Will Pike and the Costs of Legislation

There’s another video doing the rounds on social media made by a chap called Will Pike, a Brit who was injured in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks and is now wheelchair bound.  It goes without saying that I have every sympathy for Mr Pike and his predicament, and I can imagine the frustration he feels when he encounters the difficulties presented in the video:

His problems are real, and I take no issue with them.  But I have a problem with his proposed solutions:

The law protecting disabled people from discrimination when accessing goods and services has existed for 10 years and is supposed to be enforced by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The Equality Act requires that service providers make reasonable adjustments to make sure disabled people are not disadvantaged when accessing their services. However, there are significant flaws with the enforcement of the act. In the majority of cases it is left to disabled people to sue service providers for discrimination. Moreover changes to legal aid have made it much harder to start legal action. Court proceedings can be very time consuming and costly. They are not accessible to all disabled people, many of whom just want to get on with their life.

The main issue here is one of expectations versus reality of what passing a law can achieve.  Since I was a student and I became aware of these things there seems to have been a headlong rush in the developing world to solve every problem in existence by passing a law, as if by doing so the problem merely goes away.  Only if this worked, nobody anywhere would be doing drugs.  Oops.

The key word in the legislation is “reasonable”:

The Equality Act requires that service providers make reasonable adjustments…

What is reasonable or not depends on the individual.  Most viewers of the video would see a flight of steps in a clothing store and think “Why can’t they put a lift in?”  A building services expert hired to testify on behalf of a company defending a case brought before the EHRC would explain in detail the costs and practicalities of doing so, and an engineer would go further, into details of the structural design of the building.  London is an old city, the buildings are old.  Retrofitting a lift or making substantial modifications to a building could well cost as much as demolishing it and building a new one.  Not in all cases for sure, but in some.  It could be that the owner of the shop premises doesn’t own the whole building, or maybe even the floor above.  Whatever the case, it is not immediately obvious that the lack of a lift in a shop means the owners or the tenants have not made all reasonable adjustments to allow disabled people access to their services.

There is one answer to this.  Take away the “reasonable” qualifier and ensure all companies provide full disabled access that caters for every type of individual that might cross their threshold.  This would cost a phenomenal amount of money, which would be passed directly onto customers, and would entail moving almost every business out of city centres and into purpose-built retail parks or strip malls, but it is certainly possible.  Only major complaints I hear from the sort of people who campaign for greater disabled access are: the cost of living in Britain (especially London) is already way too high and we need government intervention to force companies to pay employees a Living Wage; town centres are dying and everything is moving to purpose-built retail parks in the outskirts; and independent “local” shops are disappearing, replaced by endless outlets of multinational chains who “send their profits overseas and out of the local community”.

So which is it to be, folks?  Strip-malls filled with faceless multinationals with full disabled access, or smaller franchises and independent shops in city centres and high streets?  You can’t have both for simple reasons of practicality and economics. And if you insist on having both, you’ll end up with neither: nobody is forced to open a shop, and anyone doing so much be able to envisage an economic return.  Sadly, I suspect people will insist on having both and wonder why their towns look empty.  This has already happened.

I have my sympathy with Will Pike and his video might well have identified companies that could have provided better access at a reasonable cost but didn’t.  But I suspect most people sharing his video on Facebook won’t have thought much beyond the initial, emotional reaction to a guy in a wheelchair struggling through life.

Food for Thought

Earlier this year France passed a law banning supermarkets from throwing away or destroying unsold food.

France has become the first country in the world to ban supermarkets from throwing away or destroying unsold food, forcing them instead to donate it to charities and food banks.

Charities will be able to give out millions more free meals each year to people struggling to afford to eat.

I’m not sure when the ban actually comes into effect, but there has been a recent spate of articles doing the rounds on social media about how wonderful this is and how the US should adopt the same laws.

The narrative is that supermarkets are callously destroying food while the starving, huddled masses are gathered outside their automatic doors pleading for some sweepings from the delicatessen floor.  Why not just give this food away?

I can already think of two reasons why not, with the first being that of liability.  I haven’t visited every supermarket in France, but I know British supermarkets pretty well and if you go to one in the late evening just before closing you see a section filled with produce expiring that day which has been marked down, and further marked down, and then reduced to almost nothing in a desperate attempt to get rid of it before it goes in the skip out the back.  As far as I know this is common practice among supermarkets everywhere, and there are a lot of people out there who have made buying groceries from these sections an art form.  In other words, supermarkets already go to considerable lengths to avoid destroying food.

