Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Guest Post by Prof T Dagginson - Selling unpopular stuff

Guest Post by Dr Trevor Dagginson, Professor of Problem Solving at the University of Taihape

Could you sell ice to the Eskimo? How about tobacco in these modern times when the support of scientists & doctors is less easily acquired? These are tough assignments but at least you can pick off the customers one-by-one. What if you were asked to switch public opinion from skepticism to acceptance of your stuff? Obviously this is much more difficult, but as luck would have it, my psycho-socio-economic research here at UoT has thrown up some recent examples from which, if I play my cards right, certain advice might be gleaned.

Firstly, and forgive me for stating the obvious, flat-out lying can work pretty well. Say for example you want to start a war in the Middle East. Let's also assume that creeping pacifism has sadly advanced to the point where this is just not an intrinsically popular idea. So you need to get past all that, talk directly to the people and explain why your war must proceed. In this case you'd struggle to beat bare-faced lies as a great strategy.

Perhaps there's a dossier that could be sexed-up a bit, to better align it with the strategy? Tell you what: if you could persuade people that bastard has weapons of mass destruction, you'd be straight to first base. From there, just spout whatever lies are needed at the time and there'll be a fair chance you'll be good to go.

Wedgies are also good and in this context it's customary to pick on minority groups, as far down the socio-economic ladder as possible. Ethnic minorities and refugees are going to be your ideal targets, but mainly you just want fairly small and isolated groups. Having selected your target, you need to explain how they're bludging off 'us'. Resentment is the key to an effective wedgy. So you'll probably want to focus on the costs and ignore the benefits.

Oh and by the way, best you keep a weather eye out for the dreaded reverse-wedgy, where the bone gets pointed at the wrong end of the socio-economic spectrum. There's been a bit of this lately, to the point where it could become a problem. All this talk about inequality and the 1% is a classic reverse-wedgy move. Obviously young people are to blame, but social media has given these ignorant little twerps a flippn megaphone.

The problem with social media is that it promotes open discussion. How can we sell unpopular stuff if ordinary people can contest our preaching? Let's be honest: all these comments and questions are flippn annoying, not to mention disrespectful. Can't we just make them shut the flip up?

Well perhaps we can. My research here at UoT has uncovered two useful strategies.

First, just refuse to engage. The brilliant chief scientist of NZ's EPA has commendably stuck to her guns in flat-out refusing to engage with ordinary people or so-called 'scientists' that disagree with her. Sure, the country's only serious business paper scrapped her column, but hey, at least no-one got to question her.

Go Jacqueline: transmit > receive. The grumbling riffraff includes scientists but does that mean you have to talk with them? Hell no. You're the boss & there's a sign on your office door to prove it.

Second and I'll admit it's a fair bit more difficult, try to make discussion impossible without refusing to engage: it's like a super-charged version of passive aggression. This guy is an expert but you wouldn't know it unless you tried to directly challenge him in social media conversation or talked to my mate Bruce Bayliss.

The key is to be aggressively thin-skinned: take offence early & often. If you master this persona and follow just 1 basic rule, you'll never have to engage seriously with your critics. Here's the rule :

Never admit to a characterisation of your position by someone you perceive as an opponent. 

Conversation/argument/debate relies on the other party understanding your message and responding to it. None of us wants that, but sometimes these annoying little gobshites get to make what *sound like* reasonable points, out loud & in public. They're so crass.

But if you relentlessly deny they understand your position, the conversation stops as dead as an old fergie with a leg-out-of-bed. Here are a few practical hints to help you deflect these apparently rational arguments:
  • 2nd order arguments are best
    • focus on how we talk to each other, not the substance of any disagreement 
  • use labels
    • deny the other person understands your position,
    • say they're 'characterising' or 'projecting' which are terrible sins
  • stay relentlessly aggressive 
    • attack them for playing word games & twisting the words you used; and
    • find ways to accuse them of infringing your rules for debate.
Eventually you'll burn off all but the most dogged of the impudent plebs who don't see it your way. The only possible downside is that you get tired of all the winning, in which case you might want to consider relocating to the USA where truth doesn't really matter any more. 

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Social Microbiology for Farmers & Economists

Most of us know that legumes can use root nodules to fix atmospheric nitrogen and make it available to the plant. That's the basis of the ryegrass & clover model that used to underpin pastoral agriculture in New Zealand & elsewhere, before we started buying nitrogen in bags.

