Monday, 28 February 2011

Inflation & What to do about it.

There is no doubt that the cost of living is rising fast. Oil, Food and Money (interest rates) are all getting, or about to get a lot more expensive. However as I said on Friday moring to those unfortunate enough to be both up at 5:30am and listening to Radio 5-live, the Libyan crisis and the wider revolutions in the Middle East are not the underlying reason for Oil to be at $100, nor are Chinese crop failures or poor harvests in the USA the underlying reason for agricultural commodities to be going through the roof.

When there is inflation in the system - prices going up - the orthodox response is to raise the cost of money, reduce the amount of money in the system by making it harder for people to borrow, spend and invest. This has the effect of slowing economic activity, and so, conversely, when the economy slows, you reduce rates to get the economy moving. However, the effectiveness of raising rates in reducing inflation is limited when almost all the inflation comes from things like import prices for oil and foodstuffs, and one-off increases in tax, and almost all effectiveness it has there is due to higher interest rates strengthening a currency.

So if we raise rates to strenghthen the currency, what happens to the export-led growth we're told is necessary to get the economy moving in the face of a weak consumer in the UK?

The real reason for the rise in commodites is the flip side of interest rates. In the UK it should surprise no-one that reducing interest rates increases the price of property. This is because the supply of property cannot be raised quickly, and if you increase the volume of money chasing a resourse with short-term inflexible supply, it should be no surprise when the price goes up.

The same is true of wheat and oil in a way it is not true of manufactured goods whose supply can be rapidly raised. So why do media commentators persist in putting geopolitical reasons behind the oil price, and pointing to droughts and local harvest failures for agricultural commodites (when there are such events somewhere every year) when the real culprit is simple. Quantitative easing across the developed world - the USA, Japan and the UK have all indulged - increased the supply of money, and because no-one wanted, or could get a mortgage on property, it inflated the prices of other assets: first financial assets such as bonds, then shares. This went as far as the market thought prudent, meanwhile it also started to feed into commodities. More money chasing a fixed (in the short-term) supply of oil and wheat. Very little of the debased new currency went into "stimulating" business, and instead, it lined the pockets of petro-dictators.

Interest rates in the UK have to rise, but apart from currency effects, this will have little effect on inflation, and may yet stimulate increased wage demands. Raising interest rates too soon risks stagflation. Too late risks runaway inflation and asset price bubbles (if we're not already there). I suspect therefore that Interest rates will start to rise a bit later than May and caution will be the watch-word.

In the mean time, short-term substitution effects of Libya's unusually light, sweet (low-sulphur) crude aside, there is an idea that widely expressed idea that oil is marching ever upwards (eg raedwald who has summed up the opinions of an average well-read non-expert). I am not so sure. There is no physical shortage of Oil. The same arguments got their airing in 2008, and the price subsequently dropped back. I am convinced the monetary effects, once they are through the system will lead to drops in the price, and I am equally sure that everyone will be putting this down to "new democratic stability in the middle-east".

If interest rates rise too much, then under such a scenario, the UK then looks like flirting with deflation as falling commodity prices and a strong Pound mean everything starts to look cheap.

On such things are economic cycles made. People ascribing the wrong cause and effect, and getting the controls wrong. When they're right, it's probably for the wrong reason. Most of the time, they're not too bad and the market interest rate is not set by the bank, but by Libor. Perhaps it's time to get rid of the anacronism of a Bank of England base rate altogether, and just set everything off Libor, which has decoupled from Base in recent years? Let the market decide how much money they need. The MPC, independent though it is meant to be, is still too statist. Setting interest rates has been described as attempting to drive a truck down a road at night with a blacked-out windscreed, only using the rear-view mirror. Oh and the back window's cracked. No-one can have enough information to set an interest rate, so why try?

So the correct answer to what to do about inflation is 'Nothing'. Governments shouldn't even be doing what they're doing now by attempting to control the money supply (this argues for "free banking", a subject for another post). Leave well alone. This lesson is applicable to anything governments do. Even where governments MIGHT be able to help, the chances are they'd make a mess, so the precautionary principle and all available evidence everywhere points to Austrian School economics and Political Libertarianism. However governments don't like to be told "nothing, in fact stop what you were doing before" when asking "what should we do?" So politically it's a non-starter.

