Thursday, 31 March 2011

A fair deal for motorists

BBC Breakfast today reported that the cost of fixing Britain's potholes could run to £10 billion. Clearly the problem has been building up for some time. But how does income from motorists compare with expenditure for their benefit?

The 2011 budget shows that in 2009-10, the government extracted £26.2 billion in Fuel Duties, and £5.6 billion in Vehicle Excise Duties. Even without considering the VAT on fuel, cars, car parts, and maintenance, we're looking at over £31 billion.

Of that £31 billion, how much is spent repairing roads?

This spreadsheet from the Department for Transport shows maintenance expenditure by road class for 2009/10:

All purpose trunk roads and motorways£1.3 billion
Non-trunk roads£3.2 billion
Local authority motorway and 'A' roads£1.1 billion
Local authority other roads£2.1 billion
TOTAL£7.7 billion

So what happened to the other £23.3 billion?

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

BBC Arabic

I wonder what they're saying ...

Do they lecture the Arabs on the evils of oil? Do they preach the virtues of British Socialism?

I'm sure it's licence-fee-payers' money well spent.

Cuts in context

Daniel Hannan writes:
The media in general, and the BBC in particular, became very excited about Saturday’s TUC-sponsored march in London. Yet, even if we count all the government’s savings together, we are talking only of £6.2 billion
Now consider
the [£3.9 billion] leap in our net contribution to the Brussels budget, from £5.3 billion in 2009 to £9.2 billion in 2010. Our gross contribution, which is in many ways the more relevant figure, is £16 billion.
That's just our usual contribution. Bailouts of Eurozone countries like Ireland and Portugal could cost us billions more.

It's hard to see why, at least as a first step, we shouldn't withdraw from the EU, but remain members of the EFTA (along with Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland). Let the others have "ever closer union", if that's what they want. We're better off out.

Retreating rebels and flickers of Al Qaeda

BBC News reports:
Rebels in Libya are retreating from their former strongholds along the eastern coast as they come under fire from Col Muammar Gaddafi's forces.

The rebels have now lost the key oil port of Ras Lanuf and the nearby town of Bin Jawad, and are also in full retreat from Brega.
One rebel on the edge of Brega was angered that the coalition appeared to have slowed down its campaign.

"We want two things: that the planes drop bombs on Gaddafi's tanks and heavy artillery, and that they give us weapons so we can fight," 27-year-old fighter Younus Abdelghaim told AFP news agency.
How far will Cameron and friends go to achieve regime change? How many civilian casualties will they allow the rebels to inflict in their attempts to overrun cities held by Gaddafi? And if, with Western assistance, the rebels are victorious, will the people of Libya be better off? Will we? Much depends on the nature of those to whom Cameron has so hastily committed our military support.

According to the Wall Street Journal,
In a Senate hearing Tuesday, U.S. Adm. James Stavridis, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's supreme allied commander in Europe, said intelligence agencies had picked up "flickers" of an al Qaeda presence among Libyan opposition fighters. He also mentioned links to Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed, Lebanon-based militant group.
As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday, the U.S. is still "getting to know" the rebels.

"So far, they're saying the right things," President Barack Obama said Tuesday on "CBS Evening News" when asked about Libyan opposition leaders. "Most of them are professionals, lawyers, doctors—people who appear to be credible. That doesn't mean that…among all the people who opposed Gadhafi, there might not be elements that are unfriendly to the United States and our interests."
I previously noted the opposition to intervention from Daniel Hannan and Norman Tebbit. Today I discovered James Delingpole's list of "10 Reasons Why We Shouldn't Be In Libya". Here's a selection:

1. We cannot afford it. Liberal interventionism belongs to another era: the era when we imagined we had enough money to prosecute wars. Now our armed forces are so straitened by Cameron’s defence cuts that we don’t even have sufficient trained Typhoon pilots. And as for those bloody silly Storm Shadow missiles at £1 million a pop….

2. The Arabs won’t thank us for it – which kind of defeats the object, given that the sole real point of this misbegotten enterprise was to show the Middle East how lovely and caring we were and sensitive to Islamic feelings. Only once we’d secured the Arab League’s approval did we dare launch the mission. And now, guess what: they’ve decided they think it’s a bad idea after all.


4. According to this video from the Cato institute, there are five key questions to be asked before actions of this kind: Is it in the national interest? Is there public support? Have the costs and consequences been considered? Is there are clear military mission? Have we exhausted all available options? The Libya debacle fails on ALL counts.

5. It’s the French’s colonial war, not ours. They sucked us into this. As Jonathan Foreman reports in his superb analysis:

For more than two decades the biggest threat to French dominance of Chad – and other Francophone countries in Central and West Africa has come from Libya. Qaddafi’s forces have battled those of Chad four times since 1978. During the first three invasions, in 1978, 1979 and the winter of 1980-81, the Libyans allied with local rebel forces, supporting their infantry with armored vehicles, artillery and air support. The third invasion resulted in the de facto partition of Chad in 1983 with Libyan forces controlling the country’s northern half, above the 16th parallel.

6. President Obama’s heart obviously isn’t in it and given that US provides the bulk of our military muscle, this doesn’t augur well for a happy outcome.

7. What kind of message does it send out to the Middle East generally? That we’ll only intervene in countries where we have no real strategic interest and which are weak enough to knock about, while leaving the really big nasty regimes – Iran’s, say, or Syria’s – to do what the hell they like. As Melanie Phillips reports in a superb blog post, all we are doing is alienating Middle Eastern moderates through our mixed messages and double standards


8. Britain, France and the US now run a drastically increased risk of a Lockerbie-style revenge atrocity. Obviously we shouldn’t base our international policy on our fear of being punished for doing the right thing. But, er, being punished for doing the wrong thing?

