Thursday, November 30, 2006

Micro turbines: mis-selling likely

I've been waiting on tenterhooks for Newsnight's Ethical Man to get his micro turbine. Rather than say anything about them, this being television, you have to buy one and film it and see what happens. Well, it's off. Windsave have changed their mind about the suitability of his property.

Justing by Justin's description, the property seems typical to good for wind, so what is going on? It appears that Windsave have realised that this would be bad publicity for them, so they pulled out. Even worse publicity than backing out at this stage.

I blogged about this before., saying that the Jury was out. Well it's not looking good now.

As Justin says, a turbine rated 1kW at 12 m/s is only going to produce 120W at 6 m/s, barely useful. But 6 is still above the usual average windspeed. Turbulence will reduce gains further, so it would appear that there are very few domestic sites suitable for this kind of turbine. A larger turbine could be useful, but there would be structural issues to contend with.

If you buy a turbine from B&Q, they will survey your site and tell you if it is unsuitable. But I do wonder how little power they will expect before they declare a site unsuitable and lose the sale: 200W? 100W? 50W? 50W on windy days? Who knows. But at all these levels the turbine is not going to save a third of your electricity bill or pay for itself within its lifetime. And it certainly doesn't justify any kind of government grant.


Saturday, November 25, 2006

Greenpartywatch: Derek Wall elected Principal Speaker

I remember Derek from my Green Party days. He always seemed to keep out of the way of the rest of the party, you would find him in the bar, or at his own fringe meetings, plugging books, grumbling that the party wasn't Marxist enough.

Derek is articulate and intelligent. He wrote a history of the Green Party, part 1 of which I referred to earlier. Part 2, part 3, part 4. All quite frank and interesting.

But the thing is that Derek's politics are way out there. They always were a bit extreme even for the Green Party! Probably the party has now moved a little to meet him, all the more reason to expose it for what it is.

In his own words (from here):
Marxism is a sophisticated, subtle, philosophical system with inexhaustible insights. As an eco-Marxist I believe that only a socialist society will meet human needs and sustain ecological diversity, politics is based on class struggle, it isn't a matter of changing a few laws we live in a social totality that is utterly destructive and must be replaced.

I used to think this sort of revolutionary talk was benign but misguided. I no longer think it remotely benign. Revolutions in democratic societies make things worse. There are problems intrinsic to Marxism that make something like Stalinism fairly inevitable. An awful lot of what we enjoy in modern western societies is extremely good: human rights, prosperity, freedom, public services and so on. This is not a totality that is utterly destructive, and anybody who suggests it is clearly hasn't the slightest idea of what they should be fighting for.

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Thursday, November 23, 2006

Christianity abolished by BA. Dawkins influence suspected'd think wouldn't you, listening to the hyperbole.

But I've just seen a BA manager on Newsnight who was confident there was no discrimination going on and was apparently oblivious to the degree of outrage that has been whipped up.

So what is going on?

1. BA have a uniform policy of no jewellery around the neck outside the clothes.

2. Er...

3. That's it.

They do not ban turbans, for example, because turbans are a religious requirement, and to do so would discriminate against Sikhs. Crosses are not a religious requirement for Christianity, so there is no need, on discrimination grounds, for making caveats to the uniform policy to allow them.

Of course I would prefer that airlines and other companies didn't have anal uniform policies at all, but that doesn't seem to be the prevailing opinion in the corporate image department. So if the question is, why shouldn't people be allowed to wear a cross, the answer is of course that they should be, that BA are a bunch of muppets. Because their uniform policy is anal, not because it is discriminatory.

This is not a religious issue, as the BA manager kept insisting, thousands of christians work for BA and are happy with the uniform. Yet there was something pathetic about his insistence. This issue has more momentum than an unreasonable but non-discriminatory intent can stamp on.

Why does it have this momentum? Because there is a mass movement behind the narrative that Christianity is discriminated against in this country, that up and down the country militant atheists are banning Christmas, promoting teen pregnancy and tolerating gays.

It is a pervasive narrative. Last year Nick Clegg's Christmas cards to constituents didn't mention Christmas - because we weren't confident they would be delivered in time for Christmas. This year they will mention Christmas. To some of our members this has been quite a big deal. Make them proper Christmas cards, they said, it matters to us, you really won't offend anyone. And I agree. It won't offend (hardly) anyone. The offensiveness of Christmas is as mythical as the discrimination against Christianity.

But every year, we have a silly season of stories about some local authority or other buying fewer christmas lights than the previous year; that a whole city isn't allowed to say the word Christmas, based on some memo a pen pusher sent in 1997; that some christmas-related activity or other has been discontinued - even if this bucks the trend.

Normally all this impinges most on civil society, and perhaps it has passed the busy hardnosed people of BA by somewhat. They need to factor in to their business plan the possibility of fashionable hysteria. Doubtless they will give in. Doubtless before long wearers of other jewellery will demand equal treatment. And if that loosens up uniform policy in general, I can cheer that.


UPDATE: It appears there is also a health and safety reason for not allowing dangling jewellery near moving conveyor belts.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Monbiot on Stern

Hat tip Ballots Balls and Bikes

George Monbiot has published a 10 point plan for being much much greener than the stern review.

He is scrambling for clear green water here between himself and the mainstream.

Points 1 and 2

1. Set a target for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions based on the latest science. The government is using outdated figures, aiming for a 60% reduction by 2050. Even the annual 3% cut proposed in the early day motion calling for a new climate change bill does not go far enough. Timescale: immediately.

2. Use that target to set an annual carbon cap, which falls on the ski-jump trajectory. Then use the cap to set a personal carbon ration. Every citizen is given a free annual quota of carbon dioxide. He or she spends it by buying gas and electricity, petrol and train and plane tickets. If they run out, they must buy the rest from someone who has used less than his or her quota. This accounts for about 40% of the carbon dioxide we produce. The remainder is auctioned off to companies. It's a simpler and fairer approach than either green taxation or the EU's emissions trading scheme, and it also provides people with a powerful incentive to demand low-carbon technologies. Timescale: a full scheme in place by January 2009.

Well that seems to be just one point. And it seems to settle the matter. If we do this, the emissions will be cut the required amount. Who needs the other 8 points? They may affect how the carbon is emitted but they will not affect the total.

As it happens, I don't agree with the free annual traded quota. It is a cash-equivalent handout to every citizen. If you support the Citizen's Income idea as an alternative to benefits and tax allowances you should advocate it honestly, not try to slip it in on the back of a global warming measure.

And Citizen's Income is fine as an idea. It is just much too expensive.

I think green taxes are a better way of setting a price than traded quotas. They are less bureaucratic and less volatile, sending simpler clearer signals. They work differently in that taxes set a price premium and let the market find the level, whereas quotas set the level and let the market find the price. But effectively the two are tied: for a level of price or emissions there is an associated level of the other. We might not estimate the exact relationship well, but we can refine policy over the years to get the right outcome with either policy.

What delights do Monbiot's unnecessary 8 points offer us?

5. ...Two schemes in particular require government support to make them commercially viable: very large wind farms, many miles offshore, connected to the grid with high-voltage direct-current cables; and a hydrogen pipeline network to take over from the natural gas grid as the primary means of delivering fuel for home heating. Timescale: both programmes commence at the end of 2007 and are completed by 2018.

Er, another pipeline network? Can't we use the same pipes to carry hydrogen as we use to carry natural gas? Where on earth is all this hydrogen going to come from? The problem with hydrogen is generating it. If we do generate some, with, say, surplus renewable electricity, transport would be a better use for it, replacing oil, than piping into homes for heating, replacing gas.

10. Legislate for the closure of all out-of-town superstores, and their replacement with a warehouse and delivery system. Shops use a staggering amount of energy (six times as much electricity per square metre as factories, for example), and major reductions are hard to achieve: Tesco's "state of the art" energy-saving store at Diss in Norfolk has managed to cut its energy use by only 20%. Warehouses containing the same quantity of goods use roughly 5% of the energy. Out-of-town shops are also hardwired to the car - delivery vehicles use 70% less fuel. Timescale: fully implemented by 2012.

Am I missing something, or are we talking about nationalising the retail sector here? If not, who is going to be building these warehouses? None of the companies that have just had all their assets abolished would be that keen, or able.

As for the other points, there is a lot of banning, where supertaxes like on gas guzzlers would be a better measure. But there is no analysis of the freeloading problem (scroll down), it is Kantian ethics and that is the end of the story. Sorry, George, but this is not the 18th century.