Small-state libertarians therefore suffer the fate of Cassandra: we're right, but no-one believes us.

Thursday, 24 February 2011


Not in Employment, Education or Training - describing the young, long-term unemployed. Some bloke from a Blairite think-tank, Demos was brought on to Radio 4's 'Today' to discuss the idea that Youth unemployment was growing, had been growing for some time and young people are finding it hard to get the first jobs.

"Entry level work has dried up for the last 10 years..."
...he said, though he did not make the connection, the national minimum wage act was introduced in 1998, at a low level at first, where it had little immediate effect. However the populist ratchet - steady increases in the minimum wage (often clawed back by Gollum Brown in tax-rises) has slowly done what we savage right-wing nut-jobs said it would: make the unskilled totally uneconomic to employ.

NVQs have their place - when earned on the job they can demonstrate skills learned, but the statist idea that Government training schemes and a bit of paper can make someone attractive to an employer must be challenged for the idiocy it is. The only skill most unemployed lack is the regular habit of work, and this can ONLY be addressed by a job - a first job is going to be easy, boring, possibly unpleasant and probably low-paid. That's why they demonstrate willing. An NVQ from a government mandated training scheme suggests you aren't willing to take shitty work, and aren't very bright either.

The halting, stilted interview with a NEET reinforced an impression of a state "education" system which fails to prepare people for any form of work - her speech peppered with
" um..."
I thought she was a teenager. She was 24. Her NVQ (National Vocational Qualification) had not, as she thought, helped her into a career in journalism, but had instead signalled (clearly and accurately) that she was, as the unkind acronym suggested, 'Not Very Quick'.

The demos interviewee suggested removing employer contributions from NI for the under 25s. Of course that writes off those children of Blair who are 25 now, but have never worked and risks having young people sacked once they hit the line that suddenly makes them a bit more expensive to employ, but he is thinking along the right lines. But why not slash all taxes on the low-waged (I find it disgusting we take any tax at all off someone earning £10,000 a year), and scrap the policy which caused this human misery in the first place: The minimum wage. Let people get a job - as they gain skills their wage will go up, instead of throwing a generation on the permanent scrap-heap of unemployment.

That army of listless hoodies outside the local job-centre is not a result of the credit crunch - though some of it may be, most have been there for many years. It is mainly the result of policies introduced many years ago. The 25 year-olds, educated under Labour to expect well-paying jobs straight out of school, or conned into believing that a 2:1 in "media studies & Gardening" from Northampton university is in any way equivalent to a proper degree, now find the world of work to be not what they were promised. 50% of people getting degrees and demanding employers pay uneconomic wages does not change the economy. These kids' expectations were raised, then cruelly dashed.

Once again, the Labour party used legislation to try to make water flow uphill, and ended up destroying lives.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Barclays, in the firing line.

It had to happen sooner or later: UK Uncut, the provisional wing of Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs, have decided that Barclays, a business which moved heaven and earth in order to avoid a government bail out, selling businesses and going cap-in-hand to arab potentates instead, is now well capitalised and safe, having mostly paid off its creditors, who made a significant profit for their risk.

Well done all round - the people taking the risk profit for bailing out a business, which thaks to good management (including from the justifiably well remunerated Bob Diamond) continues to pay tax - income taxes, banking levy, NI, non-reclaimable VAT etc... and didn't cost the UK tax-payer a penny. If maximising tax revenues, as UK uncut claim to want to do, what is their problem? But corporation tax is, like 28%, innit. Tax avoidance! Waaaaaaa!