It will be a long time before we know the full consequences of this intervention, and the true motives of those who insisted on it. If things go well, it will be more luck than judgement.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Andrew Smith on EU referenda

On the 18th of March, for the first time, I wrote to my MP:
Dear Mr Smith,

I understand that you voted against a referendum on the Libson Treaty on 5 March 2008.

Could you point me to some speeches or articles explaining why you felt a referendum was inappropriate?

I would also like to understand your position on referenda in general. Under what circumstances do you feel that the people should be given the opportunity to express their views directly? Is it appropriate to hold a referendum on the Alternative Vote, for example?

Considering the fundamental changes in the nature of the EU since the EEC referendum of 1975, would you now support an In/Out referendum on our membership?
On the 21st of March I received this reply:
I had a lot of correspondence at the time in which I set out my reasons for not supporting a referendum on that particular Treaty. Essentially they came down to the point that the Treaty was not the same thing as the previously mooted and abandoned EU Constitution, but was largely a tidying-up measure, with some further provisions which were comparable to others which had been dealt with by Treaty and a Bill in Parliament rather than referendum (under successive governments).

On referenda in general, I think there is a good case for them where something of important constitutional significance is being determined. I do think a change in the voting system is an appropriate instance (though I would have preferred our being given a wider choice here - eg to include Single Transferable Vote - so we wouldn't be left with simply a choice between First Past the Post and Alternative Vote).

I am sympathetic in principle to our membership of the EU being subject to a further referendum at some point, given in particular it is now so long since the original one on the Common Market, and so much having changed since then.

Best wishes,

Yours sincerely,

Andrew Smith MP

I replied later that day:
Dear Mr Smith,

Thank you for your response.

It is my understanding that the Lisbon Treaty is, in substance, very close the the EU Constitution, and I am aware of statements to that effect by Angela Merkel, Jose Zapatero, and Bertie Ahern. The move to qualified majority voting, the removal of national vetoes, and the new posts of European Council President and High Representative seem like far more than 'tidying-up'.

Nevertheless, I am pleased that you recognise the importance of referenda for issues of important constitutional significance. Like you, I am disappointed that we are being presented with a binary choice between FPTP and AV.

I am especially pleased that you are sympathetic, in principle, to a referendum on our EU membership. I am sure I would not be the only constituent who would be reassured by a public commitment from you on this point.

I am aware of at least two campaigns that would be keen to list your support:

Whatever you decide, I am grateful that you took the time to read my enquiry, and reply.
I don't expect a further response, but I was reassured to receive the initial one. It seems highly unlikely that Andrew Smith will change his views in response to my letter, but it's possible that enough people writing on the same lines can make a difference. We can but try.

Religion and the census

In response to a written question from Mike Weatherley (Hove, Conservative), Nick Hurd relayed a letter from Stephen Penneck, Director General for the ONS, dated 22 March 2011:
A question on religion was included in the Census in England and Wales for the first time in 2001 following the Census (Amendment) Act 2000. Responses to the question helped provide information which supplemented the output from the ethnicity question by identifying ethnic minority sub-groups, particularly those originating from the Indian sub-continent, in terms of their religion. The wording and design of the question and response categories were determined after extensive consultation with users and other key stakeholders and a programme of question testing.
But why should the government care?
Information from the religion question is used to supplement ethnicity data to gain a general understanding of society; to inform service provision and resource allocations; and for fulfilling legal obligations to monitor inequalities.
This isn't the sort of motive a libertarian can condone.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

March for the unthinkable alternative

The first I heard of the March for the Alternative was this post from Tom Paine.

Through Twitter, I then discovered this post from Sam Bowman at the ASI. The TUC video he links to is something special.

I also found this post from Tim Worstall, in response to some ridiculous tripe from Richard Murphy, who seems unconcerned that interest payments on the national debt are rising.

The 2011-12 budget predicts spending of £710 billion against income of £589 billion — a deficit of £121 billion. When the government is already living beyond its means, it takes a warped mind to suggest that increased state spending would somehow leave our children and grandchildren in a better position.

The budget shows £50 billion for debt interest — more than Defence (£40 billion), "Public order and safety" (£33 billion), and Transport (£23 billion). I find it incredible that those who purport to care about the working man would wish to see an increasing portion of his hard-earned income confiscated, and handed over to the holders of government debt.

The government has no money of its own. Everything it spends, it must seize or borrow. What the government takes from taxpayers, they cannot spend. What the government borrows, businesses cannot borrow.

Daniel Hannan put it brilliantly:
I’ve just watched the soi-disant “March for the Alternative” snaking its way across London. It is clear enough, from the banners and slogans, what the protesters are against: spending restraint, open markets, private enterprise, property rights, free contract, Tories, bankers and Nick Clegg. Fair enough. But what are they for?

Their website suggests that they think the answer to our debt crisis is more spending. In fact, they don’t think we have much of a debt crisis. They want higher taxes, particularly for the rich, whom they expect to wait around meekly to be fleeced. And they insist that higher state expenditure (”investment”) will create more jobs. Why so half-hearted, comrades? Why not go all the way, nationalise every business, place every adult on the state payroll and confiscate all income? By your logic, it would surely make Britain the most prosperous country on Earth.
After “No Cuts!” the marchers’ favourite slogan was “Fairness!” Alright, then. How about parity between public and private sector pay? Or job security? Or pensions? How about being fair to our children, whom we have freighted with a debt unprecedented in peacetime? How about being fair to the boy who leaves school at 16 and starts paying taxes to subsidise the one who goes to university? How about being fair to the unemployed, whom firms cannot afford to hire because of the social protection enjoyed by existing employees?
The truth is that the marchers care not a whit for fairness. They seek only to preserve their public-sector non-jobs, at our expense. We would be far better off if they sought employment in the private sector, responding to what consumers actually want. Some of them, no doubt, are so incompetent and unprofessional that nobody in the private sector would hire them, but that is not an argument for preserving their non-jobs. On the dole, they would cost us less, and do less harm.

