International Day for Disaster Reduction

Ten years ago, on October 13th, 2009, the United Nations General Assembly designated October 13th as the International Day for Disaster Reduction. The aim was to have annual observance of the day as a means to foster a worldwide culture of natural disaster reduction. Natural disasters happen, but the aim was to promote measures that would include prevention, mitigation and preparedness, and to encourage private citizens and organizations, together with governments, to participate in creating more disaster-resilient communities and countries.

Obviously there will be floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes and typhoons, and we do not yet have the technical means to prevent them or to reduce their severity. But there are measures we can take, sensible measures, that can lessen the impact they have on people's lives. Some lessons have been learned the hard way. It is not good planning to site nuclear reactors in areas prone to earthquakes and tsunamis. It is not sensible to allow low-lying buildings to proliferate on flood plains. There might be fertile soil on the slopes of dormant volcanoes, but villages located there will be at risk from subsequent eruptions. All of these require a certain amount of common sense combined with intelligent analysis.

We can also plan ahead, and make our structures less prone to the effects of such natural disasters as do occur. When I built a house in the Florida Keys, it had to be on concrete stilts 13 feet about the century's mean flood level. I sold it long ago, but was gratified to see from satellite imagery that it had survived more or less intact after a nearly direct hit from Hurricane Irma in 2017.The great Japanese earthquake of 1923 had a magnitude of 7.9 and devastated Tokyo, killing 100,000 people. Frank Lloyd Wright's recently built Imperial Hotel survived among the rubble around it, largely because the extra steel in the frame prevented a roof collapse. He had sought to make it earthquake-proof.

The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 destroyed nearly 500 city blocks, killed 3,000 people, and left 400,000 homeless. The earthquake there in 1989 killed 63 people. Hurricanes and typhoons that kill hundreds of thousands in poor countries might kill dozens, or perhaps hundreds, in developed countries. Part of this is down to preparedness, to having tested rapid-response systems, with personnel and vehicles at the ready. Developed countries have the wealth and the infrastructure in place to bring this into play. This is one reason why storms that destroy communities in the Caribbean tend to cause damage in the US that can be contained and rapidly rebuilt.

We have early warning systems in place, constructed by developed countries, but of benefit to poorer ones, too. We can see hurricanes forming and track their probable course, alerting those in their path to board up or evacuate. We often can anticipate volcanic eruptions by monitoring increases in activity a few days in advance. We are not yet adept at having the same success in predicting earthquakes, but the seismic sciences are advancing. And following the Boxing Day tsunamis of 2004 that killed an estimated 228,000 people in 14 countries, we now have sensors out at sea to detect earthquakes and are able to issue tsunami alerts that send people to seek higher ground away from shores.

The lesson we take from all of this is that the greatest factor in aiding prevention, mitigation and preparedness is wealth. Rich countries do not suffer the catastrophic consequences that blight poorer ones when natural disasters occur. As poorer countries become richer, as most are now doing, they become more able to cope with disasters. People in rich countries can help, of course, with aid and supplies, medical assistance and food, but this is dealing with disasters after the fact, rather than putting in place the infrastructure that makes them less disastrous in the first place. The single biggest step a poor country can take to make it resilient to disasters is to become a rich country. And the way to do that is through trade and exchange, as the rich ones did.

Even The Guardian can't be this ill-informed, can it?

It would appear that, yes, The Guardian can be this ill-informed. Ill-informed to the point of idiocy:

With their huge monopoly markets and guaranteed rates of return, California utilities are attractive businesses for investors.

They’re talking about PG&E here. They also mention:

PG&E made shutting down its grid in dry, windy weather a core part of its wildfire management strategy in 2018, after the company faced $30bn in liabilities for their role in sparking two of the deadliest and costliest fires in California history. PG&E filed for bankruptcy shortly after.

Bankruptcy is not normally thought of as attractive to investors. We could also note that PG&E was bust between 2001 and 2004 as well.