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A stern warning

I have blogged at Liberal Review on the Stern Review on global warming.

A summary of the review can be found linked from this page, just above where it should say Most computers will open PDF documents automatically, but this pdf may crash Firefox making you retype that whole blog post from memory.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Filling infidel quotas

The government has backed down on requiring new faith schools to admit 25% from outside the faith, having extracted promises from Anglicans and Catholics that they will do it anyway. Muslims schools such as there are, are willing to join in too, although there is, as expected, little interest from non-Muslim parents.

Guido seems rather skeptical of the Catholic promise. And the small print seems to support him.

Vincent Nichols, the Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, said Mr Johnson understood it was "quite unacceptable to force into a new Catholic school 25% of people who were not particularly sympathetic to that faith".

Er, so why have you just promised to do exactly that? Is this just part of a face-saving formula for a government U-turn? Looks like it.

Tory spokesbod Nick Gibb adds that the Conservatives had always believed the faith school issue had been one "for schools themselves to decide". I guess he is forgetting his leader's speech that kicked this debate off by calling precisely for these new quotas.

Lets remember that we're only talking about new faith schools here. And this is at a time when the polls are suggesting majority opposition to any new faith schools on the grounds that they are divisive and bad for social cohesion. Some bright spark comes up with the quota idea to make these new faith schools more palateable, but even this modest suggestion offends Catholic preciousness - perhaps because non-Catholics might be using their toilets - and the Catholic church has enough muscle to get the government to drop it.

Lest we forget how modest this proposal is, what about the thousands of existing faith schools. Up and down the country we have doctors mowing vicarage lawns, teachers sweeping the church, professors of metallurgy polishing the candlesticks* so that they can get their children into the only local school that other middle class children go to. It is an outrage that clerics are given gatekeeper status to publicly funded services, and we should not be surprised that these are the consequences. Whatever we think about the choice agenda, schools choosing pupils is not what we want.

(*OK I am making this up, but we have all heard the stories.)

Perhaps I have insufficient appreciation of what faith schools can do, and what I advocate is an assault on their essence and character. It is easily claimed, but I think such a claim needs some justification. Any school would be able to do well if it can select the pupils that it wants. If the essence is selection, it is no big deal.

And I find it difficult to credit a style of education that relies on children being already "sympathetic" to the subject. How many are sympathetic to mathematics, biology or geography? We can't teach you unless you already believe in (or are at least sympathetic to) calculus, evolution or plate tectonics?

My suspicion is that much Catholic education is simply too heavily Catholic to be at all appropriate for non-Catholic children to be subjected to. That there would be complaints about the stories of hellfire, about guilt manipulation, that the schools would have to suffer bad press or adapt. In which case, I would have to ask why we want to fund this sort of religious instruction out of taxes at all. If people want their children to fear hellfire and feel guilty about the death of Christ, can't they arrange this themselves? Shouldn't public money be focussed more on the sort of thing that we can all agree is useful for children to learn?


Update: Pickled Politics quotes Sarah Teather.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Defender of the defender of faiths

It may look like I've been asleep for a few days, but I've taken to watching Question Time a little. Until I see it I can be oblivious of what rot people out there are thinking and the need to put them straight.

So Prince Charles wants to be "Defender of Faith" rather than defender of the faith. Some people hate this, some love it. Paddy Ashdown on Question Time was emphatic that it is the right thing to do, that it better reflects one of the strengths of today's society.

I find the whole debate of what Charles ought to do, as putative head of the Church of England and whatnot, somewhat uncomfortable. I think Charles, like everybody else in the country, should be free to say what he believes in, and not be required ex officio to subscribe to particular beliefs handed to him on a plate. That is not how belief works, if we are honest, and if we want our king to be honest.

If that means the monarch and the church would one day no longer like to be so close, well that is fine. I don't see any reason for an obligation on either party to get, theologically, into bed with somebody incompatible.

There is a debate to be had about the role of religion in society, and about the pre-eminence of Christianity, or anglicanism. But this is not a debate that can be sensibly had in the text of a coronation ceremony. It is not one in which we should take a lead from the monarch. And it is not one that should be too political.

And if one day we get a monarch who follows the Bahai faith, or humanism, or Wicca, or a postmodern mishmash, or even Roman Catholicism we should not disbar them or demand that they lie. That would be a denial of civil rights. And hardline monarchists, in particular, should accept whatever monarch the hereditary lottery gives them, and like it. If you show any inclination to pick and choose your monarchs, or tell them what they ought to do, you are not much of a monarchist.


Friday, October 20, 2006

Veritas in 2040

What will the veritas party be like in 2040, if it still exists? Or UKIP for that matter. For a history lesson, we need only look at an embryonic political party, in the early 1970s, initially called PEOPLE, whose colours were red, white and blue.

Inspired by an article in Playboy, featuring Teddy Goldsmith, can you guess what it is yet?

I will post the link to the full article at the end of this post, but first here are some gems:

Right-wing zoo owner John Aspinall supported the campaign, supplying dozens of canvassers drawn from his London casino. Goldsmith disguised his mainly longhaired student supporters as Arabs and borrowed a camel from Aspinall to launch a highly visual assault on the soil erosion, which to this day is turning Sudbury into a region of the Sahara.

The first thing that Goldsmith’s handout stressed was that his father, Major Goldsmith OBE, had been Conservative MP for Stowmarket”, noting that there was “nothing to be proud of there”. The leaflet contained ... very Conservative statements amongst the prophecies of doom”, including attacks on women who worked and thus neglected “essential maternal duties” and the “all pervasive welfare state” that “mollycoddles the population”, as well as support for the family unity as a means of discouraging crime and dissent.

Derek Wall, the author of this excellent history, is most agreeable in person, but as a Marxist, quite wrong, even by the standards of the Green Party.

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Thursday, October 19, 2006

Moral panic on Madonna

Adoption is a noble act. Giving a family to a child with none is just about the best thing that can be given. It is a great commitment and sacrifice. Rewarding, yes, but a noble act beyond what most of us will ever achieve.

It is not something I have done and I will not criticise anybody who does. It would be mean spirited to say to any adopter - you could have done it differently; you should have adopted somebody else; I impute shallow motives to you.

Madonna attracts this kind of attention because of her celebrity, and a little notoriety. We like our celebrities to be shallow. What a disappointment when they are not.

Lifting a child out of extreme poverty into extreme wealth is a good thing to do. Why does it make us uncomfortable? If we fail to praise the good when we see it, due to some inarticulable discomfort, it is our own motives we should be examining.

Due process? Give me a break! Get some perspective! There are miscarriages of justice, people's lives ruined by lack of due process. One life is being unruined. Is that your priority?

The child will lose contact with his culture? Perhaps. I take the view that people own cultures, cultures do not own people. When he develops interests in his origins he will be able to explore them. But he is not the property of his origins, he is a baby who needs a family.

If you or I were adopting a child and were subject to this media circus and moralistic indignation, we would be outraged. Adoption is a personal family matter, where celebrities should be shown the same respect as anyone else. Butt out, people.


Liberal Review

For anyone who hasn't noticed, I am doing some of my blogging at Liberal Review these days. So far I have

Green Taxes not self-defeating

Nuclear power: time for a rethink?

Religion and politics: overlapping magisteria?

I will keep this blog going for posts where I might want to stick my neck out a little further than I would on Liberal Review, for GreenPartyWatch type posts, and for any reviews of books, plays and so on. And as I will stray off politics a little more, Political has been dropped from the title.

And I will keep posting to Dave, Nice but Knave too, when the muse grabs me, which is not often these days. Please, Dave, do or say something substantial so I can get my teeth into you.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Micro turbines: The jury is out

B&Q sent me an email the other day advertising their new Windsave rooftop turbine.

This is likely to considerably boost penetration of this kind of product. I am a big supporter of wind power, and I think it would be great if everybody had a 1 kW wind turbine on their house, providing most of their electricity needs and recharging their cars.

However, the question remains of whether rooftop locations are suitable for this kind of product. The Centre for Alternative Technology express concerns about turbulence and stresses on the building structure.

If a turbine needs a clean airflow and doesn't get it, it will not generate much power and will wear out quickly, perhaps having a zero or negative life cycle impact on carbon emissions, and obviously failing to deliver an acceptable return on investment.

If it damages the structure of the building, this would have to be repaired at great expense and not insignificant environmental cost.

