Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Duncan Borrowman, MP

The BBC has just had an interview with "Duncan Borrowman, MP" to discuss the Derek Conway scandal.

Now I know that things are bad for the fiddling Conservative, but I didn't realise he'd already lost a by-election!

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Bromley Tory councillor publicly spanked

Well, it’s not often I return home to be asked “Do you think I’m sexy?” while being confronted by one of Bromley’s Conservative Councillors.
I should have seen it coming, of course. All the signs were there. The furtive emails, phone calls to people I knew, whispering and pointing. But at last the truth (and Councillor Gordon Jenkins’ secret) are out, splashed all over the front page of the local paper.

Jenkins is, or rather was, a Facebook flirt. The Tory from Bickley’s Facebook page – now sadly not available, having been removed and replaced by a very dull alternative – was a victim of that most virulent form of cyber disease (the online equivalent of Avian Flu), Application Addiction.

You know the sort of thing: there are zombies, pirates and vampires; top friends, hot friends, who-knows-what friends; there are geography tests, IQ tests and all manner of patience tests; and then there’s the sexy stuff. Jenkins’s own vice was risqué elements: Kinky Poke, Orgasmic!, Panty Raid and Massage Me applications abounded; we were asked to rate his body, consider whether he was flighty or frigid and even consider (Oh! I feel queasy just saying it) what sex toy he would be if he were a sex toy. Jokes abound.

That being said, finding his face plastered all over the cover of the Bromley Times this evening seems a bit cruel. Being a liberal myself, I really don’t care who wants to spank Cllr. Jenkins – though his ward colleague, the devoutly Christian and small-‘c’ conservative Portfolio-holder for Public Protection and Security may not be as open-minded. I don’t care if he has been rated as a hunk by the blue-rinsed members (dare I say “members”?) of the Bromley Conservative Association, or if somebody he met at conference wants to tweak some part of his body (electronically, of course, which now I say it doesn’t sound particularly pleasant either!). The truth is, he’s done nothing wrong, morally. Rather, he has succumbed to the temptation to get into a new internet fad and to get carried away.

Frankly, if there is any real criticism due to Gordon Jenkins, it is that he has been silly. My own Facebook page is far more prosaic. A couple of photographs taken while drinking and a lot of silly video clips from Pauline are about the limit of how foolish it gets. It’s not that I’m more prudish than Cllr. Jenkins (well, maybe a bit!) but that I’ve not got the time for Knight’s Names and Rate-a-mate. There simply aren’t that many hours in the day. But if Gordon has time to kill – his casework not withstanding – then who are we to judge.

There are plenty of reasons for voting out Tory councillors in Bromley. Above-inflation Council Tax rises; doubling of fees for adults in need of social services care in their homes; a widespread belief that they ignore the areas of the borough that present real challenges, such as Penge, the Cray Valley and my own ward of Crystal Palace. So many of the Tory councillors are either related to or married to another councillor it’s beginning to look like a family business! Fear of crime is rife, money is wasted on poorly-managed projects and their hypocrisy over the Green Belt is about to be tested.

However, having a bit of a risqué Facebook page is not one of them. If Gordon Jenkins has ever stood on a platform of traditional family values; if he has ever condemned others for their behaviour; if he has ever sought to use his office to impose his moral code or to point an accusatory finger, then he should not only be ashamed but should step down. If, on the other hand, he has always been open-minded in himself and in his conduct as a councillor, then the most he deserves is a few days of feeling like a bit of a prat. In fact, he probably doesn’t even deserve that.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Four swords of Communism

Is this the saddest communist fan-site in history?

Saturday, 19 January 2008

What socialism and fascism have in common, and why its always more popular to sling mud at the enemy

John Dixon has written about one particular example of the crass habit of hyperbole that pervades political commentary: the equating of socialism with liberalism and the use of terms such as “liberal mafia” and “liberal fascism”, particularly in America (where they confuse “liberal” with socialist).