Bankruptcy twice in two decades is attractive to investors? Seriously Guardian, get a grip.

Landfall in the Bahamas

Christopher Columbus changed the world when his ships made landfall on October 12th, 1492. It is hard to appreciate how dangerous his voyage was, sailing in small, flimsy ships out into the great ocean we call the Atlantic. He had no idea of how long it would take or what he would find. He had to endure the storms and hardships of the journey, without knowing if he would find land at all.

He’d set sail from Spain on August 3rd at 8.0 am, with the patronage of the King and Queen, but within 3 days the rudder of the Pinta broke. Securing it with ropes, they all limped into the Canaries for repairs. After 29 days out in a landless sea, they saw “immense flocks of birds” which they followed, identifying them as land birds. At 2.0 am on October 12th they sighted land, and put into a place the natives called Guanahani, which Columbus renamed San Salvador, in the Bahamas.

They thought they had reached Asia on the other wide of the world. Indeed, the purpose of the trip was to open up a new route to the spices and silks of the Far East, since the overland route had become more difficult since the fall of Constantinople in 1453. They had in fact discovered the New World, and thought they were the first Europeans to do so. It was not widely known until later that Leif Erikson had led Vikings there in the 11th Century, and had established temporary settlements.

Columbus didn’t even know if he’d found an island, an archipelago, or part of a continent. He described the place as “very flat, with very green trees,” and with “a very large lake” in the middle. That description fits hundreds of islands in the area, and there is still uncertainty as to which one he made landfall upon. He went on to explore the coasts of Cuba and Hispaniola, where the Santa Maria ran aground on Christmas Day, 1492, and had to be abandoned.

His voyage home was more perilous than the outward trip, but at least he had a destination in mind. He reached the Azores, and then was forced into Lisbon by a storm that destroyed a fleet of 100 caravels, but miraculously spared the Pinta and the Niña. A hero’s welcome awaited him in Spain, where he gave the monarchs gold, jewelry, flowers, the as yet unknown tobacco plant, pineapples and the turkey, plus a few natives he’d kidnapped.

Thus began the extended contact between the Old World and the New, a contact marked by conquest, war and the spread of disease, as well as the introduction of European weapons and the horse. The psychological effect on Europe was electrifying as the news of his voyage spread. Their world was suddenly expanded into vast unknown reaches. The Old Worlders plundered the new to enrich themselves with its fabulous wealth of precious metals and resources, and they brought with them their learning and their technology.

It was an heroic age, as intrepid sailors such as Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan and Amerigo Vespucci braved uncharted waters and extended Europe’s reach around the globe. It began an age of discovery, not just of physical lands, but of intellectual and scientific frontiers. It expanded the minds of men and women as well as their physical reach.

It is an age that is with us still. This week a Nobel Prize was awarded to the first discoverers of a planet orbiting another star; now we know there are thousands. Each year we make new discoveries, we invent new materials and new technologies, and we create new organisms. It’s a helter-skelter world which leaves some gasping for breath and calling for a halt, wanting us to content ourselves with life’s richness instead of breaking beyond its current boundaries. It is unlikely that we will. There will always be intrepid souls like Columbus, and if some countries put a brake on their progress, they will do it in others. Columbus released a genie from its bottle, and it isn’t going back in.

How terrible to be right about climate change

The Guardian wants all to know that it’s just terrible, horrible, that think tanks and the like might say the right things about climate change. Even, that people give money to people who say the right things about climate change:

Google has made “substantial” contributions to some of the most notorious climate deniers in Washington despite its insistence that it supports political action on the climate crisis.

Among hundreds of groups the company has listed on its website as beneficiaries of its political giving are more than a dozen organisations that have campaigned against climate legislation, questioned the need for action, or actively sought to roll back Obama-era environmental protections.

Actually, the argument is over what to do. One example of this horrendous denialism is given here:

We must keep temperature increases to 1.5°C or less.