There is a good reason why expiry dates are put on food, and it’s mostly to do with liability and ensuring the customer is adequately informed.  Present in the contract a customer enters into with the supermarket when he or she buys a product is the expectation that the food is fit for consumption; the onus is therefore on the supermarket to adequately inform the customer when he or she should consume it before it goes bad.  The dates on the products might be a bit conservative and sometimes even silly, but they exist in order to ensure the customer is informed and the supermarket has carried out its duty of care to the best of its ability.  If they fail in this duty of care and a customer gets ill, they can and will be sued for compensation and suffer a loss of reputation.  This is why supermarkets will not take the risk of selling food past its expiry date: customers could get ill, and both parties will suffer.  All of this is entirely sensible across a colossal, multi-billion dollar, international logistics operation – and it remains sensible even if somebody can pick up a can of beans a day past its expiry date and say “Oh, this is stupid, they are still perfectly edible.”

So what’s the supermarket to do with those few items they can’t sell before their expiry date (and as a percentage of overall stock the volumes will be tiny, even if the poverty campaigners will cite numbers which sound large in isolation)?  The most sensible and cost effective thing to do from a business and liability point of view is to toss it into a skip and replenish the shelves with fresh stuff for the hungry customers who come in the next morning, and indeed that is what they do.

But now they are being forced to give away food which they have deemed unsuitable for sale to their customers, several problems will arise.  The first of these is actually mentioned in the article, but being The Guardian they’re too dense to follow through:

The law has been welcomed by food banks, which will now begin the task of finding the extra volunteers, lorries, warehouse and fridge space to deal with an increase in donations from shops and food companies.

Lorries, warehousing, refrigeration, and distribution all cost money.  And by far the best people at doing these operations are supermarkets, as evidenced by their commercial success.  So if the supermarkets, with all their expertise, have decided these operations aren’t worth doing for certain items, maybe they are onto something?

But now the supermarkets have handed over the food, who is going to pay for these operations?  Where is the money for the refrigeration going to come from?  And more importantly, who is responsible for ensuring these products are handled and stored properly such that they are still fit for consumption when handed to the recipient, and that the recipient is correctly informed as to when he or she should consume it?  The expiry date on the package has already gone by, remember?  That was yesterday.  Are a team of volunteers and charities seriously going to be able to manage the receipt, storage, and distribution of thousands of tonnes of food at or near its expiry date such that nobody is going to get sick?  Are these charities and volunteers going to accept responsibility if somebody gets food poisoning and dies?  If not they, then who?

What’s happened here is some (undoubtedly wealthy middle-class) busybodies have decided they can effectively extend a supermarket’s operations beyond their doors at no cost and with no accountability, and now this has become law.  I suspect the liability issue alone will prevent this being adopted in the US, there would be lawsuits within the first month.  Only against Wal-Mart, probably.

There’s also another problem with forcing supermarkets to give away products, one that we’ve seen with food banks in the UK: some people will take the free stuff instead of doing regular grocery shopping.  Supposing a supermarket sectioned off a corner of its floorspace, filled it with free products, and opened it up to the public for an hour after normal shopping hours.  Now repeat across the country.  Very quickly this would be captured by organised third parties who would employ people (of the type you see on nightclub doors in Manchester) to swoop in and collect everything on offer in what would become a large-scale industrial operation: just as charity clothing has become a lucrative, large-scale, international business.  The idea that a little old lady whose pension won’t stretch to three meals per day would be able to get free food is ludicrous.

If people are substituting products they would have paid for with free stuff, the supermarkets (or the wholesalers) will be losing revenue.  Yes, it is true: if supermarkets are forced to give away products they would otherwise have destroyed, they will lose revenue because of the substitution effects.  This will either result in a fall in profits for the supermarkets – which is what the campaigners think will happen – or, more likely, they’ll just distribute the costs of the new law among the sale prices.  In other words, food will get more expensive.  How does that help the poor, again?

Practicalities aside, this whole thing is annoying me on another level.  For the first time in human history we as a species are able to produce and distribute enough food so that real hunger in properly-run countries is something only our grandparents knew about.  We do this so effectively we can feed ourselves and our families without any more inconvenience than a quick trip to a nearby supermarket.  Furthermore, we can obtain our food without worrying if it’s going to kill us if we eat it.  This in itself is one of the most astonishingly, staggeringly, brilliant outcome that humankind has managed in its existence.  We have solved the millenia-old problem of constant hunger.  So what do we do?  We moan like fuck and attempt to sanction those who have brought it about.  Like the attempts to dismantle our reliable energy supply and replace it with one that doesn’t work, historians are going to look back on this era and think we went collectively insane.

