Friday, 25 September 2009

G20: oh, my God!

I have written a blog for Left Foot Forward on the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh. It starts off with an anecdote recounted in a recent New Yorker piece by James B. Stewart. My summary:
As they discuss the imminent collapse of Lehman Brothers, Flowers turns to Paulson and says, “By the way, have you been watching A.I.G.?”

“Why, what’s wrong at A.I.G.?”

“Well, you should take a look at this.” Flowers handed Paulson a spreadsheet he had received from A.I.G.

“Oh, my God,” gasps Paulson and the rest is history.
The G20 in London was a stunning success. This one less so. Significantly, less so. Why? Becuase not enough progress has been made on managing financial risk going forward. Or, to put it another way:
A future Hank Paulson is less likely to intone ‘oh, my God.’ But I wouldn’t bet the cash in a sock at the back of your wardrobe against it.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Climate change Thursday #9

China (not) in your hand

Some leapt for joy, others were less impressed but the moment of this week's UN Conference on Climate Change was clearly President Hu Jintao of China's speech.

The Telegraph found it underwhelming. The Guardian thought it very significant.

Nicholas Stern was full of warm praise for China and also India as he sees that they have moved on significantly and will reduce their carbon emissions by a greater amount than almost anyone else compared with trend (perhaps....) To suggest that China and India are leading the way is, to put it mildly, over-egging the pudding somewhat. The rhetoric from China was indeed significant but it has been creeping in this direction for some time.

Of course, the US, despite the commitment from President Obama, is both the real culprit and the real villain when it comes to climate change. Europe has embraced its responsibility to significantly cut its carbon emissions and now it would seem so is Japan. Friends of the Earth was right that President Obama's speech was a disappointment. But his hands are tied.

This is the real issue with China and why it is not playing a leading role as Nicholas Stern suggests. Unless it commits to some measurable target of carbon intensity reduction to begin with and then declare a commitment to actually cut its emissions within, say, a decade then Congress will have an excuse not to act. If they are genuinely planning the cuts then they should commit to them. That will enable President Obama to more forcibly demand action from Congress. This game of playing hard to get that China is playing benefits absolutely no-one.

There is an attitude in the US that China doesn't play by the rules. It had exactly the same attitude towards Japan in the past. See the recent decision to take action against Chinese tyre imports. It is part of the mindset that China is a free-rider. If China fails to agree to actual targets then suspicions will be raised and the US will have an excuse not to act.

Can all this be resolved by December? Possibly. However, even it is not December is the beginning not the end of a process. There does need to be a seizing of the moment while international attention is on this issue so there is no better time for China, India and the US to make meaningful commitments.

What is important is that whatever happens in Copenhagen, there is an understanding that this is just one staging post on a long and grueling road. There is a good piece in this month's edition of Foreign Affairs by Michael Levi- Copenhagen's Inconvenient Truth (subscribers only)- that makes this precise point. I don't think we should let China off the hook just because Copenhagen marks the beginning of a process rather than its end-point and Levi seems to suggest that we should be willing to do so. But the characterisation of Copenhagen as a WTO-style process rather than a one-off treaty is useful.

What this week has shown is how far there is still to travel. I'm more towards the Telegraph's scepticism than the Guardian/ Stern's praise for China. In fact, I don't think that the US, China, or India get even close to a five out of ten for their performance this week.

Not good enough.....but there is still time. Just.

Brown's Brighton challenge

So it gets serious now. The election campaign starts next week. Of course, David Cameron will get an easy ride. See Alistair Campbell's take on the media on his blog today. In my LabourList column this week I put it like this:
David Cameron has the easiest job in the world. He could read his conference the entire works of Marcel Proust and the media would characterise it as charismatic and visionary. They will marvel at the sight of a bipedal standing without support. He could bounce on one foot while singing the frog song and it would excite comparison with the best of The X-Factor compared with Strictly’s finest moments. You get the picture.
Gordon Brown has an enormous challenge, however. As I write, the finishing touches are being applied to his speech. It really needs to be top draw. Again, referring to my LabourList piece:
He has to convince that he has the ideas, and determination to continue. He doesn’t want to win just in order not to lose. He has to have a notion that connects his personal philosophy with a better Britain. He has to acknowledge mistakes, ditch the political baggage, and free himself for the good fight. He has to speak to the nation and say we’re better than to give up in an economic storm, things aren’t so bad that we have to turn to the first travelling salesman who passes through town, the years ahead are tough - and when things are tough you see the best in us.

