We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

The lost chord, correction, TUC booklet

Seated one day at the organ
I was weary and ill at ease
And my fingers wandered idly
Over the noisy keys

I know not what I was playing
Or what I was dreaming then;
But I struck one chord of music
Like the sound of a great Amen

The Lost Chord was an immensely popular song of the late nineteenth century. It described how the singer had found, then lost, a chord played on the organ that seemed to bring infinite calm.

I have sought, but I seek it vainly
That one lost chord divine
Which came from the soul of the organ
And entered into mine

In like fashion did I, my friends, linger in the library of Her Majesty’s Treasury in my lunchtime many years ago, seeking to put off the moment when I would have to go back to my humble office and do some actual work. Like the fingers of the weary organist upon his instrument, thus did my skiving fingers wander idly across the spines of the publications the Treasury thought might help its minions control public expenditure*. By a chance equally slim did I find the booklet issued by the Trades Union Congress that I am going to talk about in this post. And by a fate equally tragic did I fail to take note of the title, author, year of publication or even the colour of the cover, and lost it again forever.

Which is a bit of a bummer really. This post would have been a lot more convincing if you guys didn’t just have to take my word for it that the damn TUC book ever existed. Then again, it was nice to be reminded of The Lost Chord which was the favourite song of an old chap I once knew who fought in the First World War.

This booklet. For anyone still reading, it was about “Technology in the Workplace” or summat. I got the impression that it had been published in the last years of Callaghan’s government. (This story takes place during Thatcher’s premiership.) It did not bring me infinite calm. It brought me a Hard Stare in the Paddington Bear sense from another patron of the library, because I was going “mwunk” and “pfuffle” from trying not to laugh.

The booklet was all about how when the bosses tried to introduce new technology, workers could use the power that came from being a member of a trade union to block it. It did not go so far as recommending that all new devices such as “word processors” and “computers” should be rejected out of hand, but it made quite clear that no such new-fangled gadgets should be allowed in if it meant the number of jobs for typesetters or stenographers should go down. The power of the unionised worker to resist such impositions was, of course, greatest in our great nationalised industries.

The pages of the little book were clean and perfectly squared off. I do not think anyone other than me had ever read it. Yet it seemed to come from a long-ago time or a foreign country, probably East Germany, so great were the changes that had come to Britain in those few years since it was published.

Yes, Britain changed. And now it’s changing back.

Jeremy Corbyn promises free broadband under Labour.

Labour’s proposal seems very popular, although, hilariously, support drops steeply when the question moves from “Do you like Labour’s plan to give you free stuff?” to “Do you like Labour’s plan to nationalise BT Openreach?” – but even then a solid third of the country hear Jeremy Corbyn say, “we’ll make the very fastest full-fibre broadband free to everybody, in every home in our country”, and also hear that the Labour manifesto is to reiterate the radical 2017 commitment to ‘sector-wide collective bargaining’ – and seriously believe that the “very fastest full-fibre broadband” is going to be brought to them by the unionised workforce of a nationalised industry.

*Or as the Treasury Diary handed out free to staff members one year described it, pubic expenditure.

Universal healthcare vs the rights of doctors and nurses

So it wasn’t George Bernard Shaw after all.

It wasn’t him in the funny story about the dinner party, I mean, the one where a man teasingly asks the woman seated next to him, “Would you sleep with me for a million pounds?” Laughing, she answers, “You bet!” “All right,” he says, “How about for five pounds?” Now she is outraged and says sharply, “What do you take me for?” He replies, “We have already established that. All we are doing now is haggling over the price.”

*

“Bristol Southmead Hospital: Racist patients could have treatment withdrawn”, reports the BBC.

North Bristol Trust (NBT) launched its Red Card to Racism campaign after staff reported an increase of abuse from patients and visitors at the city’s Southmead Hospital.

The abusive behaviour covers racist or sexist language, gestures or behaviour.

Trust chief executive Andrea Young said they wanted staff to “challenge and report it”.

