Friday, January 18, 2008

Green toffs vs the `shopping herd'

The panic about greedy mobs invading Oxford Street during the New Year sales is driven by elite disdain for consumerism and economic growth. Comment from Britain

Did we buy too much at Christmas, or not enough? Are the January sales a sign of economic health, or decadence? Proof that Britain is booming, or something that we will pay heavily for later?

Breast-beating over the sales has become an annual event. In 2006, anxiety focused on the `world's biggest ship', the Emma Maersk III, which was carrying 11,000 containers full of toys half way around the world from China - a sure sign of the victory of pester power over common sense. In 2005, newspapers worried over the `the lowest Christmas sales for 20 years' (1). In 2003, Sainsbury's did badly, but Next prospered, while thinking people worried, as usual, about Christmas excess.

This year, the expected collapse in Christmas sales failed to materialise. The credit crunch was expected to make shoppers too scared to commit to big purchases. The online gaming system, Wii, and The Simpsons Movie DVD boosted Amazon's sales, while Oxford Street, rather quiet on Christmas Eve, saw its Boxing Day footfall (yes, people really do count this) rise by 7.8 per cent on 2006. Some of the buoyancy was managed by retailers' furious discounting - around 80 per cent of goods were reduced in price, apparently.

You might think that retailers were to be congratulated on beating the winter gloom. But the editorials in the highbrow papers only saw problems ahead. Had the shoppers failed to understand that capitalist prosperity is all built on sand, they worried? Don't those greedy plebs understand that they will all be in Queer Street soon?

The mid-winter Saturnalia shows us the deep muddle at the heart of modern capitalism. On the one hand, there is the existential fear that pulsates in every barrow boy: that tomorrow the shoppers might just stay at home. It is written into the free market system that you can never know what will happen tomorrow, whether that stock on the shelves is gold or rubbish.

Since the 1990s the retail sector has been the healthiest part of British business - not a great sign of the importance of innovation in industry. That was how the Christmas sales turned into such a high-wire act for UK plc. Instead of watching the results at the end of the financial year, economic commentators were reduced to watching the winter solstice for signs of the coming spring, like some Druid shaman.

But just as some retailers were nervously hoping that the shoppers would empty their purses, an altogether different noise was coming from another corner of the British establishment. The green loathing of greedy consumerism that used to be the preserve of a handful of middle-class cranks has spread throughout much of the British ruling class.

Toffs whose fathers were hard-nosed capitalists have turned into eco-warriors these days. Leading green Lord Peter Melchett's fortune was made by his father, Alfred Mond, at Imperial Chemicals Industries; ecologist Tory Zac Goldsmith inherited his 300 million pounds from dad James Goldsmith's Bovril sales. To the sons and daughters of the capitalist elite, nothing is more distasteful than the mass market that made them wealthy.

Instead of celebrating the trickle down of consumer goods, the elite are repulsed by it. They cannot bear to see hoi polloi driving cars like them, or shopping in their shops. They erect elaborate consumer rituals to mark themselves apart from the herd - but to their dismay, the herd keeps cracking the code. In days gone past, the sheer awkward coldness of an art gallery or music recital would have been enough to keep it exclusive, but no longer. Even their costly organic food has been sucked up by Tesco and Morrisons.

The green sentiment favours an economic policy of restraint - and it is in danger of succeeding in choking what growth the British economy has experienced. When ordinary households took advantage of wider credit availability to buy homes and cars in the 1990s, the green reaction was intensely hostile - and governments listened, cutting road-building programmes, choking off house-building with green belt planning controls, hiking fuel duties. And when those regulatory constraints on the expansion of big-ticket consumer goods pushed up prices, the caution merchants demanded limits on higher interest rates.