Biological farmers know that this is just one of many potential symbiotic relationships between plants and living organisms in the soil. We try to feed our soil biology with complex foliar sprays & avoid damaging it with cultivation and harsh fertilisers. We dig holes, count worms, and measure brix levels in forage & outputs. But to be brutally honest, we really don't know much about the complex underground relationships between soil organisms and plants.

So it is a rare treat to listen to Toby Kiers, Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (currently visiting U of Canterbury) being interviewed on RNZ. She is using modern microbiological methods to examine the symbiosis between plants and soil organisms that lies at the heart of biological farming. 

It turns out that economic models are assisting her work, so now I'm even more interested. Economics students may know that some branches of game theory draw inspiration from evolutionary biology: apparently the inspiration was mutual. 

I can't hope to do justice to even this 1/2 hour interview here, let alone cover the details of Toby's work programme & how it might mesh with biological farming practices. So let's just cover a few basics.

Fungi expand plant root zones
Fungal networks in the soil can massively expand the (effective) surface area of plant roots to which they attach. They are embedded deeply into the plant roots: piercing the root cell walls and growing arbuscular (small tree) networks inside those root cells. These link the root cells with hyphae networks that the fungi spreads through the soil. So now we have a massively expanded network for collecting & exchanging soil nutrients.

Fungi trade P and N for C
The basic trade between fungal networks and plants is that the fungi collects P and N from the soil and trades them for C that the plant produces via photosynthesis. Farmers know that soil tests often show that there is lots of P down there, but if you're buying soluble forms of P your sales rep will probably tell you that the P showing up on the test is not "available". So you need to put more on. Active fungal networks would harvest that P for your plants.

The plant supplies C in the form of sugars that feed the fungi. This basic symbiotic trading relationship has existed for at least 400m years. Recently discovered: plants also supply lipids to the fungi. Maybe future work will find that other forms of C being supplied?

Underground nutrient trading works like a normal market
As in all trading environments, there is a balance between co-operation and competition. Consider things from the fungi's perspective in an established market. Fungi has incurred the fixed costs of penetrating the cell walls, building its arbuscular networks inside the root cells, and building out its hyphae networks into the soil. Conditions are perfectly set up for a long term nutrient trading relationship.

The existing underground nutrient market could be left to its own devices, stimulated using the methods of biological farming, or destroyed by switching to conventional methods: application of urea and soluble P.

The biological reason that last approach destroys the market is that fungi are "obligate biotrophes". They are great nutrient scavengers, but they can't survive on the nutrients they harvest: fungi needs feeding. If the farmer now supplies solid urea and soluble P, the plant doesn't need the fungi so it cuts off the flow of C. In response, the fungi effectively says: "now you're getting this stuff for free so you don't want to pay me in C? well that's me rooted. i'll just crawl away & die".

This is consistent with a theme Toby emphasised. The observed conduct of non-human parties to a beautiful (& potentially hugely productive) underground nutrient trading market can be explained as if the participants were rational humans interacting through markets.

Inference/Conclusions
This interview left me elated and depressed.

On the upside, it's great to know that the market model is broadly appropriate to these underground nutrient markets and that 90% of plants can access them (not brassicas though). This is consistent with my intuition but it's great to have scientific support.

Switching hats to economics, is it not incredibly average that this kind of science work doesn't get funded in NZ? We think we're so clever and classless and free, but look at the scoreboard: Toby is from Holland, which exports 4 times as much food as us by value. Yet we have far more good land and far fewer people.

Sadly, our farmers & ag policy makers remain in thrall to the people who sell us stuff. We could do much better by seriously investing in science like this, with broad applications/benefits but no commercial sponsor.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Conversation > Communication

Science communication is an industry now. Universities offer degree-level qualifications in science communication, there's a conference circuit for people who self-identify as science communicators, not to mention the popular #scicomm tag on Twitter.

Pretty much all of this industry is devoted to explaining science to the rest of us, in the hope that we'll eventually understand: it is almost entirely one-way traffic. If you listen to #scicomm on Twitter you'll mainly hear preaching, discussion of preaching techniques or angst-ridden discussions about how to get people to agree. For they are preaching the truth and we are either converts or prospects.

