Wednesday 27 July 2011

Theft and blame

Most people working in a large organisation will have seen the game of ‘Credit-stealing / Blame avoidance’ being played.  When things go well, everyone wants the credit – but when they go wrong, someone else is always to blame.
There’s also a power element to the game – the higher up the tree you get, the more people there are below you from whom you can steal credit or on whom you can dump blame.  It’s not unrelated to the habit of organisations which sack the workers when things go badly, and reward the managers when things go well.  Or in some cases reward the managers when things go badly, even before they sack the workers.  (This story about a boat race between a Californian team and a Japanese team expresses the attitude at its worst.)
Governments are not above a little bit of theft/ avoidance either.  I don’t doubt that if yesterday’s figures for the past quarter’s growth had been somewhat better, it would all have been the result of the magnificent economic management of the UK Government, and would have proved that we were on track.  But they weren’t, so it’s all the fault of those royals deciding to get married at a time of the year when there are two many bank holidays already.
And if there hadn’t been a royal wedding, then no doubt it would have been down to some other special factor, or, as a last resort, the overall world economic situation.  No matter what the outcome, there was never any danger that government policies would have been responsible for poor performance, nor that poor performance could in any way suggest that the government was on the wrong track.
Given the way that globalisation and multinational capital have led us into an increasingly intermeshed economy, I’m not sure how much difference government policy – even at UK level – really has on the fundamentals of economic growth and overall performance.  It certainly has an effect on who pays the price of failure, and alternative approaches could have shared that cost out much more fairly.  But I really do doubt whether a marginally different approach to spending and taxation (which is where the political debate has centred) could ever have had a significant effect on the GVA figures.
Most of the decisions which affect the economic fundamentals are not only outside the government’s control, they are outside any democratic control at all.  They have been outsourced to the markets and the money men; the speculators and the gamblers.  Unless and until we assert control over capital, it will continue to control us – and government claims or denials about economic performance will continue to be mere froth.

Tuesday 26 July 2011

A question of class

In times of austerity, it’s not surprising that politicians should start trying to compete with each other to see who is the most parsimonious – or at least, who can give the best impression of parsimony.  Today’s story in the Western Mail returns to the subject of our elected representatives’ use of first class rail travel.
I don’t always – or even often – agree with Tory MP Simon Hart, but there is one telling comment in his robust defence of his habit of travelling first class.  He said that “This is a hair-shirt competition”.  His comment helps to confirm the basic message of the report – that MPs still just don’t get it – but it’s also a fair summary of where the debate about the travel arrangements of public servants, elected and unelected, has got to.
Perhaps there is a deeper question here which is going unasked in the rush to criticise any public servant who dares to travel first class, and that is whether there is still any justification in this day and age for there to be a distinction between travel classes anyway.  Why should there be a distinction between two ‘classes’ of people travelling on the same train?
I used to travel extensively by train on business – sometimes standard class and sometimes first class.  I certainly understand the point made by some that it’s easier to work in a first class seat, but the main reason for that is basically the extra room and guaranteed table seat due to the smaller number of seats in a given space. 
The argument about discussing matters with constituents on the phone is surely a red herring – I would no more hold a private conversation in first class than I would do so in second.  It may seem quieter, and people may be seated marginally further away from you, but it is no more possible to have a confidential conversation.  Perhaps some of them just believe that having a better class of people overhearing you is OK.
But back to the main point.  Most local services, in Wales certainly, manage perfectly well with only one class of ticket and seat.  And the biggest challenge to the rail system at the moment seems to be providing enough capacity for everyone who wants to travel to be able to do so and to be guaranteed a seat of some sort.  Having two classes of seat – and traveller – doesn’t look to me like the best way of doing that.  A single class - less crowded that standard, but less privileged than first - might be a better and more flexible way of providing the necessary capacity.

