The Samovar

Climate change poll
September 26, 2007, 3:08 am
Filed under: Environment, Politics | Tags: , ,

The BBC reports that most people around the world think that climate change is being caused by man and that we need to do something about it.

An average of 79% of respondents to the BBC survey agreed that “human activity, including industry and transportation, is a significant cause of climate change”.

Nine out of 10 people said action was necessary, with two-thirds of people going further, saying “it is necessary to take major steps starting very soon”.

Kind of encouraging. I guess this means that ‘global warming denial’ isn’t having as much effect as the news might suggest.

I do wonder though what is in the minds of the presumably 11% of respondents who don’t think that humans are a significant cause of climate change but do think that action is necessary.

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Ideology posing as rationality
August 27, 2007, 11:37 pm
Filed under: Economics, Environment, Politics

One of the defining themes of the New Labour government is that it claims not to do anything ideological, but just “what works”. But in fact, it’s largely just a cover. They invent elaborate and confusing ways of evaluating options so that their preferred choice seems to be objectively the best. PFI/PPP projects are the usual example of this, but this extremely interesting (although a little dry) article shows they’ve been doing the same thing with their road building programme.

Studies show that new roads do not solve congestion – they just generate more traffic. They add to pollution and, of course, they raise Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions. Road transport already generates 142m tonnes of CO2 a year – about 25 per cent of Britain’s total. As the European emissions trading scheme puts an ever-higher price on carbon, those emissions could cost the taxpayer increasingly dearly.

The Treasury and Department for Transport know this, so why do their economists give their blessing to Labour’s £13bn roads programme?

The answer lies far away from public scrutiny in the arcane and biased rules under which proposed roads are assessed. These New Approach to Appraisal (Nata) rules were introduced by Labour in 1998…

Under Nata, road builders such as the Highways Agency and local authorities must submit detailed assessments of proposed transport projects to the government. These are meant to be balance sheets showing the costs, benefits and environmental impacts. In theory this is a good thing, but in reality the rules are designed to make road schemes look better than any greener alternative, every time.

Take section 3.5.11 of the Nata rules. This awards extra points to schemes that generate more traffic because more cars and lorries on the road mean more fuel sales – and hence more tax revenue for the government. By contrast, public transport schemes, which take motor vehicles off the road and so reduce fuel sales and tax revenue, have points deducted.

Then there’s the rule on journey times, where planners can claim that a road will bring economic benefits if they can show it will cut the average journey time of each user. Every minute saved for a car driver is valued at 44p – which can be offset against the cost of building the road.

Just how biased this system can be is set out in the Nata rules that assign lower values to other types of traveller. A minute saved on a cyclist’s travel time, for example, isn’t worth 44p but just 28p. A bus-user’s time is valued at 33p a minute. The implicit assumption is that cyclists and bus-users make less contribution to the economy than car drivers.

Read the article for more… 

John McDonnell
May 15, 2007, 3:55 am
Filed under: Business, Civil Liberties, Economics, Environment, Politics

A while ago I wrote an entry on this blog about whether or not the Labour party could get my vote, including some suggestions and ideas about how you might make them electable. Anyway, Labour MP John McDonnell is contesting the Labour party leadership against Gordon Brown, and it turns out that many of his policies (summarised in the list below, and see also this document, which I’ve not yet had time to read fully) are the same as mine.

  • The withdrawal of British troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • The end to privatisation of public services.
  • A Real Living Minimum Wage of at least £7 an hour.
  • A green energy policy based on renewable power sources.
  • An increase in the Basic State Pension from £84.25 to £114 a week.
  • Defence of comprehensive education and the abolition of student tuition fees.
  • The restoration of trade union rights and civil liberties.

