In praise of the Fawcett Society

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It's not often that I'll praise blinkered ideological groups like The Fawcett Society but today I find that I need to. For they've finally managed to catch up with what has been obvious to the rest of us for years. Their latest report (.pdf) is called "Not having it all: how motherhood reduces womens' pay and employment prospects".

No, really, they've just noticed. After years of telling us that the gender pay gap is grossly unfair, a denial of human rights, a symptom of the patriarchy and a blot on the landscape of this fair land they've finally managed to work out that there isn't really a gender pay gap at all, there's actually a mothers' pay gap. 

Motherhood has a direct and dramatic in uence on women’s pay and employment prospects, and typically this penalty lasts a lifetime.

Quite, something I've been known to bang on about now and again. When you look through all of the statistics about the so called gender pay gap you find that it doesn't apply to never married childless women. That could be something of a clue to the point that it's not in fact a gender pay gap at all. It's all, as this report points out, about motherhood, taking time out of the labour force to have and to raise children.

Now, I think that the Fawcetters and I might differ about where we go from here: if pay gaps are a result of different choices in life then I've not got a problem with them. I don't complain that I don't earn City money for I tried the City and realised I wasn't willing to live like that to earn City money. Fawcetters seem to think that we should change society so that there isn't a mothers' pay gap: their right to advocate such, of course.

But at least we now all agree upon the analysis: no, there isn't a gender pay gap, there's a motherhood one. We can now move on to discussing whether this is something we want to change or not and if so, what might we do in order to do so?

For only if we've correctly analysed the causes of any problem can we possibly hope to solve it.

So well done to The Fawcett Society: however, in future, do you think you might try to be less than, say, five years behind the times?

A very inconvenient truth

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One of the curious implications of the current downturn has been to decrease slightly the prominence of environmental issues on the political agenda and in the media. Nonetheless, Climate Change is still widely seen as humanity’s greatest threat, and further legislation to address this is inevitable. Beneath the hyperbole and hysteria, the scientific consensus that emerges is hardly apocalyptic. Even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change itself predicts a fairly modest 1.8 to 4°C rise in global average temperatures this century. Of course, this is not insignificant, but the action taken in response must be proportional and effective. There is a real risk at the moment that governments use the issue of climate change in a pseudo-Orwellian way as something we need to fight collectively, and therefore use it as an excuse to pass legislation that severely curtails our liberties.

For example, introducing limits on the amount of flying or driving we could do each year are potential future policy responses. Not only would these infringe our rights to lead our everyday lives, but in enforcing measures like these, vast amounts of data on our movements and activities would need to be collected, stored and analysed to assess our ‘carbon footprint’, eroding our right to privacy. Draconian measures such as these are not just undesirable threats to our liberty, they are also impractical and unnecessary. Fossil fuels are finite resources, a fact reflected in their cost. We have already seen that as oil prices rise because of a simple supply-demand relationship, companies and individuals pro-actively seek out alternatives, whether that may be reducing their use of a type of transport or equipment, increasing the efficiency of existing technology or investing in new technology. Furthermore, public recognition of the need to reduce fossil fuel use is a powerful incentive for corporations to do so: many companies already attach great prominence to environmental credentials to help differentiate them from their competitors.

Therefore, a free-market based solution is by far the most effective way of making the transformation from fossil fuels to cleaner, renewable energy sources. We must then remain vigilant against attempts to infringe our liberties under the premise of environmental issues. The really inconvenient truth for governments is that the most effective solution relies on individuals and corporations acting not as a result of compulsion, but in the logical pursuit of their own self-interest.

A very inconvenient truth is written by James Freeland, winner of The Young Writer on Liberty 2009.

Why we should fear American health care reform

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Tucked away in a piece about possible end runs around NICE, the health care rationing body, is something of a scary paragraph:

Pharmaceutical companies are reluctant to launch new drugs in the UK at low cost because 25% of the global market is influenced by the UK price.

No, not that one sentence, although it helps explain why this next one is scary:

It comes at a time when other countries are actively considering setting up equivalents to Nice. First among them, and most important for the pharmaceutical industry, is the US. President Obama is known to be interested in some sort of cost-effectiveness scrutiny of medicines, which is bitterly opposed by the industry.

