Thursday 19 December 2013

MPs, peanuts, and monkeys

A common reaction amongst the very few who were willing to defend a pay rise for MPs last week was that if we want to attract the ablest into politics, we need to pay them more.  One or two even trotted out the old chestnut about ‘getting monkeys if you pay peanuts’.
Leaving aside the not entirely inconsequential fact that anyone who considers a salary of £60,000 a year to be ‘peanuts’ isn’t inhabiting the same world as most of us, there are at least two major fallacies with the argument.
The first is that ‘attracting the best’ is not at all the same thing as ‘deterring the worst’.  In the political world, what determines who gets elected has more to do with the popularity of a particular party in a constituency than with the ability of the candidates.  In the absence of any mechanism for assessment of ability in the election process, any increase in salary could end up, to over-work an already tired cliché, simply increasing the peanut ration for the monkeys.
And the second is that, even if we could agree on the definition of the word ‘ability’ (and that’s a big question in itself), where is the evidence that paying higher salaries attracts more of it?  There’s plenty of empirical evidence that higher salaries attract the greedy and the reckless (just look at the banking sector), but I’ve not seen any that justifies the claim that ‘ability’ follows money.  Indeed, some of the most ‘able’ people I’ve ever met have been academics and researchers; not amongst the highest paid in society very often, but then it isn’t money which motivates them to apply their ability in the way that they do.
In any event, do we want laws made by people who have only been attracted into the legislature by the high salaries paid?  Doesn’t that put a premium on those who are there for their own self-interest rather than the interests of society as a whole?

Wednesday 18 December 2013

“Henceforth and forever annexed and incorporated”

That, according to the 1536 Act, is the status of Wales in relation to England.  It’s pretty clear and unambiguous; and unlike some more recent acts, there’s no ‘sunset clause’ in this one. 
There was another, unrelated, story a few days ago about a list of laws which the UK Government was planning to repeal.  They inadvertently included an act making it a crime to even imagine replacing the monarchy.  But the Windsors can sleep soundly; the government realised its mistake and removed that act from the list.  Imagining such an unthinkable thing will continue to be considered by the law to be an act of treason.
I don’t expect, however, to be writing my next post from the Tower.  The UK’s unwritten constitution has a curious ability to be able to ignore itself whenever it is convenient so to do.  Nothing, however deeply etched into the fabric of the law, has the timelessness intended by those who thought that their power was greater than it was at the time that they made these laws.
When it comes to the question of Welsh independence as well, the government knows that relying on what a king decreed almost half a millennium ago to simply deny the right of the people to express an alternative will would be an utterly self-defeating approach.  There may well be little demand for such a step in Wales at present, but simply outlawing those who argue otherwise would be counter-productive.
The same is true when it comes to the union between England (including Wales) and Scotland.  That union, too, was intended to be indissoluble and to last for ever.  But relying on the intentions and the wording of the acts of union to prevent the Scots from even having the choice would be foolhardy in the extreme.
And yet…  Why are those unionists who recognise the sheer folly of such a legalistic approach when applied directly within the UK so content to rely on exactly the same argument by proxy?  How many times have we heard them arguing that Scotland has no chance of EU membership because the Spanish Government, faced with its own ‘internal’ independence movements, will never allow it?
As we have seen over the last week or so, Spain is, indeed, determined to block any attempt at holding an independence referendum in Cataluña, and is relying on the indissoluble and everlasting character of the wording of the Spanish constitution as its justification.  Far from Spain’s stance vindicating the position of UK unionists, as they seem to think, this actually means that they are simply relying partly on the same sort of argument themselves – an argument that they would never dare to make directly.
I don’t know whether the Catalans will eventually vote for independence or not; what I do know is that it will not be the wording of laws or constitutions that ultimately stops them.  Trech gwlad nag arglwydd - the will of the people is ultimately stronger than any law, and that’s as true in Wales as it is in Cataluña or Scotland.
The issue we face – whether unionists or nationalists – is about persuading the people to one view or another, not about what any laws, ancient or modern, might say.  Especially not by proxy.

Monday 16 December 2013

I agree with Boris...

…well, up to a point, anyway.  London’s mayor was recently castigated by some for saying that we need greedy people.  But he’s right of course – in context.  Given that a capitalist economy is based on competition, greed and inequality, saying that such an economy needs greedy people in order to operate effectively is simply a truism.
It what he didn’t say that is more important.
In the first place, greed isn’t the acquisition of excess wealth in itself – it’s the desire to require that excess wealth.  Most people – whether they desire to acquire excess wealth or not – will fail to do so.  Those who succeed will do so at the expense of others.  Under such an economic regime, most people – including most of those greedy people whom Boris says we need – will be losers in the wealth acquisition stakes.
More importantly, however, whatever the capitalists and their apologists never tell us is that competition, greed and inequality are not the only basis on which to build an economy.  One of the tragedies of modern politics is that the assumption that they are is so rarely challenged.