I haven’t yet had time to read up fully on the guy, so this is mostly just speculation on my part. It seems to me though that the only reason not to support a campaign like this is that it is a return to the bad old days when Labour couldn’t get elected (indeed, Gordon Brown made exactly this point in a debate with McDonnell). But if this is so, why is it so? I think the answer is that it’s not ‘business friendly’ which I take to mean ideologically committed to corporate interests. Is it possible to have a party that proposes some of the items on this list without being considered unfriendly to business, or is a commitment to social justice considered too strong a signal of business unfriendliness (probably not inaccurately)?

Could the Labour party get my vote?
March 6, 2007, 2:01 am
Filed under: Civil Liberties, Economics, Environment, Manifesto, Politics

The Labour party really couldn’t give a shit about my vote, and my opinion of the Labour party is that it is a lost cause. Left-thinking people of good conscience should not be supporting a party that does not and likely will not represent their views. But it’s an interesting question to ask what sort of Labour party we would like to see. In response to the wholly uninteresting Milburn-Clarke ‘open debate‘ on Labour’s future, Brian Barder has written an interesting 10-point plan for Labour.

To get me to vote Labour, they would have to do at least some of the following (in no particular order, and by no means a comprehensive list):

  1.  Civil liberties: abandon the ID card scheme, detention without trial, etc. More positively: ensure that all government institutions are designed so as to make it as difficult as possible for future less libertarian governments to misuse them.
  2. Democracy: reverse the control-freakery of the current government, their plans to introduce legislation bypassing parliament, etc. Instead, introduce voting and political funding reform including proportional representation and equal state funding for political parties above a (low) minimum size.
  3. Immigration: behave in a civilised way, not in a Daily Mail way.
  4. Economics: favour positive rather than regressive taxes (including flat taxes). Don’t make it axiomatic that the private sector is more efficient. Consider implementing some institutions that are decentralised but not market-based, as in parecon.
  5. Environment and transport: prioritise the construction and improvement of environmentally friendly forms of transport as a matter of urgency! Tinkering around with marginal incentives won’t do the trick.
  6. Public sector: reforms should be designed to improve the lives of public sector workers as well as improving the efficiency and effectiveness of institutions.

Yeah my plan’s probably even less electable than Brian’s. Not all of it has to be though. The major obstacles would probably be immigration (because ours is a very xenophobic country) and taxation (something that is very difficult to sell as being positive, and understandably given some of the stupid stuff governments spend money on).

I should probably include something about crime and foreign policy in there too, but it’s late and I’m tired. Now who wants to be the first to tell me that my ideas are idealistic and unworkable?

Review: Anarchist Bookfair
October 23, 2006, 12:55 am
Filed under: Activism, Anarchism, Civil Liberties, Economics, Environment, Politics

Yesterday I went to the anarchist bookfair in London. It was quite an interesting event.

General impressions

Although I call myself an anarchist, I had never been to any anarchist event before, so it was interesting to see the sort of people who turned up to it. There was a healthy mix: what you might call lifestyle anarchists in various costumes; political activists, either tightly or loosely affiliated to anarchism; intellectual types; young people, including quite a few children; old people; etc. Dreadlocks and mohicans were the haircut of choice. One thing that was quite noticeable was that almost everyone was white. I think that probably bears thinking about. The contrast with Holloway Road, where it was held, was striking. But then again, the contrast with Waitrose supermarket which was next door was probably even more striking.

I went to two talks. One by Michael Albert of ZNet talking about parecon, which was pretty good. I’d heard pretty much everything he said about this before from reading articles of his online, but the discussion afterwards was quite interesting. I’m glad that he was talking about it because I think it’s a really important idea that deserves to be better known, particularly in the UK. The other was by someone who it turns out is some mainstream psychologist, talking about how politicians use our fear to manipulate us. Potentially interesting topic but she didn’t say anything that wasn’t obvious, and it was very, very slow. I left halfway through.


