Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Introducing Cynical Empiricism

We've done stupid empiricism. If you can't be arsed to read the post, it can be summarised thus. Stupid empiricism is to take an event or a phenomenon as proof of a general trend, even when associated evidence thoroughly discredits that line of thinking. Examples include snow in the winter = no climate change, or growth of food banks is because of the increased publicity about them. It is a mendacious, wilfully ignorant way of thinking; of knowing you're right because it underpins your politics/world view in some way, in spite of everything else pointing to the contrary. Culprits usually include 'kippers and Tories, but it can be found across political traditions and in all kinds of institutions. But I'd like to introduce a further term, which perhaps isn't as extreme but makes up for it by being mercenary. That would be 'cynical empiricism'. And to illustrate how it works, it's thank you - again - to Dan Hodges for providing the foil.

Couched in faux bonhomie, Dan's basic argument is that there has been a yawning gap between London and the rest of the economy for nearly 50 years, and that it is "natural" the capital should recover first. The Big Smoke is the motor that pulls the rest of Britain in its train, and that any growth of whatever character is better than no growth. The not so subtle sub-text is there's a regional divide, so what? As he himself concludes, "If someone can genuinely come up with a sensible proposal for ensuring the proceeds of recovery are more evenly distributed, great. But in the meantime, give London a break. If you don't like the type of recovery we're generating down here then by all means feel free to generate one of your own." That's the plebs outside the M25's ring of concrete told.

If only it was that easy. I don't know if Dan follows what goes on in the rest of the country. He wouldn't be the first Londoner not to. So it might well be news to him that local authorities of all persuasions are far from resting on their laurels. Regardless of how wealthy an area is, each and every council have been rolling out the red carpet for business. Every government grant, every pot of European money is chased by a blizzard of fund applications. Stoke City Council, for instance, is always firing off bids to improve infrastructure, clear up land, and, yes, build flood defences. Like every other local authority it works with business. It doles out grants, provides support and advice for start ups, and cuts all kinds of deals with potential inward investors. So it's not for want of trying. Industrial activism is alive and well in local government, even if Dan can't see it from his Lewisham redoubt.

Well, economic growth in the regions will happen eventually, so what's the problem? Economics cannot be divorced from social relations, and so there comes a moment when the by-products of London's growth passes over into the outright anti-social. That's why it's foolish to welcome all growth as if it's everywhere and always benign. To paraphrase Uncle Vince, London is a suction device vacuuming living labour and talent out of the rest of the country. The big problem, of course, is London's acute housing shortage. New home builds are nowhere near the level of demand. This is bad enough but the government and mayoralty have been happy to see London's housing market be used as a bank by foreign investors. Some three quarters of all new builds in the capital are so snapped up, making a difficult situation even worse and driving property values sky high. The point will come when rent is so high, never mind house prices, that "the talent" cannot move in. And as for people on more modest incomes? The prospect of people living together in cramped, insanitary conditions because that's all they can afford is not a potential hazard. It's happening already. None of this is sustainable economically and, more importantly, socially. The summer riots of 2011 are but a foretaste of what could lie in London's future. The capital will be lucky if all it gets away with is a spiralling housing benefit bill.

Okay, so the rest of the country are working hard for a geographically balanced recovery, and the over-concentration in London is a bad, dysfunctional thing. But what can be done? Dan's silly schemes - a scattering of London business to the UK's four corners liquidation-of-the-kulaks-stylee or moving government to Birmingham or elsewhere are daft outliers. You might say it's almost as if he wants to avoid a serious conversation about it. But there are plenty of things government can do, even in straightened times. First off, government have pledged cash for the Local Enterprise Partnerships to help kickstart local economies - so where is it? Government could offer inducements through the corporation tax structure to encourage private sector investment in the regions. Is it necessary, for example, for all corporate functions to be centralised in London in the age of broadband? And speaking of broadband, why not sink HS2 money into wiring up the country? And if you must insist on building this white elephant, why not work from Brum and Manchester toward London rather than the other way round? Lastly, does most of Whitehall have to be located in London? Ministers and their offices, sure. But the lower grades and the bulk of the bureaucracy? Does all of the Foreign Office and the MOD, for example?

This stuff is so well tread that the London-based commentariat should know their way round it blindfolded by now. That someone like Dan really knows better brings me back to this little idea of cynical empiricism. Whereas stupid empiricism is dogmatic misrecognition ultimately founded on a rigid but brittle view of the world, its dumb variant is an affectation. A wilful, knowing closing down or refusal to engage with argument for political convenience. Or because you're paid to churn out tunnel vision polemic. It seizes upon an observation and presents it as a simple fact of life, as a natural self-evident truth, of something we have to "deal with" but not change because it's impossible to change. It logically follows that to even ask questions wastes time. Cynical empiricism merely describes what apparently is, and that's it. Anything else and it's "nothing to see here!"

That's all very well. There's a market for cynical empiricism, and it's one crafted not to challenge the reader but mirror their prejudices and assumptions. Politics and political discourse, however, needs to do better than this.


Ken said...

Moving the government to Birmingham a "daft outlier" - yes, moving it to Salford within reach of the BBC which saw the way the wind was blowing and relocated significant operations is a much more sensible idea. It amazes me that in the year when Scotland is voting for independence, much of the left in England will not even countenance a change of post-code for parliament. Of course if Salford was selected, Orsdall could be compulsorily purchased and two problems solved at once. (For southern readers with a short memory, Orsdall is the only place in mainland Britain where shots were fired at the police during a riot.)

Helen Waldie said...

Yes, govt departments tend to gravitate towards the centre of power, so you need to move Government itself from London. Which might help weaken the stranglehold the legal and banking professions have.

So yes, let's build a new government new town well away from London. With allocated accommodation for MPs so that we cease to have to pay for the double mortgage idiocy.

It has to be near good transport links and an airport, but with plenty of room to expand, so somewhere near Manchester would work. If not Stoke, how about Preston?

Helen Waldie said...

This is the problem of NuLab, it's so infected with neo-conservatism that its adherents can't even see when they're repeating right-wing nonsense about Government needing to abdicate responsibility for markets.

Any decent Labour person should be able to see that one purpose of Government is to moderate the market for the good of the people of all of Britain. But then again, would a decent Labour person be offered a berth at the Telegraph?

Anonymous said...

The lack of lefty self awareness in this article on asserting generalities which you somehow "know" (eg all tories are bastards out to do over the poor defenceless masses) by arguing from selective and isolated specifics which reinforce the collective group think is jaw dropping. Entertaining though. Best wishes

Phil said...

That you cannot grasp the self-awareness demonstrates a clear case of projection ;)

Ed Wintergreen said...

Frankly your comments about HS2 are worse than anything in Dan Hodges' (admittedly poor) article. The reason London & Birmingham are to be joined first is because that is where the capacity crunch will hit first, even on extremely conservative demand projections. And why exactly do "wiring up the country" and HS2 have to be either/or? In the real world they are both being invested in.

As for Whitehall, vast amounts of it are located outside London. The problem is that as with corporations, all the higher ups are in London. Until a way is found to break this, Britain will continue to get ever more centralised. And why is moving the capital out of London such a daft idea? London is in fact quite unusual in being both the seat of government and financial capital. And I can imagine many MPs from oop North would love to commute to Birmingham in preference.

Phil said...

Re: HS2, you completely misread my point. Even the bullrushes know that it makes sense connecting Brum and London first. What you misunderstand is why does *the work* have to begin in London and move outward. Why not Brum and toward London?