Is Environmentalism Really Working?

The Germans are a famously and frighteningly obedient race. Whereas most British people outside of the Guardianista brigade maintain a healthy scepticism about environmental issues, and acquiesce only reluctantly to government manipulation, it seems that Germans have embraced eco-living with gusto.

For example, according to a recent article in Der Spiegel,
The Germans are obsessed with saving water. You won't find many countries north of the Sahara that are as water-conscious as Germany. They save water while washing dishes (a modern dishwashing machine uses only six liters per cycle), while going to the toilet (many toilets have a setting that allows only a brief flush), and even when washing their cars.

The Environment Ministry recommends that people turn off the tap while they're brushing their teeth. Saving water, the ministry's web page strongly hints, helps poor countries to irrigate their paddy fields.
Yet Germany is one of the world's most water-rich countries -- it could theoretically consume five times more water than it does now. Furthermore, it's impossible to transport tap water over thousands of kilometers, so German thrift [doesn't] help Vietnamese rice farmers [one] bit.
I recently wrote about the unintended consequences of recycling. Most government interventions have unintended consequences, but they seem especially common and dramatic when motivated by environmental concerns. This is partly because the biosphere is a complex system that is still poorly understood, and partly because the quasi-religious nature of environmentalism precludes rational debate.

The Spiegel article has many examples, including the impact of German tap discipline:
water conservation in Germany can be harmful -- particularly when it comes to the sewage systems beneath German cities. The lack of waste water flowing through the canalization means that fat, faeces and discarded food aren't getting flushed out enough, and are corroding the walls. To compensate, utilities are forced to pump hundreds of thousands of liters of fresh water through the system to keep it operable.
Good for a chuckle. Until you think about what these zealots would impose on the rest of us. According to the article, "EU authorities are considering setting water flow-through limits in shower heads". We can't expect any sensible resistance from the German politicians. The article explains that "all the serious political parties devote large parts of their policy programs to environmental policy":
There is no issue that produces such unanimity among the parties. A proposal to increase tax credits for employees led to weeks of political debate, while the 2009 European Union ban on conventional light bulbs was approved without a single debate in parliament. As soon as the word environment is mentioned in any policy initiatives, all discussion becomes redundant.
With Cameron's Conservatives bending over backwards to appeal to indoctrinated young eco-freaks, we face a similar situation in the UK.

The entire Spiegel article, though imperfectly translated, is well worth reading. It is written by environmentalists who remain concerned about such totemic issues as carbon emissions and nuclear power, but who have come to question the naive, knee-jerk approach that has characterised environmental intervention so far:
The frequency with which environmental policies backfire should give pause for thought. Biofuels were meant to protect the environment and combat global warming -- in fact it destroys rainforests and causes greater CO2 emissions than conventional fuel.

Saving water was meant to protect natural resources, but it just drives up water bills. Banning the light bulb was seen as a milestone on the path to carbon neutral living in Europe -- but China has been cranking up its mercury production to satisfy demand for the alternative energy saving bulbs.

In the fight to protect the environment, it may be time to pause and ask oneself: what is really helping, and what isn't? And to admit at times: sorry, we were wrong. But it doesn't work like that. Environmentalism knows no doubt. The idea is never wrong, the problem is always in the implementation.

And so it will continue. Additional rubbish containers will be introduced, for different types of rubbish. The EU will ban the stand-by function on electronic appliances to reduce energy consumption -- even though engineers know this reduces product lifespans.

At some point, only electrical cars will fulfil environmental requirements, but the electricity will have to come from somewhere -- maybe French or Czech nuclear power stations?

Ordinary people will put up with all this patiently, what else can they do? It all serves the environment, and no one can object to that.

Firefox 4 Tabs on Top

Firefox 3 had a rather perverted tab model, with the tabs visually connected to the header area rather than the content with which they are associated. Firefox 4 retains this as an option:

Safari is the same:

When Google Chrome came along (in this as so many areas) they decided to do things sensibly:

With Firefox 4, the default layout has changed to a Chrome-style "Tabs on Top" model:

Unfortunately, the Firefox designers don't seem to share the Oompa Loompas' respect for the scarcity of vertical space. The Google interface is certainly cleaner, so having just upgraded to Firefox 4, I may now give Chrome another try.

Isn't competition a beautiful thing! Firefox and Chrome owe their success not to clunky, belated anti-monopoly gestures, but to their superior functionality and performance.


It seems Chrome on Mac still has a nasty habit of splattering <div> and <meta> tags around when editing posts in Blogger, so I think I'll be sticking with Firefox for a while longer.

Friday, 25 March 2011

A visitor from Iran

I found a surprise entry in my Google Analytics results yesterday:

The visitor from Tehran looked at 7 pages before leaving. An underground libertarian movement, or interest from more sinister parties?

Hannan: Britain's share of the Portuguese bail-out could wipe out half of all the government's spending cuts

Daniel Hannan writes:
The Treasury boasts, in its budget statement, that all the government’s spending cuts put together will save £6.2 billion. Now we learn (hat-tip, Open Europe) that Britain’s liability in the event of a Portuguese bail-out could easily reach £3.2 billion. Half of all the savings – the cuts to housing benefit, to child benefit, to local government – swallowed up in an instant. Small wonder that, despite everything, overall government spending keeps growing.

Onward Puritan soldiers

It is relentless. Just as I finished reading the latest BBC article on smoking, I found yet another article on the evils of alcohol.
A bid to get the government to take a tougher stance on alcohol advertising in the UK has been given the backing of health experts.