Monday 25 July 2011

Personal agendas

Plaid’s infamous “senior sources” are at it again.  They get away with it not because, as they think, no-one knows who they are, but because short of an admission, or a journalistic breach of confidence, it’s impossible to prove.  From experience, it’s often a case of people who absent themselves from meetings and discussions where decisions are made using a friendly reporter to pursue their personal agendas anonymously.
Ostensibly, one of the issues which has led to this little spat revolves around the question of the manifesto for the Assembly election, and who did or did not write it.  Simon Thomas and Rhuanedd Richards both get some flak in this article, one for allegedly not having written it, and the other for allegedly writing it.  (Although one of my anonymous commenters told me back in May that it was neither of them that wrote it, since “after meeting Nerys recently I was very much under the impression it was a solo effort” - i.e. by Nerys.)  It reminds me rather of another bit of consultant speak – “Whilst success has many fathers, failure is a bastard”.
In fairness to whichever of the three – or whoever else – actually wrote the words which appeared, the basic thrust of the document was very much laid down by Ieuan.  The wordsmith(s) was/were then tasked, essentially, with trying to make it look as if it might in some way resemble a silk purse.  I thought they did a good job; it was far the best quality rhetoric, as I noted at the time.  The problem is that even the very best rhetoric is no substitute for a lack of content.
However, the key word above is “ostensibly”.  As the report itself suggested, I suspect that the “sources” aren’t really interested at all in manifestos or the remit of the party’s directors; this is all about pursuing agendas – promoting the image of favoured candidates, or undermining the image of unfavoured candidates.  It’s what many of the anonymous briefings have been about over the years.
It isn’t only Plaid that suffers from this phenomenon, of course.  Indeed, Plaid has been something of a latecomer to the practice, albeit a fast learner.  It’s a fairly natural outcome from a political process which rates personality and career as more important than mission, but it’s a diversion from real debate about direction and policy.
And that’s the worst aspect of this latest outbreak of indiscipline.  Whether Plaid is or is not in turmoil as the paper chose to report it is of peripheral relevance here; the real problem is that there are too many people in the party who have learned nothing from the last decade.  A change of leadership is an opportunity to put the timidity of that decade into the past, and re-affirm a sense of mission and purpose.  But concentrating attention on personality and the promotion of careers amounts to a continuation of current direction rather than a break from it.  Just as rhetoric is no substitute for substance, so personal agendas are no substitute for collective ones.

Friday 22 July 2011

"The man's deluded"

The utterer of the words, Prof. Minford, is not a source that I would always quote with approbation, but in this case, the description seems to be highly appropriate.  Clegg’s analysis is badly flawed in several respects.
He argues that the City of London has been a “golden egg-laying goose that produced this great wealth”.  I’m not convinced; it may have produced wealth for some individuals (including, of course, a number of members of the cabinet), but it also produced a crippling level of liabilities which have been passed on to the taxpayers. 
He goes on to suggest that “this great wealth … was shunted northwards and to other parts of the country by governments”.  That would presumably be a reference to the extended period during which the gap in GVA between the South East and much of the rest of the UK – and especially Wales – actually increased?
He’s right of course that government economic policy for so long effectively depended on using the taxes raised in the South East to pay public sector employees elsewhere, and that that represented a degree of transfer, but that isn’t the same as saying that this wealth was shunted northwards etc.  It was more a case of mitigating part of the growth in inequality than of trying to address the inequality.
But it’s his ‘solution’ which should concern us most – or rather his lack of a solution.  Replacing “dollops of public subsidy”  (his words – not a description that I’d use) with proper jobs in research and manufacturing sounds like a good idea – but what does it actually mean?  In terms of actual proposals, we know that the government is planning to stop the ‘subsidies’, but where are the specific proposals which will provide the replacement economic activity which he is proposing?
He appears to be relying, yet again, on the assumption that the private sector will miraculously create these jobs to mop up the unemployment after it has been created, despite the complete lack of any indication that that is happening.  It's a one-sided approach to a two-sided problem.
To return to the words of Prof. Minford – “It’s nonsense.  The man’s deluded”.
PS – What on earth does ‘re-wiring the economy’ mean anyway?  Perhaps he just needs a new speech-writer.