And now is not the time to give up on social justice. Now is the time to advance it: less inequality, less environmental destruction, greater opportunity for all, a world united in facing up to its enormous collective problems, and a politics that is more open, democratic, and involving. If there is one lesson from financial calamity, it is that we must build a different way of doing things.
The Prime Minister has a piece in Prospect this month and was interviewed in the New Statesman. The Prospect piece has some good flourishes- especially the notion of caring society with better childcare and long-term care. It does feel rather muddled though; clear messages do not emerge. The New Statesman interview touches on how personalised politics has become:
“I think people have got to take responsibility for the statements that they make, and I have not tried to personalise politics in that way.” He adds: “It’s not the way I was brought up to behave and it not the way I behave.”
Indeed. Whatever happens in this election campaign, one only hopes that the tone and atmosphere is fitting for the scale of the problems we face and the fundamental differences between the parties. I think we all know that I'm going to be disappointed....

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Lib Dems stutter along in Bournemouth

You do have to laugh when Lib Dems bemoan splitting the reformist vote and decry wasted votes. And yet, this is precisely what their leader, Nick Clegg, no less did in Bournemouth yesterday.

He is absolutely confident that his party have the most radical environmental policies of any of the 'main' parties. I'm not sure I accept that but, that notwithstanding, the Lib Dems- who admittedly were in the vanguard of political environmental awareness in the UK- have been able to do absolutely nothing about it. Why? Lack of what Nick Clegg calls 'influence.' I call it power.

For the simple fact is that if you apply Nick Clegg's logic to his party then a voter would be absolutely mad to vote Lib Dem in any constituency where they are not currently first or second. And given that numbers around 120 seats or so, the only identifiable reasons to vote Liberal Democrat even in those seats is that you are banking on a hung parliament or all the other parties are equidistant from your political standpoint so you cant decide which other party to vote for. Hardly a strong basis.

Now on to the proposal to impose a 0.5% levy on houses over £1million. We'll put aside some minor technical confusion over what that £1million is based on and look a the policy more fundamentally. I am in favour of exploring the possibilities offered by wealth taxes for the most affluent as a means of giving those who are asset poor a better start in life- for example, the young unemployed.

This levy proposed by the Liberal Democrats seems to be the wrong way of going about it. Levies are good because they are difficult to avoid but bad because they take no account of ability to pay. Instead, I would favour a special capital gain tax on house sales worth more than £650,000 (say). It is very easy to calculate (and would be separate from capital gains tax): house price (sale) - house price (purchase) x tax rate. If the price had gone down there would be no tax. It would be collected at point of completion so would be difficult to avoid.

The weakness is that revunues would be weakest when they are needed most, i.e. during a recession. However, this policy is about long-term investment in the asset base of the asset poor so I am not overly concerned about that (income tax take goes down in a recession too but that doesn't make it a bad tax!)

The Lib Dem policy has gone off half-cock unfortunately. That will make the debates about how we can tax wealth more difficult. This needs much deeper thought before this is thrown into a media maelstrom so the Lib Dems ideas haven't actually helped very much- other than we now know what we're up against. But we knew that anyway.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Climate change Thursday #8

Two companies, a country and a Secretary-General

A few things have caught my eye this week. One was a good piece on the future of green motoring in the Economist. Of course, if I was Jeremy Clarkson, I would rave about the Tesla Roadster and moan about the Chevrolet Volt (us Europeans get the wimpy sounding Ampera instead but we are wimpy I guess.) Actually, the Tesla was so good that Jeremy Clarkson spat out his steak and chips and lost his voice as a result. Here is his review (i.e. boyish drag race):



However, it wasn't without a hitch to say the least. One of the major issues is the need to charge the car and the time it takes. So, exciting as the Tesla Roadster may be in a pioneering sort of way, the basic issues of battery life remain. Step forward Better Place.

Better Place can't resolve the Tesla's apparent reliability issues but they aim to solve the charging issue. They do this in two ways. Firstly, they will install an efficient charge point in your garage or in shopping centres etc.

As they say on their website:
"Better Place intends to deploy charge spots at private homes, workplaces and public locations such as parking lots and streets."
Local authorities take note- are you speaking to Better Place?

Perhaps just as interesting is their plan to introduce battery replacement stations (like a petrol station but with batteries.) At the moment this is a good solution for high consuming commercial vehicles like Tokyo's major taxi company Nihon Kotsu (see post script below!) who have contracted with Better Place with funding from a Government Agency, the Natural Resources and Energy Agency.

How does battery switching work? It takes just over a minute and here is a demonstration:



A cheer for Lithium-ion technology. And a second cheer for thin film solar panels and for the second featured company, Applied Materials.

