On Bullshit

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Marianne shared this excellent link today. In the article, Henry Scowcroft (a communicator for Cancer Research UK) argues that economics communicators should be more like science communicators and, well, communicate.

I’ve blogged before that economists, accountants, politicians, tax bods and so forth, need to speak plain English, stop obfuscating and let the people who are affected by decisions understand decisions made in their names. We shouldn’t be afraid to stop experts and ask them to explain their terminology. This stuff should be simple.

Sure, some communication is at a very high level and techie, such as in academic media or at a conference, but I’m talking about when these people turn up on Newsnight, in the papers, in your local pub or similar. At that point, they should respect the audience and think about what message they’re trying to get out.

If you don’t own the knowledge, you can’t inform the decision and you can be bloody sure that someone else without your best interests at heart will clue themselves up and get involved instead.

The only message most ‘communicators’ are giving at the moment is that these difficult things are just too darn complicated for you poor little children. We’re going to have a few talking heads talk above your understanding just to show you with jolly long words that you really don’t get it. You’d best toddle off now and let the grownups carry on with the adult stuff.

And that isn’t on. Invariably this is your money, your body, your country. You’re not children (unless you are, in which case, hi, sorry for the swearing!) Everybody needs to challenge the experts to be more accessible, because there really are some amazing communicators out there, whether they’re a physicist, a doctor, an economist or whatever. Seriously – here Brian Cox explained quantum theory to a bunch of celebs and he made it so simple. Everyone can either do that, or get out of the way for someone who can.

Next time you see someone chucking long words around like bullshit artillery, ask yourself what their goal is; because if it isn’t to communicate, it’s almost certainly to hoodwink or rip you off.

And then pull out your bullshit shield of obstinate scepticism. (This looks and sounds rather like just saying ‘why?’ a lot, to the casual observer.) Once someone has offered to communicate with you, make them do just that. Close the door, sit them down, and jolly well interrogate them until you are happy that either you understand enough to form an educated opinion or enough to know that you really don’t care.


Rental agent fees


My personal first choice of charity to support is usually Shelter. They do amazing work. Many people think that they work with the homeless to get them under a roof, but in fact many of their campaigns are to make the housing market fairer for those already in a home.

Current campaigns, for instance include building more affordable housing, fighting the incredibly unfair bedroom tax and dealing with rogue landlords.

But I have noticed that some people are tweeting about a campaign that they currently have to end letting agent fees. This tweet from @KellyMarieLD is a good example:

1 in 7 renters who used a letting agency paid more than £500 in fees. Sign @Shelter’s petition #endlettingfees http://t.co/Mzbjth4HUO

— Kelly-Marie Blundell (@KellyMarieLD) July 2, 2013

This particular campaign, I think, is ill thought through.

Let me just be absolutely clear: estate agents are indeed not a nice lot, are venal and generally a dishonest, short-termist, hateful bunch of BMW Mini-driving oiks.

But regardless of how much we dislike them, they perform a role (however inefficiently) in the process of linking the UK’s 9 million privately renting tenants with their landlords. They perform various services for the landlords, such as showing prospective tenants round flats  (compact and bijou, Mostyn, compact and bijou), performing credit checks, gathering references etc. They might do a generally slapdash and awful job of this and charge an absolutely scandalous amount for it, but that’s a separate matter. The market has driven itself to the bottom and stayed there for many years; but these services are provided, however badly. And for that, these bottom-feeders do require some recompense.


At the moment they are paid by the tenants. The market has set the rate for these services, however high and profiteering that may be. This is the value that the market has set on the agents’ time and effort.

Now Shelter feels that these fees are totally unfair and should be made illegal.

But if the tenant doesn’t pay them, the agent will still want to be paid and the only other party in this contract is the landlord. But the landlords themselves are a profiteering bunch of capitalists. What they will do with costs is incorporate them into their financial model, add an uplift for opportunity cost of that money and raise rents accordingly.

The landlord, rationally, will spread this over the normal tenancy (probably 12 months), but not give a discount after this.

The result of Shelter’s proposal, I suggest, is likely to be an increased overall cost to anyone renting more than 12 months, who will effectively be paying those inflated fees on an annualised basis, but to the landlord instead of the agent.

Now I know that fees are illegal in Scotland, but have not seen any good studies on the effect on long term rents, compared to the similar time period in England where fees are still allowed.

But I know one thing for sure; those agents aren’t going to do that work for free and in the end the only income stream either the landlord or agents have is the tenants.

Maybe the solution is not to ban the fees, but better regulate landlords and agents, and set some centralised fees to provide equilibrium in the market?