Saturday, June 14, 2008

Copayment ban to be scrapped

It looks like we are going to see the end of restrictions on copayment (via Tim Worstall). That is absolutely brilliant news, for reasons I've set out at length before. It's a real shame that it has taken this long, and comes too late for some patients. However, all credit to Doctors for Reform who have fought the issue very effectively. This section from the Telegraph article suggests their work was key:

"But in recent weeks they are understood to have been persuaded that the NHS already contains “top ups”, particularly in dentistry and in some hospitals, where patients can pay for private rooms."

Such a change of heart may well have something to do with this research (PDF).

Might the Westminster village have the politics of 42 days detention wrong?

Most of SW1 thinks David Davis' resignation over the issue of 42 days detention was a huge political mistake. The Government's position is popular with the public and Davis has shifted the debate to one of the few areas where Brown is in tune with ordinary people. The Conservatives won't be allowed near government if they aren't seen to take the nation's security seriously.

On the other hand, Tim, and many others, have made the point that at every opportunity the public seem to be noisily expressing their support for the former Shadow Home Secretary. If there is a silent majority it is keeping very quiet indeed.

What polling evidence we have suggests that SW1 is right. A YouGov poll suggests that 69% of the public support the proposal. That's a mountain of opinion, I can't see anything much wrong with the poll and YouGov are by far the most reliable UK pollster.

However, that might not be the end of the story. After all, when the question is asked by YouGov it is rightly and necessarily removed from its political context. I doubt people have a particularly strong opinion on 42 days in particular - they just, quite understandably, want to see the Government strengthen policy to combat terrorism. They would give a positive answer to a broad range of tough security policies.

The issue is that the debate hasn't, and won't, remain that abstract. The choice voters are actually presented with is a debate between a Government they loathe and utterly distrust and a Conservative Party that is not just popular right now but is generally better trusted on security issues. Just as the Conservative brand used to taint a broad range of policies the public now distrust a Government they long to be rid of. While other narratives will be presented, when voters see a Conservative ex-SAS man resigning on a point of principle in order to defend "Ancient" "British" "liberties" squaring off against a grubby government their earlier opinion on 42 days might quickly go out of the window. They'll see the Government, rather than the Conservatives, as the ones not taking security "seriously".

Whether or not this is actually happening or SW1 is right and a silent majority resent Davis' opposition to 42 says will be difficult to ascertain. Headling voting intention poll numbers won't necessarily tell us anything while the Tory lead is so huge; Labour are down to their loyalists now. Movements of a few percentage points in the Government's favour could be the result of some traditional Labour voters returning to the fold as the furore over the 10p rate dies down, ready to abandon ship again when the V.E.D. changes kick in, rather than the 42 days debate.

I think that the only thing that we can say with much certainty about the politics of 42 days is that the Conservatives will have to establish that their opposition is to this measure in particular, and that they have robust plans of their own to defend Britain against our enemies.

Cross-posted from CentreRight.Com.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Baby steps towards educational freedom

CrowdedschoolThe Times reports that successful schools are going to be given the right to expand a little. This will mean more places in successful schools and a bit more pressure on poor performing schools to up their game. Unfortunately, schools have only been allowed an extremely limited amount of new freedom.

Expansion is still severely limited. Being allowed "up to 26 extra pupils a year above their official limit" does not leave a lot of room to grow.

More than that, this only allows schools freedom in one direction. The Government have now gone some way towards accepting the principle that the right response to a shortage places at the best schools is to ensure their are more such places, instead of dreaming up new ways of rationing quality education. Why are they restricting educational freedom to the expansion of existing schools?

There are good reasons to think that the best schools are small ones. By only allowing good schools to expand we might put them in the unfortunate conundrum of either staying small and not offering opportunities to more children or expanding and risking their standards. A better solution might be for new schools to be established. Beyond that, why are we assuming that the best providers of new school places are necessarily existing schools?

What if a business can run a great school effectively, or a co-operative of teachers, or an existing school wants to support a new institution in some kind of franchise arrangement? A successful innovation system would encourage a diversity of providers and real innovation in the way schools are run. Swedish-style school reforms can put power over the education system in the hands of parents and allow any organisation to set up a new school and respond to parental demand.

Cross-posted from the TaxPayers' Alliance blog.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The 42 days detention without trial debate

David Davis was absolutely superb today. Completely in command of his speech and extremely well prepared for the questions. I found him very convincing and, to my mind, he had the case for 42 days detention thoroughly beat. I think the Conservatives were on the right side and I'm glad that they had exactly the right man for the job making their case.