In an op-ed in the New York Times yesterday, Thomas Friedman, discussed the company's environmental technology and manufacture.

Friedman is one of the most passionate advocates for a green industrial policy in the United States. He argued that the US should become the 'Saudi Arabia of green' in his most recent book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded.

Sorry to quote at length but it's necessary I'm afraid:
"The other day, Splinter [Mike Splinter CEO] gave me a tour of the company’s Silicon Valley facility, culminating with a visit to its “war room,” where Applied maintains a real-time global interaction with all 14 solar panel factories it’s built around the world in the last two years. I could only laugh because crying would have been too embarrassing.

Not a single one is in America.

Let’s see: five are in Germany, four are in China, one is in Spain, one is in India, one is in Italy, one is in Taiwan and one is even in Abu Dhabi. I suggested a new company motto for Applied Materials’s solar business: “Invented here, sold there."

He goes on to praise Germany for a coordinated approach to its renewable energy policy that allows: freedom of generation; access to the grid; transparent and economic pricing. Germany? 50,000 renewable energy jobs which Friedman reports is second only to its car industry. The government is playing catch-up in the UK. We may be too late on solar. Let Germany have solar power. Our prize is wind and wave power. If we had got off the blocks quicker then the Vestas turbine blade manufacturing facility on the Isle of Wight might have been saved. That was a warning shot that the government is heeding.

Finally, a quick mention for the Secretary-General of the UN who spoke to The Guardian yesterday and expressed his frustration at the lack of progress in discussions between the developed and developing world (courtesy of Left Foot Forward.)

Next week, sees a UN summit on climate change (referred to in the Guardian piece.) G20 Voice who kindly enabled me to cover the G20 Summit back in April have rebranded themselves and will be at the conference simply as Voice. Expect some coverage of the great bloggers (for instance) who will be in New York next week.

Post script: Speaking of Tokyo's taxis.....I ended up with a taxi driver last night in Tokyo who spoke unbelievably good English. Why? He used to be an international sports photographer and publisher and lived in Holland Park for three years where he used to hang out with George Best.....and was also a friend of Diego Maradona (whom he introduced to Tokyo night clubs.) Enough said (yes, I did ask and yes, he did answer....) And now he's driving Nihon Kotsu taxis....long story.

Tory cuts- a second credit crunch?

Giles Wilkes at CentreReform and myself have been having a discussion about cuts, the economy, etc on his blogsite (highly recommend.) Sunder Katwala has also blogged on this.

Giles made an important point that should the Tories pursue a strategy of radical cuts in public expenditure with the aim of provoking a depreciation of the pound then it is likely that the Bank of England would have to step in.

My column for LabourList
this week argued that cuts in public expenditure at this stage could be disastrous. Now imagine cuts and interest rate rises. With all those people on variable rate and tracker mortgages now and businesses likewise, the results could be devastating.

It would be possible that a second credit crunch could be provoked (again, that is exactly what happened in Japan in 1997 when they prematurely cut public expenditure.)

This Tory economic approach is mad, bad and very dangerous. Labour must communicate that.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Election is about judgement not cuts

I've mentioned Richard C Koo's The Holy Grail of Macro-Economics before and, given that I'm in Tokyo at present, what better time to re-read. I'm glad I did as it gave me the inspiration for my LabourList column this week: This election is not about cuts- it's about judgement.

This whole argument about 'cuts' has been really niggling me for the last couple of weeks. It is slightly disappointing to see the Government get sucked into it, as allowing it to be the definitive discussion risks economic insanity. The Prime Minister knows this of course. But Labour must take charge of issues and on this one- despite being in the right- it has failed to do so.

The simple fact is that the Japanese government, facing what Koo calls 'a balance sheet recession' characterised by a major decline in demand for debt following the bursting of an asset-price bubble, took their foot off the gas too early on two occasions: in 1997 and 2001. The result was disastrous both times- economic growth plummeted, tax revenues collapsed, and rather than shrinking, deficits increased. This is what the Conservatives risk with their economic policy.

Alastair Darling has said that the deficit must be cut in half within four years of the resumption of growth. Ideally, sure. But no-one knows how the economy, tax revenues etc will fare in the recovery phase. Actually, Japan's experience shows that as corporate balance sheets are purged tax revenues can actually soar. But we just don't know. What we do know is that an early return to fiscal rectitude could be disastrous. As Koo puts it, in this scenario governments should 'err on the side of incaution.'

Don't get me wrong, I'm not arguing that we should not be concerned about the deficit and national debt. But they are a necessary evil in these abnormal economic times. If we cut as if we are in normal times then that will be calamitous. Deficits can be a good thing if they prevent the economy tanking, are not inflationary, do not crowd out private sector investment, and invest to raise the productive potential of the economy, i.e. future incomes and consequently tax revenues.

