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"Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice" - Adam Smith

Seven myths about green jobs

Written by Tom Bowman | Monday 30 August 2010

Yet more proof that government mandates are not apt at solving problems, be it creating jobs or cutting carbon emissions. A study published today by International Policy Network, titled Seven Myths about Green Jobs reveals the hidden-costs of “green investments”. Resources will be wasted and growth will be slowed, while there is no guarantee that the environment will benefit.

The coalition government has announced a whole range of green measures to both cut emissions and create jobs: from low-carbon business support programmes to a Green Investment Bank. We can expect the initiatives to be cemented in legislation by this autumn, and rolled out through the country by 2012. After all, the Prime Minister pledged to deliver “the greenest government ever”. And best of all, Clegg assures us that he’ll impress us by “quietly getting on with the job”.

Sound too good to be true? That’s because it is.

What we are likely to see are more bureaucratic jobs, more red tape. And yet more resources siphoned away from productive sectors of the economy.

In fact, many green job proposals actively push for resources to be taken away from highly-productive activities. A United Nations report even calls for fruit to be picked by hand, rather than by machine.

As for the cost? Today’s “green investments” will just add to our already colossal national debt. Even the United Nations admits that a full-fledged green transition - the type they dream about – could cost hundreds of billions, maybe trillions of dollars.

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Change we can believe in

Written by Tom Bowman | Tuesday 02 March 2010

It has been posed here before, but the question remains – why aren’t the Conservatives doing better? One fundamental issue, in my opinion, is that the Conservatives have confused style with substance. Let me explain…

In the wake of the 2005 election, the Conservatives came to a realization. All the polling data showed that their policies were very popular, until they were attached to the Conservatives. Then they became unpopular. Essentially, the Conservative brand was toxic.

So David Cameron was elected leader with a mission to ‘decontaminate’ the brand. This involved posing with huskies, denouncing chocolate oranges and swapping the ‘torch of liberty’ logo for an oak tree drawn by a toddler. It also involved talking more about the quality of life and social justice, and less about the economy.

All of which was fine, to begin with. But at some point marketing started to determine policy positions. The point of decontaminating the brand, surely, was so the Conservatives could ‘sell’ smaller government to the electorate. But instead, the Conservatives decided to announce their unilateral economic disarmament, pledging to match Gordon Brown’s (profligate) spending plans. And unfortunately for them, they did this shortly before economic policy once again became the big issue.

To this day, the fundamental confusion remains, even among Conservative MPs and candidates. Are they in favour of a smaller state, or not? Are they going to reverse Gordon Brown’s tax increases, or aren’t they? Are they going to stop the government borrowing £20m per hour, 24/7, or are they going to carry on and hope the problem goes away?

Ultimately, this is why the slogan “vote for change" is uninspiring. Voters don’t know if there’s going to be any change at all. And if there is going to be change, voters don’t know what sort of change it is going to be.

Perhaps David Cameron should just take a leaf from Adam Smith’s book, and promise to deliver ‘peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice’. To borrow a phrase, that would be change we can believe in.

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Why aren’t the Conservatives doing better?

Written by Tom Bowman | Wednesday 24 February 2010

The latest poll (by YouGov for The Sun) has the Conservatives just 6 points ahead of Labour, with 38 percent compared with 32 percent. The Lib Dems are on 17 percent. Assuming a uniform national swing, that would leave the Tories 34 seats short of a majority.

The first thing to say about this is that we're almost certainly not going to see a uniform national swing at the election. The Tories have have been focusing their resources on the marginal seats that are going to decide the election, and polling suggests that they are doing better in these seats than they are nationally. That means they are likely to win more seats than pundits are currently predicting.

Nevertheless, there remains an interesting question here – why aren't the Tories doing better? The economy has gone down the pan. Gordon Brown couldn't be more unpopular. And Labour has been in for 13 years, meaning the political pendulum is almost certainly swinging against them (all governments run out of steam in the end). On this basis, the Tories should be polling comfortably above 40 percent, and maybe even pushing 50 percent.

The reason they're not, in my opinion, is because it remains more-or-less impossible to answer the question, 'what are the Tories going to do for me?' I follow politics closely, and I've really got no idea. So why should they expect the man on the Clapham Omnibus to bother voting for them?

If he wants to win big, David Cameron needs to find a more convincing 'retail pitch', and fast. I know Britain's precarious fiscal position leaves little room for manoeuvre, but at the very least he should promise that there will be no tax rises, no new taxes, and that any tax hikes already scheduled for 2010 and 2011 will be cancelled.

I also think that there is a rich vein of public sentiment to be exploited by railing against all the incremental infringements of our liberty that we have suffered over the last decade – promising to get rid of all the bureaucratic little Hitlers that make British lives a misery would surely be a vote winner. In 1951, Winston Churchill campaigned under the slogan "set the people free". If the Conservatives want to reverse their decline in the polls, they desperately need to capture that same sentiment.