Under the scheme, any patient abusing staff would be challenged and warned, leading to a “sports-style disciplinary yellow card” followed by a final red card in which treatment would be “withdrawn as soon as is safe”.

and

Ms Young said: “We’re sending a strong signal that any racism or discrimination is completely unacceptable – we want staff to challenge and report it and we want everyone to know that it will have consequences.”

Although I am not an adherent of the worship of the National Health Service that has replaced Anglicanism as the British English state religion, I can understand what people like about the NHS. Its founding principles were that its services should be comprehensive, universal and free at the point of delivery. I think the experience of other countries shows that there are many other healthcare systems that would work better overall, but it is a genuine advantage to the UK system that when a British person falls ill they do not have to even think about where and how they will get treatment, or how they will pay for it. It’s universal.

Or it used to be. Bristol Southmead Hospital has changed all that.

I could go on about how easily this policy by North Bristol NHS Trust could be abused, could lead to tragedy. A story by Jack Montgomery at Breitbart UK did just that. But in a sense all that is just haggling over details: once it is established that the NHS is no longer universal, what is the point of it?

The National Health Service was meant to be like the justice system: no one can ever lose the protection of the laws, not proven criminals, not actual racists, and certainly not some shabby old man who has been waiting in Casualty for five hours and can’t stop himself blurting out some non-PC word because he is in pain.

On the other hand, in other contexts I have argued that state systems should drop their obsession with universality. When I was a teacher I saw how one feral child in a class in a state school could ruin the education of thirty other children. For a mess of perverse reasons the policy of putting them in “sin bins” was never applied wholeheartedly, and there are some children so monstrous that even the other denizens of the reformatory should be spared their company. Not to mention the teachers, many of whom quit the profession rather than having to face one more day trying to control these thugs. Whenever it was suggested that the state should simply cease the attempt to educate such children someone would wail, “We can’t just abandon them”. “We can and we should,” I would say. “If they make themselves so unpleasant that no one wants to teach them, no one should have to.”

So don’t those arguments also apply to NHS staff members and patients who find themselves cheek by jowl with some aggressive bigot spewing out obscenities? In this case I am not talking about people who are unjustly deemed to be racists or sexists (real though I think the threat of this happening is), I am talking about truly nasty people. I said one of the best aspects of state healthcare was that it is available to all. But my own words regarding state education, also meant to be available to all, come back to haunt me: if some people make themselves so unpleasant that no one wants to cure them, surely no one should have to.

What do you think?

Samizdata quote of the day

If you want to wear a poppy, then do so. If you do not, then again, so be it. If liberty is to mean anything, then it means the right not to wear a poppy and the dead of two world wars doubtless wouldn’t have cared overmuch either way – being somewhat more mature than their descendants.

Longrider

Samizdata quote of the day

Based on the reaction from defenders of the new gender orthodoxy, you would have thought Bailey were a Cossack leader announcing a pogrom. “This is frightening and nasty. There is no LGB without the T,” tweeted Owen Jones, who is perhaps Britain’s best-known gay journalist. (This is not new behaviour for Jones, who often starts pile-ons against anyone he regards as transphobic—especially women.) Anthony Watson, an advisor to the opposition Labour Party, said he was “horrified and disgusted,” and described the Alliance as a “#hategroup.” Linda Riley, the editor of Diva, a lesbian magazine that proclaims itself “trans-inclusive,” adapted Martin Niemöller’s famous 1946 confession, First They Came, Tweeting, “First they came for the T…”—thereby suggesting that refusing to prioritize the artifice of gender ideology over inborn sexual orientation is the first step toward some kind of real or metaphorical Holocaust.

Helen Joyce

Romantic sporting essentialism

So South Africa won the rugby. I didn’t watch it myself. Like many (though certainly not all) of those who congregate here I am more into reading a pleasantly dotty analysis of Rugby As A Class Phenomenon in the pages of the Guardian than watching however-many-it-is blokes run about a muddy field with a ball that isn’t even. No offence to those whose preferences run the other way, or to those who enjoy both – the denunciation of daft Guardian articles just happens to my way of directing my aggressive instincts into harmless channels. Here is said article:

“Rugby league is a rebel sport – its northern strongholds will never turn Conservative” writes Tony Collins, who is emeritus professor of history at De Montfort University.

