A Good Read

(Originally written 29th November, 2013)

I’ve made various references recently to this book,

and meant to write something more directly about it. The main problem is that there is so much interesting stuff in it, that it’s hard to know where to start, let alone end. I might add, also, that I have some fairly serious reservations about it too; one of the positions criticised in it is what he calls ‘the rationalist delusion’. That’s me, folks, but here I don’t mean to go into why it’s not a delusion, and why I’m right, and Jonathan Haidt is wrong.

Much better anyone interested should go and buy a copy of the book, not least because it is well written, and cleverly too. Haidt started off as – and I think still is – a proper scientist, a psychologist who studies morality, but with controlled experiments, and reference to what scans can say about what is happening in our brains when we experience moral feelings. As such, he understands very well how to persuade, and says in the book that he is going to use what he has learned in the book. The main points of each chapter are also set out clearly, and summarised at the end; he really does know how to teach, as well as do research.

The first main message is that the rational and instinctual parts of our brains are distinct, with the instinctual being far more important. He uses a metaphor of the elephant and its rider, with the elephant, very large, but also with a lot of knowledge and memory, so far from dumb, being the instinctual, while the rider is the relatively puny rational mind, which will sometimes guide the elephant, but most of the time just goes with it. In this schema, our morality is elephantine, and the ‘rationalist delusion’ is to think that we can get to what’s right and wrong by abstract reasoning. And this he knows from seeing how key parts of the brain light up when presented with moral issues.

Another message is the variety of moral impulses, and how they differ between what he, as an American, calls liberals and conservatives. Liberals focus on a reduced number of moral impulses – compassion and fairness – while conservatives have better developed feelings about loyalty, sanctity and authority, while also being able to understand compassion and fairness. So liberals systematically fail to understand what makes conservatives tick, but not vice versa.

This is the starting point for an element of personal history in the book. Haidt describes himself as originally a rather dogmatic liberal, but with the insights his research had given him, became frustrated at the needless mistakes John Kerry was making when running against George Bush. In the course of the book he also describes spending some time in India, being initially appalled by aspects of the Hindu tradition, but after a while finding himself able to feel they were as legitimate as his own cultural position. Having finally landing a position at the University of Virginia, he also found himself coming to admire the rituals associated with college football games – alumni coming in from all over the States, happily getting drunk on generous supplies of beer, and roaring their team on. The narrative of becoming more conservative, but also more understanding, as someone gets older is hardly new, but I’ve never read it told along with the associated neuro-science.

There’s also a persuasive attack on what I think, following reading this book, is one of the weak points of what he would consider the dogma of the ‘New Atheism“. This is the doctrine, which may seem abstruse, that there cannot be ‘group selection’ in human evolution. In doing so, he is positioning himself against one of the arguments of Dawkin’s “The Selfish Gene”, which is that the only sort of altruism which could have emerged is kin selection, one summarised by the aphorism that it’s only worth laying down your life to save two brothers or eight cousins. Instead, Haidt argues that, while still being “90% chimpanzee”, we are also “groupish”, so perhaps 10% bee. To make the case, he has to argue also that human evolution did not stop suddenly when all the things which seem to make us human developed, and allowed us to co-operate in large social groups – e.g. the language, use of fire to cook, and he would argue, the emergence of morality hard wired into our genes. My mention of cooking here does not come from Haidt’s book, but this I read a while back “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human“, where the impact of the cultural practice of cooking on how our guts and jaws have evolved seems unavoidable. So I find I can accept that what Haidt has studied, which any reasonable person would call morality, is a natural phenomenon, rather than having a purely rational basis.

That’s about as much as I want to say at this point. The subtitle for the book is also revealing “Why good people are divided by politics and religion”. Haidt is appalled by the partisan politics which have developed in the US, and wants more than anything else to help people overcome this behaviour. It’s why I think of all the people on the Forum, it will appeal most to Lee, which is why I’ve ordered a copy for him, and am about to pick it up from Kirkdale Bookshop. Sorry my generosity will extend no further, but I seriously recommend this as a good read to everyone else.