Science is far more rigorous than religion: the agreed method of progress in science involves trying to falsify hypotheses. Done well, economics is no different: science and economics should be practiced without reference to ones own values or beliefs. That's why some of us argue that economics is a science: we subscribe to the method. Still, for what follows lets assume it's not.

Advanced study in any of these fields is difficult: the content differs but I'm not aware of any systematic differences in the cognitive abilities of people with comparable advanced degrees either within sciences or between them and economics. Also, both groups are like artists: we tend to fall in love with our models. So we have a lot in common.

I also acknowledge of course that economists can get religious. No-one my age who was resident in Aotearoa at the time could forget the sermons used as support for the late-1980s economic revolution. Yet there are no #buscomm or #econcomm groups on Twitter or degree courses in how to optimise your business/economics preaching.

My point will become clear shortly, but first we need to recognise that economics is not a laboratory science. When economists analyse potential policy/institutional/structural changes, we generally can't do (or consult earlier) experiments that directly answer our questions. Instead we're constantly trying to knit together fragments of information, using them to confront one of several potential theoretical models, and draw inference about likely effects.

This makes economics imprecise, with elements of art. It also means we care *a lot* about what other people think. The views and reactions of ordinary non-economist people will (in aggregate) determine the ultimate answers to our questions. When I'm investigating a public economics issue, I am deeply interested in how people (or firms, which are run by people) feel about stuff and how they'd react if things changed. Listening closely to non-specialists is incredibly important in my field.

By contrast, the #scicomm crew are entirely focused on persuading people who are yet to see the light. They assume that the knowledge flow will be one-way traffic because they know they're right, so it's all just a sell job. This is why they get so frustrated & angry when challenged. They're mainly stuck on transmit. They do have a receive function, but it's been hard-wired to focus on constructing 'gotcha' attempts: ways to assign pejorative labels to others who can then be ignored if not vilified.

This one-way traffic form of "science communication" creates a massive blind spot. It limits the scientist's understanding of other perspectives. It's better suited to gospel preachers than professionals trying to engage with their fellow citizens.

Some of you will be thinking: "this is all fine in theory but does it really matter"? One reason it matters is the same reason that #scicomm exists as an industry: scientists want public support. If you don't understand your audience, your communications strategy is very risky if not doomed.

Another reason is that values differ, as do expectations about the future. For example, a scientist working to develop a particular GMO is likely to be focusing on the positive potential of the work. How should they behave if deployment of "their" GMO would create risks? Strictly speaking, assuming the persona of the dispassionate scientist, they should recognise that the calculation as to whether the risks are worth accepting is beyond their expertise. The scientists' role in this situation is to accurately characterise the risks and then allow others to choose whether they are worth taking.

What about planetary engineering? Suppose a group of scientists developed and received financial backing for schemes to pump stuff into the atmosphere or send up mirrors or whatever. Should we, the non-scientists just automatically accept whatever risk calculus they presented? Or should we also consider the views of ordinary people, non-expert in planetary engineering technology but nevertheless affected by it?

My position is that these are social decisions, not the domain of vested interests. I think #scicomm needs to take a hard look at itself and be far more receptive to feedback from lesser mortals. Conversations are two-way. If you stopped preaching for a bit, you might hear what others are saying.


Sunday, 26 November 2017

GMO Regulation in NZ

Another month, another call to significantly relax GMO regulation in New Zealand, this time from Grant Jacobs over at sciblogs. Grant briefly lists 13 "ideas". Many are unsupported assertions about how we (NZ) should behave. Lots of ground is covered quickly.

I want to pick up on two issues: diversity & inclusiveness.

Diversity
Grant recognises "many different types of applications" of GM which relies on the ability to "read genomes" and use one of several "editing technologies". This diversity of applications is one of the reasons I've been describing GM as resembling a general purpose technology (GPT). 

Diversity is also why case-by-case risk assessments are needed. One example: risks associated with outdoor release of a GM plant that could breed with other plants are different to those for a medical application where such inter-breeding could not occur. Not that outbreeding is the only concern, nor plants: Grant is also seeking the removal of regulation on GMO animals, insects, fungi & bacteria. 

While recognising this incredible diversity, Grant also suggests that "legislation targeting GM varieties could be removed". So the plan is: never assess things that haven't been invented yet, provided they're GMO's? This is bonkers. I trust the relevant authorities will require a sturdy bridge before accepting Grant's invitation to cross the logical chasm.