Of course it is a real problem that Britain's retail boom was premised on a trillion pounds of consumer credit, increasingly paying for goods from abroad. But the inroad made by East Asian manufacturers into Britain's domestic markets is itself a consequence of a business climate that is, in the words of the UK Department of Trade and Industry, `risk averse'. Despite all the talk about a New Economy, the growth in employment has all been in relatively low-productivity service sector jobs, so much so that average productivity actually fell in the UK (2).

Disdaining product innovation in manufacturing as a `race to the bottom', Britain's entrepreneurs are increasingly preoccupied with `rent-seeking' behaviour - spying out opportunities to use their cash to lay claim to someone else's hard industry. British law firms are the ones suing Third World nations over debt bought up cheaply, and they are the ones pursuing Chinese manufacturers claiming `intellectual property rights' over handbags and children's toys. At the climate talks in Bali at the end of last year, it was British negotiators who imagined a world where restraints on industry would be rewarded, just as it is British financiers who are already making money trading in carbon futures, and British boffins who are wasting their time making carbon-inefficient windmills.

If, as seems more than likely, the economy does slow down as predicted this spring, why should we be surprised? The environmentally minded intelligentsia has been deeply hostile to economic growth. Worse still, their voices have shaped economic policy, demanding restraint in road-building, house-building, consumer-spending and the spread of technology. The gloom-mongers' despair over Christmas spending is turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Fruitless attempts to create equality in a complex world can have disastrous consequences

The instant I heard how the NHS was treating Colette Mills and Debbie Hirst, the image came to me. Here we go again, I thought.... They both have cancer. They wish to benefit from a relatively new drug called Avastin, but the drug has not been approved for use by the NHS. It does do some good, but it is not regarded as cost-effective. So the two women decided that they would buy the drug themselves. Fair enough? Apparently not. The two women have been told that if they pay for the drugs, NHS treatment will be denied to them. They have to pay for all their care privately, an impossibly large sum, or receive it all through the NHS. Alan Johnson, the Health Secretary, was firm on the subject. They cannot, he argued, "be treated on the NHS and then allowed, as part of the same episode and the same treatment, to pay money for more drugs".

But the reason he gave was not a medical one - that drugs needed to be administered together by the same doctor on NHS time. Or a practical one - that it would be a bureaucratic nighmare to have some drugs for sale and some not. It wasn't a legal one either: it isn't at all clear that the law prevents this mixture of the NHS and private treatment Instead he said this of the request by these gravely ill women: "That way lies the end of the founding principles of the NHS."

Now Mr Johnson is a compassionate man and an intelligent one, too. He's not, in my experience, generally dogmatic. So what on earth possesses him to deny cancer treatment to these terribly sick patients? Where could such an idea come from? Sootynomics.

Last year was the 50th anniversary of Tony Crosland's book, The Future of Socialism. While re-reading what was, when it was published, one of the most important books of social democratic thinking, I was struck by how dated it had become. Crosland spent half the book in earnest dispute with people advancing ideas that are, to the modern eye, completely ridiculous. He patiently explains, for instance, over an entire chapter, why guild socialism - a barely comprehensible scheme in which trade groups control industry - wouldn't be a bright idea.

What has changed over the past 50 years is this: we now appreciate, or at least have some inkling, how big and how complicated the world is. When there are staff employed in the occupational therapy unit of the IT centre of the people who make the dye that colours sliced bread packaging, how exactly does guild socialism work? The idea of a fully planned economy, painstakingly criticised by Crosland, now needs little effort to refute. It has simply fallen away.

Yet there remains an extraordinary amount of public policy confidently advanced without any idea of the massive contrast between the size and complexity of the world and the puny measure being proposed, without any understanding that the world rages on like the sea - unstoppable, uncontrollable. The absurd idea, for instance, that you can tackle obesity by banning food advertisements on children's television (an apt example of Sootynomics, come to think of it) or stop climate change by using fewer carrier bags at the supermarket. I remember one of my colleagues calling for a boycott of Tesco because it was killing the high street. The last time I looked, Tesco was still trading.