CAT's advice is quite old - it has been there for a while. Perhaps the latest breed of turbines has overcome these problems. But perhaps it hasn't. These issues don't seem to be addressed in the marketing of new turbines. So this could be a big mis-selling scandal, exacerbated by well meaning promotion by supporters of renewable energy.

Newsnight's ethical man Justin Rowlatt is getting one. I will see how he gets on before considering one for myself.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

e-voting compromised again

According to this story, the Nedap ES3B can be privacy compromised by eavesdropping on radio emanations. It is not clear from the story whether the machine must be tampered with first, and the manufacter of course insists their machines will be clean.

Transparency is the Achilles heel of e-voting. Building a machine which faithfully records votes is easy. Building a machine which can be seen to faithfully record votes without compromising the secrecy of the ballot is next to impossible.

Making voting software open source would improve this transparency, but even then it is far too easy to run software on a machine that is different from the software it should be running.

We've all heard the stories about Diebold machines in the US being preloaded with votes for Bush. Probably some of the stories are true, but what is even more frightening is that there is no way of knowing.

No election is perfect, and a few votes have always been stolen here or there. But we should beware of automating this fraud, giving a single individual in the right place the power not to steal a few votes, but everybody's vote and a whole election.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Jack Straw and moral relativism

Liberal Review gets it right.

Straw did no more than express a preference, and there is nothing wrong with that. It would also be my preference even if I didn't articulate it.

Of course people are free to choose how to dress. But, I wonder, how many of the people criticising Straw do not believe people should be free to choose how to dress - rather that some people have an obligation to follow certain Saudi fashions.

When you consider that something is a matter of moral obligation not personal freedom, then it is understandable to be angry at a third party asking you not to do it.

If you were asked to remove all your clothing before you could see your MP, you would probably consider the request to be wrong. If you are religious you may justify this in terms of a religious injunction against nudity. But even those of us who aren't religious are likely to agree with the conclusion. We would be quite likely to describe the request as offensive rather than free speech.

At this point moral relativists will all be glowing - you see this proves it, they will say. Values differ from one culture to the next, nobody is truly Right or Wrong, we just all have to learn to get along.

Well this isn't good enough. This sort of relativist, if consistent, is incapable of criticising not only other societies but also their own society. If values are only statements of the preferences of a society, then an assertion that your own society is doing something wrong is a self-contradiction. This relativism is politically impotent.

As an aside, I don't agree with the criticism that this kind of relativism is amoral, that a relativist has no moral standards. To a moral absolutist the statement that there is no such thing as a true Right or Wrong seems like amorality, but that is only if the words are interpreted the way the abolutist interprets them.

So where does this leave us? Whether or not we have a well thought-out (non-relativist) personal moral philosophy, or a moral system derived from a religion, I don't think we should be afraid to say that we think some things are OK - like showing your face - and other things are wrong - like asking constituents to undress. And if other people disagree with us, then that is fine.

While people disagree on these moral questions, it is inevitable that some people will do what others think is wrong or fail to do what others think is obligatory. We should try not to get too upset about this. In particular, we should not try to criminalise everything that the majority thinks is wrong. I would argue for criminalising only when the consequences of criminalising are better for life, liberty, health and happiness, and that sort of thing, than the consequences of not criminalising. But I suppose that reflects my consequentialist moral perspective, and I recognise that it is an extremely difficult judgement to make in borderline cases. I would also try to err on the side of criminalising too little.

The alternative position, that politics is simply applied morality, and that we should seek to ban everything that is wrong, will rightly cause fear in people with minority moral perspectives, particularly when they hear statements like Straw's indicating a dislike of one of their moral rules.

Personally, I would like it if we all felt able to debate why we think something is right or wrong. But for many this would mean debating the tenets of their faith, and there seems to be an unfortunate general reluctance to do this. And it may well be hopeless naivete to think any such debate would make much progress.

Drawing to a conclusion, I do think it is wrong to tell anybody they ought to cover their faces, therefore I disagree with at least some interpretations of Islam. As I am not a muslim, nobody should be surprised by this. We have to be able to discuss issues of morality and freedom with people we disagree with. And if we are liberal enough not to show much inclination to ban everything we think wrong or make compulsory everything we think right, it may make it possible to have this debate without it seeming part of a process of oppression.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Environment Contract (Defra Wiki)

Hat tip Guido

I may post about this project in more detail later, but for now I just want to publicise it. Defra has published its Environment Contract on a wiki, which means that anybody can edit it, and many people already have.

If anybody edits the EnvironmentContract page, please while you're at it rescue my edit, which appears in version 62, inserting text below the water title (additions in italics)

What would an environmental contract for water look like?

Water companies will:

  • Not abstract excessively from rivers

This is more or less the only environmental issue related to water. There is some energy used in pumping, but it is not significant, and so long as water is metered, the cost is not externalised, so users need not worry about it further.

What would a social contract intended to let water companies off the hook of doing their job properly look like?

Citizens will:

  • think about water usage in their homes
  • turn off taps when not using them
  • have fewer baths
  • use rainwater for watering garden etc
  • obey restrictions on water usage in times of water stress.

Unfortunately, probably thanks to Guido, the page is being edited so quickly that changes are being overwritten by other users.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Joe's Astronomy Blog

I am determined to keep this blog focussed on politics, so I will link the demotion of Pluto to politics, at the end of this piece.

Lots of bloggers are coming out wrongly in favour of Pluto's planetary status:

John Hemming
Peter Black
Alex Wilcock
Millennium Dome even carries a link- Pluto demoted: BLOGOSPHERE AGHAST

What is going on here? Listen. This is how the solar system is. There is a sun, 4 rocky planets, 4 giants, and some dust. We've given names to some of the bigger bits of dust like the Moon. And even some of the smaller bits, like Pluto.

Pluto, on the basis of size doesn't qualify as a 9th planet, more like a 16th planet. 7 moons and 2003UB313 come before it. Pluto on the basis of the circularity of its orbit doesn't qualify. The asteroids and Quaoar would come first.

It has a moon? (Double planet, pah!) So what! A lot of the dust is dusty. 2003EL61, 2003UB313, 243 Ida and all these asteroids, etc.

The real reason for this outrage? Conservatism! We think it is a planet. Ceres, the largest of the asteroids between Mars and Jupiter was also considered a planet when first discovered, for a few decades. When more asteroids were discovered Ceres was reclassified. That's all that is happening here.

Does this make NASA's trip to Pluto any less important or interesting? Of course not. Pluto is not any more or less interesting by virtue of the definition of the word planet. In fact it is probably much less interesting than Europa, Io, Titan and Triton, all moons. But we have hardly seen it yet so we don't know.

How does this relate to politics? Well as usual, it is red faces for all the reporters who write off the Lib Dems tell us there are going to be twelve planets, and are proved wrong at the ballot box.


Sunday, July 23, 2006

Sin and carbon emissions

It is a sin to fly says the church. "Making selfish choices such as flying on holiday or buying a large car are a symptom of sin. Sin is not just a restricted list of moral mistakes. It is living a life turned in on itself where people ignore the consequences of their actions."

This has attracted a lot of ridicule from people who'd rather not know. Iain Dale, and some of the responses pile on the ridicule. Sin to fly? Ridiculous! I like flying!

Tim Worstall finds the idea is so absurd, he doesn't even need to comment.

Here's the thing. I agree that flying and driving are not sins, and that it would be counterproductive if we really did treat them as sins. But for reasons that should be explained, not just because I don't want to know.

The church's argument is, presumably, that carbon emissions cause global warming, and that this will, to the best of our knowledge, cause considerable harm to a great many people. The moral principle to be applied is "don't do harm to other people". So far so good.

Now I would argue that choosing not to fly or not to drive is superogatory, that is, it a morally good choice above and beyond one's duty. Emitting carbon is not the best moral choice, but is not so bad as to be morally prohibited.

Emitting carbon is one of those things that does some harm, but not so much harm that we would be better off doing without carbon-based energy altogether. Furthermore we are not in a position to judge whether other people's uses of carbon are going to do more harm, in general, than good, largely to them. Doubtless there are sacrifices that, if everybody made them, the net effect would be good. But make the sacrifices bigger, and the net effect will be bad - people will lose out more than they gain from a cooler world. (The right policy, of course, is to correct the externalised cost of carbon emissions with a carbon levy. Then we wouldn't, as individuals, have to worry about carbon emissions.)

