A possible flaw in the skills system….

Whilst I am sure many can list with great accuracy the possible flaws in the vocational and technical system which is emerging I wanted to provide a short observation of an additional one – at least what I can conceive of as a plausible issue.

One of my ongoing refrains is that the skills system, much like the education system, assumes that its supply reflects demand. Logically, this builds on a wider industrial and distribution mindset which dominates public policy- rather than focus on the demand (and therefore the need to see the context and wider transactions which would inform that demand) simply supply a population of broadly educated and skilled individuals will have the necessary impact.

Yet, the absorption of supply assumes that firms have a constant demand for labour. The first challenge comes from the fact that not all firms are equal either in size or success. Because of this, the demand from these firms would not be equal and would probably reflect their needs for different types of labour.

Because of this variation, the need for labour will itself reflect the age of the company in relation to its peers and competitors. Thus whilst we can argue that a sector will have broadly a demand for ‘X’ the subsequent, size, scale, location and age of the firm are not reflected in this ‘demand’.

Centre for cities has recently published some research (here) which talks about the need to focus investment to improve productivity in established export-led firms. It would seem sensible that in doing so that the development of such firms would create demand across a broad cross-section of skills. Taking account of the above, the focused development of firms in particular industries will require two things – a highly flexible set of providers and curriculums, and a set of local industrial strategies which seek a form of competitive advantage over areas to create the conditions for such firms to develop.

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Securing ‘Value’ within local Industrial Strategies

<Nb. i have updated this post to clarify my points>

The idea of building wealth is a commonly held consequence to our economic system, be it in wages or dividends, the wealth created through the economy is partly shared with individuals who accordingly support themselves.

However, there is also an argument that increasingly the economy is less about wealth creation but rather increased value. In essence, increasing the value of any asset increases its worth but in a way which largely benefits a select few owners and others within the system.

This is a rather abridged version of what Mariana Mazzucato (among others) has argued in a series of books. Building upon the broad impact of Thomas Piketty work on capital, she has argued that the state has had a key role in the development of economic sectors and systems which have created our most powerful companies today.

My interpretation of her work is that there is a role for the state to be included in the development of, economic systems through (partly) the ability of the state to invest to access some of the value extracted by firms. Because value is expressed mainly in dividends, this is a form of shareholder state capitalism. Rather than a position which holds that individuals rather than the state should be the stakeholders within the economic system.

Her current book ‘The Value of Everything’ is compelling but contentious. It reviews the global economy and its relationship with finance. It makes for a strong case that the increasing dominance of finance within the economy is undermining the potential for both the economy itself and the state to take a role to affect the market and challenge inequalities.

However, to me, the passage of public policy weighs heavily on her prescriptions. With the transfer of the policy burden on to households and away from the state, the idea that the state should be wealth owners raises questions about how this should be expressed back to households. If households have failed to accrue wealth but have been exposed increasingly to debt to make up for declines in wage growth – how could the state share out this value?

Would this value be expressed through lower taxes, better infrastructure or a combination of the two. Would local taxes reflect effectly as shares or units bought in the prospect of a dividend? Would this dividend work like national insurance used to, or more like a Stocks and Share Isa? Could it be targeted to accounts to fund future care needs, or invested back in economic development?

To an extent, these questions cannot be answered as it would depend upon how the value was secured within a given economy, industry or sector.

That said, the idea of local value ownership is compelling against the backdrop of the emerging industrial strategy. The idea that the state could invest to share in value creation is interesting for the potential endowments for local areas.

Aside from the complications suggested above, it would be a way of squaring the problem which is manifest in the current devolution argument and is a challenge since Total Place was first suggested – how to retain the benefits to compensate for the costs.

Instead of seeing public spending as a public good with an inevitable transaction cost (the money its lost) it would be a way of looking again at how public investment it used to underpin economic development and dynamism.

In relation to the Industrial Strategy – the key element is how local services can invest and secure value for their communities, use this to develop new industries but also underpin preparations for future economic shocks and impacts.

If nothing else, its a book that is worth reading in the context of our times.

Total Place – Eight Years Later…

Elections, referendums, Coalitions and ten years of lost productivity. 2008 seems like a long time ago – but in devolution terms 2010 seems even longer.

In 2010, the dying embers of the last Labour government released the ‘Total Place: a whole area approach to services’. At the time I worked in a county council and remember being struck by two things – one that it was a sensible idea, and the other that its flaw was the no one got to keep anything. No power, no money and no new wealth. In essence, Total Place was to have a single approach to issues in each area, with the necessary resources pooled not only locally, but also, and in my opinion more importantly, pooled resources in Whitehall.

To me, the Total Place agenda remains the Grandfather of devolution. It inspired, alongside the necessities of the budget, the decentralisation of the problems, with 1/3 of the resource, and pittance of a little bit of revenue generation through NNDR (eventually).

