Monday, November 10, 2008

In defence of the tabloid press

Paul Dacre's speech to the Society of Editors is a powerful defence of tabloid journalism, and the freedoms it depends on.  Worth reading in full, I'd say.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

How meaningful is a target of an 80% cut by 2050?

By 2050 Ed Miliband will be more than eighty years old and no longer in government. The new 80% target for greenhouse gas emission cuts is therefore not a standard that he will be judged by. It is just a way of striking a pose, and an absurd one. Since the Government came to power, and despite massive burdens being heaped on individuals and businesses, emissions have not fallen but increased by 1.6%.

The economy is in crisis with shares around the world still tumbling amid fears of a recession. Within Ed Miliband's own sphere of responsibility, Britain faces an energy crisis (PDF), with a huge gulf in capacity that will lead to blackouts unless urgent steps are taken. That the Government are still fiddling with meaningless targets while the economy burns shows how utterly broken our sytem of government is.

Cross-posted from the TaxPayers' Alliance blog.

Monday, October 13, 2008


We might have expected fuzzy concepts like 'happiness economics', and the idea that economic growth is overrated, would be dropped as the economic crisis bites and more tangible concerns return to the foreground of British politics. However, the BBC asks whether "with so many political certainties being shredded, perhaps there has never been a better time to take a long, hard look at what we want from our leaders."

The truth is that politicians can't deliver happiness. Even the smartest of academics don't really understand it. While some believe that it can be measured through surveys, which apparently correlate to certain activities in the brain, a study for the Institute of Economic Affairs highlighted how the results of those surveys don't just fail to correlate with income but also a range of other supposed social goods from longevity to gender equality to public spending and even rates of depresssion. They conclude that happiness data over time is "an extremely insensitive measure of welfare". This is because people are asked to rank their happiness in categories (from 'not happy' to 'very happy') that encourage an answer relative to other people around them and put an upper bound on each person's rating of their happiness while income is an absolute figure and can rise without limit.

If happiness can't even be measured reliably then trying to replace GDP with some measure of it is clearly a mistake. Politicians and bureaucrats will embrace all manner of measures to make us happier with no way of assessing results or understanding what really works. Dubious schemes will be supported with vast amounts of taxpayers' money, which it will be easy to justify taking on the grounds that people's money doesn't make them happy.

Of course, happiness isn't just a matter of what you are paid. However, money is the raw material that allows us to make all sorts of choices, including those that make us happy. The IEA study highlights the fact that more reliable, longitudinal data on happiness (that compares different people rather than different times) suggests that people are generally happier if they enjoy a stable family life, for example, and a comfortable income makes that easier.

In the end, the BBC's premise that we should think again about what we ask of our political leaders is a sensible one. However, instead of giving politicians an even broader mandate to try and make us wealthy or happy we should recognise that prosperity and happiness are things we have to build for ourselves. The ordinary taxpayer can use the money in their pocket to pursue wealth or happiness more effectively than politicians can on their behalf. We should stop asking politicians for more than any leader can deliver.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

The Department of Energy and Climate Change

While Peter Mandelson's reappointment is clearly the political story of the reshuffle I think the more interesting change, in policy terms, is the creation of the new Department of Energy and Climate Change (or DE&CC).  The dynamics of that department could play a huge role in how our energy policy develops over the coming years.

I think that the short term consequences are pretty clear.  This will bring administrative chaos and reduce the chances of urgent action to get Britain through the capacity crunch without the lights going out.  There is necessarily a lack of clarity following a change like this.  What priorities will the new boss have?  Who is responsible for what?  Where is my desk?

The Government have spent ten years in the belief that Britain can be securely powered by a combination of gas and renewables.  At this stage action needs to be taken quickly to reform policies that are leading us into dangerous over-reliance on a single fuel that is becoming increasingly difficult to source.  In the medium term (i.e. as soon as possible) we need new nuclear plants but right now we need new coal.  These are genuine tough decisions - the vague rhetoric we've had from the Government so far does not constitute a sufficient response.

It sounded like John Hutton was starting to understand the scale of the problem; that a senior politician was finally getting past the complacency Campbell Dunford has identified.  Now we have to hope that Ed Miliband will see the light as well and the chaos of the reorganisation won't delay something actually getting done for too long.

In the medium term it will be interesting to see which one of the department's two priorities wins out in the numerous situations where green policies - and financing the £100 billion bill - are not conducive to providing an affordable and secure energy supply.  The ex-DEFRA climate change bureaucracy is, I think, probably larger.  In that respect, it will have the advantage.  More bureaucrats means more people with their pet schemes to push, more staff who are really interested in climate change policy and find energy rather boring.

On the other hand, the reason why Ministers love working on climate change is that the outcomes are all decades and centuries in the future so there is no real accountability.  By contrast, people will notice if the lights go out.  While politicians can try and blame the energy companies, or hope they're in a different job by the time poor choices lead to economic disaster, there is a much greater chance that the public will notice when political leaders let them down in energy policy than with climate change.