Central control (whether by force, or by convincing moral injunction) can serve single specific objectives reasonably well, such as winning a war, or perhaps tackling global warming. The freer economy does much better at fulfilling the enormous diversity of needs that exist in reality - food, shelter, medical research, school trips, etc. This is like capitalism versus communism all over again. One day, perhaps, global warming will be the only significant challenge we face. Today it is merely a biggie among many, and we should still be wary of tackling it in such a way as to do more harm in other areas.

These are not the arguments we hear. Instead it is the spurious "I am supporting the tourist economy of ..." So what? Whatever you spend your money on, you will support some economy of some sort. Leave it in the bank and it gets borrowed and spent, or possibly invested. Put it under the floorboards and it is effectively a free loan to the state. It is hard to do "economic" wrong with your money.

So why has the church hit carbon with the S-word? Is it that the language of morality doesn't always have room for the idea that people are the best judges of their own needs and desires? And not just religious morality: Kant's categorical imperative - "Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it would become a universal law" - seems also to underpin a lot of environmental moral argument, and suffers from a similar flaw. We aren't all the same, we don't all have the same needs and desires, and it would be quite awful if we all did the same things.

Is it that the church is uncomfortable with a capitalist rationale for relaxing? Modern capitalism was largely invented in the protestant world. Previously restrictions on usury, theories of fair prices and so on were among the factors holding it back. But I am reminded of historian RH Tawney's comment that it was not initally a difference of doctrine that allowed this, so much as reduced influence on civil authorities resulting from the schism.

After finding that link to Tawney on Wikipedia, I read it, and found a second relevant point of his. That "...such an attitude [equating the invisible hand with God's plan] precluded a critical examination of institutions, and left as the sphere of Christian charity only those parts of life which could be reserved for philanthropy, precisely because they fell outside that larger area of normal human relations, in which the promptings of self-interest provided an all-sufficient motive and rule of conduct."

I agree with Tawney again. No institutions should be exempt from critical examination. Compartmentalisation leads to ignorance. By failing to reconcile your moral framework with good progress achieved, errors in the framework can go unnoticed. Does the church's error in deeming carbon emissions sinful result from this failure to critically examine and accept capitalism?

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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Supermarkets and symbolism

Richard Huzzey reminds me of the discussion at Stephen Tall's blog on the subject of supermarkets.

Stephen and Richard are both right, although they seem to disagree with each other. We shop at supermarkets. We find them convenient. Their prices are sometimes lower than small shops and sometimes higher, which is unremarkable.

But we are wary of the power that they have, we fear encroaching monopolies. I worry that they have worked out, using my loyalty card, exactly what sort of 2 for 1 deals I am a sucker for, and how best to distract me from paying attention to the price of something.

By all accounts suppliers get a rawer deal than we customers. This is called "driving down prices for the benefit of customers", which is true up to a point. But sellers as well as buyers have to be able to go somewhere else for competition to work properly.

Green councillor Matt Sellwood calls supermarkets an ethical and environmental disaster zone.

A rare admission perhaps from a green that competition is ethical, since excessive power in the marketplace is a problem. And of course, environmentally, their impact is enormous, as is their throughput of goods.

What I'm not so clear about is if the same amount of goods were sold through smaller shops, whether that would be any better for the environment. Smaller shops would, presumably, need more deliveries. And to visit the number of shops needed to carry the range of a supermarket would presumably require more transport of the customer. Or perhaps some of our small shops could expand, becoming, er, supershops?

What I'm hoping to illustrate here is that it is a mistake to think along the lines "X is doing something we don't like - we should fight against X" as Matt is doing. This is treating supermarkets as a symbol of all that is wrong with the world. And yet that I can fill the fridge without even having to leave the house is something that is right with the world. If X, supermarkets, were stopped from doing this thing we don't like, others may still do it, and we may find that they have also been prevented from doing things we do like - letting us get groceries after a late council meeting for example.

Rather than attacking the symbol, we should focus on the behaviour. A supermarket using a million carrier bags is no different from a thousand small shops using a million carrier bags. (Although my last Tesco online came in 25 bags for fewer than 75 items. They offered to take them back after I complained but who knows if they will get used again.) Overpackaged junk food is the same wherever it is sold. Driving to the shops is the same whatever kind of shop it is. Corner shops are not exactly trade union fiefdoms either.

Monopolistic and monopsonistic power is tackled through competition authorities. Such authorities need to weigh up carefully the costs and benefits of intervention. This is economic rocket science. I see no way for a little blog to give a convincing argument either way on whether more intervention is necessary. I hope the authorities are getting it right, and I am powerless to help them.

Although supermarkets are often more expensive than small shops, particularly when we ignore special offers and Known Value Items, this does not mean that they are not exerting a general downward pressure on prices. If there were no supermarkets, other shops would charge more. And let me be clear: low prices for food and goods in general is a good thing. If you think JSA of £57.45 a week is hard to live on now, think what a price hike would do. If you want to put benefits up because prices have gone up, you will be worsening the poverty trap. And also for the rest of us, having lower prices is like being richer. (Richer is better - if you don't agree, send me a cheque.)


Friday, June 09, 2006

If Green Taxes work

...won't they raise less over time?

This question is on many lips. Those of Nick Robinson for example.

Here's my answer: No they won't.

Demand for energy is fairly inelastic. Most users do not think much about the cost when switching on a light or driving to the shops. This means that we are a long way from the peak of the Laffer Curve in the eco-tax rates we're proposing to apply.

Prosperity is increasing, demand for energy is increasing, so the potential for eco-tax revenues is increasing and will go on increasing. The threat to prosperity is minimal or negative because we are reducing other taxes at the same time. So society will be richer in future and therefore willing to pay even more for energy.

This does not mean that eco-taxes fail. They succeed in reducing demand a little from what it would have been otherwise, and they succeed in raising revenue, allowing other taxes to be cut. These are both big positives.

Now perhaps there is a case for i) much bigger eco-taxes, that cause significant reductions in consumption, and ii) bigger still that lead to reductions in eco-tax revenues. And then we could have a lot more than 2p off income tax. Or perhaps that policy would be disproprotionate to the problem. But it is laughable to consider the hypothetical spectres of that policy to apply to this policy of only £8bn in eco taxes.

Tags: ,

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Green Switch

Chris Huhne has put the flesh (pdf) on his eco-tax bones. I discussed this at the time here and here.

1. An increase In Green Taxes As A Share Of National Income. Green taxes have fallen from 3.6 per cent of GDP in 1999 to just 3 per cent of GDP, and we are committed to reversing this trend. Revenue would be used to cut taxes elsewhere so that this is a green tax switch, not a rise in taxes.
Excellent. This is a very powerful statstic, and worth shouting about.

2. Reform The Climate Change Levy: The Climate Change Levy is a positive step forward but is too complex and bureaucratic. It should be restructured as a tax on carbon across the economy, but we support the Government’s intention for the first time to raise it in line with inflation. That should be the norm, not the exception.
This is good - it is simplest and least distorting to treat all carbon emissions the same. And as the package is to be revenue neutral, there will be direct benefits to low-carbon parts of the economy.

3. Raise Vehicle Excise Duty On Polluting Cars: The Chancellor has increased Vehicle Excise Duty on high polluting vehicles by less than the cost of half a tank of fuel. If it is to be effective as a measure to reduce emissions and encourage greener transport, VED will have to be radically redrawn to penalise emissions and reward clean cars. The top-rate of VED should be significantly higher than at present at £2000 a year for high emission cars.
This is a good measure. Fuel demand is not very elastic, but the choice of large inefficient vehicles is one that can be made to pay its way without hammering those who try to motor efficiently.

4. Keep Fuel Duty In Line With Inflation: Incentives to save fuel depend in part on developments in the oil market, but duty on fuel should normally keep track with inflation rather than decline in real terms. The failure to raise fuel duty since 1999 has led to a rise in emissions, and we support the Chancellor’s intention to raise fuel duty in line with prices in September.
Right, better than real terms cuts. And in my view aviation, industry, and domestic uses are higher priorities for real terms increases in eco-taxes.

5. Tighten Allocations in The EU Emissions Trading Scheme, And Auction 10 Per Cent Of The Permits. The recent fall in the price of carbon for industrial users reflects the unambitious overall cap set by the EU, together with the failure to allow national governments to hold back a part of the national allocation for sale to the highest bidder at auction. We will press for both reforms and for auctioning the maximum 10 per cent of permits currently allowed for 2011.
This may sound a bit dull, but it amounts to putting the cost of carbon up, and generating some more revenue.