Now I don't need to tell you, this is wrong because, like all banks, Barclays lost enormous amounts of money during the crisis, it is allowed to carry those losses forward, and offset them against future profits, which it is now making. It only paid 9% corporation tax in 2009. I'm not going to crunch the numbers, others have done so, but should this really be surprising anyone with even the faintest idea of how the Tax system in any grown-up country actually works? Barclays is now making profits, largely thanks to the (boo!) investment bank, including the assets of (double boo!) Lehman Bros. which it bought in the fire-sale, and will pay corporation taxes when it's used up the brought forward losses, just like every other business in the UK.

What do UK Uncut actually want? Are they profoundly stupid, or deeply dishonest?

Thursday, 17 February 2011

A British Bill of Rights.

The news that convicted sex-offenders are to be given the right to appeal their life-time requirement to sign on the sex-offenders' register has prompted tabloid Paedogeddon and a reprive of the pre-election Tory policy of a British Bill of Rights. This usually comes up in Conservative circles when some Euro-Judge decides some vexatious piece of law which apparently flies in the face of mob rule natural justice. The Daily Mail cliche that "the Human rights of criminals have become more important than those of their victims" is, as ever, complete bollocks. In this instance there is no European element, as the judgement was handed down by the UK's supreme court applying British Law, the Human Rights Act 1998 - something Conservatives get worked up about too, because this too is seen as a dastardly Euro-plot to undermine common law.

I have no problem with the ruling. It does seem manifestly unfair that a man with no sexual interst in children will be on a list which in public immagination lumps him in with predatory paedophiles, for the rest of his life with no right of appeal, and may therefore get lynched one day when such information is leaked to the baying press. You don't need to do much to get put on the sex offenders' register, and the fact that it's harder to get off than the cold-call list from alternative telecoms providers does fly in the face of the principle that some offenders can be rehabilitated.

On the recent ECHR ruling I have little problem with prisoners being allowed the vote. On the other hand, the restriction of the franchise is not an unreasonable punishment. It takes a court to decide who's right, and only a vindictive bastard or rights obsessive gets worked up one way or the other. The point is that I would prefer a court rooted in British law, applying law drafed in accordance with the principles of common, rather than continental, law and subject to the Crown in Parliament, to decide rather than some unaccountable foreign body accountable only to itself.

The point to make is that a British Bill of Rights would put human rights law firmly within the British legal system, rather than being an impostition flowing from our membership of the EU. This is why I support a British Bill of Rights to replace the Human Rights Act 1998. However The British Bill of Rights will still enable judges to consider the rights of Sex offenders to appeal against a lifetime of second-class citizen status. British judges will still find in favour of the rights of Prisoners to vote. The idea that the rulings the Supreme Court interpreting the Bill of Rights come up with will be any different to the current system interpreting the Human Rights Act is risible.

Indeed a Bill of Rights which didn't allow rulings to displease The Sun would not be worth the paper it's written on.

These rulings are not "legislating from the bench". It is application of principle, which get lost in the hurly-burly of politics. Politicians who think that the 'primacy of parliament' means legislating vindictively in a manner likely to appease the Sun newspaper's 'hang em & flog 'em' approach to criminal justice will be dissapointed. The only difference will be the a reaffermation of the supremacy of British law within the UK, so criminals will still get "rights", but the Sun will no longer be able to blame "Europe" for this, so I suspect the policy's most voiciferous supporters today should be careful for what they wish.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Can a Five Year Old Understand what you do?

There were 2 instances reported this morning of Armed forces personel losing their jobs. 32 Warrant Officers, one of whom was in Afghanistan, were sacked by e-mail rather than being afforded the courtesy of being told by their commanding officer. This is just shocking incompetence by the MOD - still nearly 100,000 strong (ie nearly as large as the Army) yet despite (or perhaps because of...) this bureaucratic obesity, it cannot be bothered to check the timing of sending people e-mails.

In addition, leaked information revealed that 25% of the Air Force's trainee pilots, 100 or so, were to lose their jobs. Guys who've served 22 years and are on the long-service list know they're only in as long as they're useful. It's the young men and women being fired just as they complete training and with a few hours before they get their wings that I feel for. Officer training, even in the RAF, is tough enough without the fear of a pretty brutal cut. Worse is the fact that an RAF pilot will probably have thought about or considered little else through school and university, and will have to go to second choice employers who know they're second choice, with the fact they didn't make the cut on their record. For those young men and women it is going to be very tough, especially in the current economic environment, and some MOD desk-wallah leaking the plans doesn't make it any easier, on those fired, or those who still have a job.