People do go hungry in the developed world, I don’t deny that.  This is why we have a welfare system, food stamps, charities, and a whole load of other measures in place to do what we can to alleviate poverty and hunger.  Supermarkets and their stock-management practices are not the problem, by contrast they are the very things that are keeping the majority of us fed so that we have enough surplus wealth and energy to help those who are not.

Finally:

Campaigners now hope to persuade the EU to adopt similar legislation across member states.

And people are wondering why Britain voted to leave.

Even More on Carrier Bags

This is the post I know you’ve all been waiting for!  Further to my previous two posts on carrier bags, I now have something more to add.

Back in August I said that my local supermarket had stopped providing free carrier bags and everyone jumped on me by saying you can buy them for only 5p.  Only I couldn’t, because my supermarket wasn’t selling them.  But now they’ve given us an alternative: a strong, American-style paper bag with handles that looks like this:

They cost 23 cents each.  Last night I bought one because I found myself needing a couple of bottles of milk, a bottle of some sugary fizzy shite that I drink, and a bottle of wine and I didn’t have room in my gym bag.  As I was walking the few hundred metres home I noticed the handles were cutting into my hand, and that carrying more than one in each hand would be damned near impossible.  Plus they’d lose all their strength if they got wet.  You know what I did with it when I got home?  I put it straight in the bin.  What the hell am I going to use it for?  It is too big when folded flat to go into a pocket, and it’s useless for lining a bin, wrapping shoes, or any other purpose to which a secondhand plastic bag can be used.

Maybe it is because my supermarket is a “metro” style one in a nice suburb that these are on offer and traditional carrier bags are unavailable, but I am still convinced that whoever decided free plastic bags should be replaced by inferior paper bags at 23 cents each didn’t have poor, single mothers with no car in mind when they campaigned for it.  No, like my French acquaintance – who no longer speaks to me following an initial argument over the original post and another row over my mentioning her in the follow-up – they will be wealthy middle-class and living a short walk from the nearest supermarket either alone, or with a car in the basement.  Or both.  The types who buy overpriced organic avocados and wear complete Nike outfits when they go to their gym classes.  Now that’s probably enough snark for today.

Staying on topic, there was a rather revolting story doing the rounds on social media the other day about a camel in the UAE having eaten a load of plastic and dying.  I have looked for it online but it seems to be one of those stories that gets recycled every few years, only the name of the camel changes each time.  Anyway, the premise of these articles goes like this:

1. A camel has died in the UAE by eating discarded plastic, some of which is carrier bags.

2. GLOBAL BAN ON PLASTIC BAGS NOW!!!

Whereas my first reaction, having lived in the UAE, was how’s about they get the ignorant, arrogant, self-centred assholes who inhabit that part of the world to strop strewing litter all over the place?  This would do more for the wellbeing of camels than banning carrier bags in Parisian supermarkets, surely?

A Bitch-Slap for Barack

President Obama has said Congress made a “mistake” by overriding his veto and pushing through a bill that allows legal action against Saudi Arabia over the 9/11 attacks.

the BBC reports.  Not until the 16th paragraph does the article say:

The Senate voted 97-1 and the House of Representatives 348-77, meaning the bill becomes law.

Do you think the BBC would have buried this in the last quarter of the article if Bush was on the receiving end of a slap-down like this?  If it were anyone other than Obama, he or she would be taking a step back and reflecting on whether his wielding of the veto was wise in the face of such overwhelming, cross-party opposition in both houses.

And this is what I’ve always disliked about Obama: he thinks he’s assumed an African-style presidency whereby he can do what he likes because he’s President, and everyone else should fall into line and not question the brilliance of his leadership.  On assuming office Obama didn’t seem to know how the US government is structured and what the President’s role is within it, and at no point during his two terms has he shown he is even interested in finding out.  He has set a precedent of the POTUS wielding far greater influence and authority than the Founding Fathers ever intended based on his supposedly inherent wisdom and indisputable good intentions.  Ask yourself whether this is a good thing now that we’re going to have either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump in the White House for the next four years.

And this:

Mr Obama told CNN on Wednesday: “It’s a dangerous precedent and it’s an example of why sometimes you have to do what’s hard.

“And, frankly, I wish Congress here had done what’s hard.

He really said that?   A president who has ducked countless tough decisions in order to maintain his popularity among his admirers, including foreigners who have anything but America’s best interests in mind.  Was the rejection of Phase 4 of the Keystone XL pipeline in order to appease the environmentalists a case of Obama doing “what’s hard?”  Or sticking to his principles over Syria once he’d made his “red line” remark?  Self-awareness is not his strong suit, is it?