Wednesday 20 July 2011

Wind and carbon

I referred recently to two of the arguments most often used against wind energy.  Another standard response from opponents is to argue that wind turbines actually contribute nothing to reduction of carbon emissions, and indeed one commenter on the previous posts raised that very point.
The argument takes various forms – ‘useless’ is a word frequently bandied about – but the underlying question ‘how much difference do turbines make to total carbon emissions?’ is an entirely valid one to ask.  If it were true that they make no contribution at all, it would indeed be something of a killer argument against turbines.
However, whilst demonstrating the invalidity of the claim (that they save no carbon emissions) is relatively straightforward, putting accurate numbers to the difference they do make is much less so, and is, I guess, the main reason that the argument still gets put forward so often and is so readily believed.
The problem, fundamentally, is a lack of agreement around the assumptions which are used to derive any figures, and in the absence of agreement of those assumptions, there is no chance that any figures produced by using them will be universally agreed.
There is no real dispute about the fact that, once built, the electricity from wind farms is virtually carbon free.  So, taking purely the production costs, each Kwh of electricity produced from wind energy saves the CO2 emissions which would be generated from a conventional power station.
That isn’t the whole story of course.  There’s also a carbon cost from site development, transportation, turbine construction, and eventual decommissioning.  However, even on this score, there is no argument against the proposition that wind energy has a very much lower lifetime CO2 cost than equivalent fossil fuel powered plant.  Because the carbon cost of fuel during use completely dwarfs the carbon cost of construction, the carbon cost during the ‘operational’ phase is hugely more significant.
The debate revolves largely around the question of intermittency and the extent to which fossil fuel powered plant has to be kept running at all times in case the wind drops.  This report claimed that use of wind turbines required “17 new gas-fired power stations simply to provide back-up for all those times when the wind drops …  those 17 dedicated power stations, [which] will be kept running on "spinning reserve", 24 hours a day”.
That same claim, in one form or another, runs through all the arguments that I’ve seen against the efficacy of wind turbines.  And, in fairness, if it were true, then there would be no question about it – there could be no case for building wind turbines.  The truth or otherwise of the proposition becomes critical. 
It is, though, simply not true (and was the subject of one of the previous posts).  It seems, in turn, to be based on the assumption that the wind is so variable that wind farms running at optimum capacity one minute can suddenly and unexpectedly stop, across the whole of the UK.  And that simply is not reality.  Wind speeds in a given locality can change quite dramatically, but over a large enough area any degradation in wind speed is much more predictable and gradual.  The actual need for operational backup is thus very much lower than claimed by opponents.
What is true, though, is the rather more straightforward observation that there are times when there is little or no wind across the UK (or large areas of it), that that situation can pertain for days at a time, and that alternative generating capacity is needed to replace wind on those occasions. 
All of that is true, but it undermines the case for wind only to the extent that that capacity would not need to be there if there was not a single wind turbine in existence, and only to the extent that the carbon cost of building power plant which is only used occasionally outweighs the carbon saving from wind. 
Running a complex operation like the Grid in a way which keeps the lights on requires a great deal of flexibility.  There is always going to be significant ‘surplus’ capacity in the system, some of it operational, some of it available at different periods of notice, to allow for situations where one or more other sources of electricity fail, for whatever reason. 
Thus, the extent of that surplus isn’t just down to the use of wind energy.  Even today, with wind at a very low level of penetration (<5% of generating capacity), there is something over 85GW of generating capacity linked to the Grid, against an expected peak demand during an average cold spell of around 56GW.  That capacity is needed in order to cater for periods of maintenance, breakdown – or even lack of fuel or variations in the relative price and availability of fuels.
It is true that adding more renewable energy to the mix will almost certainly lead to an increase in the difference between expected peak demand and total attached capacity. But that isn’t just because the wind doesn’t always blow, and the increase cannot just be ascribed to backing up wind turbines. 
Other sources of renewable electricity come with similar problems.  PV panels don’t produce electricity at night, tidal flow generators only produce at full capacity when the tidal flow is at peak, and hydro-electric schemes depend on the level of flow in rivers.  It’s why any renewables-based energy policy needs to include a mix of sources, as well as looking at such issues as demand management and storage.
The answer to the question, ‘how much difference do they make?’ will inevitably lie in a range, depending on the assumptions made.  But because the key factor in making the comparison is the carbon emissions during operation, the only basis for claiming that wind turbines produce no overall reduction at all in carbon emissions is to depend on invalid assumptions about the need for backup and for keeping that backup operational at all times.

Tuesday 19 July 2011

Output, not profit

It’s generally recognised that the biggest problem Wales faces – whether as part of the UK or as an independent country in waiting – is its relative economic poverty.  Or perhaps more correctly, its relative lack of economic wealth.  Putting that right ought to be pretty high up the list of priorities for Welsh politicians – nationalists and unionists alike; we should be aiming to support ourselves in either scenario.
For many, the answer is a simple one.  The private sector must be greatly expanded (although there’s less of a consensus as to whether the public sector needs to be shrunk in the process).
Anything which stands in the way of that – taxes, planning controls, regulations should be swept aside.  Oh, and the government should provide a generous scheme of grants and soft loans to enable those private businesses to set up and expand, and an education system which churns out people with the skills which ‘business’ needs.
That all of these things would help expand the private sector is probably beyond dispute (although whether they’re all desirable is another question entirely).  The underlying – and sometimes openly stated – assumption is that the private sector creates wealth, whilst the public sector spends it.  However, that view seems to be in danger of confusing profit and wealth (or perhaps social wealth with private wealth).  They are not at all the same thing.
It’s not that the quest for profit is irrelevant in this context; it’s just that there’s more to increasing social wealth than merely allowing some people to make profit.  Profit may well be the incentive which drives some people to borrow other people’s capital and invest it in businesses which provide goods and services which can be sold – but it isn’t the necessary or only driver.
Adam Smith – not generally known as an avid left-winger – described wealth as "the annual produce of the land and labour of the society".  That’s closer to a definition of GDP than profit.  And, since the measure on which Wales is failing is GDP per head, it’s actually a more relevant consideration than profit.
The CRESC report which I referred to a couple of weeks ago included the following comment in its concluding section:
At this stage, what the UK economy needs from business (quoted and unquoted) is not profit but output because net output or value added at firm level provides the fund from which labour is paid and therefore sustains employment.
In other words, an overall increase in economic activity is more immediately important to us than whether that activity does or does not generate profits for individuals.  And whether that activity comes from private business, social enterprise, state enterprise, or any other sort of enterprise is less relevant than that the activity happens.  It’s a different way of thinking about the question – and suggests that different solutions might apply.
One might think that a government which has done so much to identify the sorts of economic activity which it wants to see expanding in Wales might take a pro-active view of its role, but instead it seems to be largely reactive – when there’s any action at all.  It seems to be fixated on the idea that it can do little more than facilitate, encourage, urge, and incentivise private entrepreneurs to come along and solve our problems for us.  It's the same approach which has been tried and found wanting for decades, although it occasionally gets dusted off and presented as something new and different.
My thanks go to a pseudonymous commenter on a previous post who reminded me that it was not Einstein who said that “one definition of human madness is to do the same thing and expect different results”.  But the fact that it wasn’t Einstein doesn’t invalidate the sentiment.