In fact his account of the origin of the class divide between Rugby Union and Rugby League is fascinating. People like me who make jokingly derogatory remarks about sports because they were crap at them at school need to learn more about sports history.

But Professor Collins knowing a lot about the history of Rugby League in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries doesn’t necessarily mean he knows all about its fans in the twenty-first. And his apparent belief that Rugby League casts a permanent Protection Against Toryism spell is ludicrous:

The attitudes that gave birth to rugby league remain strong. Hostility to the establishment and suspicion of the ruling elite, whether in Westminster or in business, has not diminished. Indeed, the strong Brexit vote in rugby league-playing regions can be seen as a protest vote against a two-party parliamentary system that has continually let down the “post-industrial” north.

Or, allow me a little blue sky thinking for a moment, it could be seen as wanting Brexit.

Unlike Essex Man or Worcester Woman, Workington Man (Johnson’s consultants appear to be ignorant of the fact that women are also rugby league fans and players)

Cheap shot, Professor. As you as a historian of the sport know perfectly well, the overwhelming majority of Rugby League players and fans have been male.

has none of the advantages of living in the economic bubble of the south of England. While dissatisfaction with Labour also runs deep, it is unlikely that traditional rugby league areas in the north of England will fall to the Tories.

Although the Brexit party has picked up votes in these areas, Nigel Farage’s Dulwich College accent and golf club-bore demeanour is too great a barrier for him to make any significant breakthrough in areas where stubborn resistance to self-appointed authority is deeply ingrained.

While no one knows what the future may bring, the best means we have for estimating the likelihood of a region “falling” to the Tories is an opinion poll. By a happy non-coincidence an opinion poll to canvass the views of “Workington Man” (and Workington Woman too before anyone gets uptight) has just been carried out. Not a poll of Workington Man the archetype, a poll of actual human beings living in Workington. Here is my post about it over at The Great Realignment site: Workington Agonistes. If you want a TL;DR, the result was that by 45% to 34% Workington would fall to the Tories. Yet worse, 13% of Workingtonites would fall to the golfing side of the force and vote for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. That is not a high percentage but it is almost triple what the Lib Dems get. So much for Brexit being a protest vote against a two-party parliamentary system.

As one contemporary writer remarked about the 1895 split, northern rugby and its communities had rejected the “thraldom of the southern gentry”. There’s no reason to suspect that things will change in 2019. As Onward’s misunderstanding of rugby league traditions demonstrates, Britain remains two nations separated by huge class and cultural divisions. And few things illustrate that chasm better than rugby.

The “Onward” think tank may be misunderstanding rugby league traditions, but what evidence we have suggests that Professor Collins may be misunderstanding who plays the role of bubble-dwelling gentry here.

It is past time for a Hayek statue

I agree with this, from Matt Kilcoyne of the Adam Smith Institute.

It is past time that Nobel Prize-winning economist and great social thinker, F A Hayek, had a statue in London.

Hayek is one of the greatest modern economists, and while his intellectual presence in academia is extraordinary, it is time for his legacy to be extended to the greater public.

Hayek traced the idea of spontaneous order from Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ to the present day. He made it one of the most important underpinnings of social and economic freedom. He also made groundbreaking contributions on trade cycle theory and policy, competition in currency, and even human psychology.

A physical memorial would not only honour him directly, it would also bring his name and presence before people who do not yet know of his books and his ideas, and prompt people to find out more about his output and his wide intellectual influence.

I have become very bored of people saying that “now is the time” for XYZ, when in truth it should have happened a long time ago. So he had me at “It is past time …”, even if the wording seems a bit clumsy. It has long (see paragraph 2 above) been “time for his legacy to be extended to the greater public”.

I Hope that, if this statue happens, it’s a good one. I look forward to taking photos of it.