Inclusiveness
Grant says that "few problems are science-based ones". Don't get excited though: that's not an admission that scientists should listen to non-scientists. On the contrary, Grant's saying that concerned non-scientists are stupid.

It all starts with the name: GMO is a liability because "people have different ideas about what it means, and it carries emotive baggage". Then we're told that concerns about transgenesis only exist because people are thick, or as Grant puts it these concerns are "culture-based, not science-based. This wants education, not regulation". Oh, and we shouldn't "conflate big business practices and crop safety" or "worry about 'unexpected risks' from using GE" or be "negative" or "defensive"

If you listen in to conversations between practitioners of science communication (e.g. #scicomm on twitter), you'll pick up a lot of frustration about why the messages aren't getting through. Grant seems to think it's because we all just need more lecturing while the business side of things gets on with the job.

I'm all for education and outreach by scientists. We can learn a lot by reading and listening to objective scientists. I certainly have. But GMO science is not the only discipline that should inform decisions on the regulation of GMOs. 

We live in a democratic society: our laws and institutions reflect social views, albeit in imperfect ways. We don't let telcos set telco policy, we don't let bankers design financial regulation and we shouldn't let GMO producers set GMO policy. Industry input and insight is useful in all these cases, but it needs to be moderated by other professions. 

Otherwise, we'll end up with people like Grant doing the policy economics, like this...
  • "GE varieties do not endanger organic farming. Allow both. The diversity may mitigate market risks". Sure it's just an idea. It's also wild speculation about market issues on which Grant has no expertise to my knowledge. 
  • "Regulations always conflict with other nation’s rules. Create opportunities for NZ; worry about other nations later". Crikey. Where to start. He's not destined for the diplomatic service is he? We have signed up to a lot of international agreements and are members in good standing of the international community. Also, trade.
By the way, the regulator, whose decisions Grant is hoping to influence with his bush-economics, has recently taken off on its own undocumented excellent adventure into economics.

Disciplinary imperialism is a real worry here. These issues are far too important to be controlled by the vested interests.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Feed the World with Cellular Agriculture

Is anyone else getting serious pleasure from the media blitz over cellular agriculture? Meat and dairy products without the animals is the basic pitch. Food-like products, containing protein, are being grown in labs and will soon be released to markets they will rapidly dominate, apparently.

I'm a big supporter of this plan, which might sound odd coming from a New Zealand dairy farming economist. Here's my reasoning.

Start with the markets. Cellular protein is potentially attractive to two groups.

  • Vegans or near-vegans who loathe the animal farming industry but love the taste of dairy & meat and don't mind eating gmos; and
  • People who buy on price and can't afford to worry about the provenance of their food. 
It is not yet clear how this stuff is going to be pitched to the market, but presumably the suppliers will try to capture both of these groups. I find it hard to understand the first group and suspect it is neither large or enduring. The second group is much larger. If it were tapped, prices for cellular protein would fall and the vegans would be stoked.

In this low-price scenario, cellular protein would compete with the output of mainstream animal farming in NZ and elsewhere. I hope & trust that Fonterra & others are worrying about this, modelling the production costs of faux animal protein (fap), investor expectations of those costs and market acceptance of the products. 

Let's help them out a bit. Assume that fap is a commodity freight train coming at us. It's a low cost high volume for our product. How should we respond? There are two main options for NZ farmers. Fight them, or join them:

  • go up-market, focusing on a more wealthy market segment, who care enough about food quality that they'll pay extra to avoid the fap; or
  • sell animals and start farming plants as inputs into the fap factories to support the cellular agriculture industry.

I really like that cellular agriculture is forcing this choice on us.

My own interests are not affected much by where the country goes on this choice. There is already a big disconnect between what we supply (soil biology & zero pesticides) and what Fonterra pay us for (milk solids). Market disruption from a low-price artificial gmo protein doesn't look like a negative to me.

On the contrary, cellular agriculture undercuts William Rolleston* and his fellow travellers who have been spending up large on lawyers & lobbyists to promote outdoor gmos in New Zealand. This gives me great pleasure. My economic research in connection with draft local government plans in Hawkes Bay, Auckland and Northland found that there were net local benefits from banning outdoor cultivation of gmos.