Tory backbencher Dr Sarah Wollaston will put forward a private member's bill next week to limit the exposure of children to alcohol marketing.
Ram Moorthy, of the BMA's board of science, agreed, urging MPs from all parties to support the bill.

"In our last report on alcohol marketing and alcohol misuse, the BMA highlighted the millions of pounds the alcohol industry spends on promoting alcohol, which we know can encourage young people to start drinking and to consume more alcohol than is healthy."

There are already rules in place governing advertising of alcohol which prevent, for example, marketing on TV during prime-time children's programmes, but the code does not go as far as the French rules.

The move comes after health groups have been heavily critical of the government's attempts to encourage sensible drinking through its responsibility deal earlier this month.
It's enough to drive one to drink.

Smoking bans from Scotland to China

BBC News reports:
Experts have hailed Scotland's ban on smoking in public places as a "big public health success story", as its five-year anniversary approaches.
The ban spread to Wales on 2 April 2007, and England on 1 July 2007. The BBC will no doubt celebrate those anniversaries in due course. For now, they proudly declare that
There has been a 15% drop in hospital admissions among asthmatic children and a 17% fall in heart attacks among bar workers since the ban on 26 March 2006.
Now, I wouldn't trust these figures for a moment, but even if there was a strong causal relationship here, rather than a dubious correlation, I'd still be opposed to the smoking ban. I say this as a non-smoker.

Partly, there is the fact that whatever benefits we've seen must be weighed against the costs:

the Scottish Licensed Trade Association said the law change had resulted in the closure of hundreds of pubs and the loss of thousands of jobs.

Its chief executive, Paul Waterson, said the predicted upturn in new customers attracted by smoke-free pubs had "simply not materialised".

Mostly, though, I object to the ban as an unwarranted restriction of rights and freedoms: the right of proprietors to decide whether to allow smoking on their premises, and the freedom of adult customers to enjoy an indoor smoke in places that allow it.

A colleague visited China recently, and was stunned by the sight of people smoking in bars and restaurants. There were some respects, it seemed, in which the Chinese enjoyed more freedom than we British. Yesterday, though, the BBC was delighted to relay that this freedom will be imminently curtailed:
According to the Health Ministry, the new regulation will come into effect on 1 May in public places including buses, restaurants and bars.
The new regulations also include a ban on cigarette vending machines in public areas and a call for programmes to warn about the dangers of smoking.
As the Chinese gradually emerge from communism, it's a shame we can't provide a better role model.

Littlewood: small crumbs of comfort

The IEA have posted their response to the 2011 budget. Mark Littlewood wrote:
As a budget that was intended to be about encouraging growth, this is a disappointment. Even on the areas where the Chancellor is doing the right things, his reforms are tiny. He committed himself to simplifying tax rules, but has only eliminated 100 pages from our 10,000 page tax rulebook and has added many more.

He stated a desire to relieve business from the burden of regulation. But even on his own numbers, the burden is only being decreased by 0.4%. That’s not a slashing of red tape. It’s barely even a trim.

The 2% reduction in corporation tax is a welcome step. As is the change to income tax thresholds. But these are small crumbs of comfort – what the country really needs is much lower taxes across all areas and much less regulation.

Philip Booth noted:
When it comes to promoting economic growth the coalition's inheritance was grim; regulations imposed in the last 13 years cost the economy £90billion a year; we have the longest tax code in the world; and taxes have been rising rapidly. The action that the government has taken – especially with regard to corporation tax – is welcome but nowhere near the scale of what is required.

The budget is perhaps summed up by the measures for small business employment regulation – there will be a moratorium of new regulation for three years. This will not apply to EU regulation and will not roll back existing regulation – there will simply be a pause, for some businesses, in the imposition of new regulation.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Merging Income Tax and National Insurance?

In my previous piece on National Insurance, I wrote:
NI contributions are expected to bring in £97 billion for 2010/11 — almost twice the £50 billion held in reserve in the National Insurance Fund.

In this same period, £117.2 billion will be paid out in pensions alone. Pensions are paid not from previous savings, or returns on investments, but by current contributors. Most people would recognise this as a Ponzi scheme.
I was delighted to read a few weeks ago that the OTS recommended integration in their "Small business tax review interim report" (March 2011).

Melanie Phillips recently wrote about the impact this could have
Almost from the very beginning of the Welfare State in 1948, the claim that tax and National Insurance — first introduced in 1911 — are quite different and separate arrangements has been a deeply misleading fiction.

There is a widespread belief that, all their working lives, people pay into a National Insurance fund from which they then draw a pension and other social security benefits.

This in turn has created the impression that National Insurance is a principled bargain between the individual and the state based on reciprocal responsibility.

And this means that National Insurance is therefore regarded as a Good Thing; whereas income tax, which involves rapacious governments making off with people’s hard-earned cash in order to pour huge volumes of it down a series of deeply incompetent or objectionable drains, is very much a Bad Thing.

The fact is, however, that none of this is now remotely true about National Insurance — if indeed it ever was.
National Insurance is simply taxation by another name. The purposes for which the two imposts are used are now pretty well interchangeable. So the true basic rate of tax should be acknowledged not as 20p but 31p.
She notes that previous suggestions for harmonization have been dismissed a politically infeasible, but speculates that
remarkably, according to the advance briefings from George Osborne’s camp, it is precisely in this jump in the basic rate that lies the political attraction.

If people realise how much they really are paying in taxes, it is argued, they will be more inclined to vote for the political party that promises to lower them.

So in addition to the savings to be made from merging two alternative tax-raising bureaucracies, electoral support would be swung behind the idea of a smaller state.

We'll find out later today. Anthony Evans of the Cobden Centre will be live blogging the event. His recent Spectator article, Three principles that should underpin the Budget, is well worth reading.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

A fit of sanity

BBC News reports
The government has rejected lowering the legal drink-drive limit by nearly half, as recommended in a Whitehall-commissioned report.