That is exactly the set of circumstances we are now in. So the question, in a country whose national debt is not particularly high in comparison with similar advanced industrial economies, is not can we afford the deficit? The question is can we afford, in current circumstances, to be without it?

Finally, on the history of cuts, there hasn't been a single year (apart from 1946) when public expenditure actually declined. You can look at this great website UK Public Spending (run by a US conservative it seems but that makes it even better!) to compare. Here is the year by year expenditure from 1940:



And here is the national debt, which interestingly doesn't dip beneath 100% of GDP until the early 1960s:



The key point here is that public expenditure does not have to be collapsed in a deficit scenario, it has to be managed. It will take quite a while to pay down the current national debt but while interest rates remain low there is no need to panic. Keeping the economy on track is the best means of repaying the debt, and that must be the absolute focus. And please Labour, stop playing the Tories' game.

My column concludes:
So all this talk of cuts - and it is disappointing to see the Government start to get sucked into it - is grossly premature. It is highly dangerous. Nobody knows how quickly the fiscal situation could recover as we are in unchartered waters. There are signs that tax revenues increase very rapidly following a situation like this one but that’s an optimistic scenario. But damage this recovery and we know they will worsen significantly as will the deficit.

Should the Conservatives secure an election victory that they crave but do not deserve, they will face a stark choice just as the Hashimoto and Koizumi administrations did. Either the economy or policy is jettisoned. Should George Osborne become Chancellor then I have a prediction. By his second Budget he will be in the midst of a panicked reversal of his Government’s economic policy.

That is the public discussion that Labour must provoke over the next few months. It should ignore siren voices and make the case - whatever the short-term data shows - that this recovery is far form certain.

Talk of ‘cuts’ is a fine hypothetical discussion but it’s not the primary issue. The real choice is between judgement and recklessness. It is this Prime Minister and this Government who have demonstrated that judgement.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Climate change Thursday #7

Japan comes to the party

OK, so it's Friday. It's Thursday in the US- can I cheat that way? Anyway, Japan, the most technologically advanced nation in the western world has a leading business hotel without wifi. So this is late as I had a dash and frantic search for a USB to LAN cable. The MacBook Air that I'm using is so technologically advanced that it does not have an ethernet port. Caught between two stools.

However, it's an intriguing time to be in Japan as its new government is about to be formed with the coalition negotiations completed. In Japanese political terms this is, of course, seismic with the Liberal Democratic Party's almost complete lock on post-war Japanese politics being broken.

It is also important in the process of securing a deal at Copenhagen in December. Yukio Hatoyama, Leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, and Prime Minister-designate is a committed environmentalist. Well, he is committed other than a few of those glaring contradictions you get in all things Japanese- wanting to eliminate road tolls and such like.

However, on the central commitment- a major cut in Japan's greenhouse emissions relative to 1990 levels- he is rather bold. Currently, Japan, the host of the Kyoto negotiations and agreement (the clue's in the name), stands to fall short of its own commitments. It is 16 per cent out with three years to go.

On top of this, the LDP, famously entwined in an iron triangle of politics, bureaucracy and big business was proposing a rather tame 8 per cent cut on 1990 levels by 2020. Hatoyama, used to walking on the wild side (his wife was abducted by aliens) is going for a rather more robust 25 per cent. There was a deluge of 1980s and early 1990s literature called things like Japan as Number One. When it comes to cutting greenhouse emissions Japan might just be about to challenge the EU for number one spot. Keep bidding up guys.

Of course, there are get outs to the commitment. It only applies if the other major polluters- notably the US and China- make significant commitments also. It includes Japan's investment in carbon saving technology in developing countries and that will require there to be close watch on what is included in that. The Clean Development Mechanism has thrown up all sorts of challenges: additionality, measurement, monitoring, etc. Ultimately though, these are broader issues faced by all the signatories of Kyoto and the forthcoming (fingers crossed) Copenhagen treaty.

The prospects of a substantive deal have increased significantly in the last 18 months or so. Starting at the end of 2007 with the election of Kevin Rudd, followed by Barack Obama's victory in November 2008 (watch out for Congress though....), the EU's strong 20-20 commitment at the end of January of this year, and now this commitment from the incoming Japanese government have significantly shifted the prospects of a deal.