Among the counter-arguments was that New Zealand farmers have a moral obligation to feed the world, and that gmos are needed to do so. This 'feed the world' argument is common but it seems useless now. Indoor gmo promoters are gazumping those promoting outdoor gmo cultivation by producing heaps of cheap food for the world, apparently.

The promises of cellular agriculture are no less reliable than the promises of those seeking outdoor cultivation of gmos in NZ. Both camps are prone to exaggeration and the optimism of those invested in new ventures. Both camps assume consumers will be happy to eat their food. It's pretty difficult to see any difference except the outdoor people need to expose our ecosystems to contamination risk.

Contamination risk is my primary concern, so I'm delighted that we can now feed the world without it.

Now, for dessert, have a look at this photo I shamelessly stole from twitter and have a listen to this.

Last year's FedsPres is addressing the Rural Business Network on genetic tech in NZ agriculture. Ashburton is thriving as an agricultural service centre so the apparent turnout suggests a lack of enthusiasm.

Maybe everyone stayed away because they knew he'd be pimping the outdoor gmo technology again. I am reliably informed that cellular gmo agriculture didn't get a mention.

* Recognising the inevitable, I used to refer to William as Sir William. I am suspending this usage in the hope that the new govt will abolish these stupid titles (again). I hope it doesn't need to be reinstated. 

Friday, 3 November 2017

Pesticide-Free Maize 2017

Intermittent reinforcement is a powerful psychological effect. As we head into our third season of growing maize without pesticide, I'm hoping for the stunning results we got in our first season and trying to forget the disappointments of last year, when we got slammed by the weather and the weeds. Somehow I forgot to blog about that. It wasn't a complete disaster (we're feeding out the silage now) but it was pretty bad: We comforted ourselves that everyone around here had a bad maize season.

But I still have a vivid memory of sitting in the silage chopper harvesting tall healthy maize from our first attempt, and hearing the surprise in the contractor's voice about the size of our crop which he knew damn well had flouted almost all industry recommendations, and the nice big pile of silage we had at the end. So yeah, we're doing it again.

The basic plan hasn't changed: feed the maize plants well but don't poison predators/competitors. We buy bare hybrid seed, untreated with any insecticide or fungicide. Before sowing we innoculate the seed with our own blend of beneficial fungi (mycorrhizae and trichoderma). This year we're including the wonderful aztobacter. The picture shows a bag of untreated maize seed tipped into a wool fadge with a dollop of each innoculant on top. We roll it around in the fadge to coat the seed, and then tip it into the drill for sowing.

Preparing the Ground
But I'm getting ahead of myself. The most difficult and crucial part of this process is getting the maize away to a good start before it gets swamped by competing plants. It's all good when the maize beats the weeds to canopy closure, at which point the maize blocks light to everything else, but a disaster otherwise.

In previous years we've got the contractors in to disc the maize paddocks and then power-harrow (rotary hoe) them. We're keen on and have tried to use false seedbeds but the logistics beat us both times: we just don't have time in spring to wait for dormant seeds to sprout. Since we have no discs or power-harrow, we're also dependent on contractors for the timing of cultivation. Received wisdom also dictates that maize be "precision planted" so contractors again.

Herbicide helps manage these logisitics: just spray out the paddock. If there was much grass when you sprayed, put some animals in there to eat it before you the disc, power-harrow etc. I'm serious: NZ farmers do send cattle into paddocks that have been killed with Roundup.

Fortunately though, animals are also a herbicide substitute. This year we break-fenced young stock on the maize paddocks, pushing them a bit hard, aiming for very little grass cover, plenty of trampling, but not quite raw earth/mud. It worked very well for one paddock and most of the second but then the contractor was discing in the neighbourhood so we got all three paddocks disced, rather than wait who-knows-how-long for the next chance.

We are trying less cultivation this year, because it really messes with soil biology, slicing up the worms, destroying those wonderful hyphal networks and releasing CO2. Maize seed is large and robust: it is a kernel of corn. It should be able to grow from a shallow seed bed. So we're skipping the power-harrow stage. After discing, we crumbled up the top 2-5cm a bit with our own gear and then drilled the maize seed directly into that.