Monday 18 July 2011

Paracetamol and millionaires

Given the high profile of the Welsh Government’s commitment to free prescriptions, I find it hard to believe that any Health Board in Wales would have decided to ban GPs from prescribing certain medicines without consulting the government.  And the calm response by “a spokesman” also suggests that the decision by the Hywel Dda Board did not exactly come as a surprise.
It amounts to the introduction of what Welsh politicians usually like to call a “post code lottery”; which items can be had for free will now vary from one part of Wales to another.  It touches on the long standing issue that there is a lack of consensus about which decisions should be taken nationally and which should be taken locally. 
As a general rule, I tend to favour local democracy rather than central imposition; but in this case, health boards are not subject to local democracy, and this looks like a case of local appointees trying to weaken or undermine a decision taken by electorally-accountable politicians.  Purely for that reason, I’m surprised at the calm response of the government – unless, of course, they are actually looking for a way of back-pedalling on their commitment.
From the figures included in the report, it appears that the introduction of free prescriptions has had no impact on ‘over-the-counter’ sales, which have remained static, but it has increased the number of prescriptions for those same medicines by a significant margin.  It therefore appears, at first sight, as though the extra prescriptions are not for people who would otherwise have purchased the same medicines.  And as far as I’m aware, there is not a single reported instance of a millionaire obtaining a prescription for paracetamol.
But I’d like to understand better where that increase has come from before coming to a conclusion.  Is it the case that people are now going to see the doctor when they wouldn’t have bothered before?  Is it that doctors are now issuing a prescription when they might previously have just said “take a couple of paracetamol”?  What’s the impact on health of removing that option?
From the reports so far, the decision appears to have been taken on purely financial grounds, without considering that health impact at all.

Friday 15 July 2011

Haintive logic

There used to be only two main types of logic, inductive and deductive, but after reading today’s offering by the former Secretary of State we’ll have to add a third, which we can perhaps call haintive logic.
Under this new way of thinking, a rejection of one proposition, such as a move to AV, must inevitably be assumed to be “a massive vote of confidence” in a quite different proposition, such as FPTP.  And, as a result, not only can support for a third and entirely separate proposition which has never been put to people be completely ignored, but those who supported the defeated proposition are now obliged to impose the one which they oppose.
Perhaps he is, as Ron Davies suggested, merely playing to an internal Labour Party audience and using the media to do so.  It wouldn’t be the first time.  Or perhaps it’s just that whatever the Tories propose he feels he must oppose, and since STV – the only other sensible alternative – is total anathema to him, he has to fall back to supporting a system that he has long sought to change in order to pick a fight with the UK Government.
I agree with part of what he says, however.  His suggestion that all AMs should be elected by the same system is one we should welcome – as long as that system is a proportional one.  It’s something that a lot of people have called for from the outset.
I wonder though, about the accuracy of some of his statements, such as “This is widely accepted to have been a disastrous decision” in relation to the decoupling of Scottish constituencies, and “Everyone is agreed on the need to avoid decoupling in Wales”.  I’m not sure what the evidence for these somewhat sweeping statements is, unless he is restricting his summary of opinion to internal Labour Party opinion.  Again, it wouldn’t be the first time.
He isn’t the only one who seems to be abandoning a long-held position.  I find it disappointing that many of those who have long claimed that they support STV have decided to back the probable Tory proposal for 30 directly-elected AMs and 30 list members.  There’s nothing wrong with coming down to a compromise position if the desired objective cannot be achieved; but this looks like surrendering before a shot has been fired.
Since the whole issue has to be re-opened as a result of the changes to the parliamentary constituencies, we have an opportunity to put all the options on the table, and seek the best solution.  Conceding defeat before there is even a formal proposal on the table seems a strange way of campaigning for change.

Thursday 14 July 2011

Madness or not?