“Wutbürger” – The German for NIMBY

Originally posted in the Sydenham Town Forum, 30 June, 2013

Last week’s uncharacteristic radio silence was thanks to cycling round Normandy. With my rusting French revived, I came across an interesting article in Le Monde on the way back, dealing with a report into the sorts of people who in 2010 gave German this new ‘word of the year’, and is now in official dictionaries. I know virtually no German, so I’ll have to go via the French to give the literal meaning in English as “angry citizens”, but on reading the article, it becomes clear the cultural meaning is NIMBY. For these 


are not the young of the various Occupy movements and protesters in Turkey, Egypt or Brazil, but “they are for the main part people without children, working part time, with good school backgrounds, teachers and above all, those approaching retirement and the retired … More than a half say they are non religious, and a large majority say they don’t think Germany is a real democracy”

So – what to they do? Well, stop the redevelopment of the area round a station in Stuttgart, limit night flights in Frankfurt, and a new runway at Munich, stop proposed long term storage for nuclear waste by chaining themselves to railway lines, stop the electrification of the Munich-Zurich train line, get in the way of the high tension cables needed to bring electricity from wind farms in the north to the south, even get in the way of creating a national park in the north of the Black Forest.

Seems to me, these are just Germany’s Baby Boomer “usual suspects”, with too much time on their hands, and used to being able to get their own way, and for whom a real democracy is a system which delivers whatever they want.

Flooding, engineering, planning and politics

Reposted from my local Forum, 16 Jan, 2014, with a more helpful title, and some editing.  It rambles a bit, but putting here now because it touches on various questions which arose yesterday (July 25, 2018) when I attended a consultation event on ‘De-risking’ growth in the Cambridge Milton Keynes Oxford arc. 

I’m thinking about it now as much as raising the general problem of why landowners and other interested parties fail to co-operate.

The trigger here is this BBC interview with a member of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) as reported here:

Back-to-nature flood schemes need ‘government leadership’

Continue reading Flooding, engineering, planning and politics

Grown up anthropology

I’m rescuing this post which I wrote 9th January 2015 from the now restricted access part of my local Forum for the sake of recording my appreciation of anthropology as a subject, having also, more recently, been reading Karen Ho’s ‘Liquidated’, reviewed here by Gillian Tett.  I hope to blog about that sometime.

In the meantime, if any economist friends think I’m going over to the dark side, in taking anthropology seriously, please do not worry; I think anthropologists need to take economics seriously as much as the other way round. Continue reading Grown up anthropology

Downsizing in situ (©)

Earlier this week I was delighted to hear this phrase used for exactly what I meant when I came up with it in a post on my local Forum, June 30 2013.  It was in a response on a thread which had become predictable bad tempered, (and now in a part of the Forum which requires registration) since it had started with my expression of sympathy for Lewisham Mayor Steve Bullock with his plans to redevelop a large prefab estate.

Here’s my subsequent post

Tim, if you feel so strongly that people should give up their homes, why don’t you start the ball rolling yourself? Maybe if you gave your home away, or sold it and moved to a small flat, a couple of young families could move in. What you’re advocating is social engineering and it should be voluntary. Please don’t confuse it with socialism. It’s the socialism of Stalin and his ilk.

What I might one day want to do is to ‘downsize in situ’ (©). It’s what a near neighbour did when his elderly mother died a few years ago. Having previously divided the former family house into two flats, and had her live downstairs, now he has tenants on the ground floor. I think this is a very sensible way to proceed, and means that family and neighbourhood links are maintained. However, such conversions are inevitably opposed by the usual suspects.

Possible solutions
• Housing suitable for family occupation should be retained not subdivided into units not suitable for families.

I think the social engineers round here are those who insist on houses being retained for families, as they imagine them, while the use of ‘voluntary’ by those who want to control what people do with their own homes suggests that the word means them having their way, not anyone else.

© Original coinage, as far as I’m aware. Happy for anyone else to use it …

Whitehall, City Hall, Localism and The Renaissance of Bogotà

In December 2011 I went to a talk by Professor Alan Gilbert of the UCL Geography Department, about the struggle for good governance in Colombia’s capital city, and posted about it on my local Forum, where the subsequent discussion can still be read.  It had a big impact on my thinking about localism, and I’ve referred back to it many times.  And again this morning, on reading this post by Paul Cheshire and Christian Hilber

Business Rates: Hoorah! But Watch Out for Housing!

about which I’ll probably blog before long.  But here, for future reference, is what I wrote in 2011, lightly edited.

The story – although this was a proper academic talking, so giving an assessment rather than a comforting, easy to digest narrative – was of a developing world city which in 1992 was pretty awful, with stratospheric murder rates, getting to the point now where large numbers of its citizens feel proud to live there, and having a credit rating rather better than much of Western Europe.