One reason, as John rightly notes, is that extremism sells, though I would take issue with his statement that for “some reason extremism sells well in America”, as though the rest of the world were so much more measured and rounded. Extremism sells everywhere. Most of those reading or watching political polemics are not auto-didacts but consumers, mixing politics and entertainment. This is not inherently a bad thing, but does explain why Morgan Spurlock is more popular than serious works of dietary science. Similarly, it is easier to call the Democrats "liberal fascists" than to explain why both individuals and society benefit from greater individual freedom.

It's a shame, but in an era where people like to take bite-size chunks and move on, it's inevitable.
Nonetheless, there is a genuine criticism of the politics that would-be President Clinton (the subject of the “liberal fascist” claim that so irritated John) and her misnamed "liberal" associates espouse, which he accurately sums up when he says "...it merely means that the state treats you in a patronizing way... [T]hat's socialism." Indeed it is. Socialism (at least, State-Socialism) is based on the premise that Government is better placed to make decisions than individuals: so, for example, the Government knows better than I do how to educate my children, or what pension arrangements I need. This is patently false.

Similary, if John’s tongue was not firmly in his cheek when he wrote "I order you to watch" the interview in which the claim was made, it, too, would be an example of the socialist mindset: we will make you do what (we think) is good for you – as the Government is attempting with its new "lifestyle politics".

Ultimately, the link between socialism and fascism is that both are willing to use coercion to force individuals to comply with a set of rules aimed at achieving the philosophical aims (be they egalitarian or nationalist) of the ruling party. Nazism was also styled National Socialism, note. By comparison, liberalism (which has little in common with the philosophies and policies espoused by Democrats) tries to create a system that enables every individual to pursue their own goals, only circumscribing individual action where it would impede the freedom of others.

The main reason why socialism has not had the bad press that fascism got (being on the winning side of WWII notwithstanding) is that it has generally been implemented in a more dilute (Social Democratic) format, rather than full-on. This is the “Third Way” of which John says he is “a dedicated enemy”, and while it is clearly not as bad as it’s extremist (aka. Communist) variant, it remains fundamentally flawed because it is based on the principle that individuals are not as good at making decisions for themselves as are the elite, and that coercion should be used to bring them to heel.

Friday, 18 January 2008

Is this Tristan Mills dark secret?

Perhaps this explains how Liberty Alone is funded?

If so, it should make the Autumn conference more amusing!

Privatising the roads? - why roads are not a public good

At the special Manifesto Conference on Saturday, I muttered to a colleague that rather than continue with the congestion charge, we might be better off simply privatising the roads. While this was meant to be deliberately controversial, his response was quite surprising. “They are a public good” he replied, to which I responded “No they’re not.” It being a whispered conversation in the margins of a meeting, it could only continue along the lines of “Yes they are”/”No they’re not” until there was a real danger that the audience were going start joining in or we were going to be joined on stage by a pantomime dame.

Not being one to let things drop, however, I find myself needing to explain why roads are not a public good, both because it highlights errors about transport policy and because it highlights misunderstandings about other public goods.

Before we look at what a public good is, we need first to dispel one myth and so clear up what a public good is not. Public goods are not merely goods from which we all benefit. After all, as Adam Smith made clear, we all benefit from the activities of a baker (he provides us with bread thus obviating the need for us to learn to bake, build an oven etc.), but baking is not a public good. In the same vein, just because the economic activity that roads facilitate benefits us all does not make them public goods. Neither does the fact that they are free at the point of use make them a public good, for this would be to put the cart before the horse; just because things are provided in the manner of a public good does not mean that this is the right or best means of doing so.

The Economist defines a Public good as one which is available to all or to none: they are non-rival, non-excludable and not-rejectable. Dr. Paul M. Johnson adds that they “cannot practically be withheld from one individual consumer without withholding them from all … and … the marginal cost of an additional person consuming them, once they have been produced, is zero”.

Tellingly, none of these applies to roads. Indeed, the first highlights the key problem facing road-users today: roads are extremely rivalrous. There is a very limited amount of space, and so use by any one individual is at the expense of others (expressed through traffic congestion and so loss of both time and temper). This is of course the logic behind the congestion charge.