Last year, Sir Peter North said the limit should be reduced from 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood to 50mg.
It seems that Transport Secretary Philip Hammond is the Coalition minister who experienced the unexpected fit of sanity:

Mr Hammond said the number of drink-driving deaths had fallen by more than 75% since 1979.

"But drink-driving still kills hundreds of people so we need to take tough action against the small minority of drivers who flagrantly ignore the limit," he said.

"Their behaviour is entrenched and after careful consideration we have concluded that improving enforcement is likely to have more impact on these dangerous people than lowering the limit.

"We are therefore taking forward a package of measures which will streamline enforcement, helping the police to target these most dangerous offenders and protect law-abiding road users."

Okay, so you might wonder whether we really need "a package of measures" to "streamline enforcement". You might think there are better things for the police to be doing with their time and our money. But at least Hammond recognised that the problem is a "small minority of drivers who flagrantly ignore the limit" and resisted the call to criminalise thousands more people who perfectly safely enjoy a drink or two at a country pub.

Monday, 21 March 2011

The Arab League dissents

It didn't take long. BBC News reports,

The head of the Arab League, who supported the idea of a no-fly zone, has criticised the severity of the bombardment.

"What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians," said Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa.

Arab League support was a key factor in getting UN Security Council backing for the resolution authorising the move.

Whether Amr Moussa actually believes the western powers have crossed the line is besides the point. He feels the need to say it, and that says something about the mood in the region. Though unwilling or unable to sort out this mess themselves, the Arabs are likely to resent a protracted western intervention. This is exactly what Gaddafi is promising.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Opposition to intervention in Libya

I've always had quite a low opinion of David Cameron, but he never evoked quite the revulsion I used to feel with Blair and Brown. Until yesterday.

The case for military intervention in Libya is far from clear, but Cameron lectured us in sanctimonious tones about the and the need to "enforce the will" of the United Nations, and how we "cannot allow the slaughter of civilians to continue".

I wonder if he feels the same way about the slaughter of civilians in Tibet, Somalia, Yemen, Sri Lanka, and countless other places.

I wonder if he feels the need to enforce the will of the UN as expressed in "Resolution 38/69 on Israeli nuclear armament". There are many more where that came from.

The truth is that slaughtering civilians and flouting the UN constitute neither necessary nor sufficient conditions for military intervention.

Amusingly, my searches on UN resolutions turned up this story about Eritrea. Resolution 1907 (2009) was adopted "by a vote of 13 in favour to 1 against (Libya), with 1 abstention (China)". Libya? A CNN article from 2007 explains:

Four years after renouncing terrorism and abandoning its WMD programs, Libya Tuesday won a two-year term on the U.N. Security Council.

The U.N. General Assembly approved Tripoli's candidacy for a spot on the 15-member council with 178 votes.

In May 2006, the United States restored full diplomatic relations with Libya and removed it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, where it had been for 27 years.

Daniel Hannan has consistently opposed intervention:
there have been three moments in my lifetime when, under all the norms of international relations, a case could have been made for military intervention against the Tripoli regime: the murder of Yvonne Fletcher; the Lockerbie atrocity; and the revelation that Gaddafi had been supplying arms to the IRA. As far as I can remember, there was almost no demand for an armed strike on any of those occasions; indeed, Margaret Thatcher came in for a great deal of criticism for allowing US bombers to fly from RAF bases in retaliation for Libyan state terrorism. Yet many of the same people who criticised her are now beating their chests and demanding action. Have we reached the point where military action is thought to be justified only when there isn’t any national interest at stake?
Back on the 3rd of March, Hannan provided 6 reasons not to intervene in Libya. Yesterday, Jeffrey Miron provided his own list:
1. We do not know if intervention will change the outcome;

2. We do not know if a government established by the rebels will be an improvement;

3. We do not how long or how expensive the “appropriate” intervention will turn out to be.

4. We do not know how the rebels will regard foreign “aggression” or how Khaddafi will spin our intervention to his advantage.
Norman Tebbit has also opposed intervention. On the 10th of March, he wrote:
In order to decide what to do in Libya, the first question we have to ask is what is in the British national interest. What is in the interests of Libya is the second question.
It is in our interest that there should be a stable government in Libya. That can only be achieved if the change of government is undertaken by the Libyan people. The more outsiders intervene, the more likely it is that whatever regime succeeds Gaddafi will be seen as one imposed by the West.

So, for the moment I would be cautious about a no-fly zone. It is bound to lead to attacks on radar and anti-aircraft facilities on the ground, and if Colonel Gaddafi has any sense he will make sure that this would cause civilian casualties, which would not be in the best interests of the Libyan people
And sure enough, recent events prompted Tom Paine to ask whether we've seen "the fastest mission creep in history":
Libya: Col Gaddafi told to leave now or face the bombers - Telegraph.

Hang on. I thought the idea (already ill-advised in my view) was that we were authorised by the UN to enforce a no-fly zone to protect civilians from military attacks. Now it's regime change already! Perhaps he really is the "heir to Blair" after all?
Last Wednesday, responding to comments on his previous articles, Lord Tebbit wrote:

On Libya, jastar thought it not unreasonable to arm the rebels but, as the locksmith said, Gaddafi armed the rebel IRA/SinnFein, whom he called freedom fighters, and conormac reminded us that the West armed the Taliban, which seemed a good idea at the time, as they say. Of course many of us would share rogerandout’s puzzlement that Islam has not sorted it all out.

Anyone who has read my previous post on the subject will know that I struggle to decide how a libertarian government should approach countries like Libya.

Our current approach, however, is highly questionable.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

A safe and dreary prison

In the comments on a recent Daniel Hannan article, William Topping asked: "If a single world government is what is needed to unite the planet, why is this a bad thing?"