Mr Obama suggested that his colleagues’ voting patterns were influenced by political concerns.

Politicians voting on political matters are influenced by political concerns.  I guess this is why people think he is the cleverest President ever.

Keep Talking

This caught my eye in the wake of the Brangelina fallout:

But perhaps the flow of headlines about unhappy endings actually gives us the wrong impression about Hollywood relationships, because there is a long list of high-profile couples who have proved stars can have staying power.

The Sex and the City actress has been married to the Ferris Bueller’s Day Off star for 19 years. The couple have three children.

Parker has admitted their marriage has been through “some rather treacherous train rides”.

But in 2014 Broderick said: “We really are friends beyond everything else and we talk a lot.”

Asked his advice for other couples, he said: “Just keep talking I guess. I know how cliched that is. Too much silence is definitely not a good idea.”

There is probably more wisdom in those last two paragraphs than there is in ten thousand dollars’ worth of marriage guidance counselling and a decade of contemporary opinions on what a modern relationship should look like.

When I look back at the relationships I’ve had that have worked, and compared them against those that haven’t, the differences between them can probably be linked to communication.  I can talk the hind legs off a donkey, and I believe problems can be solved by talking about them (and writing about them, hence the blog).  I start any relationship – platonic or romantic, male or female – by talking three times as much as I’m supposed to and keeping that up indefinitely.  Listening is also important, and I have often been accused of not doing so.  Although every serious instance of that has been in a professional capacity when a manager has mistaken “listening” for “agreeing”.  There may have been a time when I thought I didn’t listen to people in relationships, but that long ago gave way to a confidence that I know the people close to me very, very well indeed.  And you don’t get to do that by not listening, and thinking about what they’ve said.

Communication is everything in a relationship.  When things are going well, communication tends to go well.  But when things go wrong it often suffers, and you can quickly see who is in it for the partnership and who is in it for themselves.

Whatever the issue is, no matter how bad, keep the lines of communication open.  Sure, take a ten minute break, or take a couple of hours to reply to a message.  But tell the other person you’re doing that, and let them know when you’ll reply.  The moment one party or the other decides they’re going to fall silent for a period of more than a few hours, or (worse) a few days, or (even worse) an indefinite period; or they’re going to completely ignore a message or an email; the relationship is over.  Dead.  It won’t recover.

Sure, I get people say nasty things, and if a situation breaks down into a slanging match of hate-filled invective and insults then it is wise to take a step back and have some time off.  But the lines of communication must stay open: clearly say you’re having a break, and that you’ll be ready to talk again the next day at the latest.  Get back to talking as soon as possible.  Stomping off into indefinite silence and dragging it out over days will result in only one thing: a failed relationship.  If one party doesn’t want to talk then better to just end the whole thing right there and then, because the outcome is inevitable.

And if you are stupid enough to think that adopting a position of silence and ignoring a partner who is reaching out to you in order to punish him/her, and require that they come grovelling back with an apology and take all the blame regardless in order for you to respond, then you deserve all the misery that is coming your way.  A decent partner wouldn’t do this, and Matthew Broderick is right again when he says:

We really are friends beyond everything else

Your partner might not be your greatest ever love, but if they’re your friend they’ll not fuck you over and will keep talking to you no matter what.  If he or she stops communicating, they’re not your friend, they don’t have your interests at heart, and they’re in it for themselves: walk away.

Keep talking, as the BT ads used to say.

(No, this is not related to any current personal issue I have.  I just saw Broderick’s remarks and decided to look back on relationships I’ve either been in myself or those of others I’ve been around.)

Altered Carbon

Following a thread over at Chez Worstall on sci-fi novels, I acted upon the recommendation of two commenters to take a look at Altered Carbon, a 2002 novel by Richard Morgan.  I’m not a huge sci-fi fan and when I tried reading some of the classics I found them too dated.  Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers was an exception, but I couldn’t finish Stranger in a Strange Land.  However, I enjoyed Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, but that might be because I could visualise it better thanks to Blade Runner.

But one of the chaps who recommended Altered Carbon described it as “a sort of blade runner crossed with Sam Spade”, which was enough for me and so I bought it for my Kindle.  I found to my delight that the description was absolutely spot on, and I was hooked immediately.  I am rarely very impressed with modern fiction, with the last book that really held my attention being Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian for which I shunned all in-flight entertainment on a long-haul trip between Nigeria and somewhere.  Altered Carbon had the same effect, and then some.  I can’t recommend it highly enough, and I am looking forward to reading the sequals.  I was also excited to hear that Netflix is making a TV series of it, which if done properly ought to be brilliant.