Savings have to be made, even in defence whilst there's a war on. That's how seriously the coalition takes reducing the obscene budget deficit Labour bequeathed us, though quite why we should fire 100 pilots when we could fire 1,000 MOD bureaucrats is beyond me. Bureaucrats only care about bureaucracy, and their own little empire, never about the service they're supposed to be managing, so when there's cuts going around, it's the poor bloody infantry (so to speak) who get fired, not the shiny-arsed pen-pushers in whitehall.

It's not just the forces which suffer from Bureacratic cuntularity. Most of that Labour budget deficit was run up financing the fucking NHS, (the rest was used to ensure Labour voters don't have to work if they don't want to). The NHS is Labour's proudest achievement, yet the national bureaucracy is directly responsible for old people being left to starve or waste away from dehydration, because this is what happens when you let a bureaucracy run what is ultimately a human service. The main reason the state fucks up so catastrophically is that bureaucrats think process is more important than outcome, mainly because process is more easily measured. You can measure how often someone has to wait four hours for A&E. You can't measure how often someone needs their bum wiped or colostomy bag emptied. Thus, the simple, human function of nursing is neglected BECAUSE bureaucrats are in control.

In education, LEAs take up to a third of schools' budgets. "Consultation" has become an expensive way for local planning departments to say "no" to anyone other than Barratt developments PLC; the Crown Prosecution Service use a tick-box to ensure that anyone can do anything they like (to me anyway) and get off with a caution. Compliance and 'Human Resources' departments infest private firms, acting as a fifth column working for the state against the interests of the businesses they serve. Bureaucracies and the parasites who staff them are the curse of modern life.

If you work for the state, find a five-year old child. If he or she understands instantly what you do for a living, carry on. This means teachers, doctors, nurses, firemen, police offficers, soldiers or road-builders etc... will be ok. If not, then there's a good chance you aren't part of the solution, you're part of the problem. It might be worth thinking how many people would miss your work if you did the honourable thing by committing suicide this evening.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Optimism, for now.

For the first time since the invasion of Iraq, I now see an end to the "war on terror" with Egypt holding out the hope of a free and democratic Middle East, which exports more than oil and suicide bombers. The peacful and enthusiastic attitude of the protesters in Tahir Square, even after the regime-sponsored thugs tried to provoke violence; the measured response of the Army all bode well for the future, and give the lie to the idea that democracy isn't suited to the Arab street. It may mean the next revolution is Yemen, or that the next uprising in Iran may be successful and the last region of the world which resisted democracy starts the long march to free society.

Egypt now has a military interregnum, and many dissapointments may lay ahead - the military may not give up power, undemocratic forces may win a flawed election and so on. And even if a free democratic system takes root in Cairo, I would urge Egyptians to contain their expectations - democratic systems are not perfect, and do not in themselves lead to freedom and the rule of law, nor do they always lead to good government. What it does ensure is that tired, ineffectual or repressive regimes get booted out before they become a liability and stupid ideas such as socialism, get tested to destruction.

But whatever happens - there is now reason to be optimistic about the world right now, until politicians and religious leaders get together and screw it up for everyone, and for that optimism we can thank the Egyptian people.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

The 'Big Society' or big society?

Everyone, it seems, is cheering the demise of "the Big Society", and even Cameron seems to be dropping the capitalisation. The left think the concept is ideological cover for "cuts" and the right just think the whole thing is amorphous bollocks. Libertarians deplore the whole thing as Blairite "third way" crap by which politicians attempt to manipulate the people.

They're all right.