I went to two discussion groups. The first one was organised by the London Anarchist Forum, and was on the subject of anarchism and environmentalism. There were lots of interesting ideas, but nothing groundbreaking. We talked a little about whether or not anarchists should cooperate with mainstream political parties, or even the Green party, on this issue. The major arguments against were that (a) it isn’t effective because when parties gain power they usually sell out and don’t do all the good things they said they were going to do, and (b) that if you have capitalism you can’t solve environmental problems and so you can’t really work with any group that basically approves of capitalism. We didn’t spend enough time on the topic to deal with it thoroughly. I was going to say that working within a political party can help to achieve modest victories, and was going to raise the question of whether or not it is worth expending a lot of effort to achieve modest environmental victories. I did say that because the problem of the environment is so pressing and so potentially catastrophic we couldn’t afford to be so idealistic about how we approached it. I think that we need to do everything we can to address environmental problems using whatever approach might work, even if it means organising together with people whose views we fundamentally disagree with. After this, we spent some time talking about particular things you might do. To me, most of these seemed like quite small symbolic gestures, but I haven’t really made my mind up about this sort of thing in general.

The second discussion I went to was about ID cards. This discussion actually worried me deeply. Not because of the subject matter which I already knew all about and I’m already very worried about it, but the ignorance of the participants. A lot of people seemed to be concerned about things which were irrelevant or factually inaccurate. For example, one man was worried about what an iris scan might potentially reveal about you. Even if you could tell things about people from an image of their iris (which is dubious), this is not an issue because biometric scans don’t keep a copy of the image of your iris, only an electronic signature of it from which it isn’t possible to recover the original image. There seemed to be very little realisation that the real problem with the UK ID card proposals is not the card itself but the database that goes with it and the fundamental change that entails in the relationship between the individual and the state.

I also thought that the suggestions people were making were strategically very unsound. There was a lot of focus on the card itself, the cost of it, fears about iris scanning technology, etc. It seems obvious to me that if you base your campaign against something on things that are not fundamental to it, you’re bound to be caught out later on. As far as I was concerned, my main conclusion from this discussion was that a lot of effort needs to be made to educate activists about exactly what the problem is with the ID card proposals. Unfortunately, we ran out of time so I didn’t get a chance to make the point that it ought to be linked to protests against other repressive measures such as anti-terrorism legislation because they are both manifestations of the same problem.


As well as the talks and discussions, they also had stalls for selling books or for individual groups to promote themselves. I spent a very short time wandering around these, but I was quite tired after about 5 hours of talks and discussions, and the rooms were incredibly hot and crowded so I left pretty quickly. I think next year they need to allocate more space for this part of the bookfair, and maybe they even need a larger venue.

I also think they could profitably spread it over two days. There were a lot of discussions and talks that I couldn’t go to because they clashed with others. Maybe this is just inevitable but I think this could easily have been a two day event. I missed out on two discussions about terrorism, the state and prisons, and one on immigration and border controls. If I had the energy, I would have gone to the discussion about whether or not the concept of class war was still a useful one.

Overall, the actual ideas of anarchism were not much discussed, but I don’t think that’s actually a bad thing. I think that most things that need to be done don’t actually need the concepts and ideas of anarchism, but that if people drift towards it when organising or discussing things with anarchists then that is fine.

Kyoto, the prisoner’s dilemma and the rule of law
October 2, 2006, 7:48 pm
Filed under: Economics, Environment, Politics

Woodpigeon wrote an entry about Al Gore’s film An inconvenient truth, mentioning that there is a problem at the heart of the Kyoto protocol related to the prisoner’s dilemma. The protocol only really works if everyone is on board, but if everyone else is cooperating there is a huge incentive to defect (i.e. for you to be the polluter whilst everyone else is cutting down). Zhou Fang made a similar point on his (her?) blog.