Thursday 12 December 2013

Sharing out the work

Some of the big battles of the past between capital and labour were about working hours, as much as about pay.  These days, 37 hours or thereabouts is generally accepted as the standard length of a five-day working week.  But 40 was more usual when I started work, and I remember my father working a six-day week, which was still fairly normal in the 1950s.
As a general rule, reductions in the working week have been the result of demands from the workforce – conceded only reluctantly by employers – and have come about in periods of increasing affluence.
Periods of economic hardship can also lead to a reduction in hours, however.  One of the controversial proposals put forward by Rhondda Cynon Tâf Council recently was that new staff should be employed on 35 hour contracts, (with the salary amended to reflect that fact).  Were it not for the salary sting in the tail, one would generally expect such a proposal to be broadly welcomed by staff and unions alike.
It isn’t the only sting in the tail, though.  There are three ways in which reduced hours for employees can be “paid for”.  The first is by reducing the amount of work done; the second by is by employing more people to do the work; and the third is by increasing the productivity of those being employed – getting more work out of the same people.  And there are two ways of delivering the last of those three options – the first is through better tools and processes, and the second is by increasing the pressure on employees by simply demanding – insisting even – that they work harder and faster.  In recent years this has tended to be the default option, and it's no coincidence that the incidence of stress-related illness has increased.
As far as I have seen, the council did not spell out which option they were planning to use; my suspicion is that it is simply a question of following the default option – buying bigger whips.
Now there will be those, of course, who see local government as something of a cushy option – Max Boyce’s song about “keeping their billy cans brewing” comes to mind.  Perhaps there are still corners of local government somewhere where this is a true picture, but I doubt that they’re widespread.  In effect, the council is suggesting that it should behave just like the worst capitalist employers, who believe that bigger whips solve problems.
In principle however, we should welcome any moves to reduce working hours and allow people more leisure time.  And the best way of paying for it is my option two above – employing more people to do the work.   

Much of what passes for economic policy these days seems to assume that unemployment is both temporary and the fault of the unemployed themselves.  But what if it’s neither?
In that case we would have only two economic options – recognising that those choosing not to work are doing the rest of us a favour by reducing competition for jobs (and then rewarding them appropriately for their altruism), or sharing what work there is more fairly between those available to do it.  In theory, the reduced salaries which we’d all receive should be matched by reducing the taxes we pay for benefits for the altruists whose choice not to work would disappear.
Of course there are issues about whether people have the right skills, abilities and experience.  And of course there are questions about how we make sure that the benefit of reduced taxes goes to those whose wages are reduced rather than to the richest.  But these are, at root, practical problems to be overcome.
What’s wrong with sharing work more fairly and sharing the rewards of work more fairly as a consequence? It's surely preferable to accepting that some of us will never have the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to the economic life of our country.

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Kissing frogs

There is an increasing emphasis on this magic quality called entrepreneurialism in recent years, and sometimes it seems to me that politicians and business leaders think that if only we had more of it, all our problems would be solved.  I wonder if that’s true – or even if we really understand what this stuff actually is.
It’s certainly true that having more companies employing more people would help the economy.  And it’s also true that having more companies starting would be a step along the way.  There is a downside though.  It’s generally accepted that around four out of every five new start-ups fail.  From a macroeconomic perspective, such a high failure rate isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s part of the cost of sorting the wheat from the chaff and identifying which business ideas are good and which are less so.
From a microeconomic perspective, however, I’m not convinced that encouraging ever greater numbers of our school and university leavers to do something at which we can reasonably predict, from experience, that 80% of them will fail is an entirely brilliant idea.  And I rather suspect that if we doubled the number of start-ups, the number of failures would more than double – we might still get a higher number of successful companies in total, but the ratio of that successful number to the total would be less.
Partly that’s because more business start-ups probably means that we’re moving into the more marginally viable ideas; and partly it’s because encouraging more and more people to start businesses means that we’re going beyond the pool of people who have the enthusiasm and the commitment without having to be persuaded to give it a try.
But it also partly comes down to us not really having much clue as to what does or does not make a successful entrepreneur.  Values such as commitment, hard work, and perseverance are all part of it, but there’s also an immeasurable something called flair – and I personally suspect that another little attribute called ‘luck’ plays a much larger role than is generally acknowledged.
It’s easy to ignore the question of luck.  Successful entrepreneurs always think that their success is down to their own exceptional personal qualities; and the unsuccessful ones usually have plenty of other things to blame – taxes, red tape, unreasonable expectations that employees should be paid a living wage, the banks, the markets; the list is probably endless.
We know that banks and financiers aren’t particularly good at identifying which businesses will succeed, although there’s an element of self-fulfilling prophecy in that those to which they lend are more likely to succeed than those to which they refuse to lend.  We also know that all the government agencies and services promoting entrepreneurialism aren’t terribly good at predicting success either – although the fact than many of those employed in such areas seem to have little experience of actually running businesses themselves and are experts, mostly, in filling in forms to draw down grants and loans, may be a contributory factor.  And we know that the entrepreneurs themselves are not very good at knowing what will succeed – if they were, we wouldn’t have an 80% failure rate.
People like Michael Moritz who invested in Google at the right time are feted as though they were financial and entrepreneurial geniuses, but is that true, or were they, in reality, just lucky to be in the right place at the right time?  Is entrepreneurial success more like kissing frogs than shrewd investment?  I suspect that it is.
Again, from a macroeconomic viewpoint, kissing a whole lot of frogs before one turns into a prince may well be a sensible strategy to pursue.  But shouldn’t we make the fact that that is what we are doing just a tiny bit clearer to those young people who are being encouraged and persuaded to go frog-kissing?

