Daily Archives: 5 August 2007

The demographics of Um?

I meant to blog about the Centre for Um discussion paper on demographic change by Alasdair Murray a couple of months ago, but I ended up getting distracted. As part of my general post-holiday catch-up, I thought I’d get my comments off my chest now, but as it was a while since I read the paper, I’m a little rusty.

On specifics, I don’t quibble with a lot of what the paper is saying. It is surely correct to point out the problems of simplistically emphasising how the aging population will lead to more elderly dependents on the economy without looking at how other dependents (the young, the economically inactive) effect the economy at the same time. I don’t think any liberals question the need to scrap the fixed retirement age of 65 (socialists are another matter – I seem to recall Labour activists queuing up to denounce this at their last autumn conference). I agree also with the need to bring more young people into the labour market – a stark contrast with Labour’s obsession with giving 50% of the population a (potentially worthless) university degree and raising the school leaving age to 18. There certainly should be an emphasis on skilling young people, but that should be done in the workplace, not in pseudo-universities (on which point, can I recommend Geoffrey Wheatcroft‘s article on the subject last week: “Those who insist that expanding higher education is virtuous in itself never stop to say why this should be so. And they never explain why it should be better to be a third-rate media studies graduate than a first-rate carpenter.”).

It is the wider arguments of the paper that trouble me. First of all, the bland claim that “pessimistic predictions about Europe’s demographic future overstate the problem in most countries and ignore the potential to adapt.” That is half true, but how are we to adapt if we ignore the pessimistic predictions? Alasdair Murray points out that a number of countries have already dealt with the “pensions time bomb” in their policies, but this has to be at least partially because of the scare reports that have been dribbling out over the past 20 years and more. This doesn’t prove them wrong: it proves their worth.

More irritatingly, I can’t go along with his bald assertion that inter-generational conflict isn’t worth bothering with. He bases this on two lines of argument: that there is little evidence of an emerging conflict, and that young people are better educated, richer and have higher rates of employment than their parents.

The first argument is just plain daft; it’s the Nelson defence (“I see no ships”). To start with, it depends where you look and what you’re looking at. What’s more, the fact that there is little tension now is not to say that there won’t be tension in the future.

The second argument misses the point that it isn’t incomes that we are quibbling about, but assets. Those subsidised right-to-buy homes people bought in the 80s simply do not exist. Greater earning potential is one thing, but if the economy drives people into habitual debt – thousands just to get “credit rating”, tens of thousands on graduation, hundreds of thousands of mortgage debt – that leaves very little at the end to build a nest egg. I’ll come onto the underlying assumption in the paper that population growth is an unalloyed good in a moment, but assuming that is the case for a moment, it is surprising that he appears to have missed the growing evidence that one of the main reasons that people are starting families later in life now is because they struggle to afford the housing; indeed housing is barely mentioned either in the paper as a whole, or in the section on inter-generational conflict.

Worst of all, he parrots that old canard about wealth cascading down the generations. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said this: that’s the problem. Because people don’t, as a general rule, spread their wealth evenly to the younger generation: unsurprisingly they favour their children. This entrenches privilege, deepens the divide between rich and poor and, by putting wealth in the hands of ever fewer families and individuals, is a potentially catastrophic cause of social immobility. No-one is questioning that the millionaire couple who profited from the buy-to-let boom will eventually hand their assets over to their children; what we’re questioning is whether they should be the beneficiaries and what economic impact it will have further down the line.

The biggest single omission however is that this paper does not mention the environment, climate change and the management of natural resources. At all. I’m amazed that you can even write a paper on demographics without mentioning these things. A dry debate about immigration is one thing, but what do we do if Bangladesh goes underwater and Africa becomes an arid dustbowl? Where do the people go? What if they decide to come here? Cheery forecasts about pensions is one thing, but what about peak oil? Europe’s stagnating population is one thing, but global population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050 (it seems like only yesterday when we reached the 6 bn mark – now we’re at 6.6 bn).

You may argue that all these big questions go beyond a simple paper on the economics of European demographics; I accept that they would have lead to a substantially different paper. What I do seriously question however is how the paper can assume that population growth is a good thing that policy makers should aim for. The paper does not oppose pro-natal policies, just the practicalities of the more crude of these (such as Germany’s tax system). Instead, it recommends policies that “best create the conditions where fertility rates might rise by removing structural obstacles to female labour market participation”.