William Nordhaus, the winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize in economics for his work on climate modeling, says our target should be 3.5 degrees C or less. Nordhaus argues that the 1.5 C target is simply "infeasible," as the cost of mitigating potential climate damage would be 10 times higher than the benefit.

Perhaps the actual numbers can be argued with but the underlying point remains. It’s even the cornerstone of both the IPCC reports and the Stern Review. There are costs to not dealing with climate change, there are costs to dealing with climate change. The correct course of action is the greatest benefit at the least cost. This does indeed mean not killing industrial civilisation by 3 pm this afternoon.

To be more domestic about matters there’s also this:

Despite a longstanding international consensus among climatologists that human activity is accelerating climate change, the IEA’s publications throughout the 1990s and 2000s heavily suggested climate science was unreliable or exaggerated. In recent years the group has focused more on free-market solutions to reducing carbon emissions.

Those more free market solutions being the imposition of a carbon tax. As Nordhaus, Stern, Quiggin, Weitzman, the IPCC and every economist who has ever looked at the problem all agree upon. If the problem is a problem then the solution is to impose a tax of the social cost of carbon emissions upon emissions. This is the agreed science of climate change.

It’s amusing to be derided for following the science, isn’t it?

To even more amusement the same newspaper, The Guardian, on the same day, carries these two reports:

The billionaire inventor Sir James Dyson has scrapped plans to build an electric car after deciding the project was not commercially viable.

If electric cars are not commercially viable then that promise, that plan, that everyone will have them by 2025, 2030, 2040, whatever that demand is, isn’t going to work out well, is it? We might even need to use another method than planning upon the arrival of something that won’t work.

Then there’s the IMF:

Avoiding dangerous global heating will require governments around the world to impose stringent taxes on fossil-fuel usage that will mean a 43% jump in household energy bills over the next decade, the International Monetary Fund has said.

The Washington-based Fund said the battle against climate change could only be won if the average carbon tax levied by its member states increased from $2 (£1.63) a ton (907kg) to $75 a ton.

The solution to climate change is a carbon tax at the social cost of carbon. Just as the IPCC, the Stern Review, Nordhaus, Quiggin, Weitzman and every other economist has been saying. They’ve even, to a reasonable level of accuracy, given the same number for that social cost as Stern did back in his Review.

The IMF even echoes a point we here at the ASI have been making for more than a decade:

Calculations by the IMF’s economists show that a $75-a-ton carbon tax would also lead – once inflation has been taken into account – to an average 214% increase in the cost of coal and a 68% increase in natural gas. For the UK, the increases would be 157% for coal, 51% for natural gas, 43% for electricity and 8% for petrol.

The UK already taxes petrol roughly the correct amount to beat climate change.

The Guardian is attacking us all for being right on the matter. Which is indeed amusing, isn’t it?

Goodbye, ASI

My time at the Adam Smith Institute comes to an end today.

I’ve only been here for a short time, but I’ve learnt ridiculous amounts and made friends for life.

The Adam Smith Institute is one of the smallest teams in Westminster and yet consistently features at the highest level of political discourse, achieves amazing victories on policies which make everyone better off and freer, and has a laugh whilst doing so.

My time has been spent (mainly) learning from Matt, cheerleading Morgan, bromancing with Dan, having my wetter opinions challenged by Matthew, and in turn trying to convert Charlie and Julia to republicanism. 

On top of that, though, I’ve worked on delivering the biggest conference programme in recent ASI history. Oh yes, and I edited and published the Neoliberal Manifesto, which set out an optimistic agenda for the future — and so much more, with the support of a quality team.

As Madsen Pirie, co-Founder and President of the ASI, said to me on both my first and my last day in ASI HQ: “you never really leave the ASI.” Naturally, it may be that I walk out of the door today and get disowned (I AM leaving Westminster, and off to the heady heights of Mayfair) but I can see where Madsen is coming from. The ASI inspires a level of loyalty that very few places manage to achieve. 