What made it even better was that he clearly wasn't out to strike poses. He constantly reminded his own side to take their opponents' arguments seriously instead of heckling. He gave no quarter in the debate but engaged with those supporting the Government position without rancour. I don't want to be a mushy hippy - making Barney the purple dinosaur's speech at the next Bloomberg Nonpartisanship Symposium - but, when you're arguing against a position supported by a heavy majority of the public for the very credible reason that they want to strengthen the fight against terrorism, it pays to be respectful.

It is a real shame that the blogs can't do the same. Those commenting on the PMQs live blog screamed in incoherent rage that Tim had betrayed the tribe. Apparently independent thinking cannot be allowed when it might aid the enemy - how liberal!

Now it's the DUP who are getting it. I think we should be more careful. If they have decided this on the basis of a bribe then that is a bit shoddy. The dead hand of the state is already weighing more than heavily enough in Northern Ireland. A little more subsidy isn't worth deciding such an important issue over. However, the £200 million is currently nothing more than rumour and coincidence. Fiscal decisions relevant to Northern Ireland are made all the time and siding with the Government now would be a questionable strategy for a rent-seeker. It is hardly necessary to contruct a conspiracy theory to explain why they voted for this measure. They've been on the front lines in an earlier War on Terror, at huge personal risk, for a very long time.

If those insulting them and putting their support for 42 days detention without trial down to venality are wrong they risk pissing off some good members of the conservative coalition to little end.

Cross-posted from CentreRight.Com.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Stockholm Network: Carbon Scenarios

Yesterday evening I went to see the presentation of the Stockholm Network research project Carbon Scenarios (PDF).  I was, to put it mildly, horrified.

I’ll do a thematic summary, instead of a blow-by-blow as it’ll make things easier.  First, a word on the speakers:

Everyone on the panel was a part of the process that created the report.  No one spoke for moderate policies, or against targeting cuts in emissions.  There was no significant disagreement between the speakers and no suggestion they were merely given a platform by the Stockholm Network.  They were all presenting the report they worked on, as a group.

Helen Disney, the Stockholm Network CEO, chaired the event.

Paul Domjan, Energy Fellow at the Stockholm Network, was clearly the main guy behind the research project.

Hardin Tibbs, Dr. James Keirstead and Dr. Swenja Surminski all seemed to be pretty harmless and largely kept their views to themselves except on narrow methodological issues.  Surminski was the only one to suggest that the alarmism might be a bit overblown; she cautioned Mark Lynas and Oliver Tickell, when they started ranting about fire and brimstone in response to a question from me about cost/benefit analysis, that they might put the public off.  Those two were the off the deep-end alarmists.

The step change policy

They argue that a “step change”, with vastly more commitment to reducing carbon dioxide emissions, provides for the best plausible climate change policy.  They set out a few ingredients of such a policy:

  • Global limits to hydrocarbon extraction.  The limit should be applied as close to the source as possible to make the scheme easier to monitor and administer.  The permits should be auctioned by a Climate Security Task Force under the United Nations Environment Programme.

  • Use the proceeds from the auction to fund a series of things:

  1. Compensating some countries for lost income under the scheme.

  2. Supporting adaptation.

  3. Supporting technology transfer – e.g. alternative power sources.

This is extremely worrying in a number of ways.  It is clearly alarmist.  The kind of dramatic, short-term carbon cutting regime that invariably fails any serious cost-benefit analysis.

As it is a cap and trade scheme it takes no account of the opportunity costs associated with massive cuts in carbon dioxide emissions.  If cutting carbon dioxide emissions by the amount required will completely decimate the economy – far more than can be justified in order to cut emissions – the economy will be left to go hang as the emissions have been capped.  There is none of the flexibility allowed by other policies to cut carbon dioxide emissions.

Beyond that, it invests huge economic power in a supranational organisation with little democratic accountability.  The UN Environment Programme would have a huge amount of money (it could quite plausibly be trillions of dollars) to distribute under this plan – it would make the EU’s structural funds (never cleared by the Court of Auditors) look impoverished.  That is an economic power that has never been vested in a supranational body before.  Given the record of the UN and EU in descending into a pit of sleaze and mismanagement at every opportunity there is little reason to think that money would be spent well.

The UNEP is given all this money because of “the importance of wealth transfer”.  A question they never quite answer is quite who the money is being transferred from, and who it is being transferred to.  The answer is from the relatively poor in the rich and poor worlds, as they consume the most energy as a share of their income, to corrupt governments who demand a bribe to stay in the system and anyone who can sell their ‘project’ to the UNEP.  This is a massive opportunity for special interests and the corrupt and, with little accountability at the supranational level, they’ll take it.