I’m not in favour of radical anti-natal policies such as China’s one child policy, let alone anything more draconian. Nor do I believe in putting obstacles in the way of “female labour market participation” with a view to reducing fertility rates. I do however feel that population growth and environmental sustainability are heading for a full on collision, that one will have to give way to the other and that if the species is to survive in the long term, it had better be the latter. How do we develop genuinely liberal anti-natal policies? And if those policies are successful, won’t they exacerbate the problems associated with an aging population (if fertility rates dropped significantly, the average age would increase quite rapidly)?

In short, while he has some good points, Alasdair Murray’s pamphlet is exactly the wrong paper at the wrong time. It sets out to deal with a problem which, from the outset, it asserts has already been solved, and fails to answer the important questions relating to demographics that we need to be answering in the 21st century.

More BBC nonsense

Dawn Butler and Diane Abbott are having a pop at Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson:

Ms Butler highlighted a 2002 article in which Mr Johnson referred to the Queen being greeted in Commonwealth countries by “flag-waving piccaninnies”.

She claimed he also said that he expected, during a mooted visit by Tony Blair to the Congo, that “the tribal warriors will all break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief”.

Hang on a minute; this isn’t a “claim” – it is a matter of public record. Why do the BBC persist in this policy of interpreting balance to mean that even established facts have to be treated as hearsay when they come out of the mouths of politicians?

Media Caveat Emptor: you don’t know Jack

Having been away, I’m slowly catching up on some of the stories that emerged while I was away. One thing that appears to have briefly gripped the Lib Dem Blogosphere is the lamentably monikered “Jackgate” focussing on Linda Jack‘s decision to diss Ming on the World At One. I thought I’d make a couple of points (with apologies to anyone I missed who has already made them).

Firstly, those opinion poll drop claims. To start with, my calculation – using the UK polling report – is that the fall since April is from 20% (19.5% to be precise) to 17% (not 21-17 as reported). If I make a claim like that, I show my working; why doesn’t the BBC have to do the same? On a related note, we have also recorded a 1% increase since June, which is quite surprising considering the Brown bounce. Either way, it is well known that the party does better in polls at election time than it does in peacetime, simply because of the increased media coverage we get. The BBC, regulated by the Representation of the People Act, know this. It is fairly cheap stuff to brandish this statistic around as “research” when all they’ve done is compared current poll ratings with a set of polls they knew in advance was better. It is clear that if our poll rating performance since April had been consistent or even improved (as it has been since June, remember), they would simply picked a different date – going back to April 2005 if necessary.

Secondly, there is Linda Jack herself. The BBC’s handling of the story suggests that Linda has become disaffected with Ming Campbell. In fact, the precise opposite is true. Compare these two statements:

“I think Ming was a brilliant shadow foreign secretary, but in terms of his leadership style he hasn’t captured the imagination of the party or the country. Unfortunately it’s the case where he has perhaps been over-promoted. Someone can be a brilliant man, and have incredible intellectual powers, and all the rest of it – but if that doesn’t translate in to leadership skills then, whoever your leader is, you’ve got a problem with them.”

April 21 2006

My disappointment at my chosen candidate [Simon Hughes] losing has been replaced by total despair at the incumbent. We all knew Ming would be a caretaker………….but I for one didn’t think that would mean hiding himself in the cleaning cupboard never to be heard of again!

Sorry, a bit harsh maybe, but really………..I am the only one who longs for the dulcet tones of Charles in the cut and thrust of the Today programme, who dreams about the days when his confidence and humour ensured our policies were kept in the public eye? Now don’t get me wrong, I certainly believed we would need a new leader for the next general election, but not yet and certainly not in the manner we got one. Remember all that talk about coronation? For those of us who believe we are members not subjects we ended up with the same result. Whilst Ming was never my first choice, I was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt – I liked what he said about social justice and tackling poverty – I have always thought he was head and shoulders above anyone else on most aspects of foreign affairs – but now he seems to have retreated into a shadow of his former self.

27 February 2006

Maybe we should have a leadership election every year……..perhaps if we get Huhne or Campbell we will

The point is, Linda has never been convinced of Campbell’s suitability to the post. That’s her prerogative, but to present her as someone who is disappointed with Campbell’s “recent” performance is just plain wrong. Using a quote as the basis of a story without pointing out that 18 months ago she was predicting that Campbell would be out within 12 months, is misleading to say the least. It may – just – count as news, but it is hardly in “man-bites-dog” territory.

So much for BBC news values. Meanwhile, Linda, Lawrence Boyce et al have to decide how much damage they are prepared to wreak on the party in their mission to oust Ming. Will they declare their operation a success even if the patient dies?