Over and above the cuts necessary to deal with the horrendous deficit bequeathed the nation by the previous Labour administration, it should surprise no-one that Tories think a smaller state is better, which means taxing, and spending less. Charities and the like will bleat about losing funds. How can you, they argue, demand that civil society achieve more, even as councils cut charity funding. Of course this is part of the point. A charity dependent on state or local Government funding isn't charity any more than the police are: it's an arm of the state. Meanwhile the right argue what's the point of cutting spending, only to hand the same money to people outside the state who have their own agenda better to let the charities function in the market. However, for far to many politicians, "The Big Society" allows them to be seen to be doing something with tax-payers' money - in this instance giving it to correctly branded organisations of varying merit - which doesn't subsequently demand too much of politicians by way of oversight. Funnily enough, this was the approach of the Labour Government to the "third way" organisations which are now screaming about "cuts". So, much of the Big Society's failure is merely a continuation of the failure of the Labour project under a different brand.

It depends on what the big society means - and it is more likely to work if it is, indeed as the left suggest, a cover for cuts. The whole point of a big society is that the state should cease to be the first port of call for people in solving every problem. Once people lose the habit built up in 13 years of absurdly interventionist Government, of expecting every community group to be funded by the state, every campaign group's expectation of an open ear to calls for new legislation, every branch of Government's expectation of seeing its annual budget grow, people will seek alternative provision first, and in most cases, find it better than bureaucratically delivered, top-down services delivered by central or local Government.

Even areas which are to remain state-financed, such as health and education will help in this process: GP fundholding means the local GP rather than an distant bureaucracy 'The NHS' will be responsible for healthcare. Likewise Free schools will allow the local education bureaucracy to wither as more schools escape the miserable embrace of Government. Don't think your school is working - open another. This means, in time, the direct umbilical chord of service provision direct from Government will be broken, leading people to think, and blame, locally for the success or otherwise of their services. If you're buying your education with a voucher, you blame the school for poor performance and crucially have the option of going elsewhere, rather than simply blaming 'the Government' for crappy service provided which you're expected to simply endure.Don't rate the education your local school is providing? move your child to another. Don't like how your GP operates? find a different one. Hopefully the expectation that "the council" should provide every service will likewise wither, and people will self-organise into community groups to achieve things without getting Government too deeply.

Not only will this eventually mean more responsive services, it will free government up for delivering roads without potholes and other things they've forgotten with the expansion of their role into providing "outreach" services.

The Big Society - Government encouragement of initiatives to persuade the people to take on roles for free previously paid for out of taxation - will fail. The if the 'big society' however is simply that which will grow into the space vacated by Government, then it will happen organically, naturally and without any input from government. Indeed government intervention will be resented. People just aren't in the mood to help the state. Instead, rather than state-funded "charity" which should wither, to be replaced by genuine, independent charity and community organisation operating without the facilitation of the state. Cameron should stop talking about the big society for a year or two, until that process is underway and there are examples of local groups delivering services without much input from Government to demonstrate the people no longer expect the state to step in to solve every problem.

So. The 'Big Society' is dead. Long live the big society.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

A headline you will not see on the BBC

More than half of Labour Donors "from The Unions"

Almost all donations to the Labour Party last year came from the Trades Unions, it was revealed last night. Trades Unions, shadowy organisation responsible for decades of industrial unrest in the 80's and 90's, were accused of not only buying policy, but also of influencing the choice of Labour leader. Union donations to Labour, which is bankrupt, buys them a say in elections to decide who leads the party. Union Barons strongly urged their members, who have a vote in the election of the Labour leader to back the younger Milliband against his Brother, a choice which was against the wishes of the Party's MPs. Mr. Milliband, known as 'Red Ed' because of his strong links to the Unions and left-wing views, has moved Labour sharply to the left since taking over from Gordon Brown last year, leading to suggestions that the unions have undue influence in Labour's adgenda. But Mr Milliband denied suggestions that the Unions were buying policy.

"it is ludicrous to suggest that Labour's almost pathalogical aversion to public sector cuts, even in the face of catastrophic fiscal circumstances, (which we caused) is anything other than insane adherence to outdated marxist economic dogma. It's ridiculous to suggest that the fact most of our funding coming from the public sector unions has any influence on our policy of spending ever more on unionised public-sector workers"
he lisped unconvincingly, before being firmly ushered away from our correspondent by two large men in UNITE-branded high-viz vests.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Urban Planning in the "War on the Motorist".