“It’s the consensus”

I skimmed Carbon Scenarios at the start looking for $, € and £.  That’s normally the quickest way of finding the estimates that should mark any serious policy proposal.  Unfortunately, the only currency I found was in the section setting out the potential safety valve on an American cap and trade policy - $15-$25/tonne apparently.  There simply wasn’t any analysis of the costs and benefits of the different plans, except the extent to which they reduced emissions.  Culling ninety percent of the human population would count as a ‘success’ under this report’s analysis as it would certainly reduce emissions sufficiently.

I had a lot of questions when the various speakers finished (it was tempting to start with, “do you really want to return to the Stone Age?”).  Unfortunately, I was only going to be able to ask one so I went with the safest, most mainstream, one I could.  Did they think their policy would fail to pass cost/benefit analysis as other severe policies to cut emissions do under mainstream analyses like that provided by the man the Economist called "the father of climate change economics" Nordhaus?

Domjan, the Stockholm Network’s Energy Fellow, was the first to respond.  He basically said that they didn’t want to rehearse the scientific debate (fair enough) and that all the governments had settled on a 90% chance of avoiding more than 3oC in warming so that was the consensus we all had to accept.  The problem with that stance is that it defines out of the debate huge swathes of entirely mainstream and respectable opinion; positions that are gaining ground as people prove unwilling to pay ever higher prices for energy.  It makes a mockery of their pretence to be trying to start a serious policy debate.

The precautionary principle

Next was Mark Lynas, who cited some of the more extreme predictions out there and stated that it was simply unethical to risk those consequences.  He argued that cost/benefit analysis wasn’t appropriate with potential harms that serious.  That is, basically, the precautionary principle.  The precautionary principle is utterly destructive to both economic liberalism and basic common sense.  It can justify anything if you start treating remote possibilities, effectively, as certainties.

Finally, Oliver Tickell repeated Lynas’ alarmism and then added that we can’t rely on the predictions that make a cost/benefit analysis possible.  He cited the change in oil prices since last year as evidence that we can’t rely on economic modelling.  Unwittingly, he was undermining the entire case put forward by the report.  All of their predictions of emissions under different policies and, as a result, all of their predictions about how much the planet might warm are utterly dependent upon economic models.  Tickell was so utterly clueless he didn’t realise that, by attacking the reliability of economic modelling, he was attacking the basic foundations of his own side’s arguments.  By contrast, while sceptics take economics seriously they are properly cautious about the long-term reliability of both economic and climate modelling.

Domjan nodded on through all this.  Does the Stockholm Network’s Energy Fellow really believe in the precautionary principle?  Would he apply it in other areas like EU chemicals regulation?


The policy aspirations of the Stockholm Network’s Carbon Scenarios report would be a nightmare.  Such policies would mean vast increases in energy costs.  If technology cannot deliver emissions reductions at the pace they expect their policies could lead to an economic catastrophe.  Huge amounts of money would be channelled from poor people dependent on affordable energy to maintain a decent standard of living to dubious projects and corrupt bureaucracies.  It is justified on the basis of every kind of woolly thinking and alarmism that the environmentalist movement has to offer and  now public opinion, and increasingly political parties, are moving away from.

Cross-posted from CentreRight.Com.

Monday, June 09, 2008

The Tories and the Union Modernisation Fund

Richard Balfe's call for the Conservatives to maintain the Union Modernisation Fund is utter foolishness:

"When the Government set up the multimillion-pound modernisation fund three years ago for unions to draw upon, the Tories criticised the fund as a payback to the Labour Party’s main source of funding. But they are now debating whether to continue with the fund if they form the next government.

To approve the fund would be departure from the days when Margaret Thatcher was leader and the Conservative Party was partly defined by its antagonism towards the unions. And by forging a relationship with the unions, it could ultimately threaten Labour’s exclusive ties."

This is a bad idea on a number of grounds:

1) Political abuse of taxpayers' money - directing taxpayers' money to secure political advantages is disreputable and erodes public trust in politics. Whether it is the Labour party channelling money to their donors or the Conservatives using the same fund to try and break Labour and the unions apart.

2) Building up structural problems in the public finances - Our report (PDF) on a looming winter of discontent set out how, in the last year, public sector staff have gone on strike 100 times as much as those in the private sector. The unions are holding government to ransom in the knowledge that, playing with other people's money and with little accountability, politicians will often fold in the face of a strike.