That’s why the Worstall Arms is the most popular pub in town.  Come for the economics, stay for the comments.

Thoughts on Friendship and Chivalry

James Higham has written a thought-provoking post over at Nourishing Obscurity on the behaviours of modern women.  Rather than quote it at length I’ll advise you go and read it in full, but there are two things I wanted to expand on, separately.

The first:

In childhood, I had a mate who had a younger sister and she was rather nice looking, smiled a lot etc. Someone joked about him fancying her, to which he replied we had to be kidding, she was a right little bitch, he had to deal with her every day.

There is a persistent belief among some women (and maybe this also applies to men) that they are suited for a romantic relationship because they have friends.  I’ve known women who, struggling in a relationship in part due to an inability to compromise and/or communicate properly, rush off and speak to their friends who give them advice along the lines of “Fuck him, there’s nothing wrong with you, if he can’t accept you as you are, dump his ass!”  More often than not they’ll follow this advice rather than listen to what the man is telling her.  Leaving aside the whole issue of women’s “friends” and whether their advice is sincere or self-serving, it misses the point that – as James’ pal noted – having to deal with somebody in an intimate relationship in terms of compromises, values, and communication is a very different beast than being somebody’s mate.  I have fantastic, close, and long-lasting friendships with both men and women but I’d not want to have to interact with them with the frequency, intensity, and emotions that a romantic engagement requires.  And I can assure you that not a single damned one of them would want to do the same with me!

The second:

The obvious rejoinder was and still is – that we males are no great shakes either by our own lights – slovenly, brusque, uncaring, insensitive, making bad jokes and disrespecting wimmin.

Methinks wimmin would be well advised today to consider the reintroduction of chivalry.  Not only did it offer protection, in that any man nearby would have stepped in to help her in dire need, but it then afforded her great power of negotiation, especially regarding her body.

Back in the summer I was talking to a friend and colleague, a French lady who works as an engineer in the oil industry.  She has worked in a variety of countries and cultures, but told me the worst place she’d been in terms of harassment and disrespectful remarks was a platform in the British sector of the North Sea.  To say that this surprised me would be a gross understatement: it blew me away.  Argumentative though I am, when confronted with something rather unexpected like this I occasionally shut the fuck up and try to figure it out.  It didn’t take me long.

Back in my university days – 1996-2000 – we had a period which the tabloids and Radio 1 called the era of the “ladettes”, when British celebrities such as Denise Van Outen, Melanie Sykes, Zoë Ball, the Spice Girls, and others were throwing off the patriarchal chains and shamelessly behaving like lads in a drunken, boisterous, and crude manner.  Not only was this gleefully covered by the tabloid media, but it was positively encouraged by a branch of modern feminism which thought equality for women ought to take the form of adopting the worst behaviour in young, British men.  It wasn’t pretty.

Now I’m something between a libertarian and a classical liberal, and so I believe that if these women – or any others – want to drink themselves into oblivion on alcoholic mouthwash and make idiots of themselves in kebab houses at 3am, that’s their business.  But such liberties are also extended to those of us who observe such behaviour and pass judgement, which includes deciding how such women ought to be treated in terms of subsequent personal relations.  And when this was going on, huge swathes of Britain’s menfolk did just that: they observed women adopting their own worst behaviour and reached the inevitable conclusion that they were no different and therefore shouldn’t be treated as such.  Treat them like men, in other words: speak to them coarsely, get them drunk, pass crude remarks on their appearance, and use them for indiscriminate sex with no commitment beyond a genuine attempt to not throw up in the process.  Isn’t equal treatment what the feminists wanted?  Well, now they’ve got it.

Little wonder, then, that oil workers on the North Sea platforms don’t treat women in a respectful manner: they’ve seen their womenfolk’s behaviour and decided they are not worthy of respect.  Of course, this came as a shock to my French friend who hails from a culture where certain old-fashioned behavioural standards among women are still adhered to and hence the menfolk afford them a respect which by English standards is almost quaint.  Ask yourself if you’ve ever seen a middle class French woman blind drunk, falling over, and having sex behind a bin.  They’d die of shame first.  Whereas my French friend did say she had a limited amount of admiration and envy for the British girls who could go out dressed in anything they liked and behave however they wanted, she did not wish to replicate such behaviour herself.

I don’t think Britain should return to the 1950s, before the sexual revolution set the current train in motion.  There were practices and attitudes that needed to be abandoned, and thankfully were.  But I can’t help thinking we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater, here.  Having mocked the traditional, chivalrous, English gent of the pre-1950s into extinction, women are now rather distressed to find he has been replaced by a boorish oaf.  Whose fault is that, then?