6. Tax Emissions Not Passengers: We have led the way in calling for reform of the way air travel is taxed. Instead of Air Passenger Duty on each passenger, airlines should pay an emissions charge per flight. This would reward flights that were full and penalise those wasting a full tank on a few passengers.
This is a good step, and it is a framework that would allow us to move towards treating motoring and aviation more consistently.

7. Provide Help Where Cars Are Essential. In sparsely populated rural areas, cars are essential due to the lack of public transport. To reflect this need, we proposed an amendment to the Finance Bill introducing a 50 per cent discount on all but the top rate of VED for one car registered in such rural households.
I'm not a particularly rural-friendly person: I don't see why the rural lifestyle deserves subsidy any more than any other expensive lifestyle. But the promise was made and this is a good way of delivering on it. It is important that this sort of compensation should be in the form of tax cuts because otherwise you have to find money from elsewhere or lose the revenue neutrality of the package.

Of course this paper doesn't commit us to any particular totals - that would be treading too much on the toes of the tax commission. But I hope it makes a clear impression on that process.

We can see from the appendix that of £35bn eco-taxes levied in 2004, £32bn are taxes on motoring. (The climate change levy and air passenger duty are each less than £1bn.) Motoring is of course a significant environmental problem, but this seems disproportionate. What about industrial and domestic uses of energy? There is a perception that industry=jobs=good, domestic=pensioners not freezing=good, motoring=shopping sprees and school runs in chelsea tractors=bad. And of course there is a good dollop of truth to this, but it is not a balanced picture, and it distorts incentives to place almost the whole burden on motoring.

On the other hand we should probably subtract spending on roads, when considering how much of the £32bn is in fact an eco-tax, rather than a charge for the infrastructre that makes motoring possible. And we should also bear in mind that motoring imposes some specific externalities such as poor air quality that industrial and domestic uses of energy do not, to the same extent.

And before long people may well be charging batteries in their hybrid/electric cars from the mains. This will cause a dent in revenues and eco-taxes even if we go a long way to rectifying the imbalance.

So, it is a little disappointing that the nettle of domestic energy use has not been firmly grasped. The problem, I guess, is that it can't be done in a revenue-neutral way, without cuts elsewhere, if, as would be necessary, we want to compensate the pensioners who might otherwise freeze and various other needy groups. It would still be a good policy: it would promote efficiency and microgeneration more effectively than all the regulations we have (having just had a loft conversion I have immediate experience of this). But it would pour mud on the clarity of the "Green Switch" policy, so it doesn't belong in this paper. One for the following election perhaps.


Update: The carbon tax will include household emissions, with "provision" for the less well off. So my disappointment was due to not reading carefully enough. And of course if the "provision" amounts to a rebate on the carbon tax, then it needn't comporomise revenue neutrality despite what I said above.

No zealot like the convert

Got a bit of a dialogue going with Matt Sellwood here

Lets take his points a little out of order...
Renewables can go *some* of the way towards solving climate change, but not all of it - what is needed (and what Blair cannot, under any circumstances mention - hence nuclear) is a reduction in demand. Which, under capitalism, leads to a recession.
You would be against a recession Matt? OK. Anyway, what is the limit, do you think, of the generating capacity of renewables? The answer of course is that they could generate all our energy many times over (thousands or millions of times over). So why couldn't they go all the way to solving climate change? Of course they could. A better practical solution would doubtless include some fossils and some efficiency measures. But there is no denying that this problem is solvable at a cost.

We live on a finite planet. Capitalism needs infinite growth. You can shout 'communist' all you like, but unless you address the serious flaws within the market system (a complete inability to deal with environmental or justice externalities, a dependence on growth, a tendency towards monopoly etc) then you will have your head stuck as far into the sand as the proverbial ostrich. Just because a system is the status quo doesn't make it right.

Are you admitting the 'communist' or not? Of course we are in a sense around 40% communist already - that much is taxed and spent by the state, as it should be. Do you think the state/community should be directing more, or all of the nation's wealth? If it is more, say 60%, that's not really a different system, a "radical change", just a change of priorities. If it is all, then that is more or less communism, isn't it?

Capitalism doesn't "need" growth, it generates growth, and that is good, it means people are richer, live longer, are able to do more of the things they want to do, and governments can spend more on health and education, and so on. Stopping growth is easy - whack up taxes, pile on the regulation, no problem. If this is what the environment needs, the Green Party should say so, and we will all understand. It's still not really a change of system, just a change of objectives - rejecting prosperity in favour of the environment. A clear and legitimate political option to offer. (Whether it would work is another question of course.)

Of course there are flaws with the market system, and there are no pure market economies anywhere, it wouldn't be possible. So we have, as we should, things like the welfare state, and environmental regulations and so on. And it requires constant political vigilance to keep it working well. Does the clean air act, or the end of leaded petrol represent a "complete inability to deal with environmental ... externalities"? Of course not.

The environmental crises we face *cannot* be solved simply by a few more pieces of regulation here and there and an absurd faith in the market.

OK so scenario A: Government builds 100GW of wind turbines (other countries do similarly). Global warming averted. Scenario B: Government whacks a whopping tax on carbon emissions and the private energy industry builds 100GW of wind turbines. Global warming averted. What is the difference? Why are you so keen on problems being unsolvable? How exactly would economic planning, if that is what you are advocating, make them solvable?

Capitalism is based on the growth principle. We cannot KEEP growing our way out of environmental problems.

Growth of what? Growth is a statistic. It adds together lots of different things as if they were the same. And they don't all involve despoiling the planet, mostly it is about how much we value the services we provide each other. So if there is anything at all that people do for each other that you regard as good, then good growth is possible. If not, then your values are so warped that we ought to all drop dead.

Of course Green Party policies are not consistently anti-capitalist. Sure, there are coded references to economic planning like:
EC511 Policies to promote local economic management and planning include creating Partnership Bodies to enable a wide range of local people to participate in the development of policy, strategy, projects and enterprise; undertaking a wide ranging audit of local social, economic and environmental affairs and concerns; drafting appropriate sustainable economic development strategies for the locality.


Alongside sugar-coated support for free enterprise like
EC404 ...changing planning and building regulations to encourage home based enterprises, providing grants for re-skilling, and for the necessary tools and technology necessary for home-based enterprises.

The paper as a whole is a breathtakingly inconsistent mixture of the utopian and the banal. But it is clearly a state-driven reshaping and contracting of economic activity, and restraints on trade, which will further reduce efficiency. Redistribution is generous, so the better off will lose more in relative terms, making it a triple whammy against incentives to work.

But even with all that, it is clear that there would be capitalism at work. The roads may have been dug up to make trading difficult, but investment is actually encouraged! (EC512) Encouraging investment more or less directly implies some form of capitalism.

So is this the radical change? Make it hard to do business but "encourage" people to do business anyway?

And what is it intrinsically about this sort of economy, that it doesn't, say, contribute to global warming? The inefficiencies of central planning and autarchy will make us much poorer, but I don't see why they would intrinsically reduce environmental impacts. Building 100GW of wind turbines would only cost us a little in comparison, and seems rather better focussed on an actual problem.

I don't mean to sneer at the whole paper, there are some good ideas there. But the vision is not consistent, and it hardly relates to the reality of environmental problems.

Why is a clear consistent policy so difficult for the Green Party to express? I suspect because it can't quite stomach trying to sell the idea of being much poorer on the doorstep as a solution to anything. Especially when in many ways prosperity is associated with environmental improvements.


Monday, May 15, 2006

Make Smugness History

A blog by Edward Lucas Make Gravity History has caught my eye. His argument seems to be, broadly, that a) more and freer trade will help spread prosperity around the world, and so is a good thing (so far so good); and b) that therefore charity is a waste of time (huh?).

The choice of title 'make gravity history' suggests not a better strategy for ending poverty, but resignation to its inevitability. And this is the problem. Lucas shows all the smugness of the fat aristo telling the starving peasant that he won't give him any food 'for his own good'.

Lucas says 'fair trade' would be more accurately called fraud trade. I disagree. It would be more accurately called charity trade, and charity, remember, is a good thing. While it doesn't of course bring prosperity to the recipient, it can keep them alive long enough to enjoy prosperity when it comes.

