Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Public Expenditure and GDP: it's not so simple.

In a recent Guardian article, Aditya Chakraborthy pointed out that the UK government aims to reduce public expenditure by 2017 to around 40% of Gross Domestic Product - and that this will bring it down to American levels. We are supposed to be shocked. How could any rational person want to bring public expenditure down to American levels? All decent people surely think that it should be rising to Scandinavian levels - fifty percent.

To me, this is the wrong way to think about things. What matters is not the level of public expenditure but what it is spent on - and what it is spent on depends on the culture and the political culture of a country. Higher public expenditure does not, in itself, produce a more civilised, fairer or nicer society. And in some cases, it may be possible to get a better society with lower public expenditure rather than higher.

In the UK voters are quite keen on vanity expenditure by governments and they are quite keen on circuses. So public expenditure on the monarchy, royal weddings, the Olympics and the Red Arrows is not controversial. And governments themselves are quite keen on military spending, on handing out lucrative contracts to the private sector and on keeping corruption alive in the shape of the House of Lords. That's a lot of pubic spending already.

In a different culture, all these expenditures - and especially the military ones - would be reduced or eliminated. The nice Scandinavian countries are much less keen on wars than we are, so they spend less on fighting them. Much less.

It is often thought that taxation and expenditure needs to be higher than forty percent of GDP in order to reduce Inequality. You tax the rich and transfer money to the poor, less the (considerable) overhead costs of administering such schemes of redistribution. (At the moment, of course, here in the UK we don't tax the rich. We tax the moderately well-off who only have to be earning thirty odd thousand a year to be stuffed for forty percent Income Tax - an extortionate rate no rich person would dream of paying).

But even if we could sort out the tax system so that the rich really did get taxed, I am not sure that  this is the best way of  creating a more equal society. It would be much better to stop inequality at source. That would mean, for example, caps (ceilings) on legal remuneration. Pay packages in excess of (say) a million simply would not be allowed. Inheritances would likewise be capped with 100% tax  kicking in at (say) over £10 million. That's how you create a more level playing field for each new generation.

At the other end, instead of subsidising wages from taxes the state would enforce  higher minimum wages than we are currently familiar with. No one should really be working for less than £10 per hour - in London, more.

Along these lines, it might even be possible to create a fairer, more egalitarian society which was also a low tax society. There is no inherent virtue in taxation and in countries like the UK the willingness of citizens to be taxed really allows over taxation combined with immensely wasteful government expenditures yielding no discernible public good.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

The Crimes of Dead People

The crimes of dead people are rarely matters for the police. But the crimes of dead celebrities are things the police are always happy to investigate simply because it is a way to avoid work and enjoy lunches with journalists instead. That is a good enough reason for asking for some better justification than the mere fact that crimes were committed in the past by someone now dead. Only when the crimes of the dead may lead to discovery of crimes of the living are they worth police time.

Newspapers like the crimes of dead people because they can report them without fear of libel writs descending. In the current feeding frenzy over the corpse of Jimmy Savile it is a certainty that false and sexed up claims will be made, just as they were over the corpse of Diana Princess of Wales. Newspapers are even harder to sell now and so we should be even more cautious when we read (or, in my case, don't read) ever more lurid claims.

Historians can safely be left to investigate the crimes of very long dead people.

Where does the work of newspapers end and the work of historians begin? It simply depends on the forgetfulness of the living.

You will say that I neglect the fact that there are often living victims of dead people's crimes who feel they have had no justice and no redress. And sometimes simply, no money out of it.

I have to say that my general feeling is this. If the victims think they can gain something from police investigations or some quasi-judicial process which tries and condemns, they are looking in the wrong place. Neither the police or courts are sensitive to human suffering, nor are they designed to be.

Likewise, any victim who thinks that some tabloid newspaper is going to help them, in any way other than financially, will be fairly rapidly disillusioned. Newspapers use people and cast them aside when their usefulness reaches its use by date. Newspapers are not good friends.

So I don't think Justice for the Victims is served by newspaper frenzy designed to boost circulation or by police enquiries conducted by officers looking for things to leak to the press. Justice for Victims probably requires quiet meetings in small groups, with appropriate facilitators and recorders, and careful public statements at the end of it all. And if those statements are the truth and nothing but the truth, they will serve the victims' need for justice much better than a headline which is here today and forgotten tomorrow.


Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Street Walkers - a new way of managing cities

It's a stereotype but like many stereotypes has some truth in it. Most city managers (middle ranking and senior local government officials in the UK) work in offices. They attend meetings (long and boring), they write Memoranda and Briefing Papers and they Reply to Letters. They often arrive at the office by car from some suburb and return home the same way. Sometimes they see very little of the city . They can be very out of touch with the lives of those who inhabit the cities they manage - in the same way that rich people living in gated communities can be out of touch with the way poor (and middling) people live.

This is a major problem.

But one good way to see what's wrong (or right) with cities is to walk round them, taking your time and observing closely. Here in Brighton, it used to be (maybe still is) a requirement for the official known as the Seafront Manager that he or she walk the seafront at regular intervals. That's a very good idea.

I want to generalise it. Highly paid managers go to seed if they are allowed to just sit in offices all day. Half the time, they should be out on the beat, walking an area of the city for which they are responsible, talking to anyone who will talk to them. And they should be able to instruct those tasked with such jobs to deal with problems they see. That might be a small and immediate problem, like a sofa abandoned on the pavement, but it might also be a bigger problem.