What all too few seem to understand is that medical innovation is hugely driven by what happens in the US market. The only market that is largely free from price controls. We can see from the first sentence that price controls do indeed retard innovation but of course there is no outcry about this for we don't normally see it. Who does take note of cures that aren't invented, aren't launched, because price controls mean there is no profit in their being so?

The great release from this problem for European health care systems has been that the US market, by far the largest in the world, is not subject to such price controls. Thus 300 million of the richest people on the planet underwrite, through the prices they pay for new treatments, the developments that we get years later as prices drop.

If the US does indeed bring in some form of NICE equivalent, some form of price rationing, then medical innovation will fall....no, not cease completely, simply there will be less of it than there would otherwise have been. Thus people who could or might have been cured will not be and they will die.

Reform of the US system might still be worthwhile, something like NICE might even still make sense: but don't anyone believe that such changes will be costless, they will indeed cost lives.

The internet

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Paradoxically, some of the greatest forces for liberty often provide the opportunity for substantial infringements of our rights. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of the ubiquitous internet. The ‘web’ is recognised as the most powerful and comprehensive source of information, the most varied source of entertainment and the most versatile means of communication. This year, Wikipedia has over 2.8 million articles; all submitted and edited by the general public. Google has around 30 billion webpages indexed. What is unique about the internet then is the amount of information it makes available, instantaneously and for free. Whilst critics have pointed out that much of the material on the internet is misleading, surely the internet is the ultimate example of John Stuart Mill’s marketplace of ideas: the multiplicity of information ensures that a consensus emerges around what is correct and objective.

However, it is the volume and nature of this data, particularly that generated from communication, that provides the opportunity for our right to privacy to be infringed. Whilst we can exercise our consumer sovereignty to force private companies to take reasonable steps to protect our privacy, we have no choice but to accept the intrusion into our privacy of the ‘dead hand’ of the Government. This crucial difference is exemplified by the fact that Facebook was recently forced to back-down over its new Terms of Service, as many users felt that they did not provide sufficient safeguards for their content, with particular concerns about it being stored indefinitely even after the user had left the service. Meanwhile, the Government is sticking to its draconian plans to store all emails and text messages under the remit of GCHQ, despite widespread public opposition. Ostensibly, the purpose is to help identify and convict terrorists and other criminals, but this dystopian scheme is too great a price to pay. Furthermore, it seems impractical to trawl through the vast amount of data we would collectively generate.

In conclusion, the more governments portray the Internet as a modern-day “Wild West", the more they will seek to regulate and scrutinise our use of it. Whilst I fully accept that some monitoring of specific users to prevent and solve criminal activity is inevitable, any blanket method that gathers user data indiscriminately is a huge infringement of our civil liberties, and one that seems to contravene the principle of “innocent till proven guilty".

The Internet is written by James Freeland, winner of The Young Writer on Liberty 2009.

Capitalism: A hybrid system

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It [is] urgent to understand at long last that what goes by the name of capitalism in ordinary language is a hybrid system crossbred from liberalism and social democracy, where the freedom of contract is allowed to work in some respects but is stymied in others and where perverse incentives springing from taxation and regulation are mixed with the profit motive that drives competitive markets.

Anthony de Jasay, Greed, Need, Risk and Regulation

Can you hear me, BSkyB?

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David Cameron’s recent speech, in which he emphasized his determination – if elected as Prime Minster next year - to slash the number of quangos, is to be welcomed. Interestingly, with one stark exception, the details were sketchy. Clearly in Cameron’s sights, is the sprawling empire of Ofcom, which has become far more than a regulatory back-stop and is now effectively a Department of Telecoms and Media.

In recent weeks, Ofcom has earned the wrath of BSkyB, part of the News Corporation stable, which controls leading newspapers such as the Times, the Sun and its week-end equivalents. Ofcom has proposed that BSkyB should be obliged to offer access, on wholesale terms, to its football and film Pay-TV rights – acquired at massive cost – to its competitors, most notably BT and Virgin Media.

If this proposal were ever implemented, BSkyB would be forced to lower its prices quite markedly, which would inevitably have an impact on future Pay-TV rights valuations: the next Premier League Pay-TV rights auction is due in 2012. Why, it could be asked should BSkyB be required to share its Pay-TV rights? After all, competitors, like BT and Virgin Media, have every opportunity to bid for TV rights packages themselves.