Earlier this week, I posted on one of the arguments used by opponents of wind farms in support of their case.  One of the other arguments frequently used by them is that because wind energy is intermittent, wind farms need to have substantial back-up from conventional power stations. 
A very recent extension of that is the suggestion – generally presented as fact by some letter writers and campaigners - that Centrica has told DECC that it would need to build 17 gas-powered stations “simply to provide back-up for all those times when the wind drops”.  It’s described as having been the “best-kept secret” of the government’s “obsession with wind”, and of course, as “proving” the insanity of a policy which includes the use of wind energy.
Were it indeed true, I’d have to accept that it’s a pretty good argument against wind turbines – but is it really true?
Thus far, I’ve been unable to turn up the source information for any such statement by Centrica, although I have found a number of news reports on the subject, such as this one and this one.  By now, the suggestion has been copied, from this type of news report, across any number of anti-wind farm blogs and websites, always reported as fact, and never, as far as I have been able to trace, providing any link to a substantive source.  I've failed to establish where the story actually started.
Perhaps there is some substance to it that I’ve been unable to trace, and if anyone knows of such, I’d be delighted to have an opportunity to read what was actually said.  One of the problems with the internet is that it is very easy for an inaccurate, or perhaps misinterpreted, statement to spread and gain credibility.
What are the facts here?
Well, certainly, wind energy is intermittent.  It’s wrong, though, to say turbines only produce electricity 30% of the time.  It’s more like 80%, but the overall load factor – the amount of electricity produced as a percentage of the maximum capacity of a turbine – averages somewhere between 16% and 40% over a year, depending on the technology (age of the turbines, basically, since the newer ones score better), location, and size of the turbine, with an overall average of around 30%.
And certainly it’s true that keeping the Grid running means that wind energy needs some form of back-up, so that, in the event of output from a wind farm ceasing or reducing, the impact on the Grid does not exceed the agreed parameters before alternative generation comes into action.  But that’s true of all types of generation – and the failure of a nuclear power plant can have a much greater impact than the failure of a wind farm.
Does wind energy require more back-up than any other form of electricity generation?  Opponents invariably claim that it does, appealing by and large to the common sense observation that the wind doesn’t always blow when and where we might want it to.  The National Grid doesn’t exactly support that viewpoint though, or at least, not to the same extent.  In this report, they map out the expected contribution of different sources of energy to the Grid by 2020, and consider what measures they need to take in response to that changing mix.
Now their assumptions are, of course, open to challenge; and some of us might not want to see the same mix as they anticipate; but in this context, we can simply treat their scenario as a prediction, not a prescription.  The precise mix of non-renewable sources doesn't significantly affect the argument here.  They assume that wind will rise from 3.8GW out of 85.3GW in 2010/11 to 26.8GW out of 100.5GW in 2020/21.  From 4.5% to 26.7%, therefore, with other renewable technologies providing a further 1.3%.
They say that will create greater uncertainties at times, although, as they point out, the dispersion of those uncertainties over a larger geographical area serves to smooth them to an extent.  There are also other things which they can do, and are planning to do, to reduce unexpected volatility, such as improving their forecasting tools and methods, use of interconnections with other grids on the mainland – again, this is a way of spreading the effect of wind variability over a much larger geographical area and thus reducing its impact – use of smart grids, more storage capacity etc.
The report helpfully includes a little graph showing how much operating reserve is required at different levels of wind penetration into the mix of electricity generation.  At 0%, the operating reserve required by 2025/6 would be a little under 5GW – i.e. that is the level of operating reserve required if there was not a single wind turbine operating in the UK.  If the proportion of electricity being generated from wind by 2025/6 reaches around 30%, however, then the need for operating reserve rises to around 8GW – an increase of a little over 3GW.
Does that equate to 17 gas powered station?  No, it does not.  The capacity of such stations can vary – but the one being built at Pembroke, for instance, is rated at 2GW – which would mean a maximum of two extra gas stations to provide operating reserve to 30GW of wind turbines.  Quite a different picture.
So, where does the need for 17 extra gas-fired power stations come from?
I’ve traced this report from DECC, which talks about the need to build 20 new power stations (fuel unspecified) by 2020.  But it isn’t based on the need for operating reserve – it’s based on the fact that “A quarter of Britain’s capacity will need replacing before the decade is out, as old coal and nuclear plants come to the end of their useful lives” and the suggestion that “Demand for electricity could double by 2050, as we opt for electric vehicles and heating”.
There’s also this speech from the boss of Centrica, which argues that the fuel for those new stations should be gas.  There’s perhaps just a hint of vested interest around that one, of course – “Major gas supplier says gas is the answer” would hardly be a surprising headline.
Then there’s this submission by Centrica to the Select Committee, which argues, inter alia, that since new stations are likely to be cycled on and off more frequently - because of the increased contribution from renewable generation - and to have longer periods when they’re not producing electricity, the operators should be incentivised (paid) to build the most flexible types of plant – which just happens to be gas-fired.
Even taken together, it’s hard to see how all of these factors could lead to the sort of categorical statement being made about 17 new plants for backup to wind, although I can see the glimmer of a basis for wilful misinterpretation.
I suspect though that the derivation of the 17 is much simpler than that.  It is axiomatic to wind turbine opponents that there is a need for 100% operating reserve at all times for every turbine, regardless of any evidence to the contrary.  If wind is projected to supply around 30GW of power, and if CCGT plants generate around 1.8GW each, then a simple division gives a number remarkably close to 17.  The logic is impeccable, and the conclusion flows naturally from the premiss. 
The problem is that the premiss is unsubstantiated, and not supported by those involved in actually running the system.  It’s another example of the rule that arguing from axiomatic and unsubstantiated starting points generates more heat than light.