But what is missing, how has the descendant of Total Place worked in the absence of a wider structure? Taking stock of the myriad of boards and panels, LEPs, CCGs etc. It seems the quango-cracy which Eric Pickles wished to kill has been replaced with a local series of policy/ service based principalities with a rump of people common on each. The principle of doing things at a local level is largely accepted, but in the rush to devolution, we have attained a form of decentralisation which at best as localised the problems whilst restricted the solutions.

This is not meant to seem so flippant, the effective result of the last eight years are a series of local versions of what was seen as the problem in Whitehall – isolated panels and boards working together at a strategic level but also concerned to preserve their own income and resources whilst accusing the others of doing so. There is no accusation here as this is precisely what all public providers are doing, from Colleges to Councils, LEPs to CCGs no one benefits from pooling and can actively lose if it generates savings which Central Government can claim.

Consequently, our challenges at a local level have evolved and changed. Whilst there is a much strong suite of partnerships, they are also partially competitive with each other and lack an overall objective. Thus in two tier county areas – there is an expectation that the collaboration is a given with out the recognition of the sum total of reductions in a given area. This means, in effect, that we have less of Total Place approach but rather the endurance for a Total Burden in a given place.

The shadow of Total Place has been less the sum of impacts for a given £1 of spending, but rather a series of partnerships which attempt to claim 10p in every £1.

Against the backdrop of changes in both the structure of the economy (automation) and the way it is integrated with the global economy (due to Brexit) meeting the challenge of government strategies around the industrial strategy, the reform of social care and the general improvement of services in a given area requires a more substantive view, starting from a thorough appreciation of the impact of spending in a given area.

In effect its time to update Total Place.

Intergenerational Fairness – a response to the Resolution Foundation Report

It has been too long since i last wrote something – apologies. Will try harder.

The resolution foundation’s report on inter-generational fairness was released earlier this week, it has certainly caught attention. Having taken some time to read it and reflect on it, whilst reading what everyone has said on it – there is, for me, something about the report in that it seeks to do a lot whilst being somewhat limited in how. Yet this should not in any way detract from the more fundamental issues the report highlights.

At its core it reflects the pivot in public policy discussion away from reform of structures in an era of austerity to policies which break with our recent history and suggest a more proactive role for the state in addressing structural issues. For me, aside from the headlines of giving people £10,000, the real crux of the research is the evidence that the burden of goods and services which where once public have been shifted from the state and communities to households. This point was made by one of the commissioners Duncan Weldon via social media and i couldn’t agree more, but this creates an additional problems.

Firstly, public goods are defined by their non-rival and non- exclusive benefits – that is to say that the consumption of them doesn’t diminish the amount left for others and there is an open access defined by law. Whilst proposing a direct transfer (among other suggestions) between the generations there is a chance that this principal is eroded bearing in mind the myriad of potential ways each unit of £10k could be spent. In essence, if someone can take there wealth and spend it in a variety of ways, then the associated outcomes will vary – this potentially means that the total volume of unfairness is reduced whilst specific inequalities between groups emerge based on how they choose to use their £10k.

For example, if one chose to invest that £10k in a deposit versus another choosing to pay for a year of their degree, both are benefitting and making an active choice but the long-term returns on £10k will vary massively.

Secondly, the transfer of wealth into revenue means the effective confiscation of a part of private property by the state and limiting the transfer of wealth between generations within families. This raises questions about the extent to which the state can address such inequalities through an enforced inheritance that is held at communal or societal level.

No-one can really ignore the difficulties which millennials face, but it may not require such an extreme adjustment in the foundation principals of private property. That said, this is not necessarily a problem if capital accumulation is lead primarily thought the development of intangible assets rather than physical assets in which case the principal of Private property hasn’t been eroded because the asset in question remain intangible, however the long term benefit of such a scheme is likely to diminish in the face of shifts in ownership within families (what is to stop a family transfer the propriety to someone at the requried age so they acheive captial ownership and £10k – the point maybe specific but goes someway to demonstrate the legal extents which any legislation would need to pass).

A third issue, is that the creation of future wealth relies upon the investment of revenue and a level of return which is created, in part, through productivity gains. (Chris Giles has written something similar in the FT) Whilst the report talks about the need for additional training for technical and vocational and proposes the resources for this, it doesn’t take the central point of how such a wealth transfer could be used to fix systematic inequalities that would potentially create greater capital ownership later. If we invested £10k per 16 year old to support initial training and technical education, this could create a step change in lifting educational achievement by removing a cost pressure that can lead those without the economic means to leave at level 2, rather than level 3. A more extensive argument could be to target £30k of resource at people from the polar 4 postcodes, focusing that on covering the cost of education up-to masters level. Such an idea isnt new and has most recently been suggested as a National Learning Endowment by researchers at UCL.

