It’s the ineffable smugness that gets us

We’re all aware of the manner in which the supermarkets have been one of the evil bugbears of our times. The manner in which the upper middle class commentariat has been outraged, outraged we tell you, at the manner in which anyone has the effrontery to offer the working classes cheap and convenient food. doesn’t everyone realise that they should be buying at the butcher and greengrocer so as to subsidise the desires of the upper middle class commentariat?

Which brings us to this lovely piece claiming that the age of the supermarket is now over and ain’t that a good thing?

 In my street, the light thunk of plastic boxes as they’re unloaded from the supermarket delivery vans is now as familiar, if not quite so uplifting, as the sound of my beloved’s key in the door. Those who use the internet for grocery shopping do it for reasons of convenience, certainly. But we also know we spend less online, buying only what we need, choosing necessities with a ruthlessness that often abandoned us in-store. What we used to spend on impulse buys – or some of it – then goes on a decent wedge of Lincolnshire Poacher, a couple of fillets of haddock or some good beef, sold to us by smiling, helpful, talkative people whose names we may know, and whose businesses matter both to them and us.

The people who run our supermarkets, obsessed as they are with “price matching” and “meal deals”, seem not to have noticed this. Or perhaps they have merely accepted there is no real way to respond to it. Small, local supermarkets are good and useful should you run out of stock cubes or Persil of a Tuesday evening. But even their expansion is finite. For the rest, there is no short-term solution. We have become suspicious: of their mawkish advertising, of their treatment of farmers, of their desperate bids to package up things that really don’t need packaging up at all (I mean this literally and metaphorically, versions of “restaurant-style” dishes being every bit as phoney and wasteful as apples wrapped in too much plastic). Modern life, we feel, is isolating enough without self-service check-outs. They want to own us, but we aren’t having it. Suddenly, the over-lit aisles of Tesco have never looked more bleak. Or more empty.

The problem with this is as follows. I’ve always said that supermarkets were horrible things and look, now people agree with me! That means I was right! But, no, sadly, it doesn’t. It means that you might (assuming we accept the idea that the supermarkets are falling out of favour) be right now but it means that you were wrong before. Not in your personal taste of course: but in your projection of your personal taste to others.

And the point of emphasising this is that this is why we have markets. So that the consumer can decide for themselves how, in this instance, they wish to purchase their comestibles. If technology has changed so that internet delivery is now better all well and good. If it’s simply consumer taste that has, equally well and good. The entire point of having competitors in a market is so that the consumer can, with each and every groat and pfennig they spend, intimate which of the possible offerings they prefer. On the grounds of price, taste, convenience, technology or any other differentiator.

If the supermarkets do go down (something we rather suspect won’t actually happen) then it will not prove that those who campaigned against them in the past were right. It will prove that they were wrong: and further that their attempts to impose their views on others will always be wrong. For the very fact that supermarkets succeeded as a technology for however long it was or will be shows that they were wrong: and that they fail (as any and every technology eventually does) at some point will again show that that market process is the method of dealing with such matters. For, as is now being said, when the technology or consumer desires change then the market reacts and replaces the less favoured with the more. What else could you possibly want from a system of socio-economic organisation?

Friends of the Earth takes a baby step forward: when will they take the big one?

Tears in heaven etc as Friends of the Earth finally agrees with scientific opinion on nuclear power. Yes, they’ve admitted that actually it’s rather safe. Which it is: deaths caused by power generation per terrawatt produced are lower than any other method of electricity generation. Yes, really, more people fall of roofs installing solar than die from radiation from power plants.

Which is good, that’s a baby step forward. Even George Monbiot changed his mind on this when Fukushima showed that no one at all is killed by radiation even when three plants meltdown after a very large earthquake indeed and the associated tsunami (which in itself killed tens of thousands).

So, what’s the remaining problem?

When the presenter asked him to explain the group’s opposition to nuclear power stations he got this reply: “The biggest risk of nuclear power is that it takes far too long to build, it’s far too costly, and distorts the national grid by creating an old model of centralised power generation.”

Well, certain of us think that centralised power generation is just fine: we might even say that we’re rather fond of the idea of being able to turn the lights on without having to check our watch to see if we’re able to.

But the next, and larger, step in this is that we need to examine why nuclear is so expensive, takes so long to build?

That would be because the hippies have been screaming blue bloody murder about the radiation problem all these decades. So, now that we can all agree that the radiation isn’t a problem the hippies will, at least we can hope they will, stop that screaming and we can dial back the public inquiries, the planning appeals and the monstrously overdone safety regulations so that we can have cheap, as well as that safe, nuclear power generation.

Well, in a rational world we would but that ain’t our one, is it?

Well, yes, this is rather the point about fees for filing tribunal claims

How lovely to see public policy working well for once:

The number of aggrieved workers bringing sex discrimination claims to employment tribunals has tumbled by 90 per cent in a year since claimants were made to pay a fee.

It appears that the prospect of forking out in advance – and losing the money if their case fails – is deterring many of those who may be tempted to use a tribunal to make their employer pay compensation.

But Labour business spokesman Chuka Umunna has promised to abolish the fees, claiming they are unfair.

Chuka, as ever, is missing the point here. The aim and purpose of the fee is to reduce the number of claims. The fee has been instituted, the number of claims has dropped: public policy is actually working. Would that everything done by government worked so well.

The point is not though to make sure that those cruelly done down by t’evil capitalist plutocrats have no recourse: discrimination law still exists and still operates in the normal manner. Those with a good case will happily pay the small fee, those with a frivolous one won’t. The impact of this modest fee therefore tells us something most interesting: the number of former claims that were indeed frivolous, or at least highly unlikely to succeed. But if trying it on costs nothing then why not do so?