Roads are also excludable, though in practice this option is not often exercised. Users of the M6 will be well aware that it is possible to exclude drivers from sections of the road dependent upon whether they pay a fee. The template for road privatisation is the service provided by Dulwich College: in 1789 John Morgan built a road from the top of the hill to fields he rented from Dulwich College, charging a toll on people who passed through his land, and on their animals.

Roads are also rejectable, in that one does not have to drive. One may walk or take trains; I know of many environmentally-minded people who have chosen to forgo the car, as well as urban residents that cannot face the horrors of road travel. Yet they are still taxed to pay for a commodity that they do not use.

Dr. Johnson’s points are actually covered by the above: tolls do enable one to withhold the service from some but not others, while congestion means that the marginal cost of an additional road-user is not zero; it is merely defrayed across other road-users by increasing their journey times and frustration, as well as on the general citizenry through pollution and eventually demands for extra roads. And so the cycle continues.

Nonetheless, the arguments that Adam Smith and others used to justify the funding of public goods through taxation are often applied to roads. This is most easily described as the “free rider problem”: to wit, everybody benefits from the building of roads yet without taxation individuals cannot be forced to pay. This is patently not true: not every taxpayer benefits from the building of a road from Henley to Oxford, and through the use of tolls free-riders can be excluded.

In fact, the arguments for funding even some classic public goods are flawed. Adam Smith himself used the example of the lighthouse, arguing that because all shipping would benefit from being warned of the reefs but no private lighthouse keeper could exclude those who did not pay from receiving the warning, nor force them to pay a toll, those who built lighthouses would bear all the costs individually while the benefits would be spread broadly. Yet this does not mean that no private interest will build a lighthouse. One or two shipping magnates may decide that their own losses from shipwrecks are so great that they would personally benefit to such a degree from the building of a lighthouse that they are willing to bear all the costs even though others might benefit. This logic was applied by the Roman and British empires which, in suppressing piracy, gained so much from facilitating trade that they did not mind the fact that others benefited from safer seas without contributing. Similarly, rich burghers who wish to live in beautiful cities may choose to build great public works at their own expense. Thus, depending on one’s viewpoint, there is either a fine line between enlightened self-interest and philanthropy, or Smith’s “Invisible Hand” was a better guide to individual action than even he realised.

This might apply equally to roads, for two reasons. Firstly, because the benefits of road-use are not equal, those who benefit most may wish to build roads from which others may benefit. An example from Hong Kong is instructive: when business leaders approached Sir John Cowperthwaite, Financial Secretary, to argue that the government should build a bridge linking Hong Kong island to Kowloon Bay on the grounds that it would boost business in the colony by billions of pounds, he responded that if it was so valuable to them then they should build it themselves. After a long and hopeless battle they eventually did, to their own and everybody else’s benefit. Similarly, one might expect freight hauliers and other big businesses to pay for improved roads so as to reduce the costs of transporting goods.

The real value from infrastructure, however, lies in the boost they give land values. A (less happy) story from London is equally instructive: when Canary Wharf was being built, the developers offered to spend £300 million to build a brand new railway line linking Waterloo and London Bridge to the Isle of Dogs and then gift it to the nation, because they knew that by making it easier for commuters to reach their offices, the rental values of those offices (which they were building) would be raised by billions of pounds. Instead, a combination of rent-seeking by Members of Parliament (who wanted stations in their constituencies) and bureaucratic protectionism (as London Transport sought to protect its monopoly on the building and managing of tubes in the capital) led the Conservative government to look this gift horse in the mouth and instead build the Jubilee Line extension entirely at the expense of taxpayers, many of whom have never used it but have paid vast sums to help wealthy bankers to get to work more easily.

Thus roads, like railways, are best funded not through general taxation but through a combination of land-values and user pricing. This could be achieved in either of two ways: one would be to levy a general land value tax to pay for infrastructure, and to introduce road-user pricing to pay for upkeep and to control congestion; this would maintain the government’s road monopoly (which those who distrust private markets might prefer). Alternatively, we might allow private investors to build and maintain roads, which they would do in the hope of gaining profits from the land they own, the charges they levy and the reduction in costs of other business activities.