In essence, the resolution foundation has once again created the context for a debate which is needed. My concern is that in the headwinds of Hurricane Brexit and the emerging eclipse of a new spending review the policy ideas need to be based on resource we already have and using them in new ways.

A learning endowment funded through the under-spends on adult learner loans could be a solution targeted at certain students, postcodes or categories (such as ex-offenders) and would give them the access to sort of investments that will given them the access to their own capital.

Crucially, it would encourage adaptation at a change in the structure of productivity affected by automation and new digital impacts, simply transferring wealth into a restricted yet broad set of expenditures may only delay the impact of these trends on households.

Ben

No, I didn’t get PhD funding, and yes, I am pissed about it.

The Talmud is made up, in essence of two sections, one is a written transcription of an oral tradition of Jewish law and the second is a record of the discussions which take place around this written transcription it includes the discussion as well as the disagreements for all to read and reflect.

Right now, I would be very grateful for something similar to explain to me why I didn’t get funding. I know I shouldn’t be bitter about the situation, and I know I am not alone, but not having closure on a rejection which has, in essence, made the entirety of the last year to be mostly worthless is really, really tough. It is hard to look at my partner, my step children and my friends and feel anything other than a failure and a mug for the attempting this in the first place.

Many reasons have been suggested by those outside of the process: my undergrad degree was a 2:1 in the social sciences, it’s just very competitive, or maybe my institution doesn’t want economic historians. They are plausible reasons, but I know of at least one colleague who has been offered an interview is covering a similar topic to me, part of their first degree wasn’t history, and so I am left to wonder if the problem is the fact that I am older.

In some respects, this might be because we understand the world a little better and are less likely to accept situations which emerge in institutions or maybe because we reflect an increased risk with our children and partners. Either way, despite efforts to prove the value of my research, the contributions made while taking the MRes (writing a journal article, being one of a handful of voices who dare to speak in the seminars, helping colleagues by sharing papers) I was rejected because ‘there isn’t enough money’.

Although admittedly, Keele did say I could pay them to do my research – a final cut of the blade made to somehow force me to feel better. The reality of that is three to six years of being supported by my partner. It is three to six years of not paying off my credit card as well as three to six years of not making any pension contributions, with every penny I earn, at the same time as trying to actually do a PhD, paying a tuition fee. I wouldn’t have been wealthy with funding, but I would have been able to pay my own bills.

This wasn’t simply about funding because I felt entitled. It was about a situation shared by all of us seeking to do this. I am in no better a financial place to do this research than someone ten years younger than me, but it feels as if I have been judged that if I could afford to the Masters then apparently I can afford to do everything unfunded. If not, and it’s just my analysis is generic and mediocre at least tell me. The lack of a reason that accounts for those that receive and those that don’t is both humiliating and incredibly depressing. I knew weeks ago that I was going to be turned down, do the powers that be think that students don’t talk to each other? What isn’t clear to me is why with my experience (see below) I didn’t get at least the opportunity to make my case?

Yes, I am bitter, I am very disappointed and, frankly mortified that I left my career for this. I have no idea what to do. The lie told is that your experience benefits you as you get older – it’s bollocks, all that happens is that experience is a label stuck on the bits of your insight that other people value. It has no inherent value. Being turned down for funding reflects on me, and it is a rejection of that the experience that I understand is central to successfully completing a PhD.

Despite working in a career that saw me project manage national campaigns, despite the ten years of experience I have invested to network and promote my knowledge: not least the time I have spent tutoring and teaching others in history in my spare time. All of that experience gathered from the process of maturity counts for nothing. Basically, in an interdisciplinary university like Keele, my social science degree from ten years ago – doesn’t count, and neither do I.

Trump, Brexit and the need for a pause

Even the most cursory glance at Twitter today (9th November 2016) suggests that Nostradamus was only slightly off with his predictions. I cannot tell you how much I dislike Trump, but he won an election and the reality is that enough people agreed with him to make that possible. For me the thought process is how to respond as a Liberal.

Part of the problem is that within our liberal tendency we cannot understand this; he is a misogynist, racist and a demagogue. To me that analysis by and large  misses the point – he is not elected on the basis of his personality he was elected on the basis of his offer, and we cannot deride, ignore or assume that over 50m people are stupid for doing so, nor can we assume that the 50m+ that voted for Clinton are automatically virtuous, even in defeat simply because Clinton wasn’t Trump.

A reflection on our own electoral history suggests that despite the perceived majority view or even the institutional view, those with less than savoury personalities or portrayals win. I am personally a massive fan of David Lloyd George, but what was he, he was a philanderer, blatant in his corruption and overly self-assured. some dislike Margaret Thatcher but she won three elections and changed the country I live in. I am a Europhile but i live in a country that voted for Brexit, in essence as much as it pains me i cannot hate the people that voted contrary to how i did, but that doesn’t mean that i am subservient to that world view, or assume that what comes after represents me.