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Do shut up, Big Brother

Written by Tom Bowman | Thursday 18 February 2010

I'm not at all surprised to hear that government spending on advertising and marketing has risen by nearly 40 percent in the last year, to £253m. As someone who regularly goes to the cinema and watches a fair amount of television, I have to sit through a lot of this rubbish – and every time I do it irritates me.

In the last year I've been treated to adverts telling me not to speed, not to drink and drive, to give up smoking and to avoid saturated fats. I have been advised to 'talk to Frank' about my drug use. I've been told to cut my energy use and recycle. I've been informed that studying maths is fun and that there is nothing more rewarding than teaching in a rough inner-city school. I've been warned countless times about how to avoid swine flu and how to spot someone having a stroke. I've been told by the TV licensing authority that "London is in our database" and "Evaders will pay". The Department of Work and Pensions has told me that they are spying on benefit cheats, while the DVLA has said my car will be confiscated and crushed if I don't pay my road tax on time. And then there's that curiously (and presumably unintentionally) erotic advert where the breathy-voiced woman says "sexually transmitted diseases are spreading fast" as, on screen, lots of attractive people grope each other.

This stuff is simply infuriating – I don't want to be bombarded by messages from our crypto-fascist overlords while I'm trying to relax and have a good time. Nor do I want them wasting my money on a pointless exercise in Soviet-style self-promotion. Or as Mike Gannat, a former head of the Government Information Service, put it, "of course, it's a gross waste of public money".

A couple of recent ad campaigns really take the biscuit though. The first, which involves a TV advert and posters all over London's public transport, essentially tells people that it's there fault if they become victims of theft, because they clearly weren't being careful enough with their property. The other is the advert below, which employs lots of celebrities to convince us that is "the nation's official website". Please excuse me while I throw up.

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Dinner with Sir John Major

Written by Tom Bowman | Thursday 12 November 2009

Sir John Major was guest of honour at an Adam Smith Institute dinner at St Stephen's Club in Westminster. Sir John has done a great deal of travelling since he left the Commons, and has seen the tremendous advances made by India and China, and by some Middle East countries. His remarks on the world's probable future development and Britain's place in it were thus extremely well-informed.

He stressed in particular the importance which the rapidly-developing countries are giving to education, and the urgency of ensuring that in the UK, too, education is accorded the importance it needs to secure Britain a place in the forefront of research, development, and economic expansion.

Sir John's speech was a tour de force, showing complete mastery of his subject, and he contributed both eloquence and insight to the lively question and answer session that followed his remarks.

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More philosophy in politics

Written by Tom Bowman | Wednesday 21 October 2009

Matthew Parris spoke at the London launch party for Dr Madsen Pirie's new book, 101 Great Philosophers. He spoke of the importance of philosophy and wished that more politicians would study it and learn a little about it. He pointed out that if they did, they would be less likely to fall into some of the obvious errors which they do commit. 

Dr John Campbell, the historian and biographer, spoke of how a coherent philosophy had enabled the Adam Smith Institute to help mould a new reality out of the ruins of the consensus which had prevailed before it arrived on the scene.

Dr Madsen Pirie, the author, expressed his conviction that philosophy enabled people to make sense of their physical world and its moral convictions. His aim in writing the book, he said, was to encapsulate the main ideas of all of philosophy's leading thinkers into a single volume which could introduce people to its world of ideas.

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Written by Tom Bowman | Saturday 17 October 2009

This week the British government – which is now borrowing upwards of £20m per hour just to pay its bills – decided to splash some cash on the arts world.

According to the BBC, it will provide £45m to fund a National Film Centre, which will house the British Film Institute (clearly their existing offices will no longer do), host key film events (because obviously London lacks appropriate venues), and contain 5 digital cinemas (something the private sector plainly doesn't provide). Then there's £50m for an 11-storey extension to the Tate Modern, another £22.5m to expand the British Museum, and £10m for a new visitors' centre at Stonehenge.

Frankly, it beggars belief that the government can claim that they are cutting public spending to the bone, that any cuts beyond the pathetic ones they've planned will result in abject destitution, and that anyone who suggests such a thing must be an evil, heartless brute, while simultaneously lavishing £127.5m that they don't have on vanity projects that we don't need.

Couldn't the British film industry pay for a national film centre if they really wanted one? Couldn't the Tate Modern just build a more modest extension with the £75m they've already raised privately? If the British Museum is running out of space, couldn't it loan some of its exhibits to other museums? And as for Stonehenge, does a mysterious pile of rocks next to a dual carriageway really warrant a £10m visitors centre?

Spending taxpayers' money on 'arts and culture' is questionable at the best of times. When you already have the biggest budget deficit in the developed world, it is nigh-on indefensible.

