The problem with organic farming is...

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That even those who claim to be its champions seem not to understand the implications of what they're actually proposing.

Take Geoffrey Lean's piece in the Telegraph. Organic farming for us here in the rich world is indeed more productive that conventional, but look, look, organic farming in the Third World produces jobs!

Again, a switch to organic agriculture can help, for it employs many more people, creating more than 170,000 jobs in 2007 in Mexico alone.

Well, yes, quite, as I have been shouting for some time, jobs are a cost of a scheme, not a benefit.

In more detail, I'm perfectly willing to agree that certain organic methods could raise the productivity per acre of certain Third World farms. That's because I'm perfectly willing to agree that just about any structured method is going to improve such productivity. I can also see that the high cost of conventional inputs might deter some poor farmers from using them and thus simply better management of the resources they have being the optimal path for them.

However, what strikes me most is the way that Lean (and many others of his ilk) ignore the real point at issue here. What we really want to do is increase the standard of living of some hundreds of millions, if not billions, of our fellow human beings. This move to organic agriculture in Mexico for instance: yes, 170,000 jobs were created. That's 170,000 people in one year alone who were condemned to a life of staring at the southern end of an ox going northwards.

This isn't what we would desire for ourselves, this isn't something that we would be prepared to do, it's actually something that we're not prepared to do as a quick look around the country shows you. So why is it a good idea that 170,000 Mexicans have to do it?

We could of course ask the same question of sweatshops, we're not prepared to do that so why do people like me cheer on those who open them? Because that's the way our great grandparents got a start, how this incredibly rich world we now live in began to develop. Coming off the land and into the factories is what leads to our current siuation, one in which we all do far less work and have hugely more opportunities and wealth than any other group of people in the entire history of the species.

In short, what's wrong with organic farming is that it's proponents of it as a solution to Third World poverty seem to forget that any form of peasant farming requires peasants to do that farming. Whether they're using dung or ammonium nitrate as the fertiliser doesn't change that basic fact: moving people back into small scale farming is just condemning them to the lifestyle which we are all so grateful our own ancestors escaped from.

 

What type of MP do we want?

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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.

Why QE is not a good idea

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For much of the last decade, the bubble in equity markets was sustained by what was known on Wall Street as the 'Greenspan put'. Put simply, the rule stated that it was perfectly safe to invest in equities, since if they fell, former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan would always wade into the markets with a series of interest-rate cuts to bail them out. Now we have something that looks like a QE put – when markets collapse, central bankers will print more and more money until they get them moving again.

Matthew Lynn, Central Bankers are Just Blowing up Another Investment Bubble, MoneyWeek

Decarbonization and protectionism

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Adam Buckley, Ben Caldecott and Gavin Dick from The Conservative Environment Network (CEN) have written a short piece on ConservativeHome on the benefits of decarbonization.

CEN’s argument is entirely objectionable:

CEN believes that we should consider climate change a significant risk and decarbonise accordingly. But even without the very real and obvious risks associated with climate change, decarbonisation has other profound benefits. In a world without climate change it would still make sense, if done in a cost-effective way, for Britain to save energy, use less foreign fossil fuels, and develop indigenous sources of low carbon energy.

Ignoring the well-trodden territory of their position on climate change, much of the argument from CEN is based upon the failed economics of protectionist policies and state dirrection and control of industries.

In arguing that we should use less energy, CEN suggest that we need to tackle “market failures that prevent people and organisations from improving their energy efficiency". These failures are they believe down to access to capital and the “hassle" factor. However, in the real world individuals and organisations do not improve energy efficiency when it will not save them money and given the failure of the climate change predictions to come to fruition, people see no practical and moral reason to waste their money. How is that a market failure?

If – and it is a very big ‘if’ – CEN are right about the bleak future for hydrocarbon fuels, then the market mechanism will ensure that alternative energy production will be put into effect. And with an unmolested market, some entrepreneurs will take risks at the right moment and cash in on this shift. For the government to do so now is bad economic policy.

The last and most surprising argument that CEN put forward in favour of decarbonization is as follows:

Additionally, we can send less money abroad.  The issue of balance of trade has become unfashionable, but is another important reason why decarbonisation should be desirable regardless of the risks associated with climate change.

CEN tie this in with arguments to invest (read tax and spend) and protect UK energy production. As an antidote to all this nonsense, I suggest the authors start by reading this from Milton and Rose D. Friedman:

"Protection" really means exploiting the consumer. A "favorable balance of trade" really means exporting more than we import, sending abroad goods of greater total value than the goods we get from abroad. In your private household, you would surely prefer to pay less for more rather than the other way around, yet that would be termed an "unfavorable balance of payments" in foreign trade.

Privatized policing

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Residents in a leafy suburb of Southampton have clubbed together to purchase security from a private firm. The 'local' police force have failed to protect the community and left people feeling unsafe. Thus, with an opening in the market place a private company is now giving the residents peace of mind by protecting them from crime. Atraks offers a 'first response' to crime and is independent of the police and local councils, and is cheap at just £3.15 per week.

This country has reached the point where the police force has become a centralized, uniformed arm of the state, directed by government not for the people's benefit but for their own. They are no longer protecting us as a visible deterrent on the streets, they are little more than a criminal investigation bureau. The modern police force offers little value for money, the cost per capita is the highest among OECD countries and yet despite this crime and the 'fear' of crime remains stubbornly high. If the approach of financially saturating the oversized police forces isn't working perhaps a different approach is needed.