We'll see how it all plays out.  Hopefully this week's announcement won't be another step on the road to serious power cuts.

Friday, October 03, 2008

The food miles myth

At the Conservative and Labour conferences I spoke at events on the subject of food miles. The idea that consumers should pay great attention to the distance food has travelled from the producer to their plate. Food miles are one of those concepts that can sound important to some politicians and campaigners, who lack the experience and longevity in their posts to get to grips with the detail of issues like the environmental impacts of agriculture, as they make the complex issue of the externalities associated with producing food seem incredibly simple. In reality, things are more complex.

A study by Christopher Weber and H. Scott Matthews, at Carnegie Mellon University, describes how transport produces just a small portion of total emissions in producing agricultural goods. Transportation as a whole represents only 11% of life-cycle GHG emissions, and final delivery from producer to retail contributes only 4%. Other factors - from whether plants are grown in a heated greenhouse or under the sun to the amount of mechanisation needed - are far more important.

That is why Dr. Adrian Williams, of Cranfield University, described the concept of food miles as "unhelpful and stupid". Counting food miles will often mean getting your analysis of the environmental impacts of different products wrong. Air-freighted green beans from Kenya actually account for the emission of less carbon dioxide than British beans. Roses produced in the Netherlands and transported to Britain cause 35,000 kg of carbon emissions per 12,000 stems, against 600 kg of carbon emissions per 12,000 stems of Kenyan roses. The carbon footprint of NZ milk solids, lamb and apples (PDF) sold in the UK is up to four times lower than that of their locally produced equivalent, even if transport emissions are included.

The food miles myth endangers the livelihoods of many in the poor world. For example, according to the Kenyan High Commission in London, (PDF) the Kenyan horticultural industry supports around 135,000 Kenyans directly and many hundreds of thousands more indirectly, and the produce supplied to the UK alone generates at least £100m per year for Kenya. Organisations like Greenpeace that try to endorse the concept of food miles and fair trade at the same time are contradicting themselves.

It also hurts British consumers. Ordinary people are already struggling with rising food prices. These increases are, to a large extent, driven by hideously ineffective biofuel subsidies that have driven prices up by 75% according to the World Bank, costing $960 to $1,700 per tonne of CO2 saved according to the OECD. Consumers should not be asked to bear a further burden by ruling out the most cost-effective way of producing many foodstuffs (i.e. producing them abroad) which will further push up the price of food. Consumers health might also be put at risk if there is a smaller range of acceptable fruits and vegetables in many months where UK production is limited by our climate and consumption drops.

People who take food miles seriously risk hurting the interests of ordinary people here and in the Third World to little environmental end.

Cross-posted from the TaxPayers' Alliance blog.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Moby Dick

This, via Ross Douthat, is truly terrifying:

"The writers revere Melville's original text, but their graphic novel-style version will change the structure. Gone is the first-person narration by the young seaman Ishmael, who observes how Ahab's obsession with killing the great white whale overwhelms his good judgment as captain.

This change will allow them to depict the whale's decimation of other ships prior to its encounter with Ahab's Pequod, and Ahab will be depicted more as a charismatic leader than a brooding obsessive.

"Our vision isn't your grandfather's 'Moby Dick,' " Cooper said. "This is an opportunity to take a timeless classic and capitalize on the advances in visual effects to tell what at its core is an action-adventure revenge story.""

Saturday, September 20, 2008

At some point, someone will need to make this speech

Reagan made this speech in 1981, not long after becoming President. It strikes the right balance between confronting the challenges facing his new government and striking a tone of optimism about the possibility of doing so successfully. It is neither airy waffle nor dismal and dispiriting.

"A few days ago I was presented with a report I'd asked for, a comprehensive audit, if you will, of our economic condition. You won't like it. I didn't like it. But we have to face the truth and then go to work to turn things around. And make no mistake about it, we can turn them around.

I'm not going to subject you to the jumble of charts, figures, and economic jargon of that audit, but rather will try to explain where we are, how we got there, and how we can get back."

In recent years spending, taxes and regulation have all increased and the money has been wasted on unreformed public services, long standing weaknesses in our transport infrastructure have not been addressed and we face an energy capacity crunch. All that left us chronically vulnerable with structural deficits and ongoing economic weakness outside the remarkably resilient financial services industry. A downturn in that industry has left us in huge trouble, the only major economy the OECD expects to see go into a recession this year, and likely to face a mushrooming deficit.

Curbing the rapid growth of public spending, the most important step to start addressing our long term economic problems, is going to mean treading on some toes. There will be many vested interests attached to our big state and overcoming them will require having the public on board. Making the scale of the challenge clear to the public but, at the same time, having a clear resolution to do something about the situation could earn a politician a lot of respect.

Things you learn from watching the stats on a viral

One of the sites that has linked to the Brown Calculator is TheGrumble.Com.  A generalist site for people with some gripe about the modern world?

No.  A BBS for picture framers.  Its full title is The Picture Framers Grumble.