Lucas is opposing Christian Aid's apparent position of 'trade bad, charity good', with 'trade good, charity bad'. This is worthy of the psycopathically right-wing Ayn Rand. Rand famously claimed that charity is immoral, and that only looking after number one is moral. A hero of right-wing nuts everywhere.

In fact, trade is good, and charity is good. By all means damn a charity for failing to support trade. But don't damn it for doing charity.


Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Why are they voting Green?

I'll take Angus' question here "We need to know why people vote Green and what we can do to get them to support us instead." as a personal challenge.

I was a member of the Green Party for 12 years, a candidate in local and European elections, a member of the party executive and so on. I left it some 5 years ago, disagreeing with many of the policies, and spent some years allowing my head to clear of the party's culture before thinking about politics afresh or considering joining another party.

My principal disagreements with it are:

  • It is essentially socialist, albeit not "central planning" but "local planning". Solutions to almost everything involve more government spending and more regulation. Appropriately for a socialist party, it is very middle class and anxious about it. Who noticed all the working class accents in the latest broadcast?

  • Hostility to trade, and in particular an impractical vision for third world development that would achieve very little. (The desire to support development is genuine.) The evidence is that trade and prosperity go together, and evidence beats dogma in my book.

  • Opposition to medical research on animals. I am clear that benefits to humans, and for that matter to other animals in the long run make this research a morally good thing.

  • A lack of perspective where environmental problems may conflict with other problems, a woolly understanding of what makes a problem an environmental problem, a poor grasp of the science involved (much declined since 1990 or so). This is probably true of much of the wider movement, and to some extent of other parties too.

At the heart of Green thinking there are more problems. Ambition for spending on public goods and redistribution is not reconciled with a shrinking pie as the private sector is squeezed. There is considerable hostility to science, from various philosophical perspectives. Yet it is science that makes environmental problems comprehensible, and scientists who have led the way. "Conventional" progress is rejected, but there is little clarity as to what to replace the idea with - giving a somewhat directionless culture to an appropriately leaderless party.

So why do people vote Green? Here are some reasons:
  • to send a clear message that the environment should have more priority
  • if you are a socialist.
  • as a protest vote
  • in response to good local campaigning
  • if you actually know and agree with the policies

And what do we do about it?

Well I think it is only fair that socialists have someone to vote for. And similarly if mice have a moral significance to you equal to or greater than other people, it may be a fair choice. Tactical considerations aside, these people are voting correctly, leave them to it.

As for the rest - we need clarity. Clear and effective green policies, not one snippet per page of the manifesto, but few, simple, substantial commitments. We need to make the case for trade - that millions of lives are at stake worldwide if development is impeded by anti-traders. We need an optimistic vision of the future.


Sunday, May 07, 2006

Is Blair losing it?

There is a truism that the more out of touch a dictator gets, the more extravagant his wife's hairstyle becomes.

In other news, there are people "out to topple" the Prime Minister.

Of course in a parliamentary democracy, it is quite legitimate for MPs to seek to topple the Prime Minister, particular one who sees fault in everyone but himself. One who can sack a foreign secretary, apparently, for saying that the idea of nuking Iran is nuts - without clearing it with Rove or Rumsfeld first.

Promises to go in the future can be very difficult to keep. Some excuse will always arise as to why one has to carry on. Doubtless, if Brown were to show any public desire for the top job, he would be deemed a traitor, and therefore no longer suitable for it.

The night of the fast-spinning knives has surrounded Blair with his closest supporters - the people who will be least willing to tell him when it is, honestly, time for him to go. This is not the road to an orderly transition, but a very messy one. The saviour of the Labour Party could yet be its downfall.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Taking organised crime serously

Labour government introduces new Secret Police. Well it had to be didn't it. Any announcement on policing these days has us all quoting Orwell before you can say aspidistra.

The BBC reports Soca's new powers (presumably quoting the press release) as:

  • Queen's evidence: Prosecutors will be able to offer statutory deals - immunity or reduced sentences - where, previously, deals were only informal
  • Financial reporting orders: Courts can make orders, of up to 20 years, forcing criminals to provide bank statements to ensure they have no crime-related earnings
  • Disclosure notices - Courts can force suspects to answer questions or provide documents or face imprisonment or fines. Limits the right to silence
  • Law enforcement officers: Soca officers will have the multiple powers of police, immigration and customs officers
and that
According to the Soca annual plan, published on Monday, the agency aims to spend 40% of its operational effort on drug trafficking, 25% on organised immigration crime, 10% on fraud and 15% on other organised crime.
Jock rallies to the defence of immigration which I think is missing the point. People trafficking is a nasty business - people end up in slavery in the sex industry or drowning on Morecombe sands. It is a heinous crime against the trafficked, and it is about time it was taken seriously. Drug trafficking should also be taken seriously - the libertarian fanboys would have it solved by legalisation, but even that wouldn't stop the murders and warlords in Colombia and other supplier countries.

The one thing missing from the list is terrorism. Why? Terrorism is the job of other agencies. And if a security-related agency is going to be abused for Orwellian political purposes, it will do it in the name of combating terrorism, not fraud or smuggling. This reaction against Soca is just a knee-jerk.

We might have some qualms about futher limits to the right of silence. But largely this is, for once, not about new powers but about better organisation. Perhaps even more funding. This is how the fight against terror should be conducted too, so why all the sneering and condemnation?

It is always tempting when confronted with a new government measure that is potentially open to abuse, to belittle the problem that it is seeking to solve. But this is a very bad idea. It will earn a reputation not just for being soft on crime, but being indifferent to it. All security-related agencies - the army, the police - all of them, have a potential for abuse, yet none of them should be disbanded, because the job they do is necessary. We need to raise our game against organised crime and we should welcome the SOCA.


Friday, March 31, 2006

Lovelock and Fatalism

James Lovelock crops up again on the today programme. Our efforts against global warming are puny, and we should concentrate on sea defences and food and energy security. Environmental organisations worry that we will shift from scepticism to despair without passing through a stage of determination. (I think this has largely already happened - environmentalists tend to think that people haven't heard them because behaviour hasn't changed much.)

Well of course it is inevitable that there will be some warming and some rise in sea levels. The question isn't and never was whether global warming happens or can we prevent it. The question is how much will there be. And the answer still depends, as it always did, largely on how much carbon dioxide is emitted.

Tens of centimetres of sea level rise may be inevitable. If we don't seek to change our energy strategies, then metres of rise will be likely. Tens of centimetres will be expensive in sea defences for the developed world, and will displace many people in the developing world. Metres of rise: multiply all those numbers up.

Some studies argue that rises of up to 2 degrees will improve agricultural output in temperate regions, reducing it in the tropics. Further rises will reduce it in both zones. So again the question is small increases or big ones.

Energy security and food security are always worth considering anyway. Sea levels don't rise so fast that we should expect to be caught out with poor sea defences, so long as we are willing to spend the money when it is clearly needed. And how do we enhance energy security? What sort of generation doesn't depend on fuel imports? Hands up anybody who can guess. That's right, renewables. Exactly what Lovelock is sneezing at.

Global warming is happening and is going to happen. One could equally say that crime happens and is going to happen. But fatalism does not lead us to disband the police. The potential for renewables is immense - the amount of power going untapped each year dwarfs our total coal, oil and uranium reserves. It is most likely we will end up using renewables a great deal in the future whatever strategy we follow. The question is how much to bring forward the investment to reduce global warming, and to give the third world more options for its development.

Tag: Global Warming

Monday, March 27, 2006

Turner, the stakeholder model, and the environment

In the conclusion of Just Capital, Adair Turner argues against "stakeholderism".

"... as a guide to practical policy it is best a cul-de-sac, at worst dangerous. It sounds attractive to ask corporations to think through the wider social 'balance of gains and losses' but in practise it is an almost totally inoperable principle. Corporations can just about imperfectly identify the complex set of actions which will maximise their own profit within given constraints, but they are ill-equipped to calibrate the second, third and nth order social consequence of their actions and lack the legitimacy to make the trade-offs involved. Is it better socially to downsize rapidly to preserve the remaining business and to free up resources for work elsewhere, or to keep workers in existing jobs at the expense of the firm's long term prospects and the productivity growth of the whole economy?"
"Adam Smith's great insight, indeed, was to identify that the complexity of economic interfaces is so great and their number so numerous and each of us so dependent on the behaviour of others, with only a few of whom we could ever hope to have bonds of friendship rather than contract, that we have to construct a system which makes self-interest compatible with civilized behaviour, rather than relying on a generalized disposition to benevolence."