Turning to Trump is appears he represents a voice in America that is perhaps missing in our own world view, I doubt everyone who voted for Trump is like him, or even like all of his characteristics, but he represents them and that is what the electoral process is. The bigger problem is that we might have to revisit our frames of reference to understand what is going on. Personally, and I am writing without much reference material, there is something of seeing the process of Brexit and Trump being elected as expressions of groups of people who wish to be heard. They are not all racists, they are not all anti-immigrants and they are not all-right wing they just appreciate the world is different from the one we L/liberals either hope for, or presume.

In some respects we have forgotten that history is often a form of compromise with all ideas, this means that we have forgotten to compromise with ideas that do not chime with our own. This risks liberalism becoming a chimera in which we forget that we haven’t arrived at a societal stage where one idea or opinion is simply morally right and that diminishes everything else. Although there are moral absolutes; these are in essence related to us individually, or collectively shared within a class or group. It doesn’t follow that these ideas automatically resonate with another group. The task is to compromise and see that there is often worry and concern on all sides but for different reasons. The compromise isn’t to diminish our own values it’s a means of ensuring that all values are understood, and a solution derived.

This may not be palatable, it may mean within a Trump presidency we see thoughts expressed which horrify us, but being liberal requires the resolve to accept that all thoughts are held despite some being horrific. Silence doesn’t bred consent any more than it proves that some people aren’t racists, and the need to discuss and compromise is part of the response needed. Brexit and a Trump Presidency are only really comparable because how we got there – they are however different; this is not a new age of extremes but perhaps a new age where the certainties of the immediate past need reconnecting with a longer history of the world in constant change.

Rather than being the end of the world, it is a wake-up call to look at what people think and feel even if that doesn’t chime with how some think they should. This isn’t about acceptance, but a robust review of ideas and their meaning. In my own way, I feel this is because the economic institutions have changed in a way that political ones haven’t, we need to realise that some gain and some lose, and if enough people feel they have lost they will want a representative that fixes that. In the same way, each nation and the world will fix itself and although the Republicans rule in America they won’t want a Trump presidency which effectively destroys them and their credibility; likewise things, elements and ideas change to re-evaluate what has happened and we need time to think.

So today – at least – I am avoiding Twitter….

Brexit, the Government and Parliament

I voted remain, I am not a ‘remoaner’ nor a traitor. I have worked in this country, paid taxes in this country and whilst I support a free press, I reserve the right to highlight the extremities of that press. I don’t wish to overturn the referendum result – personally I have always believed that you should accept the result of an election, its part of how things work.

However, I also believe that the system should work as it is supposed to. If the referendum was about sovereignty then the issue must be debated in parliament – referendums are an incredibly poor means of making decisions, especially when we have a press more focused on generic demagoguery than facts, and a population unable to accept facts from anyone that doesn’t charm with that side they have chosen. This has always been the case and I no more blame Twitter than I blame Gutenberg for printing, but a binary choice on issues which affect all government services, the economy and the wider world would suggest it to be more complicated than yes or no.

What worries me is that we appear to be slipping into a Whig sense of the immediate past, and using it to corrupt the history of the country in a way that creates worrying precedents. Firstly. When the British people spoke in the summer they presented us with a divided nation, I have never felt more alienated from my country than I do now. Accepting the result is not about accepting a blanket notion of what Brexit is or should be – we had a binary vote on what i consider to be a spectrum of options, we could be forgiven for assuming that the detail would be worked out within the system. Instead the government has sort to portray the referendum as some sort of enabling act for their actions, decisions and approaches – it isn’t, it is an expression of popular will which provides a set of constraints and options for the government & parliament to pursue.

For our wider history –the government believes it is supreme to parliament, whilst I avoid the usual hyperbole about the brilliance of the parliamentary system, the point is incredibly simple; government is the embodiment of the monarch’s powers and is subservient to the will of parliament. Any other approach to this means essentially that the monarchs powers are being used without the consent of parliament and this is not how things work. I believe that if presented to parliament the bill would pass – but it would be a close vote simply because this isn’t a simple case of cancelling our gym membership. It is supposed to be debated; otherwise, if there is no point in the debate, then why bother with a parliament – it cannot be selectively used to ratify the government, it has to be a permanent which is part of the process.

I have to confess that I am a worried citizen, I do not believe we are sliding into fascism, but the portrayal by the government of a divided vote as a clear expression on a complicated topic can only lead to disaster, especially when mixed with a ‘whig’ history that presumes that we have a level of development now whereby the old system of checks and balances through parliament no longer apply to this government because it is listening to the people.