In reality, the chequered past of both companies still haunts their finances. Although BT’s net debt is now close to £10 billion, it remains desperately constrained by its global business setbacks and its burgeoning pension fund liabilities. Virgin Media includes the one-time cable duopoly, NTL and Telewest, both of which racked up vast debts and delivered dreadful share price performances.

Nonetheless, Cameron’s quango initiative, and especially its focus on the ever-expanding Ofcom, represents sound political thinking, which will be carefully noted by those who control News Corporation as they discuss their political options over the next year.

Can you hear me, BSkyB?

The population bomb four decades on – Are we still doomed?

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There is nothing new about fears of overpopulation – every century has had its fair share of apocalyptic claims about the future of mankind and the Earth. The late 1960s saw the release of The Population Bomb by Paul R. Ehrlich, which stands as one of the founding texts of the modern environment movement. It popularised neo-Malthusian concerns that current rates of population growth were unsustainable, a fear revived every year on the UN’s World Population Day (today, July 11).

This year, the Electronic Journal of Sustainable Development took the opportunity to assess whether these fears are justified. It features a new paper by Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich (unnamed co-author of the original book) who have few regrets about the claims they made. If anything, they argue that “perhaps the most serious flaw in The [Population] Bomb was that it was much too optimistic about the future". They point to the collapse of numerous fisheries, the irreversible loss of biodiversity, ozone depletion, and most importantly in their view, global warming.

But such claims – no matter how popular they remain – are at odds with empirical evidence, according to Indur M. Goklany, co-editor of the EJSD (free online journal) and author of The Improving State of the World. In his article, he argues that “despite unprecedented growth in population, affluence, consumption and technological change, human well-being has never been higher."

Even if Goklany concedes that the record is mixed for the environment, he explains why this is: “Initially, in the rich countries, affluence and technology worsened environmental quality, but eventually they provided the methods and means for cleaning up the environment… After decades of deterioration, their environment has improved substantially." His and many of the other articles in the EJSD show that if anything, we need more economic growth and technology, underlined by stable market institutions like property rights – not less.

But as Goklany warns, the great advances mankind has made in the past centuries do not mean that economic growth and technology innovation should be taken for granted. Rather, he warns that the “policy preferences of some environmentalists and Neo-Malthusians, founded on their skepticism of affluence and technology, would only make progress toward a better quality of life and a more sustainable environment harder. Their fears could become self-fulfilling prophecies."

Issue 3 of the EJSD – “The Population Bomb Four Decades On" – is available here.

The EJSD is a peer-reviewed, open access, online journal- the result of a partnership between International Policy Network and the University of Buckingham.

Diminishing democracy

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Democracy, one of our most coveted liberties, is under threat from increasing centralisation and unaccountability of government.

Whilst the recent European Parliament elections make the EU appear democratic, a closer look at the legislative process reveals a clear absence of democracy. The UK has 72 MEPs out of the 736 in the European Parliament, meaning that MEPs we elect have hardly any voice in Europe. Even when MEPs across the EU form political blocs in the Parliament, differences still persist, which prevent each country’s MEPs from wholly pursuing their national interest. The greatest deficiency of democracy, however, lies with the unelected lawmakers of the European Commission. Three quarters of the UK’s laws come from the Commission in Brussels, which is not directly accountable to the electorate of member states.

With UK citizens already forced to cede so much power to the European Union, surely we deserve a choice about losing any more of our sovereignty? Unfortunately our government doesn’t think so and in July 2008 ratified the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, without giving us the referendum they promised. And that’s not the only instance of the government stifling democracy.

Numerous government functions are carried out by quangos, and despite Gordon Brown saying that they are “often government in secret, free from full public scrutiny", there are still hundreds of them. By passing on decision-making to these non-governmental bodies, the government is effectively unaccountable for many of the decisions that have huge effects on local communities. After the general election in 2005, health authorities and primary care trusts – the main quangos in healthcare – threatened to close local hospitals, but the government could not be made responsible for these decisions. How is it democratic that such important decisions are made by unaccountable bureaucrats who we haven’t elected?

Diminishing democracy is written by Akhil Shah, who finished second in The Young Writer on Liberty 2009.