New York’s lack of storm protection, the social mobility myth and lollipops in Loughton

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

Poor countries are hard hit by extreme weather because they can’t afford to protect themselves. Rich countries are hit because their rulers are too stupid to take precautions. Why doesn’t New York have storm barriers, as London does in the Thames? The ocean that has just deluged the city has been rising by an inch a decade for a century and could rise another two feet by 2050. Effective protection, it is calculated, would cost about £7bn. Early estimates of the cost of Hurricane Sandy are nearly twice that.
Yet though Mayor Bloomberg is more environmentally aware than most US politicians, storm gates aren’t even on the drawing board in New York. Admittedly, they aren’t necessarily a win-win – they can affect aquatic ecosystems, for example – but it seems extraordinary that a nation with such faith in technology isn’t looking at how to overcome such downsides.

The other strange thing is that Wall Street, where work consists largely of tapping keyboards, peering at screens and bellowing into telephones, needs to close down. Can’t traders be redirected temporarily to some centre where the weather is calmer, or just work from home? Why haven’t the masters of the universe made contingency plans? The fallback position of global warming sceptics is that, even if they are wrong and bad weather comes after all, human ingenuity will make it possible to adapt. The human performance in New York doesn’t inspire confidence.

Trapping Tappin

I have no idea whether Christopher Tappin, the retired British businessman on trial in Texas for conspiring to ship missile parts to Iran, is innocent or guilty. But his decision to enter a guilty plea highlights something that is not widely understood in Britain, perhaps not even by the New Labour politicians who disgracefully agreed that anybody wanted by the Americans should be extradited more or less automatically. Despite the impression created by TV courtroom dramas, US criminal cases are not normally settled by jury trial, or by any sort of trial at all. More than 90 per cent of criminal prosecutions are settled by plea bargaining, whereby defendants admit guilt (and sometimes agree to shop other defendants) in return for shorter prison sentences or for more serious charges being dropped. Some studies suggest that half those who plead guilty in US courts are actually innocent.

Anybody who knows that classic of game theory, the prisoner’s dilemma, will understand the potential injustices of plea bargaining, which are all the greater when permitted prison sentences, with no remission, are so heavy. It is one of many respects in which Americans’ claims to be paragons of liberty, justice and democracy – supported by cheerleaders here – rest on very shaky foundations.

One Laws for them . . .

David Laws, who has re-emerged from the exile imposed after his expenses scandal to become a minister in Michael Gove’s education department, berates teachers for not encouraging children to “reach for the stars”. In his Yeovil constituency, he complains, pupils are allowed to think investment banking is beyond them and to settle instead for “medium ranked” local employers.

One wonders if Laws has been in literal hibernation. He does not seem to understand that investment bankers have become about as inappropriate a model of aspiration as Jimmy Savile. One also wonders what Yeovil employers make of Laws’s demand that children should look elsewhere. But leaving all that aside, it is time the social mobility agenda, promoted by the coalition as it was by New Labour (particularly Alan Milburn, who is the coalition’s “social mobility tsar”), was questioned. It is based almost entirely on false premises.

There has been no decline in the relative chances of children from poor and rich homes attaining top jobs. Social mobility in that sense has remained constant for nearly a century. After the Second World War, however, changes in Britain’s occupational structure created a big surge in professional and managerial job vacancies, which were filled not only by children from working-class homes moving up but also by those from middle-class homes maintaining their position, when they might once have moved down. As the Oxford University sociologist John Goldthorpe observes in a recent paper, this surge – which has slowed but not stopped – was demand-driven. It had almost nothing to do with education.

In other words, teachers are the wrong targets. If Laws wants more children to “reach for the stars”, he and his fellow ministers need, through growth policies, to give them more jobs to reach for. If, on the other hand, they want less inequality, they should give the poor more money.

A lot of lolly

Ministers are worried that violent gang activity among young people is rising, despite gang leaders being put in jail. Perhaps they should borrow an idea from Loughton, Essex, where I live quietly and unfashionably. Members of our local church patrol the streets on Friday nights handing out lollipops. Why does this work? Because, they explain, you can’t fight while sucking a lollipop.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?