Friday, 8 June 2007

Question Time takes advantage of senile old man

I’ve missed almost all of the current series of Question Time, so tonight I was determined to watch it. For now, you can too, as tonight’s programme should be available online, but the BBC have previously proved bad at maintaining their archive.

Julia Goldsworthy (only third place? Your readers are mad, Stephen!) was pretty good, but hamstrung by being sat next to a bumptious buffoon (see below). Francis Maude was incredibly dull. Boris Berezovsky was interesting during the first half of the programme, which was devoted to Russia. And Melanie Philips was the token Daily Mail journalist, there to stir the pot on the far right (“I’m afraid I am one of that strange breed of people who are actually not persuaded of the man-made global warming theory at all.”)

To stir the pot on the far left, however, was Tony Benn, and he stood out from the crowd as singly the most bone-headed panellist that David Dimbleby could possibly have found. In just one hour, he managed to accuse Britain of locking up Nelson Mandela, suggested that Britain should not seek to extradite Andrei Lugovoi over the murder of Alexander Litvinenko lest it upset the Russians, and suggested that the Russians might fear the fairness of British justice because of Guantanamo Bay (which is, as some of my more sharp-eyed readers may have noticed, on a different continent from either of the protagonists in this case).

His most ignorant and facile point, however, was in opposition to carbon trading. He argued that the issue of greenhouse gasses was one of rationing, and that carbon trading was the equivalent of selling the single loaf of bread in a lifeboat to the highest bidder (“so that the rich gobble it up”). He catagorically opposed “marketing of ration books” and insisted that we share the right to emit carbon. This is both economically-illiterate and dangerous, but it is typical of a man who believes that governments are best placed to distribute both rights and wealth from on high.

In fact, carbon trading is the only means of ensuring that the right to emit a limited amount of carbon is distributed most efficiently. Most efficiently does not mean equally, of course; Benn may on the face of it be an egalitarian, but human progress depends on the efficient use of carbon, not its equal distribution. If we were each given our ration of carbon-emissions and banned from trading them – as was the equivalent during the 1940s and 1950s when the War coaliton and then the Labour government rationed food and banned its trade – those desparate to emit carbon would be restricted from doing so, while others with no particular need would be endowed with a largely useless permit.

A much fairer system, and one that would generate far more wealth for everybody, would see the government selling the credits, so that those that valued them most could secure them. We would all benefit from the money raised, which could be spent on establishing carbon sinks, buidling alternative energy infrastructure, or researching other solutions to global warming (or, for that matter, spent on health, education, or handed out to citizens as a form of dividend).

Anyway, it is likely to be primary polluters who need credits, rather than end-users. As long as the manufacturers of electricity and petrol and aviation fuel have to buy credits, our carbon emissions will be priced into our electricity bills, the cost of driving and the price of our holidays. This is a far fairer and more efficient means of distributing the right to emit carbon than government rationing. Bear in mind that rationing stretched well into the 1950s because governments, once endowed with the power, were reluctant to let it go. If you’re really worried about the poor, the solution is to enrich them and let them buy carbon-intensive goods alongside the rich.

Still, it should not be a surprise that Benn is confused, as he is clearly becoming senile. Only that can explain his daftest comment: that he is a libetarian. Tony Benn, the author of the “longest suicide note in history”, which would have arrogated more power to government than Britain had seen since the Stewarts, claimed to be a libertarian. The man’s clearly gone mad!


Laurence Boyce said...

Nice one Tom. Good to see the old dinosaur debunked. Last night’s show was actually one of the few I didn’t watch. A few moments into it, I just lost the will to live!

Kit said...

"In fact, carbon trading is the only means of ensuring that the right to emit a limited amount of carbon is distributed most efficiently."

WRONG! You are forgetting that taxing carbon is the far better solution. Don't take my word for it read Tim Harford in the FT:

Julian H said...

It constantly amuses me when those on the Left describe themselves as "libertarian", or even worse "liberal". What they mean by this is: "I believe the government should take wealth from individuals as it wishes, and engage in social engineering - however, I'm a libertarian because I kind of think it's ok if a kid smokes dope or has gay sex". Equally conservative "libertarians" who operate on a "we should be free to hunt / make money / have roof extensions but don't get me started on immigration / drug legalisation".

Onto a more serious matter - I agree that Goldsworthy should have been above Willott in the poll, but Kirsty Williams deserves her winner's medal.

Tom Papworth said...

Actually, Kit, I thought about this rather carefully.

Carbon Taxes do not convey a right to emit a limited amount of carbon. They encourage reductions, but the amount emitted is still decided by individuals judging the worth of emitting.

In other words, Carbon Taxes set a price for carbon but the amount emitted can fluctuate. By comparrison, Cap and Trade sets an actual limit, and the price varies.

Personally, I have generally supported a Carbon Tax (and it is long-term Lib Dem policy), but my point here was to stress that Tony Benn is a bone-head.

liberal said...

I watched the programme but can barely remember Benn as I couldn't see beyond the swivelling eyes of the insane Melanie Phillips....

Anonymous said...

Many of those who associate with the left seem to find it impossible to agree with a form of pollution (specifically CO2) abatement that does not ALSO address general issue of inequality already present in society. A carbon tax or cap and trade scheme will not lead to greater inequality, and has the prospect of benignly solving our climate change problems. Cheap flights will get more expensive, and poorer people will not be able to take them, but this is due to them having less money (a question of inequality) not with unfair pollution.

One possibility would be to allow each citizen a notional emitions allowance, and then the poor can get extra income by forgoing their entitlement for cash, or as I think you implied Tom, use that money for government expenditure, and then lower other taxes. The second options, that Tony Benn seems to prefer, is fiddling while Rome burns.

I think a good counter analogy for Mr Benn would be to imagine the rationing of say, flour, with no chance to trade. Everybody could bake their own bread, but selling the flour to a baker would be forbidden! Some people it seems would prefer everyone to be equal and poor, rather than unequal and rich.