Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Beast From The East?

So where was it?  For a week, the media have been filling column inches, and our screens with dire warnings, reminiscent of "The Day After Tomorrow", about impending disaster as an unheard of icy blast hit the country rolling in from Siberia.  I've been preparing for it, just in case, but it turns out correctly with a measure of skepticism, because every year, such warnings have usually turned out to be false.  So it appears to be the case again that after days of the media launching into gyrations of Trumpian hyperbole, the Beast From The East, has amounted to some pretty cold weather, of the kind you would expect during the Winter, and some flurries of snow that hardly amounted to anything.

In fact, looking out of my window this morning, there is a bright blue sky, and glorious sunshine.  The odd few flakes of snow that speckled the ground, and other surfaces, in places, have already melted into mere memories.  Perhaps some parts of the country have experienced worse, but looking at the TV pictures and reports, it doesn't really seem so.  Even the weather data talking about potential snow falls of 50-10 centimetres amount to the kind of routine weather that in previous decades would not even have warranted a mention on the news.

The closest I've seen to the kind of Winter weather we used to get in the 1950's and 60's, was in 2009/10, but even that would not have been seen as particularly out of the ordinary.  Look at the archive film of the Winter of 1947, or the Winter of 1962/3, and you can see the difference.  Is it that today people have become wusses who complain over the slightest inconvenience?  Maybe, but its more to do with the change in society, and in the media.

In the 1950's, most workers lived close enough to their place of work that if the snow stopped buses from running (virtually no one had cars to travel to work in), it was possible to simply walk.  My father before the war, when he worked at Rolls Royce in Crewe, used to walk the ten miles from work to home, after a late shift, when the buses were not running.  Even in the 1970's, I used to walk the three miles to work every day, and the same back home again, including in some much worse falls of snow than the Beast From the East has so far inflicted.  In the 1950's and 60's, before all of the mass school closures of the 1970's and 80's, even a small village like the one I lived in had several schools, which meant that I never lost a day due to bad weather, because many of the teachers also lived in the village, or nearby.

Its the fact that today everyone takes for granted that they will work miles and miles away from where they live, that many of the schools have been closed and centralised, along with other facilities such as shops and hospitals, which means that travel becomes more significant, and any disruption to travel becomes more significant with it.  Given also that everyone insists on having their own individual private transport, which not only clogs the roads at the best of times, but also slows traffic so as to allow the snow to settle, when it comes, especially as few people have snow tyres or snow chains, and little ability to drive in winter conditions, and even the slightest snow fall causes disruption, which the media are happy to turn into a drama, so as to attract readers and viewers.

And, that  is the other change.  With 24 hour news channels they have to have something to fill in their rotating bulletins every 15 minutes, and something sensational or sensationalised does the job better than having to spend money and effort on providing more in depth analysis of actual news and current events.  The newspapers, already in their death agony, as they have to compete with 24 hours TV news, and with social media, have to sensationalise every story even more.  And, given the youth of many of those involved, a similar thing as happens with the speculation news occurs.  No one has seen the kinds of Winter weather that was normal 50 or 60 years ago, and so they have nothing to compare with, other than what they have seen in the last 10, 20, or at best 30 years.  The same is true with the speculation news, where the pundits frequently base their analysis of what is "normal", on what has happened at most over the last 30 years, a period that has, in fact, been far from normal.

What constitutes for you a Beast from the East, as opposed to a spot of normal Winter Weather, just as what constitutes for you a Black Swan event, as opposed to being a normal reversion to the mean, depends only on your duration of experience, and time horizon.


George Carty said...

How much was the mass entry of women into the workforce (along with the fact that women's wages were essentially used to bid up the price of houses, so that two incomes became essential in most areas) a factor in the rise of long commutes?

If husband and wife work in widely separated locations, then at least one of them must have a long commute regardless of where they choose to live.

Boffy said...


The big increase in female employment came in the 1950's. In actual fact, during that period house prices fell from their post-war peak. In 1947, when my parents came to buy their first house, there was such a shortage that they could only get an old terraced house, which cost them £1,000. Had they been able to wait a few years, they could have bought a brand new, semi-detached house in the same village, for just £250! Its another reflection of what I was saying about time horizons and black swan events. Imagine if house buyers today could envisage a situation in which the massively overpriced houses they have bought, and are being encouraged to buy were about to fall by 75-80%!

The reason that house prices fell in the 1950's compared to the post war peak is that there was large scale council house building, as well as private house building. Councils compulsory purchased land and property to build, and land prices remained low, which meant that the cost of new build houses was not inflated, as it is today, by exorbitant land prices.

During the 1950's, and 60's, it was not common for people to have long commutes, even where both people were working. In North Staffordshire, for example, it was common for men to work in the pit, the steel works, and when it was built the Michelin, whilst women worked on potbanks, in hospitals or shops and offices. Many of these places ran Works buses, but buses ran on many routes every ten minutes. People bought cars not because they needed them to commute, but because they simply found they could afford them, as wages and living standards rose in the 1950's and 60's, and as the price of cars themselves fell in real terms, as did other consumer goods.

It creates a feed back loop. Once people have cars their behaviour changes. They start to go to out of town shopping facilities, for example. They use a car to go to work, and so factories start to stop providing a works bus, hospitals stop providing hospital buses, the frequency of public transport is diminished, people find it increasingly difficult to get to work without having a car, so more people are led to get a car. Employers are able to recruit workers from longer distances, which tends to reduce wages, and means workers are led to have to seek employment with longer commute times. People start to move into more pleasant living environments in the suburbs, which also leads to a decay of urban areas. Families then need more than one car, because even travel from the suburbs to the towns and cities requires several buses when they run, and link up, the kids go to different primary and secondary schools that might be miles apart and so on.

In the 1980's this was exacerbated by Thatcher, who encouraged more individual family cost centres, by encouraging kids to feel that they had to own their own home as soon as they left school, whereas previously they would have stayed at home until they married, or at least until their late 20's. By encouraging kids to feel the need to buy a home in their teens, it created many more cost centres, each of which has to buy consumer durables, cars etc., which was a way of the Thatcher regime dealing with the overproduction of the 1980's, at a time of low wages, by fuelling a credit binge that produced the huge levels of debt we have today.