China though is still talking in terms of peak emissions in 2030. That is a long way short of what is required. However, empty moralising won't win the argument. There should also be an acknowledgment that China's issues are genuine- it is our development that has got the world to this position not China's (until recently) and it does import a great amount of our emissions as it manufactures many of the products we consume. Equally, we need a major cut in global emissions and so can't allow China to continue even with a less than baseline target. It will need some vision and finesse to find a way out of the coming impasse.

Though the changes in the US, Australia, the EU, and now Japan place increasing pressure on China, the last thing that should happen at Copenhagen is that China should be isolated (it won't be anyway as other major developing nations with align themselves but that is equally problematic.) With the changes in the Japanese government's attitudes at least the moral authority of the developed world is now stronger. There is still, however, an enormous distance to be traveled.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Changing Britain, changing politics?

I meant to post this a few days ago but I had a piece on the Demos Open Left website on the changing nature of modern Britain and what it means for politics. My conclusion was that we need a pluralistic approach to politics instead of pitching to the median voter- sorry Worcester Woman.

However, from the perspective of the left this does not mean that there are no parameters. We need to understand those parameters alongside a rethink about what the left will mean in the next decade or two.

The article concludes:
This can’t become some exercise in tracking the median voter and designing party programmes to simply appeal to the successors of Worcester Woman alone. The next left must be broad based and pluralistic. The traditional working-class is diminished and fragmented. It cannot be taken for granted anymore. Any programme with social justice by definition must embody an ethos of helping the least advantaged.

The historian Eric Hobsbawm has said: “The European left relied on a working class that no longer exists in its old form, and in order to recover it will need to find a new constituency.” Well, we can agree with that as long as the new constituency has a place for this metamorphosed working class.

The political debate and discussion has proceeded at a furious pace on the left over recent months. It must have context. That context is an understanding of a Britain that has changed considerably even since Labour came to power. In so doing, the future path of the left will not be in any way determined. However, at least it won’t be wandering unaided in the dark.
My stint on LabourList continues. Today I've put up great posts by Rowenna Davis on the gender pay gap, Will Straw on the need for Labour to put the environment at the centre of its politics, and Morys Ireland on whether movement politics is dead in the wake of reports that Conservative membership has fallen by 25% since David Cameron became leader.

Women, rubbish or what?

GUEST POST from Professor Adam Foster

I have spent the past few weeks enjoying the women’s European football championships. As per the stereotype of an Englishman, I am football obsessed (although not by the Premiership) and consider myself fairly knowledgeable about what constitutes a good game of football.

The women’s game at the highest level has it all, passion, skill, luck, cheating, fouling and dodgy referees, and is excellent entertainment. It is particularly attractive when you consider the relative cost and availability of tickets for this kind of prestige tournament, not to mention the accessibility and reliability of the tournament venues.

In light of this, I was surprised and disappointed by the lack of coverage in many media outlets. In particular, the only comment I found from the Guardian newspaper, usually a fairly decent source by UK standards, was on their podcast Football Weekly.

They had received several comments from listeners about their lack of coverage of the women’s Euro, and the host asked his team of “pundits” why. The immediate response was “Because it’s rubbish.” I cannot imagine a similar response on a Tennis Weekly or Athletics Weekly podcast, not that those sports would suffer from such a lack of coverage.

Why is it, that in football this kind anachronistic “laddish” behaviour is tolerated? Is it because the best women’s team, Germany, would probably lose to the Luxembourg men’s team? So what…James Ward could probably beat both the Williams sisters, and the world record holding women’s 100 m runner, Flo Jo, wouldn’t have even qualified for the Olympics in the men’s competition. Yet millions of people watch women’s sports, as most people want to be entertained and see people achieve greatness regardless of gender.

To arbitrarily decide that certain sports are only for men is ridiculously short sighted. The enclaves of “Men’s” sports are increasingly isolated and eroding, and their defence echoes the desperate revisionism of other failing institutions.

Unfortunately, I see the influence of similar prejudice on a daily basis, as science is another field where men overwhelmingly dominate the authorities. This means men define the conditions for success, and the only “right” path is the one well trodden by male ancestors. Hence, aggressive posturing, conceited declarations and absolutism are characteristic of a good scientist, whereas doubt, caution and humility are all signs of weakness. So a good scientist is a wise scientist…very dangerous.

In this environment, either women bend to the prevailing winds of testosterone or break…there is no room for their world view.

Yet, as in sports, their approach is often superior for the overall aim – in sport, the aim is entertainment, in science it is understanding. We need a lot more rubbish in both.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Jack Straw on al-Megrahi

I've just posted a piece by Jack Straw on LabourList. He doesn't pull any punches in 'why let the facts get in the way of a good conspiracy theory?' and concludes:
"Al-Megrahi was however not released by the Scottish Executive under any part of this normalisation deal. The Scottish Executive had an absolute right to veto a Prisoner Transfer Agreement for Al-Megrahi and they exercised it. Rather Al-Megrahi was released under quite separate and compassionate grounds. As the Scottish Executive made clear, they made the decision without any pressure from London.