Whenever this suggestion arises, my mind instantly turns to a passage from Edward Gibbon's 1776 opus The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (paragraph breaks mine):
The division of Europe into a number of independent states, connected, however, with each other, by the general resemblance of religion, language, and manners, is productive of the most beneficial consequences to the liberty of mankind.

A modern tyrant, who should find no resistance either in his own breast or in his people, would soon experience a gentle restraint from the example of his equals, the dread of present censure, the advice of his allies, and the apprehension of his enemies.

The object of his displeasure, escaping from the narrow limits of his dominions, would easily obtain, in a happier climate, a secure refuge, a new fortune adequate to his merit, the freedom of complaint, and perhaps the means of revenge. But the empire of the Romans filled the world, and, when that empire fell into the hands of a single person, the world became a safe and dreary prison for his enemies.

The slave of Imperial despotism, whether he was condemned to drag his gilded chain in Rome and the senate, or to wear out a life of exile on the barren rock of Seriphus, or the frozen banks of the Danube, expected his fate in silent despair. To resist was fatal, and it was impossible to fly.

On every side he was encompassed with a vast extent of sea and land, which he could never hope to traverse without being discovered, seized, and restored to his irritated master.

Beyond the frontiers, his anxious view could discover nothing, except the ocean, inhospitable deserts, hostile tribes of barbarians, of fierce manners and unknown language, or dependent kings, who would gladly purchase the emperor’s protection by the sacrifice of an obnoxious fugitive.

“Wherever you are,” said Cicero to the exiled Marcellus, “remember that you are equally within the power of the conqueror.”

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Annual Council Tax

Waiting for me when I returned home from work was an envelope from the council.

It was my yearly reminder of how much disappears out of my account every month to be frittered away by the City and County.

The good news is that my council tax hadn't increased ...

... the bad news is that they're currently confiscating a little short of £2000 a year.

In one of the accompanying leaflets there was also some surprising news: the categorisation of our (rented) house in band E means that it was valued between £88,001 and £120,000 on 1 April 1991. If house prices had risen in line with general prices (an average of 2.6% per year for the period, according to the Bank of England's inflation calculator), it would now be worth somewhere between £150k and £200k. If only!

I'm sure I'll find more good blog fodder in the leaflets (one from the City Council, one from the County Council, and one from Thames Valley Police). Some light reading for the weekend.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

As the bowl of petunias said ...

... Oh no, not again!
For what seems like the hundredth time, I've been presented with "Your Mail index has been damaged. To repair it, quit Mail".

This is stage 1 of the pain. Stage 2 occurs when Mail crashes again during the index rebuild (about an hour in).

A bit of detective work many moons ago revealed that it always crashed at the same point in the rebuild, and tracking the timestamps on the .imapmbox folders under ~/Library/Mail suggested that the last one to be touched was responsible. Deleting it allows the rebuild to succeed (I know this folder will be downloaded from the IMAP server afterwards, so there's no harm done).

All mail clients suck, and in my experience Mac Mail sucks the least, but this particular issue is maddening. It might be time to give Thunderbird another try.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Atlas Shrugged

My view of Ayn Rand's most famous work is pretty much the same as Daniel Hannan's.

It has some brilliant bits, but
Atlas Shrugged fails as literature, not least because it is a thousand pages too long. Condensing the story into a film can hardly fail to improve it.
Today, following an article at The Cobden Centre, I went to register my interest, and was somewhat surprised to find that I was the first in Oxford to request it:

Two hours on, the confirmation email they promised has yet to arrive, so it's possible that others have faced the same problem. For now, the tally sits at zero:


The loathsome Andrew Lansley appeared on BBC Breakfast this morning, proudly describing a raft of nanny-state nudges on alcohol, salt, and calories. Bill & Sian, in typical fashion, self-righteously attacked him for not nannying enough.

It makes me so angry that I feel I must link to The Devil.

Through his post, I discovered this bit of brilliance from The Daily Mash:
Tories to treat you like children too

IT is not just the Labour Party who wants to treat you like a three year-old child, it has emerged.
The article is a must-read; 'tis better to laugh than cry.

Miron on nuclear power and liability limits

Jeffrey Miron writes:
The recents events in Japan have, predictably, unleashed a new debate over the risks of nuclear power, with strong opinions on both sides.

I am not remotely qualified to judge whether the damaged Japanese reactors pose significant risks, but one point about nuclear power is beyond dispute: it always receives substantial subsidy from government. This consists of both direct payments toward the costs of building plants, along with insurance against full liability for accidents.

So a simple way to evaluate competing claims over safety is to eliminate both kinds of subsidy and find out whether the private sector really think nuclear power is profitable, if investors bear all construction and insurance costs.
It sounds reasonable enough, but I'm not sure how much I trust US courts to give reasonable damages. By most accounts, they are ridiculously over-generous.

For instance,
IN 2001, New York City was hit with a $14,000,000 judgment because a subway train didn't stop in time to avoid hitting someone who was lying on the tracks, apparently trying to commit suicide.
Ultimately, the courts are a branch of government, and the legislature and executive have a responsibility to ensure they behave responsibly. This shouldn't involve favouritism for "key industries" like oil and nuclear, but it does seem that some across-the-board limits on compensation are required.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Passive smoking

As a non-smoker, I have benefited from the UK's smoking ban. My clothes no longer stink after a night out, and nice meals are no longer spoiled by someone else's après-dinner cigarettes.

As a libertarian, however, I bitterly resent this government interference. If non-smokers felt strongly enough about second hand smoke, the free market would have met their desire for smoke-free (or properly ventilated) pubs and restaurants.