The stakeholder model is further condemned for the weakness of the policy prescriptions that actually arise from it. How then has it gained so much currency? Turner again:

"For while socialism has lost the great ideological battle of the twentieth century, and most former socialists ... accept the power of the market, that acceptance has not come easily, at least at a philosophical rather than a practical level. For socialism was a creed which sought to praise and promote the intrinsic noble purposes ... its roots were both Marxist, and in Britain Methodist, its natural tone messianic. Socialists therefore respond uncomfortably to the prosaic rationality and empiricism of liberalism. More fundamentally still, they respond uncomfortably to the idea that we should accept the significant role of individual self-interest, even if we can demonstrate ... wider social goals."
Now Turner has written a chapter on the environment, arguing well that regulation, eco-taxes and spending on environmental goals are proper social choices, and do not have to be sacrificed on the altar of competitiveness. However, he does not revisit the issue here. But what is the implication for the environment of this rejection of stakeholderism?

The conclusion is that vague admonitions to corporate responsibility do not work, and that we should focus on structuring the system to civilise self-interest. This seems rather a painful pill for the environmental movement to swallow, trading as it does, almost entirely in admonition - that is in promoting "personal responsibility" for the environment. It is hard to blame Turner for ducking at this point.

Now I will admit that individuals are not quite the same as corporations. Individual behaviour is driven rather more by values and preferences, and less by a fiducary responsibility to oneself. So exhortation and example-setting may not be pointless, but nonetheless the difficulty of judging environmental consequences remains, and a system which integrates self-interest and the environment may simplify that judgment.

It is also politically difficult. People are happy to vote for admonition because they can ignore it. Stakeholder environmentalists believe it will work. Environmental contrarians will settle for a policy of admonition because it won't work. So there is an alliance between bascially left-wing environmentalists who believe in the stakeholder approach, contrarian right-wingers who don't, and those indifferent to environmental issues who will go along with the easy option. The liberal environmentalist risks condemnation from all sides, for the crime of supporting measures that will actually do something for the environment.

And it should be said that sometimes the contrarians will be right, and in many cases there is just received wisdom on both sides, and no compelling evidence. Many will dismiss arguments like this out of hand as industry lobbying, but the case should be answered before considering a plastic bag tax. If indeed the opposition is largely justified, then we have an example of a liberal measure, using a market mechanism - price - to use self-interest in the common good, failing because the good has been incorrectly identified. If this sort of thing is likely to happen much, this will be another reason for concern over environmental measures that do more than plead.

There is a mountain to climb here. I have explained the obstacles, but I do not suggest we give up. Firstly we need to focus policy on the most urgent and cast-iron scientifically supported cases, and leave the marginal and arguable ones for later. The mantra that environmental thinking must pervade all corporations and all government departements, as I said here can be dropped in favour of being more specific, and less reliant on other people believing what we think they ought to believe.

Second we need to point out to enviromentalists that 20 years of admonition has done very little. A handful of people have internalised the values coherently, and the rest of us make token efforts, or freeload entirely. By all means they may continue to admonish, but that should not be seen as a political process. Governments should set the rules, expecting self-interested behaviour, not spend my taxes campaigning at me. If environmentalism becomes the new socialism, it will go the same way as the old.

Tags: Adair Turner, Environment, Stakeholder

Monday, March 06, 2006

Nuclear: No Quick Fix

The Sustainable Development Commission has reported on the subject of nuclear power. This is a finely balanced question, and what worries me is quite how weak most of their arguments are.

Links: News item, SDC, chapter on C02 (pdf)

These are the arguments:
1. Long-term waste – no long term solutions are yet available, let alone acceptable to the general public; it is impossible to guarantee safety over the long- term disposal of waste.

Yes. Bang on. Of course if nuclear diminishes the threat of global warming, then this a question of what is the greater threat. Also how much nuclear may diminish global warming depends on the other arguments.

2. Cost – the economics of nuclear new-build are highly uncertain. There is little, if any, justification for public subsidy, but if estimated costs escalate, there’s a clear risk that the taxpayer will be have to pick up the tab.

Correct. The new Finnish reactor is getting hidden subsidies. Of course environmentalists will usually argue that it is worth paying more to fight global warming.

3. Inflexibility – nuclear would lock the UK into a centralised distribution system for the next 50 years, at exactly the time when opportunities for microgeneration and local distribution network are stronger than ever.

No, sorry, this just stinks. Microgeneration may be an alternative to grid power for people who are off-grid, but it is only a complement to grid power to those of us who have the benefit of a grid connection.

The SDC clearly sees nuclear as a political rival to renewables and microgeneration. They may be right, but it is still unfortunate. Nuclear, renewables, efficiency and microgeneration can all reduce carbon emissions, and are all alternatives to fossil fuel use.

There is absolutely no sign of an economically sound engineering case for dismantling the 'centralised distribution system'. It is driven by 'small is beautiful' wishful thinking. There is an engineering trade-off between capital-efficient and thermally-efficient large plant on the one hand, and distribution costs on the other.

4. Undermining energy efficiency – a new nuclear programme would give out the wrong signal to consumers and businesses, implying that a major technological fix is all that’s required, weakening the urgent action needed on energy efficiency.

This is just ridiculous. We should not use techonological means to reduce carbon emissions, because people may conclude that technological means can reduce carbon emissions. Sorry, this is not just ridiculous, it is gob-smackingly mind-bogglingly ridiculous.

And of course, what actually drives energy efficiency, is not the spin we put on how we generate the energy, but the price of energy. If we have more, expensive, nuclear power, cross-subsidising from gas and coal, then costs will be higher and efficiency will be promoted.

In the pdf linked above, the SDC talk about "demand reductions". Demand reduction if not a result of "technological fixes" will be much the same in economic impact as huge price increases, worse in fact if they are not brought about simply by huge price increases.

5. International security – if the UK brings forward a new nuclear power programme, we cannot deny other countries the same technology*. With lower safety standards, they run higher risks of accidents, radiation exposure, proliferation and terrorist attacks.

I largely agree with this, or rather I agree that it is a very good reason to develop and promote renewables ahead of nuclear. But it is not so compelling a reason not to use nuclear in preference to fossil fuels in already-nuclear powers such as the US, Europe, China and India, representing a lot of energy demand growth.


It is suggested that maintaining nuclear capacity would only make a difference of 8% to our carbon emissions. That may not seem much compared to a target of 60%. But it is a lot compared to what we seem to be on course to achieving. United against nuclear are anti-technology environmentalists, and "economic contrarians" who consider that global warming is inevitable and the costs of doing anything about it would be disproportionate. What an alliance!

There are sound reasons for having a mix of energy sources, both for security of supply, and because they have different characteristics of cost, flexibility and so forth. Taking nuclear out of the equation altogether means taking it out of the roles it is best at. There is no case for trying to do without renewables, or without coal or without gas. It will take better arguments than those of the SDC to defeat nuclear.

Tag: nuclear power

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Poverty stinks

After a heads up from Quaequam I've posted the following comment to Duncan Brack's essay on meeting the challenge.

Was it ever a secret that poverty is related to poor health outcomes? Of course it is related. And a large part of that relationship will be causation of poor health by poverty, although there will also be elements of causation the other way, and third factors causing both poor health and poverty.

The question Duncan misses is to what extent it is absolute rather than relative poverty that is a cause of poor health outcomes. The biggest factors impairing health, are poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking and drinking - are these consequences of poverty? - yes, to an extent.

But Duncan’s argument is not that povery stinks and we should get rid of it. It is that inequality stinks. Being on the bottom rung of the ladder is a cause of stress. The thing is that every ladder has a bottom rung, unless it is lying flat on the ground.

Now I would agree that both absolute and relative poverty do matter and should be tackled. They are not, of course, the only things that matter, so the question is how much. Duncan argues for more equality. How much more? Japan and Sweden are held up as examples. Are they equal enough, or do all the same arguments still apply to them?

It may be right to demand more of something that is good, such as equality, but if you ignore the downsides, and you don’t say how much more equality you want, then what you have is a very weak argument. Not to mention a politically terrifying unlimited aspiration for redistribution.

I absolutely agree that people in absolute poverty have very little freedom, and so supporters of freedom like the Lib Dems should fight against that poverty. What is not so clear is how much relative poverty restricts freedom.