That has not, however, stopped the conspiracy theories.

The prize for the most zany so far must go to the broadsheet newspaper, which suggested that I’d only released Great Train Robber, Ronnie Biggs, on compassionate grounds because of Al-Megrahi’s impending release.

Total nonsense.

I had no knowledge that Al-Megrahi was going to be released until I read about it on a BBC website, after I had released Biggs when his condition deteriorated. I understand of course why Al-Megrahi’s release prompts such strong feeling and emotion and it’s right that the decision is fully scrutinised.

What will become clear is whatever people may think of the decision of the Scottish Executive, there was no underhand deal, no grubby arrangement, no great, or small, conspiracy. But as so often when it comes to these matters, there are always some who are loath to accept the more straightforward truth.
"

Friday, 4 September 2009

A tax on inheritance for a better start in life?

Stuart White on LabourList- as part of the the 'everyone with a stake and a say' series- has argued that a greater proportion of the the total value of inheritance should be taxed. The proceeds should then be reinvested to create a greater platform of wealth for each individual in the form of savings so that they have the freedom to make their own way in life. Think of it as turning all into trust fund babies.

He takes inspiration from Thomas Paine who argued:
"When a young couple begin the world, the difference is exceedingly great whether they begin the world with nothing or with fifteen pounds apiece. With this aid they could buy a cow, and implements to cultivate a few acres of land; and instead of becoming burdens upon society...would be put in the way of becoming useful and profitable citizens."
Stuart concludes by arguing:
"Of course, it is an understatement to say that inheritance tax is unpopular. But it is important for social democrats to understand what their own principles imply. Our principles imply much heavier taxation of inherited wealth – which we can then link to initiatives to widen asset ownership.

In view of this, we should not simply capitulate to public opinion, but make the case for what we think is right. One thing is for sure: until we start doing so, wealth inequality is going to go on rising and our warm words about ‘opportunity’ and ‘fairness’ will become even more divorced from the reality of British society than they are now."
Personally, I believe that the left has neglected the issue of wealth at the expense of an obsession with income. Of course, the two are not unconnected- far from it- but they need to be considered alongside each other.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Is the 10:10 campaign doomed to failure?

I have just published a great piece by Kathryn Corrick over on LabourList. She rightly says that the 10:10 campaign with its celebrity glitz, pr muscle, and dazzle risks failure. It doesn't help individuals measure their carbon emissions, is vague, and is too PR/ advertising focused.

I would add- though Kathryn doesn't make this point- that there should be some sort of incentive/ disincentive beyond that to really manage our individual emissions. This could be introduced further down the line once we have reliable measurement. Here is an article from a few weeks ago where I argue that case.

Here is a quote from Kathryn's piece:
“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”, is an oft used and misused quote in business, attributed to the business management theorist Peter Drucker (points to anyone who can actually find when and where he actually said it) and attributed to a certain style of management consultancy.

The Labour government has often, and in many cases rightly, been criticized for taking such measurement + management sentiments to the max with target driven policies. Yet there is one new initiative where such thinking is desperately needed otherwise it is doomed to only go as far as any good PR person can take it – the media and no further.

To make matters worse the big launch of this project, supported by the Guardian, has all the veneer of measurement – or at least a target – in its title.

Yes, 10:10. Ten percent by Twenty Ten. http://www.1010uk.org
Also, on the site today is a piece from Fiona Millar, Chair of Comprehensive Future, on the back of a pamphlet they have published about abolishing selective education and the 11 plus. Fiona says:
"End the 11 plus. It is not a new idea but it should shoot straight into the manifestos of all the mainstream political parties.

Why?

Because they all claim it doesn’t work.

Because we are in an era where affluent parents think nothing of shelling out between £3000 and £5000 to coach their children to pass the test.

Because the chances of a poor child getting into a grammar school are virtually nonexistent - they take on average 1- 2% of children on free school meals.

And above all because the children who fail the test, poor but also often with special needs, frequently they end up in secondary modern schools, , many of which do a heroic job but still struggle with an unbalanced intake of children who feel the system has rejected them."

Climate change Thursday #6

Beware the wise. GUEST POST from Professor Adam Foster

Climate change is one of those topics that drags an opinion even from those people who proudly exclaim their ignorance of science. For egregious examples of this please see http://bit.ly/13ewI and http://bit.ly/W2oe8 (see what a liberal editor I am! AP.) It has transcended real knowledge, and become accepted wisdom of the masses.