Not content with the ban on smoking in public spaces, the puritans are putting increasing pressure on people to abstain from smoking at home. As usual, a favourite angle of attack is the appeal to think of the children.

And as usual, the BBC is happy to oblige: "Passive smoking increases stillbirth risk, says study".
University of Nottingham researchers found that pregnant women exposed to smoke at work or home increased their risk of stillbirth by 23% and of having a baby with defects by 13%.
Nowhere in the article does it say what the baseline risk of stillbirth or birth defects is, or how the supposed risk from passive smoking compares with other risk factors, such as age, diet, and genetics.

A quick search turned up a BBC article from 2009 claiming that
Every year in the UK nearly 4,000 babies are stillborn
Again, the BBC refused to put this figure in context, but according to the ONS
There were 706,248 live births in 2009.
This means that, on average, 0.5663% of babies are stillborn (1 in 176) versus 0.6966% when the mother is exposed to smoke (1 in 143).

But if you read far enough down the original article, you find this:
Dr Jo Leonardi-Bee, lead researcher of the study and associate professor in medical statistics at the University of Nottingham, said they still did not know when the effects of the second-hand smoke begin.

"What we still don't know is whether it is the effect of sidestream smoke that the woman inhales that increases these particular risks or whether it is the direct effect of mainstream smoke that the father inhales during smoking that affects sperm development, or possibly both.

"More research is needed into this issue although we already know that smoking does have an impact on sperm development, so it is very important that men quit smoking before trying for a baby."
Far from being unsure about "when the effects of the second-hand smoke begin" the researchers actually have no idea whether passive smoking is in fact the problem — it could be the effect on sperm of primary smoking.

As far as I'm concerned, it's not yet clear that second-hand smoking will make you ill, but the BBC certainly makes me sick!

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Plus ça change

BBC News reports,
US President Barack Obama is lifting the two-year freeze on new military trials for detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison.

Mr Obama also announced a new process for continuing to hold those detainees not charged or convicted but deemed too dangerous to free.

He said the measures would "broaden our ability to bring terrorists to justice".

Mr Obama had pledged in January 2009 to close the prison within a year.
Whatever you think of Guantanamo, there's nothing like a good hopey-changey U-turn.

The unintended consequences of recycling

The poor chaps at the BBC must have been so conflicted. In the end, though, excitement over a good health scare won out over eco-concern (it was only landfill issues, mind; they didn't have to question the God of Anthropogenic Global Warming).
Leading food manufacturers are changing their packaging because of health concerns about boxes made from recycled cardboard, the BBC has learned.

Researchers found toxic chemicals from recycled newspapers have contaminated food sold in many cardboard cartons.

The chemicals, known as mineral oils, come from printing inks.
Exposure to mineral oils has been linked to inflammation of internal organs and cancer.
Delicious irony. All of those hand-wringing Guardianistas who have assiduously and self-righteously sought out packaging made from "recycled material" have unwittingly been poisoning their Organic Soy Flakes.

Less funny is the thought that toxic packaging has been foisted on the rest of us. Wikipedia has a good section on government-mandated demand for recycled products:
Legislation has also been used to increase and maintain a demand for recycled materials. Four methods of such legislation exist: minimum recycled content mandates, utilization rates, procurement policies, recycled product labeling.

Both minimum recycled content mandates and utilization rates increase demand directly by forcing manufacturers to include recycling in their operations. Content mandates specify that a certain percentage of a new product must consist of recycled material. Utilization rates are a more flexible option: industries are permitted to meet the recycling targets at any point of their operation or even contract recycling out in exchange for tradeable credits. Opponents to both of these methods point to the large increase in reporting requirements they impose, and claim that they rob industry of necessary flexibility.

Governments have used their own purchasing power to increase recycling demand through what are called "procurement policies". These policies are either "set-asides", which earmark a certain amount of spending solely towards recycled products, or "price preference" programs which provide a larger budget when recycled items are purchased. Additional regulations can target specific cases: in the United States, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency mandates the purchase of oil, paper, tires and building insulation from recycled or re-refined sources whenever possible.

The final government regulation towards increased demand is recycled product labeling. When producers are required to label their packaging with amount of recycled material in the product (including the packaging), consumers are better able to make educated choices. Consumers with sufficient buying power can then choose more environmentally conscious options, prompt producers to increase the amount of recycled material in their products, and indirectly increase demand. Standardized recycling labeling can also have a positive effect on supply of recyclates if the labeling includes information on how and where the product can be recycled.
Wherever you find government intervention, you find unintended consequences. I'm reminded of a Register article I read back in January:
The engineers' report caused controversy on its launch day with the observation – rarely acknowledged by environmentalists – that the discovery of recycling by the Volvo-driving classes in recent years has actually er ... made recycling more costly and difficult. There were mature markets for recovering aluminium, paper and glass from waste long before eco-campaigners adopted it as a cause, and turned it into a moral issue (and personal obligation). To cut a long story short, since local councils' targets stress quantity over quality, very little recycled waste is worth very much, and some of it is dangerous. A paper recycling mill has had to stop taking British paper because it contains too many glass shards.

The story of how recycling mania was born 20 years ago is sweetly told in this landmark New York Times magazine feature from 1996, which describes how Americans erroneously came to believe the country had run out of landfill sites. As with many superstitions, it spread like a contagion through the college-educated middle classes.

Localism met gesture politics, and authorities rushed through mandatory recycling targets, even though these offered only "short-term benefits to a few groups – politicians, public relations consultants, environmental organisations, waste-handling corporations" and imposed a serious opportunity cost, "diverting money from genuine social and environmental problems". It was more important to be seen to be doing something.
The NYT article, Recycling is Garbage, is long but well worth reading.