Tuesday 10 December 2013

Learning from Pisa

I suppose the one positive thing to come out of the announcement of the results of the Pisa comparisons last week is that no-one in Wales is pretending that it was in any way good news.  How meaningful the league positions are in reality is another question entirely – and Syniadau has an interesting take on that question, pointing out that simply comparing places in a league table may be ignoring a rather greater truth about the decline in mathematical knowledge across large parts of the developed world.
If the results were depressing, the political response has been even more so.  Opposition parties seem to be more interested in getting the First Minister to express shame, apology, or regret than they are in identifying what we need to do to improve.  It’s not often that I feel much sympathy for the First Minister, but I have to admit that the frustration which he expressed with the absence of constructive alternative policies struck a chord.
That doesn’t mean that the opposition’s criticism is entirely unjustified either – the fact that Labour have been in control of education in Wales continually since 1997, either at Westminster or subsequently at Cardiff, makes it reasonable to hold them responsible for the debacle.  But the idea that simply replacing a Labour Government with a non-Labour Government (whatever one of those might be) is the answer to anything - let alone everything - is little more than sloganizing and electioneering.
I rather suspect that politics is part of the problem in the first place; or rather the endless enthusiasm of politicians for dabbling in the details of the education system with more and more ‘initiatives’ and changes to the curriculum, to show that they are ‘taking action’ (or, in the double-speak of which they are increasingly fond, ‘moving the agenda forward’ – which always sounds to me more like pushing a piece of paper across the table than doing anything useful).
And actually, it’s not that I particularly disagree with many of the initiatives that they promote, although there are questions which deserve to be asked – and answered – about whether they are properly resourced and whether the details have been fully thought-through.
Someone once explained the change process to me as like throwing pebbles into a perfectly still pond.  Throw one right into the middle, and you get a perfect wave of change rippling out to reach all corners of the pond.  Throw two pebbles in, and you get a nice interference pattern - sometimes the waves reinforce each other, strengthening the drive for change, whilst at others they cancel each other out.  But throw a handful in, and the usual result is unpredictable chaos.  The education system in Wales reminds me of that chaotic pond – a whole series of different initiatives, most of them worthy in themselves, but never really coming to a conclusion before the water is disturbed again.  But throwing yet more pebbles into the pond seems to be the instinctive reaction of the politicians.
Changing ministers, changing priorities, an emphasis on schools performing wider functions than merely educating children, and a complete absence of decent employment prospects for many of the children themselves – none of these can help.  I’m not going to pretend that I have an easy or quick solution either, but recognising that there probably isn’t one might be a better place to start than clutching at the first straw that floats past.  Or simply demanding a change of minister.

