What type of MP do we want?


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


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


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


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


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?


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


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?


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.

Lessons in morality


A leader in the Daily Telegraph yesterday exposed one of the deep seated flaws of our parliamentary system. It called for MPs to be allowed to decide laws on moral issues, in this instance whether people should be allowed to aid those ending their life. This is in light of the Law Lords asking the Director of Public Prosecutions to clarify the existing legislation on assisted suicide and the Telegraph fearing that the drawn up guidelines would in fact create new law.

The Telegraph recognises the fact that Parliament has spoken on this issue, with the rejection three years ago of Lord Joffe's Euthanasia Bill and just recently Lord Falconer's amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill. Calls for an adjournment debate following the summer recess, despite Parliament's continual ignoring of the public, are naive. The public's feelings towards assisted suicide/euthanasia have remained constantly in favour of it over the past few years.  With over 65% of people in a variety of  surveys wanting to see non-prosecution of those that assist others; as well as being legally able to undertake medicinal euthanasia should they so choose. Demanding MPs act and decide what the law should be exposes the democratic deficit in relation to morality: namely that MPs would mostly likely vote based on their own morality/values. Thus negating their constituents views and exhibiting a truly Platonic approach to governing, as can be seen by Nadine Dorries upcoming campaign, ensuring that a mature approach to euthanasia isn't taken.

An MP is not instantly elevated to the Heavens and instilled with divine wisdom upon election. And they are unlikely to pack the chamber out during the debate (at most you would probably see around 75-100 discussing this issue). MPs are human like the rest of us, and while they should discuss this issue the outcome should represent the will of the people. It should not be the view of the narrow out-of-touch minority that sit on the green benches in the Commons. Asking MPs to make value based morality judgements is akin to asking a professional car thief to valet park your car.