However, after thinking about it I wonder if this is really the problem. If it were, you would expect every country to be defecting, whereas in practice a lot of countries are cooperating, and it is only a few (notably the US) that are defecting. There is a positive model of cooperation, which is the rule of law in democratic countries. As an individual, it is never in your interests for there to be any law that stops you from doing something. However, as an individual you benefit if the law exists because everyone else must also obey it. However, there is an additional problem which is enforcement of the law, and in the case of Kyoto the two issues (of agreement and enforcement) are sort of connected.

Woodpigeon says:

The only way long-term co-operation seems to work is when it is imposed from a higher authority. The higher authority says “this is how you must behave”, and if you defect, the higher authority imposes strict penalties against you. To meet the challenge of global change in this context, it seems to me you would need a single world government, and a pretty dictatorial one at that. I’m not sure if too many people would be very happy with this. I certainly wouldn’t be.

If you think about it though, there is no higher authority in a single state, enforcement of the law is conducted by individuals who are part of that state and are also subject to those laws (police, lawyers, judges, prison officers, etc.). What we have is a system of cooperative enforcement. That is, if you defect (break the law), the other members of society agree to collectively punish you. As it happens, this procedure is now very rigid and highly organised, and so it sort of looks like it’s being enforced by a higher authority. In practice, this is probably the most accurate way of looking at it, but it could equally well be seen as a sort of social contract with enforcement carried out by a particular, cooperative mechanism (the system of police, courts, etc.).

The question then is could this same sort of mechanism work in the case of Kyoto? You would need an agreement where defectors were collectively punished by their peers, perhaps by economic sanctions (thus raising the costs of defection to the point where it was rational to cooperate). The problem is that it is not a society of peers. What makes the rule of law in a single nation work is that every individual is roughly equal in power. No one person can stand up against the whole of the rest of the society, and neither can any small group (again, in practice this might not be quite true, but bear with me). This condition for the correct functioning of this sort of peer enforcement contract is missing in the case of the Kyoto treaty. No nation can afford to sanction the US because its economy is so dominating. In order to be able to make an agreement like the Kyoto protocol work, you would need to have a world order without any single dominant economic power. Perhaps the rise of Europe as an alternative economic power might work here?

Green taxes
September 21, 2006, 12:00 am
Filed under: Economics, Environment, Politics

Apparently Menzies Campbell wants to scrap the Lib Dems policy of a 50% rate of tax on earnings over £150k in favour of “green taxes”, that is taxes on polluting behaviour. Given this, it seems like an appropriate time to ask the question: are green taxes sustainable?

Now, since he is proposing scrapping the 50% policy in favour of green taxes, he clearly expects to use the expected revenues generated as a basic part of his budget. Someone (I can’t remember who I’m afraid, it might have been Chris Doidge, but it might not), pointed out in an earlier conversation that either these taxes raise lots of money, in which case there must still be lots of polluting activity, or they fail to raise lots of money, in which case there would be a budget shortfall. Strictly speaking this isn’t true, it could be the case that you could expect to reduce polluting behaviour but not eliminate it, and anticipating the reduction in polluting behaviour as a consequence of these taxes you could estimate the revenues that would be produced. However, there does seem to be something slightly perverse about this (and do we really believe that they’re capable of doing these sorts of calculations?).

There is another problem. Presumably, we would hope that in the long term polluting behaviour would significantly reduce over time, which would mean that to maintain constant revenue rates from green taxes, we would have to increase these taxes over time to compensate. As the rate of taxation got ever higher, the illogic of the tax would become ever clearer, and eventually an alternative source of revenue would have to be found. In essence, the revenue generated by the green taxes would be used, presumably, for wealth redistribution, but rather than taxing the wealthy you would be taxing the polluters which seems unfair on the face of it.

So, although I am in favour of policies which reduce polluting behaviour, and I am in favour of wealth redistribution, I am not at all sure about this policy. It seems like a short term attempt to introduce stealth redistribution of wealth, which fails to address any systemic or long term problems. Perhaps it is justified as a short term measure because of the current right wing trend in politics though?