Tuesday 12 July 2011

Fewer new roads?

There was a lengthy story in yesterday’s Western Mail about the transport experts calling for a review of all road schemes in Wales in the light of evidence that car traffic might be declining.  One thing that struck me as notable in the report was that – unusually – there was no comment from politicians of any party.  Whether they were asked and declined, or simply not asked, I don’t know. 
There are few topics on which politicians are usually reticent to rush out a quote.  Road-building may well be one of them; it’s a subject on which they know that they can’t please everyone.
In another context, it became clear to me a week or two ago that much of the economic case put forward by governments for road schemes is based on an assumption that traffic will continue to grow inexorably.  Partly this is just a result of population growth, but it’s also partly based on the assumptions that there will be economic growth, and that economic growth will of necessity lead to increased traffic.
It’s good to see those assumptions – all of them – being challenged. 
I wouldn’t support the abandonment of all the proposed road schemes though.  Although governments like to present the case in business terms, as though everything can be reduced to cost and benefit, there are other factors involved of which we should not lose sight.  Not a few of our trunk roads follow very old routes through the centres of villages and towns, and even if the levels of traffic drop from current levels, there are still valid reasons for constructing some alternative routes.
But overall, a stress on alternatives to road-building is to be welcomed, particularly if it starts to look more at freight traffic as well as passenger traffic.  Although there has been a switch in recent years from investment in roads to investment in public transport, it’s been too little too slowly.
Rail improvements are still too often the result of responding to lengthy campaigns after the demand has already appeared rather than an attempt to plan and provide pro-actively to encourage the demand.  Similarly the freight strategy for Wales is a document full of worthy sentiments, but remarkably light on hard actions which will do other than respond to demand.
The response of the Welsh Government to the report was not encouraging.  They clearly remain wedded to the idea of continuing growth in road usage.  It’s another example of a mismatch between 'green' words and 'business as usual' actions.

Monday 11 July 2011

Only 2%

One of the arguments regularly put forward by opponents of wind power is that the entire human activity of the UK contributes only 2% of the human output of greenhouse gases, that wind power will reduce that factor by only a tiny fraction, and that therefore it will have negligible effect on the overall outcome for the world.  And of course Wales contributes only 5% of that 2% - around 0.1% of the global total, which makes the arithmetical point even more clearly.
As far as the mathematics goes, I’d accept the basic point, but still reject it as an argument against the use of wind energy.  As an argument, it contains a number of basic flaws. 
The first, and most obvious, is that the mathematics don’t only apply to wind energy.  ‘We’re too small to make a difference’ can be applied to any proposal – it is, essentially, not an argument against wind turbines specifically, but an argument against doing anything.  Whether we are referring to wind energy, tidal energy, solar energy or whatever is irrelevant here – if we start from the perspective that our contribution is only ever going to be miniscule, then we will end up doing nothing. 
Then, if the world’s population is around 6 billion people, the UK’s population of 60 million represents around 1% of the total.  That we output roughly twice our ‘share’ of emissions should be no surprise, given the state of economic development in wealthy countries compared to poorer ones.  But that is the second flaw in the ‘only 2%’ argument – those of us emitting more than our fair share actually have a greater responsibility to reduce our output than those emitting less.
Ignoring the fact that there are variations from the average, for a moment at least, any population of 60 million, anywhere in the world, will be responsible for less than 2% of the world’s emissions.  And, since drawing lines on a map to delimit different countries and nations with different populations is essentially a fairly arbitrary process in this context, any country with a larger population can be viewed, in simple mathematical terms, as being an aggregation of populations of 60 million.
But if every population of 60 million decided that its contribution to the problem overall was so small as to make no difference, because any action which they could take would have a negligible effect, then no-one would do anything.  And that’s the third flaw in the ‘only 2%’ argument – it can be used by anyone and everyone to argue that their contribution will be so small as to make no difference, and is thus not worth making.
The point is that anthropogenic climate change is being caused collectively by the entire human population.  It is an aggregation of billions of small actions, most of which are too small to be significant in themselves.  It can equally be tackled by billions of small actions each of which is equally of limited significance.  To argue otherwise is to argue for doing nothing.
That’s valid if you don’t accept the reality of anthropogenic climate change in the first place (and that’s another argument entirely), but it’s completely invalid otherwise.  There’s a time for percentage figures and a time for absolute numbers; in this context, what matters is the reduction which we can achieve in our own emissions, not the proportion of the global problem which that represents.
I suspect that most of those who push the ‘only 2%’ argument are not convinced about anthropogenic climate change in the first place.  It would be more honest, though, to try and argue that case than to dismiss any effort to mitigate it as being too small to make a difference.