Motoring has never cost more? Not true says Joe Dunkley.

What is probably true is that motoring is a painful cost for many people. But paradoxically, it’s the fall in the cost of motoring that has caused this problem. During the good times of the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, more and more people have built themselves into a car dependency. Car ownership is higher than ever because the cost has been falling for so long. And so, with everybody owning a car, our houses have moved further from our work places, our village shops and services have closed, and the bus service has been withdrawn. This in turn pushes more people to buy and run a car, even if they can not really afford to do so and were quite happy living without one until the shops closed. And when the good times turn bad — when wages are frozen, when office locations are merged, and when redundancies are handed out — you can not simply give up the car. The world changed.
If one accepts this analysis, and I do, the problem is that this car dependency is now built into the very fabric of the environment. For 10 years, town centre housing developments containing 2, 3 and 4 bedroom dwellings have been built with only one parking space each - the law demands this. This basically renders them impossible dwellings for a household with two earners. This then forces those people into the only dwelling they can afford with more than one car parking space - the new-build estate of 3 bed "executive" homes on the edge of town - the ones a mile or more from any shop, pub or amenity. This forces, reinforces and habituates car use, not what the framers of the law desired.

The problem is the planning law is so restrictive, only the very rich can afford what they want. I know of no-one who dreams of an identikit "executive" home in identical bricks, to identical plans on identical streets made by the same people, to those on the outskirts of every other town in the land. But getting planning permission for anything else is nigh on impossible. The market must be opened up to other models of high-density living which facilitate cars as they are used but allow other means of transport. This means making it harder to build lots of identical dwellings and encourage smaller, more innovative builders. Tight regulation of planning, as in everything else, supports the big faceless player against the insurgent with good ideas. Does anyone else think it sad that "turn of the millenium architecture" will be dominated by Barrat estates? Without ideas, car ownership will continue to be built into the environment. I don't have any bright ideas, but I am sure someone does and Overprescriptive planning ensures their ideas are aborted.

The Labour government tried to price the motorist off the road. The market responded by making cars cheaper, and making petrol a loss leader for the shop. The government tried to make motoring more unpleasant by adding speed-bumps, but this just made buses and cycling equally miserable and encouraged people to buy bigger cars for which speed humps are less of a problem. Again, the diametric opposite of what was intended. The police tried to cut motoring by putting speed cameras everywhere and succeeded in alienating the hard-working middle classes.

The Tories hinted at a change of approach, and promised to end the "war on the motorist", but will succeed in merely in increasing congestion if they are successful in making motoring more pleasant. It is likely that cycling infrastructure will be seen as unnecessary spending in the age of Austerity so few journeys will be substituted. Despite the end of the "war", motoring will be continue to be miserable, whilst few alternatives are offered. If we continue to say the car is vital, it surely makes more sense to make car ownership less vital AND provide realistic alternatives.

The problem in the mean-time is not the cost of motoring. Even at the current 'take-the-piss' levels of taxation, a car is well within the means of most of the population (yes it is, financial reasons are rarely cited when people decide whether or not to drive. Outside London, failing eyesight amongst the old is a bigger reason for people to eshew driving). The reason that the great car society is struggling is that "we may have congested ourselves to the maximum level we can tolerate". Demand for road-space, and parking especially at specific times of the day, is the limiting factor in people deriving further utility from the car.

Once you accept this, easing the motorist's life becomes impossible for a politician to achieve. So what is a libertarian, aware of the vast convenience of private motor vehicles, to do? Well the approach of punishing the motorist by cost and technological surveillance has failed, and makes people miserable, which is not what we want. The trick is to make alternatives a realistic option, then encourage people to use them. Cycle lanes must be built (next to roads, the cost is negligible). Rail infrastructure must be developed, where economic. Bus, train and cycle must integrate much better than they do currently. How many people have attempted to research a trip to, for example, an airport by public transport, only to give up and take the car, because buses don't integrate with trains without a 2 hour wait in a damp "shelter". Even with the sheer cost and unpleasantness of airport car parking, most of the time public transport cannot compete.