Alan Johnson's NHS ruling is a perfect example of the same syndrome. What is the fundamental principle whose end he fears? Not that care should be free at the point of use, since he already believes that to use Avastin, you must pay for it. No, the principle to which he clings is that all patients should receive the same care. There should be equality. Do you see what I mean when I say it would be comic if it wasn't a tragedy? Mr Johnson looks at the world with its vast disparities in wealth, with its teeming masses and its warzones and its starving slums and its clipped suburbs and thinks he can make the world more equal by preventing a couple of women buying Avastin.

Actually, never mind the starving slums and the warzones, there isn't even equality inside the NHS. There are cancer drugs you can have prescribed in Scotland that you can't have prescribed in England. You can pay for some dental services while receiving others on the NHS. You can receive two different but related treatments and pay for one of them as long as you don't have the treatments together in one place as one episode.

Alan Johnson is trying to hold a line that cannot be held. As more expensive drugs become available and are deemed "not cost-effective" the Mills and Hirsts will multiply. The offence against their rights will be seen increasingly as unacceptable and the pursuit of an elusive equality ever more obviously futile. You may as well stop planing down the tree now, Mr Johnson.


A good comment on the above from a "Times" reader:

This long-standing NHS policy is symbolic of the vicious logic of Britain's socialism. It is the politics of Iago: "If Cassio remain/ He hath a daily beauty in his life/ Which makes me ugly." Like the nasty kid in the playground, we will attack anyone who is better than us.

It is also tribal. The NHS treatment is "us". You are either with us, or outcast. It reminds me of the provincial museum official who denied entry to a public school group. "They're not us. They can't use our facilities." Thankfully that nasty piece of tribal nonsense was over-ruled by Tony Blair. In this more tragic case and many like it, the vicious 'if I can't have it, neither can you' policy of tribal doctrinaire socialist equality will continue.

British medical education bungle good for Australia

A BLUNDER in a jobs recruitment program in the UK will result in relief 19,000km away with hundreds of doctors set to migrate to Australia to help fill staff shortages in our ailing public hospitals system. More than 5000 British medics have found themselves unemployed after failing to get a training post at hospitals in the UK. Two years ago, with critical shortfalls in the number of doctors, the British government lifted the number of places available at training schools and centralised the recruitment system. But it failed to take into account how many places there were available in hospitals to provide internships or hands-on training for the medicos to complete their training.

The British Medical Association said yesterday the only winner would be Australia, with hundreds of young doctors applying to complete their training and fill critical staff shortages. Most of the doctors have applied to work in NSW and Queensland hospitals but a BMA spokesman said hospitals across all states could expect British applicants in the next few months when the true number of training posts available became clear. "It's just a ridiculous situation," a spokesman said. "They increased the medical school places but gave us a situation now where there are only between 8000 and 9000 places (in the UK) but about three times as many applicants. "Not being able to complete their training means they have to put their careers on hold, take a non-training job or practice abroad. The loss to the UK is a gain for countries like Australia and we know a number who are planning to head there."

Dr Robert Thomas spent a year at a NSW Central Coast hospital but was one of the few to find a place in the UK to complete his training. "I was lucky but a lot of my friends are still planning to travel to Australia to work in hospital accident and emergency wards," he said. "I think you will find most will go there for training but will stay there for good. The life is so much better."

An official inquiry into how thousands of doctors missed out on UK places last week concluded the government and Department of Health should be stripped of responsibility for the recruitment system.


Four healthy habits to give 14 more years?

This is probably just a class effect -- particularly as it based on self-reports. Middle class people are healthier and use more "virtuous" self-descriptions. There also seems to be a foolish assumption that the various "effects" are cumulative rather than correlated

People who adopt four healthy habits seem to live on average 14 years longer than those who adopt none of them, a new study indicates. The habits are not smoking, exercising, drinking alcohol in moderation and eating five servings of fruit and vegetables daily.

