Thursday, October 22, 2009

Strange angle on road deaths

In the news today is a report showing that children in deprived areas are four times more likely to die in road accidents than those in wealthier locations, and that therefore deprived areas should get priority in funding for speed bumps, cameras etc.

On the face of it that sounds fair enough, but actually it is deeply confused and offensive. Funding for traffic calming should go to where it has the greatest benefit. If this correlates with poverty, then more of it will go to poor areas, as it should. But where there are accident hotspots in prosperous areas these should be dealt with on an equal basis.

The idea that poor areas should get priority just because poverty correlates with risk, is a bit like saying you should hire tall people when you want smart employees because height correlates with intelligence. (You shouldn't, you should test your applicants' intelligence.)

The suggestion here is that the life of a richer child is worth less than the life of a poor child, and that is grossly offensive. The implication is that reducing child deaths is not the policy goal, but rather equalising child deaths across the social divide, as if this were a front in the class war.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Greens and Keynes: total muddle

You'd think it would be a simple question. Do the Greens support the fiscal stimulus to get the economy growing again, or do they, like the Tories, consider it more important to balance the budget sooner?

Logically, as the Greens are not supposed to be that keen on economic growth anyway, you would expect the latter answer. But that has to be weighed against visceral knee-jerk opposition to the Tories.

So I've been intrepidly commenting on Green blogs trying to get to the bottom of this. Natalie Bennett at Philobiblon was cheering the return of Keynes but wouldn't explain whether she wanted the growth that Keynesianism is thought to deliver.

When Jim Jay attacked Cleggy over the "savage cuts" remark, I asked whether opposing growth won't mean even savager cuts in the long run. And I get some vague guff about a "paradigm shift away from a capitalist economy", which is a rather vague answer to quite a specific question.

And now Rupert Read adds mud to the water with a pithy condemnation of growth. So is he against the fiscal stimulus? He wouldn't say.

This muddle is all the more surprising when we consider that it would actually be quite easy for no-growth Greens to come up with a clear and consistent position. If you think that the Tories are correct that balancing the budget now is better for prosperity in the long run, then go with Keynsianism. And if you think the Keynsians are right that a fiscal stimulus now is better for prosperity in the long run then go with balancing the budget. You'd have to half agree with the Tories either way, and I guess this is the problem.

Now it turns out that growth figures are about how much the goods and services we supply each other are worth to us, and not about how much environment is destroyed, and so the greens really ought to be a bit more specific and focus their attentions on the actual destruction of the environment rather than on an aggregate statistic like GDP that includes a great many good and unobjectionable things.

But no. Far from being more specific, their solutions just get vaguer. Paradigm shifts. Alternatives to capitalism, as yet unspecified. Read's suggestion of a stimulus to stabilise the economy is at least specific, but suggests that his green new deal should stop dead as soon as growth figures go positive.

Often on specific policies the Greens sound like what is simply a high tax-and-spend party. And this too, would make sense particularly if you want to strangle the economy. But ask them about economics or political philosophy, and they will never say this. Why choose this vague waffle over a simple policy that meets your objectives? Is some deeply held contradiction at work here?

This is a breathtaking shortcoming for what claims to be a serious political party. What have they been thinking about for the last 20 years?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Why MPs should stop complaining and pay up

Various MPs are disputing the fairness and legality of Thomas Legg's retrospective application of limits to cleaning and gardening expenses. They shouldn't. Their argument is that if you employer approved your expenses, they shouldn't later change the rules and ask for it back.

The problem with this picture is that the parliamentary fees office isn't the MPs' superior, it is their subordinate. You cannot pass the buck to a subordinate. This is not a case of your boss saying "you can claim for this". It is more like your secretary saying "oh yes I'd claim for that if I were you".

If the rules failed to specify appropriate limits for such things as cleaning then it is quite right for Legg to invent them. The rules are also MPs' property, and their flaws cannot be blamed on anyone else.

This is not to say that Legg has got it right. He seems to have ignored the real money-spinner of subsidsed mortgages. I'd rather my taxes pay for cleaning and gardening than for mortgages which fund capital gains that go straight into an MP's pocket. (Although having said that, surely you generate no more dirt by living in two places, so cleaning costs in one should be largely offset by savings in the other.)

Is it unfair? Perhaps if you are one of the noble few who tried to reform this system sooner. But if you're that noble, you can live with it. You can welcome the slow approach of sanity.