Over the medium to long-term this is reducing flexibility and increasing wages in the public sector which will push up costs, make reform more difficult and reduce the chances of taxpayers getting good value for money.

3) Bad politics - In the long term any political party that hopes to advance free-market policies and secure value for taxpayers' money will often clash with unions attached to centralised, big government organisation of the pubic services and after big pay increases for their members. If the Conservatives are really attached to ushering in a post-bureaucratic age and shrinking the state they are likely, sadly, to have to do so in spite of the unions. Maintaining Labour's bung to the unions won't change that.

Cross-posted from the TaxPayers' Alliance blog.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Britain, America and YouGov

It is well worth looking into the details (PDF) of the YouGov poll on British and American attitudes that was written up for the Economist.  Even the more obvious results are quite interesting.  Here are the best headline figures I've found:

The British public are a lot more sensible on environmental policy than the politicians.  There is a majority against increasing taxes on petrol, air flights and increasing taxes to subsidise renewable power.  However, there is a plurality in favour of nuclear power.  If only the public were in charge, if only the demos really ruled Britain!

Britain is a lot less religious than the United States.  Democrats are more religious than Conservatives.  53% of Americans see religion as an important part of their lives against just 21% of Britons.  80% of Americans believe there is a God against 39% of Britons (I didn't know Britain had an atheist/agnostic majority).  We wouldn't care if the Prime Minister were an atheist, Americans would care if the President were one.  Only 30% of Americans think that the theory of evolution is the correct explanation for the origins of life on Earth.  It is clear that religion is pretty much spent as a moral force in Britain but I'm not sure we quite take that seriously enough.  I don't think, as some American conservatives suggest, that you can't be conservative without being religious.  I'm conservative and not religious so clearly it is possible.  However, that doesn't mean the death of God isn't a rather big issue, that it creates a new and extremely open contest of values.  Perhaps we all need to read some Nietzsche?

Republicans are still stronger than the Conservatives in underlying support.  Anyone observing American politics at the moment will have seen that the Republicans are getting completely hammered.  By contrast, the Conservatives are on top of the world with massive poll leads.  However, 29% of Americans identify themselves as 'Republicans' against 27% of Britons who see themselves as 'Conservatives', both Labour and the Democrats enjoy 34%.  This might suggest that, while the Conservative brand has been decontaminated that has yet to feed through into an expansion of the Conservative 'base'.  Perhaps that only ever happens slowly?

Americans want their parties to come together and compromise, we don't.  39% of Britons want the two principal parties to come together and compromise against 69% of Americans.  Clearly all the agreement in the major British parties over things like fiscal policy actually pisses voters off.  By contrast, Americans really are sick of apparent bickering.

We value experience, Americans value character.  In Britain 50% think experience is the most important quality in a Prime Minister against 39% who cite character.  In American the result is reversed with 63% thinking character is most important.  What causes this difference?  Is it the lower number of religious people in Britain?

Britons want TV, rather than the church, to teach kids right and wrong.  We are significantly less likely to think that religious leaders should teach kids right and wrong but more likely to think TV and movie makers should.  People in both countries place the most responsibility on parents.

Britons trust public officials less than Americans do.  Apparently our supposedly neutral Civil Service does not engender more public trust than the more politiscised American system.  53% do not trust public officials (civil servants/administrators) much or at all, though they are somewhat more trusted than politicians.

We trust big business leaders more.  My understanding was that, unfortunately, the Left's 'fat cat' attack of the nineties worked really well.  Business leaders aren't exactly the most popular of people but they're trusted more in Britain than in the States and more than national politicians.  They are also admired by 46% of the population, against just 18% who are clear that they do not admire them.  The exception is a question on 'excess profits' which more Britons think major companies make.

We are a lot more hostile to immigration and multi-culturalism than Americans.  Immigration is the number one issue, with 60% placing it in the top three issues facing Britain today against just 40% of Americans who see it as a top issue.  49% of Britons disagree with the pro-immigration argument that immigration has boosted the economy against just 26% who agree.  I do wonder how long the Conservatives can keep up their relatively quiet position on this issue.  I'm not saying we should return to talking about nothing else but it is dangerous for such public concern to not be reflected in the political discourse.

We take the UN seriously.  26% of Britons think we should only go to war if the UN approves.  Sigh.

We are a lot more pro-free trade.  This isn't particularly a surprise but its always nice to see.  A majority of Britons think it is a good thing, despite concerns about globalisation.

In both countries three quarters of the population support the death penalty for murderers.  This surprised me.  I thought that in Britain there now wasn't a majority in either direction.