I have genuinely enjoyed every day working in one of the smallest, yet arguably the most dynamic team in wonk world. You guys won’t get rid of me that easily!


Saying goodbye and good riddance to Britain's Nanny in Chief

As Dame Sally Davies stepped down from her cosy quangocrat role as Chief Medical Officer in England, she released one last report — demanding that all food and drink except water and breastmilk be banned from all public transport. You see, a mars bar eaten at 60 miles per hour on the train has far more calories in it than one eaten just before getting on board.

Dame Sally didn’t stop there of course. The now fortunately ex-Nanny in Chief wants all sugary or fatty things to be banned from sale at sports stadiums. So goodbye matchday pie, or pint at the 6 Nations. Of course there were no mentions of the Theatre or the Opera — wouldn’t want to inconvenience her friends.

Fortunately this last ditch lunacy gave us at the Adam Smith Institute the chance to go out and bat for liberty.

Matt Kilcoyne’s quote on the report featured in The Sun and the Daily Star, and he appeared on BBC Radio Wales, BBC Hereford and Worcester, talkSPORT, and BBC 5 Live’s Emma Barnett Show. You can listen to that appearance in full below.

Matt also wrote for the Spectator on why we should be looking at Dame Sally Davies’ record and judging her tenure as Chief Medical Officer poorly given the return of Measles.

Matthew Lesh spoke to BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine Show and BBC Radio Ulster. You can catch up on his comments to Jeremy Vine now.

These preposterous ideas may fade to nothingness now, but they’ll be back. The Public Health lobby is heavily funded by your taxes, and well organised. And while Dame Sally Davies may be off to run Trinity College Cambridge, know that there’s always nanny just around the corner waiting to fill her shoes.

So we’ll keep fighting the good fight. Standing up for your right to live your life the way you choose.

Making elevators safe

Alexander Miles did not invent the elevator, but he made it safe. The African-American inventor and entrepreneur patented his electric elevator with automatically closing doors on October 11th, 1887. Early elevators had been used several hundred years BC, powered by human or animal muscle power, and occasionally water power. Before Miles filed his patent, the elevators of his day were steam powered, and had doors that had to be opened and closed manually. Sometimes people forgot and were injured; sometimes people stepped into empty lift shafts and fell hundreds of feet.

Miles improved their safety with mechanisms that closed off access when the lift was moving, and closed the doors automatically before the cage could move. His lifts were electric, and the mechanisms he devised continue to influence modern elevator design. The story is that he was inspired when he was travelling with his daughter in an elevator whose doors had been left open. He attached a flexible belt to his cage design so that it opened and closed doors with levers and rollers when it passed over drums positioned appropriately.

Born in Ohio in 1838, when many black people in the US were slaves, he’d shown his talents by creating and marketing hair care products. He progressed from being a barber to becoming a prosperous businessman. His United Brotherhood life insurance company was designed to give black people insurance they had no access to otherwise. He was the first black member of the Duluth Chamber of Commerce. He died in 1917, and was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2007.

Modern elevator design begins with Alexander Miles, but it certainly does not end there. Several engineering research teams are working on the technology that could be used to construct the most ambitious engineering project ever undertaken, the construction of an elevator that could take people and cargo into space. Situated at the equator, it would have an overhead base in geostationary orbit, 22,500 miles above the Earth’s surface, where TV satellites are located. A cable would connect the fixed point on the rotating Earth to the fixed point in a rotating orbit, with a huge counterweight above that point to keep it stable. Elevator cages would ride up and down that cable, possibly powered by a nuclear reactor at its base.

The space elevator would enable people and cargo to reach space without the huge expenditure of rocket fuel currently required, and not subject to the forces that currently play upon them. The concept of a tower reaching up to a geosynchronous orbit was first published in 1895 by the Russian space physicist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Sir Arthur C Clarke, who pioneered the use of TV satellites in a 1945 paper in Practical Wireless, has researched and written about space elevators, most notably in his 1979 novel “The Fountains of Paradise.”