I actually remain quite agnostic about these two choices (though as Tristan Mills has pointed out, the latter avoids the increasingly apparent problem that Government cannot be trusted with the vast amount of information that nationwide road-user charging would generate about individuals private movement). What is clear is that the current habit of treating roads as though they are a public good that must be funded from general taxation is not only theoretically incorrect but also leads to a “tragedy of the commons” expressed through congestion and pollution, causes roads to be built where political forces rather than demand dictate, and raises levels of economically-damaging taxation. Whether the shift is from state to private or merely from taxing the general public to making the beneficiaries pay, it is time to start treating roads as a very private good.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Centre Forum nearly right about new Lib Dem education policy

Serendipity is a wonderful thing. Having written yesterday about how choice drives up standards in education, a new report landed on my desk today providing further support, and calling upon the Liberal Democrats to adopt education policies that see the money following the pupil.

A liberal education policy, from the think-tank Centre Forum, notes that

Choice is one of the key freedoms in a liberal society. It is also one of the
best ways of driving up standards. Opponents of choice based systems claim that
“people just want a good local school”. True. But that leaves unaddressed the
issue of how these good local schools are to be created. Advocates of choice
systems argue that the exercise of parental choice leads to the creation of more
good local schools by forcing poor schools to ‘up their game’ in response to
competitive pressures. But does this work in practice?

Which was, of course, exactly my point. The authors then go on to add the findings of the Institute of Fiscal Studies:

A recent IFS paper had this to say on the matter: “Is school choice a tide that
lifts all boats? The evidence from the USA suggests that it might be, as it
seems to increase school quality across all schools that face
reasonable amounts of competition
. This is what we would have
expected, given what economic theory tells us about the role of competition.
Evidence from the UK is much patchier. This may be because competitive pressures
are limited (school numbers and funding vary little from year to year).
Therefore, it seems to be the case that school competition can be a tide that
lifts all boats, but only if its effects bite financially.” (emphasis

The report goes on to propose that “a greater proportion of education funding … ‘follow the pupil’, either through a system of vouchers or entitlements (the difference being purely administrative).” However, astonishingly it then throws a spanner in its own works by pandering to producer interests in the public sector, massively undermining the drivers that would generate improved quality, when it adds “So as to strengthen, rather than undermine, the state education system, such entitlements should not be redeemable at fee charging schools”.

As I made clear in yesterday’s post, any limitation by government on the freedom of parents to provide the best schooling for their children is iniquitous. As with any other industry or service, if the state sector is not able to provide the best product or service, users should be free to go elsewhere. To force parents to continue to use inferior schools in a misguided attempt to protect the state sector is as flawed as the 'infant industries' theory: rather than “strengthen… the state education system”, as Centre Forum would have it, such a policy would merely insulate it from competition from private, voluntary, commercial, charitable and other alternative providers, which would suboptimal standards and systems to perpetuate.

The only way to ensure that everybody has access to a “Good, local school” is to give everybody unfettered choice to educate their children wherever they see fit.

As Centre Forum themselves note, in Edmonton, Canada, the “the exercise of parental choice has so strengthened the public school system that there are now no fee charging schools left in the city”. Why Centre Forum does not trust the British public sector to respond as positively to competition as their Canadian colleagues, and why the authors think that we should therefore protect the state schools at the expense of the pupils whose choice Centre Forum would limit, is a mystery.

Monday, 14 January 2008

How we can get that “Good local school” everybody wants

I don’t usually do requests, but I received a message from dreamingspire asking me to clarify Andy Mayer’s report of my comment that people may not want choice, but choice is the means to give them what they do want, which is good local services.

My comments came in response to a doctor and Lib Dem councillor who commented firstly that the next nearest schools to her were 11 and 12 miles away respectively, so that her choice was in fact limited; and that most people did not want choice, they just wanted “A good, local school.”