There’s an interesting parallel here with another thing that the British courts get right. In, say, a patent case, the loser pays everyone’s court costs and legal fees. In a similar US case the each side pays its own costs, whatever the outcome of the case (except in truly, truly, egregious cases). It costs perhaps $500 to file a suit alleging patent infringement and up to $2 million just to prepare the defence for a trial. The incentives there are obviously for many trivial suits to be filed in the hopes of getting a bit of cash as a settlement to bugger off and stop bothering everyone.

It’s worth noting that the US courts are full of patent troll cases: the UK courts have nary a one.

You know, the first thing everyone should know about economics? Incentives matter.

When proven cases of real sex discrimination bring (righteous) damages of tens to hundreds of thousands of pounds the idea of a small fee as a gatekeeper to deter frivolous cases seems both sensible and not a barrier to those real cases moving into the justice system.

When science tells you something you’ve got to take the rough with the smooth

We’ve a lovely little example today of where so many environmentalists go wrong on this climate change thing. As always around here we’ll take the IPCC seriously as a matter of exposition of logic. So, The Guardian’s running a column in which sure, the IPCC is right about the dangers of climate change, about the way that they prove that something ought to be done. However, they’re entirely wrong about what should be done (ie, get markets and private money involved in changing the world) because, well, you know, that’s just neoliberal economics and that can’t be right, can it?

The IPCC report has done a wonderful job at alerting the global public opinion about the urgency to prevent, or at least limit, climate change. Also, it has correctly identified the growing pressure climate change will put on public finances, thus worsening the crisis of the state. But when it comes to finding solutions, it has not escaped the neoliberal zeitgeist, and especially the tendency to see in financial markets an answer, rather than a source of social problems.

This is indeed a small example of a larger problem. People taking the IPCC seriously on climate change, the need to do something, but then insisting that this means the IPCC supports their own plan for whatever should be done. As, for example, we note around here often enough the Greenpeace and the like plan to move forward into the Middle Ages in response to it all.

Here’s the problem with these projections. The very proof that the IPCC uses that something is worth doing, that doing something will be, in the end, less costly than doing nothing, is entirely based on that neoliberal economics. More specifically, that we use the most efficient methods of mitigating climate change (ie, a carbon tax, not any of this regulatory rubbish and most certainly not a retreat to feudalism).

Both William Nordhaus and Richard Tol have done a lot of work on this. Leaving out their differing numbers the logic is: it’s worth spending $x to avoid damages of $x or more than $x. If $y is greater than $x then it’s not worth spending $y to avoid damages of $x. They both go on to point out, at various times, that the most efficient method of spending to avoid damages is that carbon tax. Thus spending $x in a carbony tax sorta manner can be justified if we’re reducing future damages by $x or more. However, because other methods (regulation, law, targets, micromanagement) are less efficient then that is akin to trying to insist that spending $y is worth avoiding damages of $x (where y is still larger than x).

Note that none of this depends upon whether the IPCC is correct in its science about climate change at all. This logic is internal to the system. The IPCC has only, using neoliberal economics, shown that responding to climate change in the most efficient manner possible (ie, using neoliberal economics) is worthwhile. This means that you cannot then project your own desired, less efficient, solutions onto the world using the IPCC as your justification.

So ideas like the one quoted above just don’t fly. You can’t reject the neoliberalism of the IPCC solutions because they are integral to the argument that anything at all should be done.

Rowan Williams falls into the old climate change logical trap

For someone who trained as a theologian and philosopher this is rather sad: Rowan Williams has, in his retirement, fallen into an all too common logical trap in discussing climate change and what we ought to do about it. His piece is here and that trap is that while it’s entirely possible to prove that climate change is a problem that we should do something about (a view largely held here at the ASI) that is not the same thing as saying that because climate change is a problem we should do anything about it. Anything here meaning not that we should do nothing, but that we end up giving credence to the more ludicrous suggestions about what we should do.

This is an extremely important point and it’s one that is desperately misunderstood too.

OK, so climate change is a problem and we should do something about it. Please, no, let’s just take that as a starting assumption for the rest of this discussion. Excellent, does that mean we should follow Greenpeace and abolish industrial capitalism? That would be to embrace the “do anything” option and it would be ludicrous. The costs in human tragedy of starving a few billion of us as we return to an agrarian feudalism would be worse than anything that climate change could possibly foist upon us.

That is, the merits of doing whatever to deal with climate change depend not upon the merits of beating climate change but upon the merits of doing that particular thing.

And that’s where this pernicious logical error comes in. That some things might or should be done to deal with climate change is, in our opinion, entirely true. But this does not then mean that every brainspasm that issues from a politician or environmentalist is worth doing due to the threat of climate change. We have to go through each and every suggested action to see whether it does make sense, or not, given the costs and benefits of that action.

The past year has seen the obstacles blocking action on climate change beginning to crumble. Opposition on scientific grounds looks pretty unpersuasive in the light of what has come from the experts on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Their seven-year study states that they are now 95% certain that human activity is a significant and avoidable element in driving climate change around the world. Predicted changes in the climate are now being observed in the most vulnerable countries, confirming the predictive models that have been used.

The suggestion that action on this would have too great an economic cost is likewise looking increasingly shaky.

No, absolutely not. Proof that some action is required, proof even that some actions would be justifiable, is not proof that all actions are desirable or justified. It depends upon the economic cost of each action itself to determine that.

Or, to put it in a shorter and simpler manner. Just because climate change might be real it doesn’t mean that the world of Caroline Lucas, George Monbiot or Bob Ward makes any sense. We’re not entirely sure that a world that contains Bob Ward makes sense come to that.