KayTee Khaw and colleagues from the University of Cambridge and the Medical Research Council in the U.K. studied records of 20,000 older British adults who had filled out health questionnaires between 1993 and 1997.

After factoring in age, the researchers found that over an average of 11 years, people who undertook none of the four health habits were four times more likely to have died than those who adopted all four. People in this less healthy group had on average the same risk of dying as people 14 years older in the second group, the researchers said.

The participants were aged 45 to 79 when they filled out the questionnaires. Deaths among the participants were recorded until 2006. Moderate drinking was defined as between one-half and seven pints of beer, or glasses of wine, weekly.

The study formed part of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition, conducted across ten European countries, billed as the largest study of diet and health ever undertaken.

The findings need to be confirmed in other populations, but the results "strongly suggest that these four achievable lifestyle changes could have a marked improvement on the health of middle-aged and older people," the researchers said in an announcement of the findings. The research appeared online Jan. 8 in the research journal PLoS Biology.


British educationist criticizes Google

Perish the thought that people might get information from popular rather than "authorized" sources!

Google is "white bread for the mind", and the internet is producing a generation of students who survive on a diet of unreliable information, a professor of media studies will claim this week. In her inaugural lecture at the University of Brighton, Tara Brabazon will urge teachers at all levels of the education system to equip students with the skills they need to interpret and sift through information gleaned from the internet. She believes that easy access to information has dulled students' sense of curiosity and is stifling debate. She claims that many undergraduates arrive at university unable to discriminate between anecdotal and unsubstantiated material posted on the internet.

"I call this type of education `the University of Google'. "Google offers easy answers to difficult questions. But students do not know how to tell if they come from serious, refereed work or are merely composed of shallow ideas, superficial surfing and fleeting commitments. "Google is filling, but it does not necessarily offer nutritional content," she said.

Professor Brabazon, who has been teaching in universities for 18 years, said that the heavy reliance on the internet in universities had the effect of "flattening expertise" because every piece of information was given the same credibility by users. Professor Brabazon's concerns echo the author Andrew Keen's criticisms of online amateurism. In his book The Cult of the Amateur, Keen says: "To-day's media is shattering the world into a billion personalised truths, each seemingly equally valid and worthwhile."

Professor Brabazon said: "I've taught all through the digitisation of education. It's fascinating to see how students have changed. We can no longer assume that students arrive at university, knowing what to read and knowing what standards are required of the material that they do read." "Students live in an age of information, but what they lack is correct information. They turn to Wikipedia unquestioningly for information. Why wouldn't they - it's there," she said.

Professor Brabazon does not blame schools for students' cut-and-paste attitude to study. Nor is she critical of students individually. With libraries in decline, diminishing stocks of books and fewer librarians, media platforms such as Google made perfect sense. The trick was to learn how to use them properly. "We need to teach our students the interpretative skills first before we teach them the technological skills. Students must be trained to be dynamic and critical thinkers rather than drifting to the first site returned through Google," she said.

Her own students are banned from using Wikipedia or Google as research tools in their first year of study, but instead are provided with 200 extracts from peer-reviewed printed texts at the beginning of the year, supplemented by printed extracts from eight to nine texts for individual pieces of work. "I want students to experience the pages and the print as much as the digitisation and the pixels - both are fine but I want students to have both - not one or the other, not a cheap solution," she said.

There have been concerns about students plagiarising from the internet and the growth of a new online "coursework industry", in which web-sites produce tailor-made essays, some selling for up to 1,000 pounds each.

Wikipedia, containing millions of articles contributed by users was founded in 2001. It has been criticised for being riddled with inaccuracies and nonsense. Even one of its own founders, Larry Sanger, described it as "broken beyond repair" before leaving the site last year. Google is the dominant search engine on the internet. It uses a formula designed to place the most relevant content at the top of its listings. But a multimillion-pound industry has grown up around manipulating Google rankings through a process called "search engine optimisation".


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