Today it was raining in Brighton, not heavily but steadily. Along the main seafront road, the drains weren't coping and vehicles were sending up serious volumes of spray onto pavements and  pedestrians. Something isn't working. The drains are blocked. A city manager who had to walk the pavement and get soaked would want to know why they were blocked and what arrangements ought to be in place to ensure that they stayed unblocked. And even for this relatively small problem, management skills would be needed to diagnose it fully and to solve it.

A city manager walking the streets would be free to have bright ideas which might require a lot of expenditure to carry out. The other day, I blogged about Western Road, Brighton. If a city manager had to walk the full street  once or twice a week, no way would he or she let it stay the way it is. The whole set of current arrangements would be upended.

Street walking managers would be motivated managers. Over time they would see things getting better every time they went out on the beat. And people would start being nice to them.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Watch the Road!

Continuing from yesterday's Blog:

Watch the Road! is something those electronic sign boards never tell you to do. Watch Your Speed! is a different matter. They are keen on that.

But driving isn't about studying your instrument panel. Safe driving is (mainly) about watching the road while you drive a car you take care to ensure is roadworthy. Tires, for instance.

Aircraft pilots spend a lot of time studying their instrument panels. Sometimes they go to sleep and rely on the autopilot. But the cockpit is still at the front of the plane and I imagine ( and I hope) that pilots look out of the window as they take off and come into land. When the plane is on the ground, pilots walk round it and do a visual inspection (I think this is a requirement). Once I was waiting for a Ryanair flight to take off when the pilot announced he had noticed a nail in his front tire. He wasn't worried about take off, but he was a bit worried about landing. So we had to wait for a new tire to be dropped off and the wheel to be changed. It's not all autopilot.

Driving is never autopilot, even with cruise control. You have to look ahead (and behind) all the time. The best thing about the new model Skoda Octavia to which I have recently upgraded is that it has better wing mirrors than any I have ever had -  on both sides, I get a terrific view. On German motorways, they really make things easier.

I think the Highways Agency in the UK imagines itself as a sort of land version of Air Traffic Control, though instead of communicating with individual pilots it communicates to everyone through those electronic sign boards I wrote about yesterday. If that's how they are thinking, they haven't thought hard enough. And I pray  that Air Traffic Controllers don't try to get away with the kind of false and fatuous communications you get on the signboards.

I walked past a car today with a sticker in the rear window "Back off! I'm sticking to the limit". Well, to me, that's dangerous thinking. I imagine someone hunched over, gripping the wheel and muttering, "I'm sticking to the limit" in defiance of all that is going on around him (it's certain to be a him).

When you drive, you should be watching the road and responding appropriately. The signs may say "40" but you may need to go 20. On a motorway, it is often safe to go 80 or 90 and to help keep traffic moving, you should. The government knows that but pretends not to. On a motorway, you create a hazard if you drive at an inappropriately low speed. The government knows that too.

I don't think I am a very good driver, though in 40 years driving in the UK I have never been prosecuted  or picked up any penalty points. But I do check my tires and stop when I am tired. And I watch the road.



Saturday, 6 October 2012

"Queue Ahead". The Department of Transport's Big Mistake

In recent years, England's Department for Transport has invested heavily in large electronic signboards which now blight every English motorway (I don't know about Scotland or Wales - I don't drive there). France has done the same, on a lesser scale. Germany has yet to succumb - it is still spending its money on road building.

I don't think these signboards (I think of them as Gantries) can deliver what I guess was promised, "real time information". I think they make the roads less safe.  I think they do not improve traffic flow. If those three things are true, then the Department for Transport should switch off these expensive toys and sell the gantries for scrap.

Let me to try to develop the argument from the example of "Queue Ahead", probably the most common infomessage flashed up - rivalled only by the nannymessage "Don't Drink and Drive".

So somewhere Ahead a camera has revealed a Queue to a Control Centre operative (or maybe a computer program) and the message is flashed down the line, with some time delay which I can't estimate.

If you are not already sitting in a Queue when you read the message - which is then simply fatuous rather than informative - then you will make some response. Some drivers will slow down in anticipation. Other drivers, familiar with Queues Ahead which no longer exist when you get there or Queues Five Miles Ahead, do nothing. This uneven response is dangerous - vehicles are slowing or not slowing in an unpredictable way. That is a recipe for an accident.

By way of contrast, I give this example. Recently, I was driving up the A20 from the Channel Tunnel, in heavy traffic, when suddenly - with absolutely no warning - there was a torrential downpour accompanied by lots of lightning. Visibility dropped dramatically and instantly. Remarkably, not only did all vehicles reduce their speed within seconds - they all reduced to 40 mph (I checked when I realised what was happening). So the pattern of traffic was maintained - no one changed lane because no one needed to. And Nanny was nowhere to be seen.

There was probably a time when "Queue Ahead" made me slow down  but - so often was there no Queue to be found (whatever congestion the camera had found had cleared itself by the real time I got there) or else the Queue was five miles away -  that now I no longer do. "Queue Ahead" is now just an irritant - and irritated drivers are less safe drivers. This is a very good reason for scrapping these signs.

But there are other drivers who respond to "Queue Ahead" and dutifully slow down. They thus contribute to creating a Queue where there was none. This is very easily done.

Think of what happens when drivers spot a police car on Cruise Control at 68mph in the slow lane. The drivers brake. Within seconds a Queue develops, broken only as fast as drivers dare to overtake the police car. "Queue Ahead" has the same disruptive effect as the patrolling police car.

The moral is simple: if you want to keep traffic moving, switch off the signs. And keep police cars off motorways.