The message to Government is stop punishing the motorist, he's doing that to himself, but instead make alternatives realistic: those of us who might WANT to cycle 40 miles to see family on a weekend should be ABLE to do so instead of being unable to find a route which doesn't involve a suicidal 3-mile stretch of fast, narrow b-roads. Any journey of less than 10 miles can easily be achievable by bicycle, but is rarely attempted because the roads are so unfriendly. Ensure what little infrastructure there is doesn't peter out into a pathetic half-arsed pot-holed track before eventually disappearing like the "national cycle route" between Cambridge and Newmarket.

Finally making people realise that the car addiction is something that they CAN do something about. People who cycle to work tend to be evangelical about the subject. I feel better and it saves money. Living near shops means that the hell of the supermarket car park is avoided. And because my commute is less than 20 minutes (because of hills, I've done the return journey in less than 10) I have an extra hour at work AND an extra hour at home compared to people commuting into London from where I live. "Nudge", much derided, is not "statism light". Pointing out that shortening your commute by living nearer work is like earning an extra £30k as far as happiness is concerned, is not "nanny statism". Happiness economics suggests people prioritise the wrong things: a big house over a short commute for example. To make people aware of the evidence and options is not oppressive. It's common sense. Above all providing choices in transport infrastructure is not nanny statism. It's liberating for those of us who have fallen out of love with the car.

So, the experiment in the great mortoring society has gone as far as it can go. Any further increases in the number or use of cars are likely to generate negative returns to human happiness. It is Government's role therefore to provide infrastructure to other alternatives: a network of cycle tracks and city infrastructure - not to exclude the car, but to probvide an alternative, to both tribes' benefit. Motorists should remember the most tireless campaigners for smooth roads are cyclists for whom a pot-hole is not only a punctured tyre, but potentially a broken collar bone. The infrastructure can and should be built with all road-users in mind.

Every time I write about cycling vs. driving, I get more comments than posts on anything else. Most cycling blogs are strongly anti car, and anti driver, and often fail to acknowledge the vast improvements in lifestyle the car has facilitated over the past 100 years. Those improvements have dried up because we've hit a fundamental capacity limit: the simple fact that cars have to be put somewhere when not in use. If a car park is too big, it takes too long to walk from the farthest space to the destination, thus limiting the number of people who can realistically drive to the (for example) supermarket or into a central business district. Cyclists and pedestrians see more than most the sheer waste of space those parked cars take from other, more productive uses. The privatisation of public space - of fast roads which are designed for cars and cars alone, herding pedestrians into windy flyovers and unwelcoming underpasses. Above all, a car is designed specifically for the comfort of those within it. The noise and speed makes everyone else resent cars, as they render huge areas of towns no-go areas for everyone else. The noise of revving engines is not relaxing. Motoring enthusiasts will not see the vast COSTS of building a society around one means of transport and regard any admission that road building and capacity increases are not going to have any effect on congestion, as heretical.

The tribes of road users react as any competing users of a scarce resource always do: They compete, savagely.

Changing factors such as school runs, and work start/finish times would increase the capacity. Perhaps tax incentives for companies and schools who start at unconventional times? Tax incentives to encourage home-working? This is the thinking behind GPS-based road pricing (though I have significant and probably insoluble privacy concerns about this). The list of potential sticking plasters on the problem of congested roads and the misery they create, is endless before you reach the "price the poor off the road" approach of the last government, however capacity freed in this way will continue to be used up.

I am not sure that anything will work in the long-run and that car use is always going to be unsustainable, Designing our towns and cities around a more human scale will help encourage walking, cycling and shorter commutes and that people will therefor be happier. Some form of private vehicular solution will always be needed however. Advocates of public transport will need to consider the 3am cross country drive when a parent is taken ill and accept that people's lives cannot be reduced a simple commute. Services such as street car provide a better solution for those who have managed to remove the car from their daily routine, and I suspect will become more popular.

