent - for the use of a resource which they did not make. We have come to accept that whoever happens to hold the title of the land is entitled to claim the rent, but such a claim has
no foundation in natural justice. In the absence of any obligation to the community, landowners can enjoy rights and privileges without duties, which is tearing many societies apart.


How, in practice, might property owners exercise their duty of stewardship? One method which has been suggested is the taxation of land values, as a replacement for existing taxes. The land value tax would operate as an annual tax on the rental value of every plot of land, the assessment being the market value of the site. The tax would be paid regardless of whether the land was in use or not.

Land value taxation achieves many objectives. It maintains justice from one generation to the next; it evens-out the differences between those who own the most valuable land and those who own land of little value or none at all; it prevents land speculation, and it raises public revenue justly in a way which does not penalise business, enterprise or labour. It is an essential practical means of putting into effect the teaching of the Church.

tisdag 20 februari 2007

London subsidises the rest of the UK

Edinburgh Castle
Originally uploaded by Trent S..

London subsidises the rest of the UK to the tune of £13 billion a year. So says a report by Oxford Economic Forecasting

Not so. London, like any other major business centre, can only exist as an important business centre by virtue of its hinterland. Most of the flow of wealth in Britain goes from the periphery to the centre. The effect is overcrowding, unaffordable housing and congestion in London and the South East, and widespread economic depression everywhere else, requiring substantial sums of money being spent in a largely futile attempt to redress the imbalance. And still, so much wealth is left in the bottom right hand corner of the country that property (land) values grow inexorably.

The reality is that London and the South East are sucking wealth out of the rest of the country. The principal mechanism through which this happens is the tax system, which largely ignores the advantages and disadvantages of geography. And so businesses which might be viable in the absence of tax are driven below the margin and out of existence. The wealth that might otherwise have been produced is lost, whilst the people who could have produced it are left in idleness and have to be kept by the taxpayer.

To see the reality of this, it is necessary only to compare Cornwall and the Channel Islands. The latter are even more remote from centres of population than Cornwall, and if they were subject to the standard UK tax regime, like Cornwall, they would suffer high unemployment and be a drain on the country, with large amounts being directed towards them in grants intended to alleviate matters

But as the Channel Islands are able to set their own tax regimes, they are self-sufficient and enjoy buoyant economies. They do not have to go constantly cap-in-hand to the British government.

Of course there are complaints about their tax-haven status, but it is only stupidity and powerful vested interests that stop the British government following suit and relying on land value taxation as its principal source of revenue.

With such a tax regime, the revenue drawn through taxation would be precisely in accordance with the geographical advantage or disadvantage of every location. Those operating at marginal locations would, quite rightly, pay no tax.

Under such a system, nobody would be subsidising anyone else. Until tax is proportionate to locational advantage, landowners in the most advantaged areas are being subsidised by everyone else.

Oxford Economic Forecasting is plain wrong.

söndag 18 februari 2007

Gun crime

Death on the Doorstep 1
Originally uploaded by Carmbowlski.

Aren't you relieved that the Met is putting armed police on the streets of London as part of its response to the recent spate of gun crimes?

Just make sure you don't get caught in the crossfire.

That petition against congestion charges

Congestion charge
Originally uploaded by jeni rodger.

Proposals for congestion charging in Britain have been met by a petition against the idea.

Transport Secretary Douglas Alexander said: "Unless motorists and families can see the benefits, a national road pricing system won't happen."

He adds that he has told those bidding for the pilots: "There must be a fair deal for motorists. These councils will get extra cash to improve public transport because, if a local scheme is to work, people need real alternatives, including better bus services."

The petition was launched on the Downing Street web site under an experiment introduced by the government last year.

It says: "We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to scrap the planned vehicle tracking and road pricing policy" and was submitted by Peter Roberts, a motorist from Telford, Shropshire.

With just eight days to go to the deadline for signing, the total stood at 1,127,817.

Paul Biggs, spokesman for the Association of British Drivers, said today that he was very pleased with the response to the petition.

He said: "The only way road pricing can work is to actually price people off the roads.

"That is one reason they will sign the petition.

"Another reason they will sign it is that they are going to be trapped and traced wherever they drive.

The surveillance implicit in the scheme is a valid reason for objecting, but this is not necessary for a effective congestion charging, and other means should be pursued. For example, a proposed scheme for Cambridge about 15 years ago proposed charging for vehicles when their speed dropped below a certain threshold (about walking pace), when it could be assumed that they were in a congestion situation. This foundered on the technology, but these days, using cellphone technology, it should be possible to devise a system using beacons and black boxes with pre-paid metering to charge differentially according to time and location, without actually tracking individual vehicles.

But there would be just as much opposition, because people want to be able to drive their cars wherever they want at all times, on uncongested roads. They fail to make the connection between their own actions and that which they object to. And note how hypocritical concern for "the motorist and families" has entered the political rhetoric. What about "the pedestrian", "the cyclist" or "the child" or "the carless elderly", groups currently at the bottom of the heap when it comes to the shaping of the public environment in Britain.

måndag 5 februari 2007

160,000 turkeys slaughtered to slow bird flu epidemic

Wild Turkey Tom
Originally uploaded by sandon1090.

If you keep large numbers of turkeys or any other animal crowded together in a heated shed, you can guarantee that any infection will spread fast.

I am not a vegetarian but I cannot possibly enjoy eating an animal that I know has had a miserable life. But leaving aside issues of animal welfare, it is a big risk you are taking by "farming" in this way.

But now that bird flu infection has struck, and 160,000 birds have had to be killed, the taxpayer will pick up the bill for compensation. Thus, all of us, including "hard-working families" are being made to underwrite cruel husbandry. If the farmers had to carry their own risk through commercial insurance, these animal Auschwitzes would become uneconomic and shut down. Isn't DEFRA wonderful?

Gissa vart spårvagnar går?

Göteborgs spårvagnar rullar i tjänst utan linjeskyltar. Problemet uppståd i början av förre sommar. Förklaringen är att skyltar använder ett...