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Sexism has nothing to do with it

Written by Tom Bowman | Tuesday 29 September 2009

According to the Financial Times, Jack Straw, the UK's justice secretary, believes that "the media and political firestorm engulfing Baroness Scotland is motivated by sexism". Let's review the circumstances of the case:

  • Baroness Scotland, now attorney general, was the Home Office minister responsible for amending Section 8 of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996, which meant that businesses and individuals that employed illegal immigrants would face harsher penalties.
  • It turns out that that Baroness Scotland has, in fact, been employing an illegal immigrant herself.
  • She claims that she saw documents which led her to believe the employee was entitled to work in the UK, but is apparently unaware that the law requires employers to have checked and copied the documents in question – otherwise they have no defence.
  • The employee in question, Tongan Loloahi Tapui, tells the Mail on Sunday that Baroness Scotland made no enquiries as to whether she was eligible to work in the UK, and that she "didn't have any of the 6 documents that entitled her to work in Britain". If true, this would mean that Baroness Scotland had not only failed to comply with a law that she herself had introduced, but that she had also lied to the UK Border Agency to cover it up.

On that basis, I'd say it is: (a) clear why people are calling for Baroness Scotland's resignation; (b) clear that sexism has nothing whatsoever to do with it; and (c) clear that Jack Straw's assertion to the contrary is pretty pathetic.

Of course, the Asylum and Immigration Act is bad, onerous, illiberal law. This case is a perfect illustration of that fact. But when a government minister is caught breaking a law that they were themselves responsible for introducing, then surely they must resign. There is nothing more to it than that.

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Not-so-amazing ingratitude

Written by Tom Bowman | Wednesday 26 August 2009

Monday's Times reported that Michael Gove, the shadow education secretary, had said Tony Blair was "not as popular as he deserves to be" and had been shown "amazing ingratitude" by his party. 

And I can see why Michael Gove said what he said. His education policies are indeed a souped-up version of the former prime minister's and – needless to say – a little political cross-dressing never goes amiss when there are voters to swing and an election to be won. But I'm also pretty sure that Gove doesn't believe for a second that the British public has much to thank Tony Blair for.

After all, it was on his watch that we got the tripartite financial regulation structure that failed so miserably at the first signs of a crisis. He was in charge when the inflation target was changed from RPIX to CPI, which almost certainly led to interest rates being lower than they would (and should) have been, fuelling our ill-fated credit boom.

It was the Blair government that expanded the remit of regulators to include social and environmental objectives, sparking the growth of a vast bureaucracy and saddling British businesses with a burden that now amounts to more than 10 percent of GDP.

There was the pensions tax grab, which wiped at least £150bn off British pension funds, and wrecked the best private pension scheme in Europe. And there were the endless stealth tax rises, perhaps most notably in National Insurance, where employee and employer contributions rose, the upper earnings limit was lifted above the rate of inflation, and a new band was introduced for higher earners.

Blair's government abolished the internal markets in health and education, before half-heartedly re-introducing them. It wimped out on welfare, asking Frank Field to think the unthinkable and promptly sacking him when he did. And from 2002 onwards, public spending spiralled out of control and debt went through the roof.

Then there was the corruption of the political process, with its contempt for parliament, its spin-doctored, sofa government, its dodgy dossiers and its loans-for-peerages. And of course, there was the unprecedented assault on civil liberties, with habeas corpus, trial by jury, double jeopardy, and freedom of speech all coming under attack.

So am I grateful? Well, no, not exactly.

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What type of MP do we want?

Written by Tom Bowman | Sunday 09 August 2009

In the light of the recent selection of Sarah Wollaston, a local GP, by an open primary in Totnes, a debate has re-emerged that I feel is crucial to the medium-term direction of our Parliament and political system more broadly. The main reason people seemed to have selected her was that she was not a "career politician". Whilst I agree that the open primary system is a brilliant way of encouraging greater participation in politics, and accept the need for candidates who constituents feel are in tune with local issues, the blanket idea that it is better if a prospective MP has no previous political experience seems questionable. The implicit assumption by some parts of the press is seemingly that anyone previously involved in politics has been tarnished and corrupted by the system, is on the make, and is not to be trusted, whereas anyone entering it afresh is incorruptible.

Of course the absurd level of expenses claims occurred because of greed, but also because the system encouraged them. Because MPs assumed that raising their salaries would be damaging to the public's perception of them, they compensated with an expenses culture. In my opinion, we therefore need to decide whether we want full time MPs, who dedicate their time to the political process, or people who retain another job, albeit on a part time basis. The former might well be preferable, providing they have some life experience outside of conventional politics.

The basic salary for MPs now is £64,766, but this has been made up with benefits, allowances and the system, meaning that each MP effectively costs the taxpayer £247,000 a year. I would therefore replace all of this with an agreed salary (staff paid for outside of this), with a reduced salary plus payment for renting an apartment in London, for those who live too far from Westminster. This would result in more productive MPs, with a transparent and competitive system of renumeration, and at a lower net cost to the taxpayer.

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