Ulster for Beginners – Part IX

This is the final part and on a day when Ulster politics could have a big impact on British and by extension EU politics. I hope to put up a follow up post – Reflections 20 years on, that sort of thing – but I hope all sorts of things that I never get round to.

Britain’s Role (continued)

Almost since the moment the Troubles began, British governments have been is search of what T E Utley described as the “mythical centre”. There is a belief that with just a few tweaks here and a few drops of the old diplomatic oil there, a solution can be found that can satisfy all. Thus Ulster has seen a succession of negotiations since 1973, all of which have ended in failure of greater or lesser magnitude. Ulster’s colonial masters simply cannot seem to get to grips with the idea that there are some disputes which cannot be resolved by compromise. The politicians might as well have tried finding a compromise between driving on the left and driving on the right. Or between a murderer and his intended victim. Or jumping out of a window and not jumping out of a window (elasticated ropes perhaps?). There is a reason for this. There is no compromise between going to war and not going to war. Or being governed by people you trust and people you do not trust. Or being forced to learn Gaelic and not being forced to learn Gaelic.

[Slightly overegging the omelette here but the point is clear enough: there is no compromise to be had.]

This belief in compromise has led to successive governments making all nature of concessions to nationalists. In the early stages this included standing down the B-Specials, disarming the RUC, permitting the creation of No-Go areas and generally taking a softly, softly approach towards terrorism. In more recent times the Government has sought to appease nationalism by introducing “Fair Employment” legislation, signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement and declaring that it had “no selfish, strategic or economic interest” in the Province.

[I should perhaps explain what a “no-go” area is. Or was. It is an area the police and the army do not enter. According to unionists this gave the IRA the opportunity to arm and organise.]

Such compromises might have been justified had they had the effect of reducing tension. Of course, they have done no such thing. The IRA had taken enormous comfort from government concessions, seeing them as a reward for their campaign of violence. Meanwhile nationalists, far from running out of things to complain about, have merely switched from demanding civil rights to demanding joint sovereignty.

Although government policy towards Ulster has, in many ways, been weak, there is one area where the Government has been right. Throughout the Troubles the Government has accepted the principle of self-determination and that the people of Ulster have the right to determine their own destiny. Credit where credit is due.

The Way Ahead

Ulster’s tragedy is uncertainty. For the best part of thirty years they have had to suffer a government whose actions have been contradictory and confusing. While Ulster’s people are unsure of their destiny and governments make little effort to put their minds at rest then there will always be those who believe that violence can pay political dividends. On the other hand, were there no doubt that Ulster was British and was going to stay that way then the IRA would soon lose support and melt away.

[Is this true? This question came up in a Samizdata post in its very early days. The best explanation I thought for the peace that had broken out was the collapse of the Soviet Union. All of a sudden, the supply of arms dried up. Which I suppose suggests that there is little fear of a resurgence in republicanism – unless that is a post-Brexit European Union gets into the arms-smuggling business.]

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V
Part VI
Part VII
Part VIII
Part IX

People power!

“Commuters now physically dragging [Extinction Rebellion] protestors from the roof of the train”, reports ITV’s Holly Collins. If it will not cause a problem where you are for you to cheer out loud, watch that video.

A few points:

– There is some violence on both sides. Trumpian, I know, but there is. The Extinction Rebellion protester appears to be the first to kick someone, but then the crowd all pile on him at once. Don’t cheer that. But if Extinction Rebellion think “physical action” is allowed for them, why the hell shouldn’t physical action also be permitted to ordinary people? People trying to get to work from Canning Town Underground station at 7 a.m. do not generally have the sort of jobs where one can ring in and say, “I’ll work from home today”. They cannot afford to be late.

– Why are XR targeting Tube stations anyway? I thought public transport was supposed to be environmentally friendly. Update: It’s because there is an Emergency. Seriously, from their own website: “This morning (Thursday 17 October) a number of Extinction Rebellion UK affinity groups are peacefully disrupting the London Underground because there is an Emergency.” Not just any old emergency, one with a capital E.