Friday 8 July 2011

Too big to succeed

At the time of the banking crisis, we were told that we had no choice but to bail out the banks – they had become too big to fail.  In the light of recent events at News International, I find myself concluding that some companies have become too big to be allowed to succeed.
There’s something very wrong with the idea that the editor and staff of a newspaper should pay with their livelihoods for the sins of, and to protect the backsides of, their predecessors.  The closure of News of the World may, of course, turn out to be little more than a cynical ploy, and the same staff may end up working on a very similar paper called the Sunday Sun within a short period.  For the sake of the staff (well, most of them – the exceptions still need to be properly dealt with), I sort of hope that that will turn out to be the case. 
But it should be something of a wake-up call to discover that the parent group has become so large and rich that it can afford to simply close down, overnight, a successful and leading brand.  It appears that the income and profit from that brand is little more than pocket money to the parent company. 
It makes me wonder whether, had the newspaper been a stand-alone brand, or part of a much smaller group, they could have afforded to take such risks in the first place.  It’s an open, and probably unanswerable, question – but would they have had to have been more careful about what they were doing had they not been so peripheral to the group?
The power of the media mogul behind the group to have politicians – Labour and Tory alike – supplicating before him has already been noted elsewhere.  The claimed influence of his titles on voting habits has probably been exaggerated, but the fact that parties and leaders fear him to the extent that they do is enough to make it a serious issue.
At the very least, the planned takeover of Sky should be blocked.  But it’s also time to start looking at breaking up the rest of the empire.

Thursday 7 July 2011

It's our sovereignty

The Sunday Times carried an article at the weekend on a plan by senior Tories to push through legislation to outlaw what the paper called “anti-English discrimination” in relation to tuition fees at Scottish universities.  The move would also apply to the policy here in Wales although, as usual, the situation in Wales was barely mentioned.  The article was backed up by an editorial column which fulminated against “Scotland’s unfair penalty on the English”. 
The ‘senior Tories’ concerned are apparently considering amendments to equality legislation, since that is a reserved matter, to specify that devolved governments cannot treat residents of one part of the UK any differently from those of any other part.   It would effectively require either that Wales and Scotland follow the English line on fees, or else that we use our devolved budgets to pay for the education of those from outside the devolved nations studying in our institutions.
In essence, it undermines the whole concept of devolution.  Giving Wales and Scotland some powers and a budget necessarily means an acceptance that there will be differences in the way resources are allocated and priorities set.  But if there can be, effectively, no difference in outcome for citizens of the different countries of the UK, then decision-making capacity is seriously constrained.
The idea of using the Equalities legislation is akin to the earlier idea of using the Human Rights legislation, which was floated at the time of the debate about the LCO on presumed consent.  I noted at the time that it was a dangerous precedent, since it’s a route which can potentially be applied to a whole range of issues.
It would be easy, of course, to assume that this is just another case of ‘not getting’ devolution.  But at another level, it demonstrates only too well an understanding of the simple dictum that “power devolved is power retained”.  We can make any decisions we like, as long as those who have loaned us the power to make them don’t disagree.
And that goes to the heart of the difference between devolutionists and nationalists.  For them, power belongs to the crown-in-parliament, and can be loaned to us or taken back as and when they wish.  For us, it belongs to us as citizens, and we can decide to whom we delegate different elements of that power - and for how long.
The real counter-argument to the likes of those Tories who are seeking to re-assert central control isn’t simply about defending devolution – either as an event or a process.  We need to challenge their underlying assumptions and proclaim loudly and frequently that it is for us to decide where power lies. 
I’m well aware, of course, that if the people of Wales were given a choice today as to where power should lie, they would probably choose to leave most of it in Westminster, whilst beefing up the Assembly with come extra powers.  And probably withdraw from the EU as well.  I’d disagree with leaving so much power at Westminster, and want to remain in the EU, and I’d seek to persuade people otherwise. 
But persuading them otherwise has to start with convincing them that they have the right to make the decisions in the first place.  Devolutionism isn’t even trying to do that, let alone succeeding, and it’s time for nationalists to be more confident about explaining the difference.  Sovereignty belongs to the people, not parliament.  And certainly not to the Crown.

Wednesday 6 July 2011

The Lib Dem 2

I’ve not commented on the Lib Dem 2 to date.  Given the serial misuse of my name by one of them, I’m not sure that I shouldn’t declare an interest.
I referred to one case of mistaken identity during last year’s election, when Plaid HQ were puzzled as to why I’d had my picture taken with some Lib Dem employees posing as public sector workers.  It hasn’t been the only instance of confusion.
Last week, not for the first time, I was congratulated on having been elected to the Assembly, and I’ve received more than a few commiserations on being investigated by the police following my alleged electoral irregularities.  I’ve also – and this one is at least entirely understandable - been asked by a number of confused people what on earth possessed me to join the Lib Dems.
The process since the election has been something of a saga.  That the rules have been poorly thought-through and badly-written seems clear.  That the information wasn’t updated everywhere it should have been at the right time also seems indisputable.  That the rule about when people need to resign from certain bodies should be revisited is generally accepted (although there may well be a need to consider the various bodies concerned on an individual basis; there are good reasons why candidacy is incompatible with some memberships).
Regardless of what common sense might tell us, the bottom line is that, no matter how silly the rules, or how incompetent those responsible for making, publicising, or enforcing them are or were, at the time of the election the two were, according to those rules, ineligible to stand as candidates. 
Perhaps common sense will prevail today; the acceptance by the Lib Dems that the position of the two members is slightly different may assist with that.  It’d be no bad thing if common sense prevailed more often over badly-drafted rules and laws.  But if that is to be a defence against breaking the rules, it has ramifications well beyond the doings of politicians and the operation of electoral law.