Most libertarians are skeptical of "nudge" politics, and rightly so. Politicians love to try to control us. But urban planning is an important function of Government, even if it controls the space, facilitating (or destroying) communities, and remains the best hope for encouraging alternatives to the car (note this is different from discouraging car use). The truth is there is no single answer available at the moment. Intelligent urban planning has something to do with it, price has something to do with it. Above all, the alternative to the car must be made easier, especially cycling.

But I suspect the answer will come when the technology changes: when cars drive themselves. The new technology could well lead to new models of car use and ownership: instead of owning the vehicle - depreciation is the biggest cost facing the motorist - users will be able to use a car to take them to work, which will then go off and do something else - each autonomous vehicle could transport 3 people to work so Fewer cars will be needed for the same utility. Land, currently given over to parking, may return to lawns or flowerbeds. Or sheds where men tinker, anything other than a square of tarmac on which expensive engineering depreciates. Some may wish to continue to own their vehicle and pay for the privilege, and they should be continue to be free to do so. What we need is an urban environment ready for change.

I'll declare my interest. I hate driving. I regard it as a complete waste of time, stressful, misery-making hell of sitting in a box concentrating to an exhausting degree on a boring simple motor task. I can't wait until commercially available vehicles are summonsed from their parking space by text message, to pick you up from your home to whisk you wherever you wish to go whilst you concentrate on something else: a good book, the daily paper, your morning e-mails or whatever. Anything beats driving. Of course some people LOVE driving, the sound of the engine, the speed, the g-forces of braking and cornering, and having driven a really fast car round a track, I completely understand. But just as the Horse, once replaced as a means of transport, became a recreational hobby (to the enormous benefit of the horses themselves), driving too will be relegated to race-tracks. I doubt even the most hard-core petrol-head really relishes a commute through Slough on a damp and crowded Wednesday evening in February.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Media & the Egyptian Revolution

I've been watching Al Jazeera, who, since they've (officially) been kicked out of the country are probably telling the truth. What's interesting is the priorities of the other news organisations in reporting the story.

The BBC interview Polly Toynbee, who asks "where are the women's voices?". Meanwhile sky is reporting from the airport where the main story is: not as you might imagine, the imminent freedom of 80m Egyptians from a dictatorial police state, but the ordeal of some white people with horrible accents, whose holidays have been ruined and are now (Oh. My. God. It's AWFUL) sleeping in the airport as they try to get home. Disgusted by the warped priorities on display, I turned back to Al Jazeera, where I saw hundreds of men & women, on the street chanting slogans. True, the women are not chucking rocks at the police in any great numbers, but they're there. That answers La Toynbee's stunningly ignorant and self-reverential question. The media organisations are projecting their warped idea of their viewers own obsessions onto the back-drop of an inspiring moment in history. Or maybe Sky is reporting from the Airport because it's CHEAP? Who knows.

The channel to which I've been glued is Al Jazeera English, whose live feed on Friday night was particularly telling - state TV showing a calm Cairo on the right hand side of a split screen. Fires from burning police wagons and protesters cheering the deployment of the Army on the left, as the police, responsible for most of the deaths, are chased from the streets. I might not agree with the editorial line taken by Al Jazeera all the time, and in fact I would worry if I did. But the network is a force for good in a region with few media organisations the people can trust.

At 11pm on Sunday, the BBC rang me: "What's going to happen to the oil price?". "It's going up", I answer, "how far depends on the other dominoes to fall". Egypt is responsible for 1% of world Oil production, 2% of refining capacity and the Suez canal & pipeline carries another 4% or so to the west. Operations of both are, so far at least, unaffected. One other country in the region is responsible for 14% of world production. And the question I'm asking myself is whether you or I would be willing to pay $200 per barrel or more (taking a tank of petrol well over £100) in return for the fall of the house of Saud? As predicted, let's hope the dominoes keep falling. And one-day if these revolutions usher in democracy, politics with the middle east might not be all about oil & terrorists. At moments like this, optimism is not necessarily naivety.

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