Edit: There’s more! A longer video courtesy of “sid@1968Sid69” of the same incident from a different angle, showing the second Extinction Rebellion protester suffering what TV Tropes calls an “Oh, Crap!” moment and duly being pulled off the roof of the train in his turn.

Book Review: Dangerous Hero by Tom Bower

I recently read the book Dangerous Hero: Corbyn’s Ruthless Plot For Power, by renowned investigative journalist Tom Bower. Bower has also written books on various people such as Richard Branson, Rupert Murdoch, Robert Maxwell and Tony Blair, with varying degrees of deserved brutality. He now has turned his attention on the leader of Her Majesty’s opposition.

Much of the book is not quite the trove of astonishing revelations that it might have appeared to be, if only because I had realised quite some time ago what Corbyn is and stands for, and read about his involvement in, and support for, hard-Left causes for quite some time. I knew about his support for Hamas, his attendance at a funeral of a killer of Israeli athletes (he initially lied about it), his outreach to Sinn Fein IRA within days of the Brighton bombing of 1984 (I was a student living in Brighton at the time, and it was when the name “Corbyn” first entered my consciousness), his holiday-making in the Soviet satellite states and so on. I knew much of this, and assume that most political junkies who follow UK affairs had a reasonably solid grasp of all this gruesome detail.

What is nonetheless striking about this book is the way it shows that Corbyn’s Marxism was quite possibly formed in a period when – never fully explained in his own accounts – he left Jamaica (in the late 60s) and had, so Bower speculates, gone to Cuba. Corbyn’s hatred of the UK, and the empire it created, is very much at the core of his political credo. Corbyn is incurious in some ways about enterprise – other than loathing it, and has tended to leave the details of how a socialist state will direct our lives to colleagues such as John McDonnell. What really floats Corbyn’s boat is his adversialism towards the UK and West as a whole. Any power and person whom he thinks has the ability to hurt the UK and the West as a whole gets his support, no matter how murderous or malevolent.

This anti-British, anti-Western stance is a coherent strand throughout. It explains Corbyn’s cozying up to Iran (and willingness to appear on Iranian TV and get paid for this) – because he hates Israel (a pro-Western, broadly free nation); it explains, even his anti-semitism (Bower is very clear about this; no sophistry about how Corbyn is anti-Zionist but not anti-semitic); it is the key to his hatred of the US and the UK. It shows why he has been a champion of the cause of a united Ireland, preferring to support the IRA, and attend the funerals of IRA operatives, rather than focus on the messier routes of democratic politics in Northern Ireland. And it also shows why he has more recently praised Venezuela, at least until its recent disasters, because that country was seen as being a pain in the bum for the US. To take another Latin American case, Corbyn was happy, it seems, for the Argentinian junta to invade the Falklands Islands, a UK territory, and never mind the democratic wishes of the island’s locals.

One of the most useful parts of the book was its account, told with moments of unintended humour, of Corbyn’s time as a Labour Party councillor in North London, and of how he worked to remove real/alleged enemies and take control. Bower also shows that while Corbyn obviously craved the approval and circle of senior hard-Left figures such as Tony Benn, he was no real intellectual himself and did not contribute original ideas. What Corbyn was very effective at – and Bower ruefully admits this – was being an organiser of protest. He also had a sort of rubber-ball quality – he seemed able to take all kinds of abuse and setbacks and kept ploughing on. He was and is also fairly immune to straightforward venality and corruption, one of his few positive traits. (That does not mean his views are less unpleasant, but as far as one can tell Corbyn was not motivated by money in the way that Tony Blair seems to have been.) It also seems that he is quite a red-blooded sort of bloke, but also not very easy to get on with for the long haul: three marriages as of the time of writing. Another nugget: One of his former wives said that she never saw him read a book during the time they were together.

It is sobering to think that Corbyn has learned nothing from the past half a century in any way that would affect his thinking away from socialism. The many disasters of socialist states have had no impact on his thinking. The end of the Berlin Wall is, one suspects, a grave sadness to him, and people around him, such as media advisor and unashamed Stalinist, Seamus Milne. This fixity of ideological purpose makes me think that socialism really is, for some, a secular religion. The Bower book contains the nugget that John McDonnell, now shadow Chancellor, once thought of going into the priesthood.