Sowing the Seeds
As mentioned above, the normal system involves "precision planting". We bought this service the last two years but are trying an alternative this year. Based on the last two years, we reckon that:

  • "precision planting" involves nothing more than setting the row width at 750mm and then dropping seed to achieve a target of seeds/ha; and
  • in practice, the spacing of plants in those 750mm rows is random - it hits the target sowing rate on average but plants are not evenly spaced in the rows.

Our contractor, who also supplies the planting service, doesn't care about row width because his chopper has a rotary head: it'll eat anything. So row width isn't a concern for harvesting, but canopy closure is the #1 issue for succeeding without herbidice.

I won't bore you with the arithmetic, but it's easy to show that random planting at the same per hectare rate would give much more uncontested space to each maize seed, which should also mean less maize-maize competition and faster canopy closure. We happen to have a great seed drill perfectly capable of random planting at a specified rate.

So that's what I did last night: drilled the seed randomly in 2 paddocks and made a start on the third before retiring due to an over-heating tractor and and under-fed driver. Since then we've had 30mm or rain.

After the storm, the next jobs are to get the drilling finished, roll the paddocks, and then get the fert on! 

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Hope for a generation

Backing track for this post

As the man said, elections have consequences. We all vote in hope for a generation of people that can run the country well while also advancing policies we like. Now that a reforming government is getting to work, here are a few of my hopes.

Stop Persecuting the Poor
Walking among us are many who begrudge welfare payments except to the old, who get the lions share. They wish WINZ was even more aggressive towards the bludgers, which is why Metiria's message was so unacceptable. My hope is that government spending on fraud detection/deterrance gets aligned with expected payoff. If we only cared about the money, so that shitting on the unfortunate and calling it something noble wasn't desired for its own sake, we'd spend less public money persecuting the poor and more chasing tax dodgers.

Evaluate Education Experiments
A new school curriculum(pdf) for New Zealand was finalised in 2007 following a long period of consultation and deliberation. Without actually ditching that curriculum, the National-led government elected in 2008 subverted it by diverting attention to national standards and charter schools. The best you could say is that these were experiments, but why don't we know how they turned out? It seems that an evaluation of charter schools was contracted some time ago but strangely enough the report was timed for release after the election.

Labour's education manifesto says "Taxpayer funding for education should be directed towards learning and teaching, not creating profit-making opportunities for private businesses". That's the correct priority: learning and teaching are paramount and only fools would want to turn the whole thing over to private business. Labour also advocates "Repealing the legislation allowing for Charter Schools", which sounds like bad news for Catherine Isaacs at least. 

My hope is that education in NZ continues to innovate, but with less dogma in what is tried and more evaluation.

Take Environmental Issues Seriously
Climate change poses a global collective action problem. There are only selfish reasons to not join the fight and having worked pretty hard for the privilege of kaitiakitanga over some nice farmland, I'm not looking for a hand-out from the taxpayer now. When my mokopuna ask me about climate change, I'd rather not be making excuses.

As you know, the NZ taxpayer is picking up the tab for agricultural emissions (other than fossil fuel use) so we are being subsidised. Even though my costs will increase, I welcome the new government's plan to include agriculture in the ETS. I hope & trust that soil carbon sequestration will be part of the plan, to create an incentive for others to join the regenerative agriculture movement.

Also, it's embarrassing and wrong that we still turn a blind eye to the pesticide problem. Bee-killing neonics are advertised as standard seed treatments, glyphosate is sprayed everywhere and the EPA just doesn't give a fuck. I hope this generation will bring some order to the EPA.

Promote Competition
Last but not least, I hope we might finally get some action on s36 of the Commerce Act. This is the only part of NZ's competition law that constrains firms with substantial market power from abusing that power.

Due to a long history of liberal merger controls we have lots of firms with substantial market power. Fine, we did that for reasons and are not about to undo it by forcibly breaking them up. Much less fine: s36 doesn't work, so these powerful firms have no real constraint on the use of their market power.

It's not just me who says it doesn't work. The chair of the Commerce Commission is on record as clearly indicating the same thing five years ago. Since then, the competition regulator has effectively been on strike because it considers the law unworkable. The public announcement of this position five years ago effectively gave carte blance to the top-end-of-town. No-one is keeping track of the consequences but the costs of having no law and everyone knowing must be enormous.

If this wasn't so arcane & geeky it'd be a front-page scandal. I hope we get it fixed, pronto.