In this latter point she was, at least in part, correct – choice is not an end in itself, but a means. The point of choice (and competition, and markets, and all those other scary things that cause Social Democratic stomachs to knot in fear) is that it is the most effective driver in improving standards.

The reason for this is simple, and one that liberals should consider to be a matter of fact: monopolies do not serve their customer’s interests. By comparison, nothing encourages providers to satisfy their customers more than competition, or “freedom of exit” as one might also put it. It is the fact that I can take my money and spend it elsewhere that makes those firms that I patronise continue to struggle to provide the best goods and services available; while others struggle equally hard to woo me with better offers. So for example, my employer has recently expressed its dissatisfaction with the supplier of sandwiches for lunch meetings by switching to another supplier, which is far easier and more efficacious than trying to make the previous supplier change their methods.

And here is where my frustration with the Defenders of the State(/us quo) begins. For the opposition to choice in public services is in the end a belief that citizens should be obliged to utilise public services that are delivered by pubic servants and managed by the government even if that provision is inferior to alternatives that are on offer. Lest my publically-employed readers and colleagues move to quickly to jump to the defence of the public sector, I should add that nothing in that statements implies that public services do or must deliver poorer outcomes for citizens. What I am saying is that if a patient or parent believes that they can access better healthcare or schooling elsewhere, it is the height of arrogance to deny them their freedom to do so.

This was clearly why Nick Clegg told the Manifesto Conference on Saturday that “every patient should have a guarantee of treatment within a specified waiting time - and to drive the NHS to deliver that, everyone should have the right to receive private treatment, paid for by the NHS, if the waiting time’s not met.” This need not divert a single penny of taxpayers’ money from the NHS, if only it is able to deliver prompt treatment, but if the NHS is unable to deliver on that simple requirement then patients should be free to get their treatment elsewhere, rather than being compelled to wait for months or years (often in acute pain or with consequent deleterious effects to their health and wellbeing) for the NHS to be able to deal with them.

Of course, choice will not be exercised by every citizen, and one of the greatest concerns of those opposed to choice is that it will benefit the articulate and the pushy at the expense of the marginalized. But this is not in fact the case at all, for the choice of some is beneficial to all. If I continually go to the same electricity provider or supermarket without ever exercising choice, I still benefit from the freedom of others to choose, which drives all providers to aim to deliver the best. This is so common in private markets as to go largely unremarked. Yet evidence from districts where parents have been given school choice suggests that the same applies to public services, too: the standards of public schools did not fall when the ambitious parents exercises choice and moved their children to private schools; rather, the public schools responded by “upping their game”, improving their own teaching in an attempt to limit the exit of their citizen/customers.

Hence my interjection at the Manifesto Conference: choice raises standards across the board, not just for those exercising their freedom.

But what of our doctor and councilor who lives so far from other schools that she fears that choice in her village is meaningless? Real choice in fact still exists, because she can exit. The example of the Elmgreen School is instructive: dissatisfied parents, rather than tolerating inferior education for their children, exercised their freedom to exit the public system by taking their public money and financing an entirely new school. In their case, it was a novel idea that required the local authority’s permission, but in theory any group of parents could do just that, using their public money to home-educate, or pooling their resources to set up a local school or merely hire teachers to visit them at key times to teach their children.

Choice is too often seen as a Trojan Horse for privatization, but that is a lie spread by those for whom individual as opposed to collective solutions are anathema. Real choice may very well be private, but it just as equally may be public, voluntary, charity, religious, co-operative, self-help or any of a host of other possibilities. As Clegg went on to say, “the state must oversee core standards and entitlements. But once those building blocks are in place, the state must back off and allow the genius of grassroots innovation, diversity and experimentation to take off”

And as for the much-stated assertation that voters do not actually want or care about choice, I will conclude as I did at the conference by reminding readers of what David Bell, the Permanent Secretary at the Department for Children, Schools and Families, once commented: people may say that they do not care about more choice, but just try taking away the choice that they have already been given!