Now, a socialist might scoff and say that libertarians can become a bit dogmatic too (that is correct), but there’s a big difference: a market-based economy has, through the processes of bankruptcy and profit, a feedback system in which bad, mistaken ideas fail, and good ones succeed. With socialism, by contrast, failure (such as the misallocation of resources in Soviet Russia) is taken to mean that the State must do even more socialism, that “beatings will continue until morale improves”, so to speak. The free market is like a sort of constant Karl Popper-style testing of hypotheses (business ideas). Socialism does not have any sort of equivalent process.

What to explain how far Corbyn has come despite all this? Bower gives some idea about this. Corbyn is sly and enjoys letting others do the dirty work of knifing colleagues and betraying real/alleged enemies, and likes to appear above it all (he is not unique in this, of course), and play the part of the scruffy, dotty-but-endearing Leftie with his vegetable patch and penchant for photographing street furniture. It is striking how even the joke tag “Magic Marxist Grandpa” is almost an affectionate term, until you realise what Marxism will do. Corbyn shows you can get away with appalling, mistaken views if you speak softly, are bit of a “character” and have good manners (although he can lose his temper when confronted in some cases). And finally, there is Corbyn’s quality of patience. He’s been working away, waiting for his chance. In 2015, when the former Labour leader Ed Milliband stood down, the party’s leadership/voting rules allowed a person such as Corbyn to stand. People voted to let his name go on the ballot. It is proof that random events can really make a difference. (Ironically, it rather undermines the Marxist idea that we are propelled deterministically by economic forces and relations of production. Specific human acts can make a big difference.)

The book, however, for all its pace and verve, is unlikely to convert a lot of people away from Corbyn and what he stands for, although I suppose one or two people might be swayed. I do think that the anti-semitism must have rattled a few even more devoted fans, and his dithering over the EU issue is a delight to watch because Brexit is an issue that doesn’t fall into any obvious map that Corbyn has in his head.

An issue with this book is that Bower has no references or footnotes, a fact that Bower justifies by saying that so much of what he was told was off the record, and that he took legal advice to that effect. The problem with no references is that it is easy therefore for some people to attack the veracity of some of his details. Peter Oborne, who like some right-wingers has a sort of madly odd affection for Corbyn, on the grounds that he is “authenic” (I fail to see what is great about being an authentic nasty piece of work), has attacked the book’s accuracy. Bower hasn’t responded. I remember many years ago, when I wrote pamphlets for libertarian causes, that Brian Micklethwait and other old friends such as the late Chris Tame drummed into me the importance of references and sources, with lots of specific details, in the interests of good scholarship. If a book is going to drive a stake into the heart of Corbyn, I think it would have been more effective had it contained some explicit sources.


Dangerous Hero
is a gripping read – I went through it very fast – and it is gruesome, even chilling, reading. It is a well-paced, angrily written account of the life of a man who, let’s not forget, is still a potential prime minister of this country. As his IRA chums used to say, defenders of freedom have to be eternally vigilant, because for the likes of Corbyn, they need to be lucky just once.

Ars longa, vita brevis

The Guardian reports, “Sculptor Antony Gormley plans Brexit giants off the French coast”:

Now, on the eve of Britain’s potential departure from Europe, Gormley is planning a new and dramatic intervention on the beaches of northern France. He wants to erect a group of seven huge sculptures, made from iron slabs, on the coast of Brittany. They will look towards Britain, the lost island of Europe.

There is something in that image that can appeal to both sides. I think Mr Gormley might make better art than his predictable opinions might lead one to suppose:

Gormley describes Brexit as “a stupid moment of collective fibrillation” and argues that such an imposed separation from the rest of Europe will be damaging and false. “We belong to Europe, geologically as much as anything else. We were only separated five thousand years ago. The whole idea that somehow we can go it alone by making greater relationships with the former Commonwealth and with our friends and cousins in America is just ridiculous,” he tells Wilson.