In 2004 I was sitting in a hotel bar in Athens with a colleague watching the devastation following the Indian Ocean earthquake. As the death toll climbed through 100,000, a lady on a table in front us turned round and said with great sincerity, “Global warming”.

I watched with great amusement as my colleague, a researcher in climate modelling, fought internally with the desperate need to explain that it had absolutely nothing to do with global warming, knowing that it would achieve little save animosity. She eventually replied, “Yes. A tragedy.”

However, opinions on climate change without knowledge are usually easily dismissed, as in any field. Much more dangerous are opinions backed by a little knowledge, as these require expert analysis, which is not easily accessible. A classic example is given by this well-meaning gentleman (His full comments are below this New Scientist blog):
"Analysis.

Considering the above data table, we can see that the specific heat of CO2 is greater than any of the 3 major atmospheric gases: CO2 at 36.94 J/mol ( -1 ) ( K ) Nitrogen at 29.12 J/mol ( -1 ), Oxygen at 29.38 J/mol ( -1 ) and Argon at 20.77 J/mol ( -1 ) .

Now, taking the assumption that burning fossil fuels will remove 100 ppm of oxygen from the atmosphere by combustion and replace that O2 with CO2, given that CO2 has a specific heat at 36.94 and O2 at 29.38 the heat capacity of that 100 ppm of the air would increase by about 25 percent.

As 100 ppm is 1/10,000 of the atmosphere, that would be an change in the thermal properties of the air of 1/4 of 1/10,000, or 1/40,000 increase.

If the heat gradient of the Earths atmosphere is 400 degrees F, that is to say, if the surface temperatures on Earth would decrease 400 degrees F without the existence of the atmosphere, which is similar to conditions on the surface of Earths moon, a change of 1/40,000 would be 1/100 of one degree F.

In a further consideration, assume an increase of 100 ppm of atmospheric CO2 from some external source without any combustion of any fossil fuels. Lets simply increase the volume of the Earths atmosphere by adding 100 ppm of CO2 gas.

In this further consideration, the change in the thermal properties of the atmosphere would be 5 times greater than in the previous analysis. Instead of a change of 1/100 of a degree, the change would be 1/20 of a degree F.

A change of either 1/20 of a degree F or 1/100 of a degree F would not pose any risk to either the safety and well being of the American people or pose any national security risk. There would be no harm from increased drought, heavy downpours, flooding, heatwaves, wildfires, sea level changes, storm intensity or any harm to people, wildlife, agriculture, resources or ecosystems. Temperatures would remain well within the standard deviation for most data sets and well within the norm.

Indeed, atmospheric CO2 levels could increase by up to 2000ppm without any discernible climatological effects based on this data and analysis. CO2 simply will not absorb enough heat to have the effects ascribed in the proposed finding."

Convincing isn’t it? Climate change is then surely just a myth created by scientists to fund their research projects…

In response, one could think that the majority is usually correct (dangerous), and comment that NO single scientific organization disputes climate change (only single scientists), and the vast majority are committed to it as a clear threat. Furthermore, modelling the climate is perhaps the most complex problem on the planet, demanding the use of national supercomputers and a vast army of researchers, and perhaps a one-page calculation is not very convincing.

One could also point out the CO2 has the lowest value of Global Warming Potential compared to all the other gases we are pumping into the atmosphere (it is still the most important due to its volume in the atmosphere – Beware the wise!).

Or we could look at the details of his argument…

Unfortunately, he doesn’t understand what heat capacity is. It is actually a measure of the energy required to raise the temperature for a given substance amount (either number of atoms/molecules or mass). The higher the heat capacity, the less a substance will increase in temperature with energy.

So in fact, by his argument CO2 is actually cooling the atmosphere, and we should pump more in.

This cooling does occur, but is a much smaller effect on temperature than the real mechanism of global warming: CO2 is not sucking in heat; it actually adsorbs and emits long-wave heat radiation that would otherwise escape from the Earth. Its ability to do this is related to the details of the electronic structure of the CO2 molecule and the specific quantum orbitals electrons occupy – effectively the colour of CO2.

We know CO2 acts as a "Greenhouse Gas", and it has increased most in the industrial age. Other gases have also increased, e.g. methane, but CO2 wins due to its volume, lifetime and potential for heat radiation. Water vapour has the highest potential, but the water cycle always balances the system i.e. it rains...