No materials yet devised have the ensile strength and lightness to enable such a cable to be built, although carbon nanotubes are being investigated as a possibility. The space elevator would be a stupendous project, dwarfing anything that humans have achieved before, but if humanity is to become a spacefaring species, a breakthrough of this nature might be needed. No doubt it will be opposed by people who want us to “live more simply,” and by those who think the money would be better spent on social housing and equality awareness seminars. They will tell us that we don’t need to go into space, but we do. If we build it, I hope they will name one of its carriages after Alexander Miles, as an appropriate tribute to his inventive mind.

Karl Marx's solution to the Bangladeshi sweatshops

Much agonising over in The Guardian about whether the economic development of Bangladesh has truly brought benefit to the workers. Yes, lifespans are longer, diets are better, incomes higher. But, truly, have the workers benefited?

The answer yes, you blithering fool, because incomes are higher, diets are better, lifespans are longer, is perhaps too simple for modern sophisticates. Or, as one of us noted after a trip there, the young and poor are significantly taller than the generation before them - that childhood nutrition has obviously got a lot better.

But it’s worth applying properly Marxist logic to this situation. Karl himself pointing out what it is that raises the workers wages. When there’s that reserve army of the unemployed then anyone requiring more labour can just go and hire that for whatever stale crust they wish to pay. Equally, those currently employed cannot demand more of the cake because they can be ejected into that reserve army.

This situation changes when there isn’t that surplus of labour. When all who can be usefully employed are then the employers are in competition with each other for that desired labour and the profits to be made from employing it. That means that wages are bid up for those now scarce as well as desirable workers.

This is actually Marx’s description of how wages rise:

Now she has lost her job. Begum believes it is primarily because she is a union member. But she doesn’t seem too fazed. One thing that has changed is her self-assurance, the pride in her abilities: “I am not worried. I am a skilled worker; I will just go and get another job.”

As ever it is competition that improves things. Competition for our custom betters the price and quality of what is produced for our delectation. Competition for our labour means both freedom and higher wages, better working conditions.

Competition, the one thing that economies really need.

Happy birthday, Oleg

Oleg Gordievsky was born on October 10th, 1938. He was almost certainly the most important spy of the Cold War, as a high-ranking KGB officer and head of their station in London, while secretly working for British Intelligence from 1974 to 1985.

He was a conviction spy, and his initial refusal to accept money when he was recruited alarmed the British, since this was a major way they controlled agents. Initially stationed in Berlin just before the wall was built, he became disillusioned with the Soviet system when the wall was put up to keep the population imprisoned. The last straw for him was the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 to extinguish its programme of liberalization.

Posted to Denmark, he began behaviour that indicted to Danish Intelligence that he might be recruited. MI6 were called in, and the overtures began. He was able to feed MI6 with detailed knowledge of Soviet spying activities in Western countries. Even more significantly, as he rose in rank and position, he had access to the thinking of the Soviet leadership via the briefings they sent out to foreign KGB stations. When he became head of the KGB station in the Soviet Embassy in London, he was able to pass on to MI6 full details of the Kremlin’s thinking.

He helped avert a nuclear war in 1983 when the stream of messages from Moscow indicated that they thought a planned NATO exercise was cover for a planned first strike against the USSR. As the Warsaw Pact prepared a military response to it, an alarmed Gordievsky hastily alerted MI6, who passed on his warning to America. The exercise was drastically scaled back, reassuring the Soviets that their presumption had been mistaken.

Gordievsky also alerted the West that Mikhail Gorbachev, then a figure little known outside the USSR, was being groomed as a future Soviet leader. He was of extraordinary use in the run-up to the Reykjavik Summit between Gorbachev and Reagan, at one stage briefing both sides. He advised Reagan not to concede on the Strategic Defence Initiative, saying that the Soviets could not compete militarily or financially. The summit ended without agreement because scrapping the SDI was the top item on Gorbachev’s agenda. The Soviet system subsequently collapsed, as Gordievsky had predicted.