Mind you, it will take about thirty seconds flat for some wag to call these figures standing on the coast of France as they wistfully look towards Albion “the illegal immigrants”.

“People do not walk there if they can avoid it”

Emma Duncan has written a piece for the Times with which I ought to agree. It has the title “The city of billionaires is a vision of hell” and has the strapline “San Francisco shows what happens when rent controls are used to tackle a housing shortage”.

Her article starts with a vivid description of San Francisco’s woes:

… San Francisco and its environs have the highest density of billionaires on the planet. It is also the most visibly poor place of any I have been to outside India or South Africa, and the horrors on show hold lessons for London.

As Tom Knowles reported in The Times yesterday, there are more than 8,000 homeless men and women on the streets of what is, with a population of less than 900,000, a small city. Every time we stepped out of our city-centre hotel, we saw homeless people slumped on the pavements or wandering aimlessly. In the Tenderloin district, a formerly respectable area a quarter of a mile away, there are homeless encampments on most blocks and shit on the pavements. People do not walk there if they can avoid it.

In the four days we were there, I went into maybe ten shops. In three of them, homeless people walked in, took stuff and walked out. In Starbucks, for instance, a homeless man swept a lot of biscuits and chocolates from beside the till into a bag. I started to say something to try to stop him, then looked at the woman behind the till who shrugged her shoulders. I asked the manager how often this happened; he said seven or eight times a day. I asked him what he did about it; he said he filed “an incident report”.

My son said that the police have given up on property crime because they are short of resources, because this sort of crime is so common and because there is a certain sympathy for the perpetrators. We took two buses when I was there; on one of them, the man in the seat in front of us peed on the floor. My son said it was a regular occurrence.

It then offers two possible explanations:

When you talk to San Franciscans, many take the view that homeless people are sent there from cities whose welfare provision is less generous than California’s. That seems implausible, since there is little welfare on offer in San Francisco, and surveys of the homeless population show that the vast majority are local.

Those who have studied the problem say that the main explanation is the price of property. The tech industry is so big and well paid that demand for property has pushed prices to insane levels. Average rents are about twice what they are in London. To pay the rent on a one-bedroom flat in London you would need to work about 170 hours on the minimum wage; in San Francisco, you would need to work 300 hours. As rents rise, people get turfed out of their homes and end up on the streets; combine that with negligible health provision for the poor and you end up with a lot of mentally ill people on the streets.

The response to rising rents in San Francisco has been rent controls. Nearly half the homes in the city are now covered by them. But they have made the situation worse, not better, because they discourage people from letting out property and thus reduce supply, pushing house prices up further.

The Instapundit co-bloggers talk about San Francisco often. Though I would guess that none of them would be reluctant on ideological grounds to mention rent control as the main cause of San Francisco’s problems, as far as I recall they have usually cited the explanation that Emma Duncan rejects, namely over-generous welfare payments that act as a magnet to homeless people from other states. Beyond that they speak of general bad governance, often mentioning that the last Republican mayor of SF left office in 1964.

Of course both causes could be operating. If a single shop has homeless people walking in and openly stealing from it without fear of punishment seven or eight times a day, then bad governance most certainly is operating. But is that the cause or the symptom? My reasons for wanting a more precise diagnosis than “socialism sucks”* are not entirely disinterested. Rent controls are one of the most popular policies offered by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party. Apart from a few old fogeys who remember the deleterious effects of the Rent Acts, Brits love the idea of them. As Ms Duncan suggests, London may soon follow the example of San Francisco in re-introducing rent control. Lord knows the world is not short of examples that show this is a bad idea, but San Francisco might make that argument real to a British audience better than most places, as it is a city quite a lot of British people have visited recently and come away from with shit on their shoes. Do any American readers, particularly San Franciscans, have any observations to share?

*Two economists called Robert Lawson and Benjamin Powell, who seem to be more convivial than economists usually are, have written a book with this title that is currently nestling in my Kindle. My husband recommends it. He says it is about beer.

Brexit predictions

So. How is this going to pan out?