This private service is the reproach that government needs, as they may realize that their current meddling in how the police operate has achieved little. What people demand is that the police patrol the streets, protect property and handle any crime that does occur swiftly, backed fully by a strong judicial system. The shift to private police forces will undoubtedly grow as the state continually identifies only national strategies towards policing. The people require local approaches as this is the only way they can ensure that their demands are sufficiently met. If the police forces of Britain had any sense they would be calling for themselves to be privatized, if only to cut down on the demandingly wasteful paperwork they have to complete.

Free speech and press

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The freedom of speech and the freedom of the press have not been granted to the people in order that they may say things which please, and which are based upon accepted thought, but the right to say the things which displease, the right to say the things which convey the new and yet unexpected thoughts, the right to say things, even though they do a wrong.

Samuel Gompers, Seventy Years of Life and Labor, 1925

Should taxpayers fund the arts?

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With the news that opera will receive £2.4m in recession support from Arts Council England as part of their first round of Sustain funding, is it not time that the state stopped funding a form of entertainment that appeals only to a small section of the population?

In the press release, Arts Council England state that “The number of applications to the fund illustrates how this recession is challenging the capacity of our arts organisations to continue to deliver the bold, ground breaking and excellent art that audiences demand." Not exactly. The applications illustrate a natural response to free cash upon application. And if it is the case, as the press release also states, that “the creative economy is the fastest growing part of our national economy", why on earth does it need taxpayers’ money?

Personally I benefit hugely from arts funding. I enjoy opera, theatre and classical music, which are all heavily subsidised. Living in London it is easy to visit the opera a handful of times each year and the theatre and classical concerts more regularly still. My entertainment is subsidised by other taxpayers who are either not interested, live too far away or cannot afford to attend. These events are mostly attended by a section of the population who are already wealthy beyond the average. At least the Romans had the good grace to appeal to a wider section of the public in their policy of bread and circuses.

Art is such a personal and ephemeral thing that it really does not warrant our taxes. Its appreciation (if not beauty) is very much in the eye (or ear) of the beholder, with difference and conflict being the order of the day. As its creation and admiration is hardwired into humanity, the money ploughed into arts is as valuable as subsidising conversation. And as in the most creative times public opinion and the direction of what is considered good can turn on a sixpence, the government and quangos will inevitably back losers.

Lord Adonis: Three reasons why he is wrong

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altTransport minister Lord Adonis tells us that the government’s intends to replace domestic and short-haul flights with a new high-speed rail network. There are three good reasons to think that this is a terrible idea.

First is the government’s record with large-scale infrastructure projects. The last major project on the railways was the upgrade to the West Coast Main Line, which was initially planned to be finished by 2005, estimated to cost £2bn, and designed to allow trains to travel up to 140mph. It was eventually completed in 2008, at a cost of at least £9bn, and permitting speeds up to 125mph. The government’s estimates for a single 250mph line linking London to the North stand at £20bn, and a decade’s work. Believe them if you wish.

Second is that the railways are not economically viable. Despite the government bearing a large part of the maintenance and capital costs of the rail network, most operators only survive with massive subsidies: Virgin West Coast franchise received £312m last year. Many airlines, despite brutal levels of taxation, still make a profit. It’s nonsense to spend a fortune replacing a mode of transport that is profitable, that generates wealth, with one that destroys it.

Third is that the government’s environmental arguments are ridiculous. Even if we accept their assertion that the construction of new rail networks will make substantial difference to carbon emissions (which many contest), it’s a horrendously expensive way of doing so. Even if the railways replaced every one of the nine billion kilometers flown by domestic passengers last year, the trains omitted no carbon dioxide whatsoever, and the project came in at the lowest possible cost of £20bn, and assuming that airlines currently use the most polluting planes available (165gCO2/km), the cost would be £13,468 per tonne of yearly CO2 emissions avoided. For comparison, CO2 reduction at coal-fired power stations costs in the region of £20 per tonne.

If it ever gets built, this railway will be little more than a monument to ministerial ego, financial insanity and environmental hysteria.

The oil price – Whither next?

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As a basic commodity, oil price movements are curious. After all, just over a year ago, the oil price peaked on the spot market at $147 per barrel. Yet, by the end of last year, the oil price had fallen below $40 per barrel, thereby - in theory at least – making a lot of world production uneconomic.

Clearly, the onset of the recession depressed oil prices as industrial demand plummeted worldwide. More recently, though, the oil price has rallied as the recession appears to have stabilized. 

Whilst leading oil producers operate on the basis of long-term contracts – with more stable prices than the volatile spot prices - there are ongoing concerns about the sustainability of the oil price.

For the international majors, such as ExxonMobil, BP and Shell, the recent plunge in the oil price has had a massive impact on their profitability. When oil prices were peaking, these companies were generating vast sums of cash: their latest results were far less buoyant.

Fluctuating oil prices also create real uncertainty for investment decisions. The Athabasca Tar Sands projects in Canada, in which Shell is a heavy investor, are a case in point; it is estimated that a price of at least $80 per barrel is needed to make these operations profitable.

Of course, OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) is key to future oil prices. This cartel currently embraces around 40% of world production, with its leading member, Saudi Arabia, being central to any decision to cut back output. Significantly, too, OPEC members account for c70% of total world reserves.

Looking forward, oil prices may settle within the range of $60-$80 per barrel – a level that is widely seen as being appropriate for both producers and consumers. Currently, the price per barrel – at c$70 – is at the centre of this range.