Duncan defends the 50p top rate policy - the proceeds of which were almost entirely recycled to the middle classes, doing nothing about poverty or inequality.

It is dangerous to try to wish away the fact that prosperity brings better outcomes and better opportunities. Prosperity is not the problem, it is the solution. The largely symbolic 50p policy suggests that it is the problem.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Cameron round-up

This supposed round up of links is really just a barefaced plug for this. Dave, Nice but Knave, leader of Liz's oppo, has clarified his new statement of values a little for us. Compare it to the less accurate BBC version here.

See also

A nice angle from Femme De Resistance:

Apparently, this is also related:

Friday, February 24, 2006

Romans in Britain

Spoiler warning for Romans in Britain and Edward Bond's Lear

At the after show talk, the director Sam West, the crew and the audience were quite clear that this is an anti-war play. I wonder. There are some nice comparisons with Edward Bond's Lear, performed in Sheffield the previous year. (Lear is only loosely based on Shakespeare's King Lear.) Both occur to a constant backdrop of war, both happily kill off characters as soon as you start to identify with them, both are brutal, both feature madness. Yet Lear works. It identifies the madness of the king with war in the country; it leaves the audience two steps behind in wondering which war is being fought at any time and who is on which side. It invites the audience to see if they can tell the difference between war and insanity. Romans is a light comedy by comparison.

Both end with a seemingly futile death, which is perhaps not supposed to be futile. Lear, having regained relative sanity and lost his power, attacks the Wall (Berlin wall idea) single handedly with a sledghammer and is shot. Major Chichester 'fesses up to the IRA, after seeing the ghosts of the Saxon invasions of AD525 - the events of each period happen on the same stage around the corpses of the other. Was he just mad? Was it a ham-fisted olive branch? Was it a suicide driven by racial guilt? I found the whole episode rather pointless.

The politics of this play would certainly have been shocking in 1980, with the troubles looming large. Today, a pro-war British play would be shocking, even more than an anti-war Hollywood movie. It asks us to compare the British in Ireland to the Romans in Britain, or the Saxons in Britain - but the comparison is so feeble that a transfer to Iraq wouldn't have worked. It contains powerful representations of the inevitable brutality of occupying armies; a fair share of comedy, and a fine Julius Caesar. Is this enough to make it an anti-war play? Perhaps. Yet the suggestion is that peacetime was pretty brutal too. What did the Romans ever do for us? This question was asked, Python notwithstanding.

To be an anti-war play, it is not enough to say that war is hell. All but the neo-cons know that. Not enough to portray unsympathetically the shocking ordinariness of the troops: Roman, British or IRA. You have to say that no (or not enough) good will come of it. The wars in Lear lead the country from one tyranny to another, via bloodbaths. That's how you do it.

Tags: , ,

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

More on the Project Mk II

Mat has responded to my previous blog here. So I will try to do the whole idea a little more justice.

This project is talked of in some corners as a negative anti-New Labour project, and in others as a positive campaign for liberty and consitutional reform. First some background: New Labour, what is it?

We all know about the abandonment of clause 4 and the embrace of privatisation and PFI. That's not what we were talking about. But the second plank to regaining electability for Labour was this: Be tougher on crime than the Conservatives, no matter how irrationally vicious they become; never stop doing this. This was well underway in the mid 90s, driving Michael Howard to the right, Howard presumably expecting Labour to bottle at some point. If only.

Labour had to be tougher, not just matching the Conservatives, to overcome the suspicion that they were instinctively a load of bleeding hearts. Clinton had successfully done much the same. Labour activists largely went along with it even if they didn't like it because it was a small enough price to pay to win, and to make some progress in other areas with greater popular appeal.

Terrorism today is an extension of crime then. This government will seek to be and appear tougher than the Conservatives on terror. Measures such as "glorification" may be more appearance than actuality, legislation as press release, but where there is substance it is just as irrational. This leaves Cameron with the same problem that Howard had in the 90s. He could play a game of chicken with liberty by pitching right, or he can leave the issue alone. The Tories do not have the same intrinsic weakness on crime, so don't need to pursue the same strategy. I don't see any particular advantage in their pursuing a more rational crime or terror policy, like Oaten's. So I don't expect them to do it - they are nothing if not the Daily Mail brigade. They could pitch right, but I expect them to play it safe and focus on other issues. Either way, Cameron's overtures to the Lib Dems are a ploy.

That understood, what are we talking about? A campaign for liberty and constitutional reform? Liberty meets Charter 88. Sure, go for it. An electoral campaign? Yes, of course, Liberty/C88 should get stuck in at election time. But it will need more popluar support, not just a majority, but enough to outweigh the strength of feeling that the politics of fear can deploy. Support beyond "the chattering classes" - which I think is beginning to happen, but has some way to go. Is this a campaign to defeat "New Labour" in the sense of the crime and terror part of the project to make Labour electable? Sure, but let's be clear: That aspect of New Labour is a normal ingredient of the Conservative Party. Labour may be giving the executive all sorts of dangerous powers, but I still fear the Conservatives getting the chance to use them.

We are faced with suggestions like this:

1. Getting Labour out (campaigning methods and tactics)
2. Keeping the next lot in order (Constitutional stuff, what are we after?)

What are we after!? Are Lib Dems short of policy on constitutional "stuff"? Do the Tories support ANY of it? Have I woken up on a different planet? And having policy for how to keep the next lot in order is a long way from actually having a constitution and bill of rights in place.

So, the idea that Cameron may be willing (!) and able (!) to deliver Tory lobby fodder in favour of measures to undo some of Labour's spin-motivated idiocy and entrench democracy and civil rights is provoking. But it is up to him to convince me of it, I am not going to start convincing myself of it by making plans for it.

Of course there are liberals within the Conservative Party, and in the Labour Party. It would be nice if we could work together in a common cause, but guess what? Other issues matter to people too. People are in other parties despite their illiberalism presumably because of these other issues, or because they like bigger parties with greater immediate prospects of power. I see no compelling reason for a campaign that is specifically anti-Labour, as opposed to pro-liberal and pro-Liberal Democrat. So what should this campaign be for? For all these bloody liberals to join the Liberal Bloody Democrats!

Sunday, February 19, 2006

But what are you FOR?

The idea of organised anti-New Labour tactical voting has come up. Oh dear. James Graham is spot on.

When somebody tells you that the enemy is X, they are asking two things: First that you define yourself by what you are against. Second to turn your back on all your other enemies.

Does an anti-New Labour alliance include the Conservatives and Old Labour? Yeah, right. New Labour is just a name for the Labour Party. There is only one.

Of course it is possible that Cameron would be significantly better than Brown. Possible, but most unlikely. I started this blog to vent on the subject of Cameron. And I have started another to mock him.

There are many decent people in the Conservative Party, but there are many nasties too. So I have no inclination to give them a hand up. I am rather enjoying their plight, grinning smugly at Cameron's desperate spin, rolling on the floor laughing at every flip flop. Don't stop me now.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Any Questions, Stannington

An audience member in tonights episode of Any Questions, I feel oddly qualified to comment on it, although I heard nothing you listeners of the electric wireless didn't.

The most notable thing was that on most issues the whole panel seemed to agree, and nobody defended the government. Everybody agreed with Lord Turner on pensions before he even spoke. Ed Vaizey, even had the enormous cheek, for a Tory, to suggest (correctly) that any reformed pensions should be the property of the individual to stop the state raiding the kitty. (Again.)

Ming Campbell was excellent of course, on the question of C of E disinvestment in Caterpillar, which prompted the usual arguments about Israel and Palestine, which I dare not comment on. Vaizey seemed to endorse the ludicrous position that considering any policy of the Israeli government unethical was anti-Semitic. Frankly, if this is the case, most of the Jews I know are anti-Semitic. Ming pointed out that questioning the policies of the Israeli government does not make you anti-Semitic any more than questioning George Bush's policies makes you anti-American.

And on Guantanamo Bay, and on the glorification of terrorism Ming was excellent. Dimbleby attempted on occasion to challenge a panellist with the government's position on some issue, a noble effort. But with Diane Abbott representing Labour and largely opposing the government, the whole program was somewhat surreal. Much as I'd like to think that there is a popular consensus that the government is getting things wrong, we are not quite there yet. You would have thought that a program like Any Questions ought to have a pro-government voice on it - so that the government's best arguments can be defeated, of course.

Tag: Any Questions