Monday 9 December 2013

The for-and-against party

A couple of weeks ago, Peter Black proudly announced that the Lib Dems were the first party to oppose the building of the M4 relief road.  I thought this a welcome step forward, and I think that he was right to say that the Lib Dems are the first party to reject the idea in principle.  It’s true, of course, as one of the comments on the piece suggested, that the One Wales Government decided not to proceed with the plan, but that was a decision taken purely on financial grounds at the time, leaving open the possibility of resurrecting the scheme at a later date - exactly as many of us feared at the time.
But hold on a moment – on Thursday of last week, the UK Government’s spending statement, produced by a government of which the Lib Dems are a part and announced by a Lib Dem minister, committed to working with the Welsh Government to build the self-same road.
In fairness, Peter Black did specifically refer to this being a policy of the ‘Welsh’ Lib Dems, so I suppose that leaves open the possibility that the UK Lib Dems will just ignore them (nothing new there) and carry on regardless, which is exactly what is happening here.  But if a policy of the Welsh party on a specifically Welsh issue, which is under the control of the Welsh Government can be over-ridden by the so-called ‘federal’ party, what is the point or status of such a policy?  A quick press release, I suppose, like so much of politics these days.
The idea that the use of borrowing powers to fund the M4 had anything to do with a response to the Silk Commission’s report is also rapidly evaporating.  The Treasury statement referred to an agreement that the Welsh government ‘can use’ – how nice of them to give permission – ‘their existing borrowing powers’ for the scheme.  And Eurfyl ap Gwilym (himself a member of the Silk Commission) referred to a short term “…agreement on limited borrowing powers to fund an M4 relief road”, with proper longer term borrowing powers a matter for the future.
The proposal for the M4 relief road seems to be developing an increasing cross-party momentum in favour of mortgaging the future of the whole of Wales to fund one short stretch of road in the bottom right hand corner, and it seems unlikely that any of our politicians are going to oppose it.  Once again, when push comes to shove, all the politicians' talk of sustainability is put to one side; the economy always trumps the environment.

There are two rays of light, however.  The first is the work done by Professor Stuart Cole to try and resurrect an alternative proposal which is much cheaper and less environmentally damaging.  The the second is the proposed court action by environmental groups challenging the validity of a consultation process which does not even allow the consideration of any alternatives.  All power to their elbow.

Friday 6 December 2013

Not all that automatic really

That former UK Prime Minister John Major is opposed to independence of Scotland is no surprise to anyone.  I was, however, a little taken aback at part of the advice that he gave the Scots last week.  Were Scotland to become independent within the EU, he said “...she might regret the loss of automatic British backing”.
It sounds as though he really believes that the UK Government has in the past ‘automatically’ backed Scottish interests on each and every occasion.  I guess that will come as a surprise to many Scots.  And there’s a parallel in Wales where many, particularly in the agricultural community, feel that the UK’s position in EU agricultural affairs has been one which tends to pay rather more attention to the needs of large arable farmers in the south east of England than to the needs of hill farmers in Wales.
But perhaps we should be grateful to Major for drawing attention to one of the key issues which the Scots will have to face in relation to the EU when they come to vote.  Do they believe it better to have the government of a small country focused on the needs of that country arguing their case in Brussels, or would they prefer to leave the arguments to a larger country, which has more clout, but which focuses on what it sees as being the needs of that larger country, even if their position then runs counter to the best interests of the smaller country?
I know which I’d choose.  A government focused on the right issues is surely preferable.

Thursday 5 December 2013

Presumptions and hidden assumptions

Last week, our First Minister took himself off to Dublin to deliver another of his homilies about devolution, separatism, and all things political.  During the course of his speech he said that there should be a presumption in favour of devolution and that “powers should only remain at the centre if it is strictly necessary”.
It’s one of those sentences which was to him probably just stating the obvious, and it’s easy to skip over it in the context of a lengthy speech.  But what exactly does it mean?  He gave us no clue as to what he means by “strictly necessary”; but defining what the phrase means is key to understanding what, if anything, he was actually saying.
To me the obvious interpretation of the phrase in the context of that speech is that “only those powers which cannot possibly be exercised at a Welsh level must remain at a UK level”.  However, any rational consideration would have to conclude that there is actually nothing which cannot be done at a Welsh level.  There are after all EU members smaller than Wales who manage perfectly well without an intermediate level of government between themselves and Brussels.  So whatever he meant, it clearly wasn’t that.
Of course whether it is desirable to exercise all powers at a Welsh level or whether that’s the best thing to do are different questions entirely, and go to the heart of the debate between nationalists and unionists about the future of our nation.  But “desirable”, and “best”, don’t strike me as being sufficient criteria to define something as being “strictly necessary”.
It seems to me that there must in fact be a further criterion in operation here, one which the First Minister chose not to refer to, but one which is in effect a very severe constraint on his “presumption in favour of devolution”.
I rather suspect that that second criterion is his firm conviction that the United Kingdom must continue to exist.  Nothing wrong with that, although I would, of course, disagree with him.  But if the constraint on devolving powers to Wales is that enough powers must remain at the centre to justify the continued existence of the centre, which is the only conclusion I can draw if I’m right about his second criterion, then he really seems to have said very little at all.
“We need to retain at the centre those powers which are necessary to ensure the continued existence of the centre”, isn’t much of a presumption in favour of devolution at all.