Four points stood out for me, because they relate to various posts I have made on this Forum recently.

1. A single, powerful city wide mayor

Bogotà is much the same size as London, but there are no lower level political structures than the city government such as we have with our London Boroughs – and nobody much wants them other than political parties and their potential clients. As in London, most people aren’t that interested in politics, they just want good services. Compare to this post of mine on the ‘Campaigning for Ken’ thread.

2. Regular, independent assessments of the quality of public services

There is an independent private sector organisation which does regular credible surveys of satisfaction with different public services, and their reports are major stories in the local media. Council officers care very much about who well they are seen to be doing. Compare to this other post of mine on the ‘Campaigning for Ken’ thread.

3. Fiscal discipline

In 2011 it is Western Europe and the US which have borrowed up to the point where lenders don’t feel like lending them any more, and we are learning how this takes away our freedom to act as a society. It’s a lesson most of the developing world has learned the hard way over the last 20 years. And a good credit rating does help when it comes to raising money for new infrastructure.

4. No effective planning controls on the construction of new houses and lettings

There are some planning controls on where you can build houses, but they don’t get enforced, and in any case, they don’t apply in outer areas. So people just build their own homes, starting off looking like archetypical shanty towns, but being improved over time, with extra storeys added, perhaps for tenants just moved into the city. So the young and less well off do not get priced out of housing. See reference to US economist Ed Glaeser to OP on the Campaigning for Ken thread – although I should add Prof Gilbert doesn’t have too high an opinion of this author – or, I think, Prof Tony Travers, who I first heard mention this book at another meeting – on localism – that I went to earlier this year.

Contrast this with our situation in London, where central government is intensely suspicious of city wide government in London. Mrs Thatcher went so far as to abolish the GLC, and David Cameron reportedly sees Boris’ power base here as a long term threat to him. Meanwhile, in Whitehall the DCLG channels out money via the structures of London Boroughs, which few other than councillors, some local activists and local government policy wonks are interested in. And their solution to perceived weaknesses? Localism – hoping that somehow even smaller organisations will magic into existence to provide the sorts of effective public services people want.

And then shortly after

There’s an interesting article in this week’s Economist on local government finance – well, at least I find it interesting.

IT ALL seemed so simple 19 months ago when the new coalition announced a revolution in local-authority financing. The apron strings that tie local governments tightly to the centre were to be loosened. Councils were to gain new freedom to raise and spend money, and more responsibility for generating growth (as well as for making unpopular budget cuts). But what started as a straightforward bet on localism has become increasingly fraught, as the urgent need to spur the economy runs up against the equally urgent need to ensure that all councils have roughly enough money to look after their residents.

The particular issue here is business rates, which should now be retained by local councils, so creating an incentive for them to encourage business, develop a predictable revenue stream and so help them raise money for investment from new sources including the capital markets.

Unfortunately, although according to Tony Travers some

councils are already thoroughly pro-business and “would snap your arm off for a new source of jobs”


local authorities cannot be equally alluring to business, however hard they try. Although the rate of business taxation is set centrally (that will change if the government gets its way), the take varies hugely from place to place. Westminster, a rich London council, collected about 33 times as much as Middlesbrough in 2010-11. All will start out equal when the new provisions take effect in April 2013. But thereafter any incentive big enough to change councils’ behaviour leaves less revenue for redistribution. That would widen the gap between authorities capable of promoting growth (mainly in the south) and those where growth is slow or nonexistent.

So the grand concept of localising business rates is being hedged round with levies, tariffs, top-ups and resets.

By London standards, measured by how well it does to attract business, we here in Lewisham have a failing Council – with few excuses such as the long term decline of heavy industry provides for Middlesborough. So Whitehall is reinventing a complex system of welfare dependency to support our Council and other under-performers across London. Against this background, it is hard to see Lewisham ever developing a revenue stream to allow it to raise money for new investment from the markets.

The revenue base for an expanded London-wide government would be another story. Lewisham residents may not work here so much, but we do in other parts of London, so contributing to the business rates paid there, and so London as a whole would have an interest in supporting the sort of investment we need here. Further, economies of scale are likely to make its management easier. It’s not going to happen any time soon, but – as may be noticed – I’m becoming more and more convinced that localism has to be focused on natural political and economic localities, and in London, that means London.