The safest advice when listening to scientific experts is to trust those that qualify every statement with assumptions and possible errors, and use phrases like ‘Difficult to quantify’ and ‘Complex system’. Anyone who appears absolutely convincing in their opinion is almost certainly too wise to be right.

Adam Foster is Professor of Theoretical Physics at the edge of the world (Tampere University of Technology, Finland.) Trying desperately to engage with reality when sober. He started blogging before it existed and then stopped when it did. And now?

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Cameron's approach to rights is legally illiterate

Ed Williams, a leading employment barrister, has strongly criticised David Cameron's plans to scrap the Human Rights Act and replace it with a 'British Bill of Rights' over on LabourList.

He concludes:
"Yes we need a Bill of Rights, but not the legal nonsense that is the Conservative version, but one that builds on the rights in the HRA and goes beyond them into the field of welfare, education and health provision. In the meantime we should strengthen the current HRA, for example by placing a duty on public bodies to promote human rights, or by looking again at how despite the Higher court’s issuing a declaration of incompatibility the Government suffers no sanction if it fails to make the legislative change.

The time is now for those who believe in the case for human rights in this country to challenge the hollow, ill thought out and politically expedient policy of David Cameron and his Conservative Party. Repealing the HRA exposes once again the absurdity of Cameron and Osborne's claims to be in the "progressive" tradition of British politics."

Cry for economic not just social democracy

Bill Kerry of The Equality Trust- the campaign group which was set up by him and the authors of the excellent The Spirit Level- has argued on LabourList that social democracy is no longer enough. There is also a need for economic democracy- i.e. as one commenter put it, we need 'coopererative advantage' not just 'competitive advantage.'

Kerry concludes:
Social democratic thinking still too often seems stuck in the 20th century tax and spend paradigm. It does not currently recognise the need to fundamentally change the ownership and nature of economic activity in order to narrow the gap between rich and poor and address questions of global warming and sustainability. As The Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, comprehensively demonstrates it is greater income equality that is the essential pre-condition for a better and more sustainable society. Income differences arise in the workplace and that is where they should be addressed.

Whilst every re-distributive tax and benefit must continue to be defended, this alone cannot provide a vision of the good society. To remain relevant and to avoid subsiding into a wholly backward-looking and defensive set of ideas social democracy in the 21st century must embrace economic democracy at its core. We need to set about transforming our economy rather than promulgating a set of policies for accommodating whatever form capitalism comes up with next. Progressives must now campaign for the competitive economy to be replaced by the co-operative economy – that can be the vision social democracy currently lacks.

Obama style campaigning in the UK

Gisela Stuart MP and Caroline Badley argue for an entirely new approach to party organisation in the latest piece I've put up on LabourList. This is not theory. They've put into practice with startling results. Zak Exley's The New Organisers has to be one of the best articles I've ever recommended anyone!

Here's a taster:
This notion of the decline in party activism is evident everywhere from the mass media describing a Labour Party “organisation in creaking disrepair” through to academic papers on the subject.

In Birmingham Edgbaston Constituency however, the reality on the ground could not be more different. We’ve always been on the more positive end of the organisational spectrum but since January this year we’ve recruited over 100 extra activists – some to deliver leaflets, some to talk to voters and some to collect petition signatures.

When we tell people about this we get one of three reactions – disbelief; two - you may have done it but it won’t work in our patch or three - how? (and please explain in detail).

Guest editing LabourList this week....

This week I'll be guest editing LabourList so I'll post some good content from there on this blog from time to time. Should be fun. The theme is 'creating a Britain where everyone has a stake and everyone has a say' and it will also be looking a creating a 'greener, more liberal, movement based party.' Here's an extract from my guest editorial this morning.

"Both domestically and internationally capitalism needs to be moderated and constrained to serve wider social objectives.

What is striking is how many on the left of politics lack the confidence that that is possible, how much indeed they accept the assumptions of the right that competitiveness imposes severe external constraints. In the global arena, their lack on confidence is partially, but only partially justified; in the domestic arena in rich developed countries hardly at all."

The quote is from the final chapter of Just Capital: the liberal economy by the current Chairman of the Financial Services Authority, Lord Adair Turner. His suggestion that some form of transactions tax- a Tobin tax- should be introduced was not the most interesting aspect of his contribution to a Prospect Magazine round-table discussion on global finance. It was rather his concern with the social utility of the UK's obese financial sector.

Number 10 and HM Treasury waved away the notion that the financial sector may be over-weaning and over-powerful and came out with the familiar riposte that a Tobin tax is impractical. It is not clear that it is at all: most financial transactions take place in regulated and transparent markets. This quote from 2001 would seem to be portentous.