Tuesday 5 July 2011

Illusory benefits

One of the arguments for the deregulation of financial services during the Thatcher era (and largely endorsed by the failure of Blair and Brown to make any attempt to re-regulate) was that these industries were of enormous benefit to the UK economy.  It was an assertion which went largely unchallenged at the time, and there is a danger that it continues to go largely unchallenged as the sector gets back to ‘business as usual’.
But, apart from the obvious problem that financial services are a part of the explanation for the dysfunctional economy of London, and the imbalance between that economy and the economy of the rest of the UK, I think we should be challenging much more critically whether we really benefit to the extent claimed.
The obvious point to make is that although the sector generated huge private profits up to 2007, it did so by creating huge liabilities in the process.  The crisis then led to those liabilities being transferred from those who had incurred them to the state, and thus to all of us as citizens.  In terms of risk and reward, they took the rewards, whilst we ended up carrying the risk.  It’s not a sound basis for an economy.
Secondly, the sector actually created very few jobs, compared to the amounts of money involved – moving money at the press of a few buttons creates fewer jobs by value of turnover than moving widgets coming off the end of a production line.  It will never be the answer to unemployment, particularly in a Welsh context.
Then, there’s the question of tax payments.  It has been claimed that financial services accounts for around 8% of the UK economy, but contributes 25% of corporate taxation to the Treasury.  As far as it goes, that’s true.  But because the sector employs so few people relative to the turnovers involved, the total taxation from the sector – adding together both company taxes and personal taxes paid by employees – comes to more like 7% of the total, marginally less than its ‘fair share’, purely on GDP comparisons, and significantly less than one might expect looking at the overall profitability of the sector.
Yet despite all these obvious questions, the political establishment seems wedded to the belief that expanding financial services, and creating the circumstances for that expansion, is somehow essential to the success of the UK, or Welsh, economy. 
Part of the reason is to do with the way in which the bankers and financiers have influence at the top table.  In 2010, just over 50% of cash donations to the Conservative Party came from companies or individuals in the financial services sector, and both Cameron and Clegg come from that background themselves.  The Coalition’s support for the sector should come as no surprise.
Reasons for the Labour Party’s attachment to the sector are less clear.  Schmoozing with Rothschilds on yachts in the Med may be a factor, but I suspect that the interchange of staff between the sector and the Civil Service, particularly the Treasury, means that advisers to governments – of whatever colour – are incanting a supportive message.  Labour’s rhetoric against boardroom salaries may sound better, but it’s unlikely to go beyond rhetoric, and it is, in any event, fiddling at the fringes.
‘Retail’ financial services – high street banking, insurance etc. – have a vital role to play in our life, and we certainly need to attract more of those to Wales.  And it would be nice if that wasn’t just call centre jobs as well.  But we’re better off without the gamblers and speculators.  And we’d be better off if we could put some distance between them and our real economy as well.

Friday 1 July 2011

More to life than laws

The slowness of the new Welsh Government in presenting any sort of detail of its programme for the next five years is surprising for a party which has been in government for the last 12 years, and which no-one seriously expected would cease to lead the government after this year’s elections.  It’s not unreasonable to expect that they would have been better prepared.
But the opposition criticism that the legislative element of the programme is so light is rather less fair – and it surprises me as well.  I’d have thought that the opposition parties would welcome the opportunity which it might provide. 
Labour didn’t promise a lot by way of new legislation in their manifesto, but then an awful lot of government activity doesn’t really require new laws to be made.  The fact that the Assembly now has new law-making powers doesn’t mean that it should rush to emulate the sausage-factory approach to legislation which characterises Westminster.  Legislation is only part of the Assembly’s function; it also has an important rôle in holding the Executive to account.  AMs really don’t need to spend all their time thinking up new ways of adding to the law book, just for the sake of it.
The Government in London likes to keep MPs occupied as much as possible in either supporting, or opposing, the government’s legislative programme, of course.  I’ve often suspected that they do so in order to make sure that the MPs don’t have enough time to do anything more useful, such as asking the more difficult questions which so few of them manage to do.
Scrutiny and free-thinking are dangerous activities to party leaders, and are generally to be prevented at all costs.  The decision of Carwyn Jones to allow AMs more time to undertake both rather than tying them down in the minutiae of a packed legislative programme may turn out to be one of his boldest decisions yet.  If AMs are ready to seize the opportunity, of course…