His identity was betrayed by the high-ranking CIA officer, Aldrich Ames, who sold secrets to the KGB to fund a lavish lifestyle. Recalled to Moscow, drugged and interrogated, he was then rescued, or ‘exfiltrated,’ by a daring MI6 operation that smuggled him out through Finland in the boot of a car. The account in Ben Macintyre’s “The Spy and the Traitor” is as thrilling as any spy fiction story.

In 2007 Gordievsky was appointed Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) for "services to the security of the United Kingdom," the same honour the fictional James Bond received. The security at his safe house “somewhere in London” has been stepped up after the Skripal poisoning, and there is no doubt that ex-KGB President Putin regards him as one of the worst enemies his country has ever had.

In the West, however, we owe him a debt of gratitude for the way he opposed, and helped to bring down, the poisonous ideology that was inflicted on so large a part of humanity for so many decades. He did so at great risks to his own safety because it was a cause he believed in passionately. On this day we offer our thanks and say “Happy 81st birthday, Oleg.”

Sometimes, the SNP get it right

Scotland has become the first country in the UK to ban disciplining your child. Too right.

Naturally, the pro-smacking children lobby (Brendan O’Neill and friends) is up in arms at the awful political correctness of the whole thing - and says being disciplined as a child helped him develop self-control. Last week, he went on national television and called for riots because the current state of British politics upsets him. 

Donnelly & Strauss (2005) define disciplining your child (of the kind that has been outlawed) as ‘the use of physical force with the intention of causing a child to experience pain, but not injury, for the purpose of correcting or controlling the child’s behaviour.’ The Brendan O’Neill’s of the world are rallying against it for reasons of individual liberty - parents should be free to raise their kids how they think they should be raised.

At the Adam Smith Institute, the ‘individual liberty’ argument resonates in many areas of policy. Of course, there’s a free to choose argument in most cases, and most of the time the individual liberty argument is wholly appropriate - but on corporal punishment for kids, the evidence simply doesn’t stack up.

The ‘it never did me any harm’ line doesn’t hold. Adults who are disciplined physically as a child are more likely to suffer mental health problems, and to behave in anti-social ways. According to Good Therapy, severe spankings can undermine brain development in children. A recent study (Merikangas, K, Nakamura, E & Kessler, R, 2009) notes that children who were spanked at least 12 times per year for 3 years had less grey matter in areas of the brain linked to mental health challenges and addictions. Researchers suggest that, contrary to Brendan O’Neill’s arguments on self-control, this may be because children who are spanked don’t learn to control their own behavior. Rather than becoming self-dependent, children who are spanked are perpetually afraid of being punished by external authorities and are, as a result, more likely to defer to authority or require an authoritative figure.

There are legitimate arguments against the law that don’t go down the ‘spanking children is fine’ line. It will be virtually impossible to enforce in any meaningful way, and there’s arguments that locking a parent up may not be conducive to healthy development either. But the amount of holes in the arguments of those in favour of discipline is pretty ridiculous. In his article (on Spiked) Brendan O’Neill makes the claim that disciplining children is fair because children are dependents - and rely on adults/parents to treat them in ways in which they wouldn’t treat other adults - such as cleaning them, feeding them, and more. The obvious flaw in this is that children are technically ‘dependents’ until the age of 18 - which is why they serve juvenile sentences for crimes, can’t buy alcohol, and generally can’t do a lot of the things adults can.

There’s a case for changing the ages at which you can legally do several things - not least vote - but I don’t think O’Neill would comfortably make the case for parents being able to discipline an 18 year old. 

As is often the case with public policy - politicians failed to devise watertight legislation. As mentioned, it will be difficult for the law to be enforced particularly well given the fact that many children are not in much of a position to report on what goes on in their home - but in principle the policy is a sound one.

The evidence is overwhelming. Disciplining children isn’t conducive to sound, healthy development - nor does it encourage kids to ‘obey’ their parents. Taking steps to prevent it is right.