Of particular note:
Dittersdorf's slide showing New Yorkers' annual garbage output -- 15 square blocks, 20 stories high -- looked frightening because the trash was sitting, uncompressed, in the middle of the city. But consider a different perspective -- a national, long-term perspective. A. Clark Wiseman, an economist at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., has calculated that if Americans keep generating garbage at current rates for 1,000 years, and if all their garbage is put in a landfill 100 yards deep, by the year 3000 this national garbage heap will fill a square piece of land 35 miles on each side.

This doesn't seem a huge imposition in a country the size of America. The garbage would occupy only 5 percent of the area needed for the national array of solar panels proposed by environmentalists. The millennial landfill would fit on one-tenth of 1 percent of the range land now available for grazing in the continental United States. And if it still pains you to think of depriving posterity of that 35-mile square, remember that the loss will be only temporary. Eventually, like previous landfills, the mounds of trash will be covered with grass and become a minuscule addition to the nation's 150,000 square miles of parkland.
The article continues:
It is better to recycle than to throw away. This is the most enduring myth, the one that remains popular even among those who don't believe in the garbage crisis anymore. By now, many experts and public officials acknowledge that America could simply bury its garbage, but they object to this option because it diverts trash from recycling programs. Recycling, which was originally justified as the only solution to a desperate national problem, has become a goal in itself -- a goal so important that we must preserve the original problem.
Why is it better to recycle? The usual justifications are that it saves money and protects the environment. These sound reasonable until you actually start handling garbage.
It turns out that New York city's recycling programme, in 1996, was costing "$50 million to $100 million annually" ...
... and that's just the money coming directly out of the municipal budget. There's also the labor involved: the garbage-sorting that millions of New Yorkers do at home every week. How much would the city have to spend if it couldn't rely on forced labor? True, some people would probably be glad to do the work for free because they regard garbage-sorting as a morally uplifting activity for the whole family. But many others have refused to follow the law. They seem to have a more traditional view of garbage-sorting: an activity done only for money, and then only by the most destitute members of society.
Returning to the specific type of recycling that kicked off this now-rambling blog post, the NYT article asks "Should you recycle today's newspaper?":
Saving a tree is a mixed blessing. When there's less demand for virgin wood pulp, timber companies are likely to sell some of their tree farms -- maybe to condominium developers. Less virgin pulp means less pollution at paper mills in timber country, but recycling operations create pollution in areas where more people are affected: fumes and noise from collection trucks, solid waste and sludge from the mills that remove ink and turn the paper into pulp. Recycling newsprint actually creates more water pollution than making new paper: for each ton of recycled newsprint that's produced, an extra 5,000 gallons of waste water are discharged.
To these unintended consequences, it seems we can now add a public health hazard.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011


Now that I'm old and married, my après-ski routine tends to involve a few beers at the chalet rather than copious quantities of Jägermeister at dodgy bars with animatronic goats.

So while relaxing on the sofa with a nice cold Kronenbourg, what more natural choice than to flip on the television for some light entertainment. But as funny as it is to watch Family Guy in German, or Futurama in French, I couldn't resist keeping an eye on what was happening in the world, and one of the few news channels available in English was EuroNews.

It ran a tight loop of stories considered of interest to "EU Citizens", with news segments discussing the EU response to the crisis in Libya, interspersed with pretentious "No Comment" segments of carefully-edited voiceover-free video, short documentaries on obscure German pop singers, and "questions for Europe" (ask not what you can do for Europe, but what the EU can do for you).

For example:
Improving the health of Europeans, promoting social inclusion and gender equality, and fighting the use of illegal performance enhancing drugs are some of the key areas addressed by the EU’s future sports policy. What is Brussels planning?
The functioning of the European Citizens’ Initiative, introduced in the Lisbon Treaty, has now been defined. How will it work?
The channel's self-consciously Eurocentric approach was striking enough that I decided to Google it on my return to the UK. Sure enough, it is partially funded by European taxpayers. According to this site, the EU "has tripled its contributions over the last three years to €15m".

A bit more digging turned up a presentation to the European Parliament, on "3 juin 2008".

Apparently, "of the international news channels in Europe, EuroNews receives the least public funding" and "in the long term, EuroNews should be a European public service".

They note that "Switzerland is the only state where EuroNews has must-carry status for cable operators" and suggest that "the European Parliament can offer regulatory or financial incentives for cable operators to carry EuroNews".

As well as "more resources for a global advertising campaign" they would like to see "financial incentives to broadcast EuroNews in hotels and public places (airports, railway stations, etc.)".

Ultimately, they would like to see EuroNews "funded by a European licence fee". They reckon that "€1 per household per year = €200m / year", which would give a "budget 4 times EuroNews’ current budget, reflecting a genuine European ambition for European public service and Europe’s external audiovisual presence".

I can't wait.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Borrowing to give

On BBC Breakfast this morning, International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell claimed it was 'morally right' for the government to engage in international aid.

It comes as the government is finally considering ending aid for Russia and China. Aid for India is set to be frozen at current levels.

Laughably, the BBC reports that
Labour says too much of the UK's aid budget is being mis-spent.
I suppose 13 years wasn't long enough to address that problem.

I stand by my previous comments on international aid:
Borrowing to give is irresponsible. It is bad enough that taxpayers' wealth is confiscated for the government's chosen humanitarian projects, but it is indefensible that they are stealing from future generations.
If the government got out of the aid game, would charitable work in the Third World cease? No. Private citizens in Britain and around the world would continue to support worthwhile projects, according to their own priorities. And if the charities involved were true charities, entirely reliant on voluntary donations, there would be proper competition between them to deliver aid as efficiently as possible.

What's really needed, though, is trade, not aid. Abolishing the CAP, and trading freely with food producers in the developing world, would do far more to help them than handouts, both immediately and in the long term. If we legalised drugs, and cut out the criminal middle-men, poor farmers of high-demand crops would benefit still further.