Tuesday, 30 June 2009

RFC: Free Market Policing

How would a free market police force work?

Recent discussions on another thread about the benefits (or otherwise) of a free market system have caused some contemplation upon my part.

At this point I should probably confess to being a capitalist, although one that sees a role for a certain level of social democratic values and a higher regard for a measure of "profit" beyond that measured by simple monetary values.

Nevertheless, the discussion has made me consider how various aspects of our life would be if we lived in a pure "free market".

One aspect of this is how would our police force(s) operate in a free market?

Tim Harford in his book "The Undercover Economist" from 2006 had the following to say about the current non-market situation:

"Think of your friendly local police force, which is paid for by a non-market system of taxation. The non-market system has some advantages - for one thing, when you dial 999 nobody asks for your credit card details. The government is supposed to afford the same level of protection to the rich and poor, although it does not always seem that way."

He then went on to comment on some of the disadvantages of a non-market system:

"if a police officer is rude or incompetent, you don't have the option to shop for a different police force. If you think that the level of police protection you receive is excessive, it's not up to you to cut back a bit. Neither can you spend more if you decide that you'd like extra service. No, you have to lobby your local politicians and hope they consider your demands."

So this is a request for comments (RFC) - are we better served by a non-market system of paying for our police forces or would we be better served if police forces operated in a free market environment?

It is over to you......

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Yeovilton and Climate Change

James Barlow has provided a link on his blog to figures provided by the UK Met Office from their network of weather stations; it includes temperature data collected since Sept 1964 from a weather station in or near Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton (which is also host to the Fleet Air Arm Museum, destination for more than one childhood day trips). James has helpfully plotted the maximum and minimum temperatures in degrees centigrade for each year onto a graph:

I imagine that for many, glancing at the figures shown above, their first thoughts might be "hold on, where's the evidence of this global warming we keep being told is happening?"

It's a perfectly reasonable question. To try and answer it we first need to recognise that global warming is the result of a long-term change in climate, evidence of which can often be subsumed within the short-term variations in the weather. For example, anybody living in Britain knows that just because it is warm and sunny in the morning does not guarantee that it will not be several degrees colder and pouring with rain in the afternoon - this is because we live in a temperate country with a maritime climate that is on the boundary between competing climate systems leading to wide fluctuations in our weather. Because of these fluctuations we can get events like the long hot summer of 1976 with less than 90mm of rain from the beginning of April until the end of August, but this "freak" summer did not guarantee a long hot summer of 1977 (which in fact showered us with nearly 290mm of rain over the same months). Freak weather events are deviations from the climate norm - so for example, Britain's worst ever natural disaster was caused on the night of 31st January 1953 by a "freak" storm that caused flooding in the east of England leading to 24,000 homes being flooded and the death of 300 people in the UK (another 1,800 died in the Netherlands). The storm was said to be a once in every 250 years event.

Extreme "freak" variations from the climate norm can be devastating enough but if there is a steady long-term change in the underlying climate those type of events can move from being "freak" events to becoming "frequent" events and even the norm themselves. The 1953 "once in every 250 years" is forecast to become "once in every 12 years" and a report by the UK Office of Science and Technology predicts that the current situation which sees £2.2 billion spent on coastal defenses and flooding damages may see a rise to £27 billion/year by 2080 because of the impact of changes to the UK climate if the UK's underlying climate is increasing in temperature.

So let's look at the graph again, but this time we will add a trend line to see if there is an underlying trend in the temperatures;

We can now see a trend showing an almost imperceptible rise in the underlying temperature. To make this clearer let's look more closely at the maximum temperature graph with the same linear trendline:

We can now see a trend showing an underlying rise in the recorded maximum temperatures of over 1 degree centigrade. In reality, this graph over-eggs the pudding because, as Chris Hutt points out on James Barlow's blog, to get a clearer idea of temperature changes we need to look at changes in average temperatures not maximum and/or minimums and, of course, we need to look at a lot more data than that provided from just one monitoring station in deepest Somerset. Based on data which includes that collected by the UK Met Office, research has shown that over the last century or so, global average temperatures rose by about 0.35 degrees Centigrade until the 1940s, then there was a slight cooling period with a 0.1 degree drop and then since about 1970 temperatures have risen again by 0.55 degrees. All in all, average temperatures have risen by 0.8 degrees Centigrade over the past hundred years.

The UK Met Office are concerned about this and their own figures have made major contributions to the reports produced by the IPCC and the Stern Review and they are closely involved in work on the UK Climate Projections 2009. Below is yet another graph, from the Met Office site, showing the expected rise in temperature based on current projections;

In the summer of 2003, my family and I flew out to the Canary Islands for a holiday. As we headed south just off the Portuguese coast, my daughter pointed out that the sky was virtually cloudless except for "those grey clouds near the ground". Those "grey clouds" were in fact the smoke from forest fires as nearly a 1,000 square miles of Portugal were being burnt to the ground causing $1.5 billion of damage and leading to the deaths of 18. At the same time major rivers like the Po, the Rhine and the Loire were hitting record low levels leading to water shortages for hydroelectricity plants and for irrigation schemes. Crop losses across Europe were estimated at a value of $12 billion. Alpine permafrost melted causing devastating rockfalls whilst glaciers saw their melt rate double with some losing 10% of their total mass in just this one summer. Worse of all, as the heatwave continued, between 22,000 and 35,000 people died from causes attributable to the heatwave, including heat exposure. This was the "freak" European summer of 2003, said to be a 1-in-7,000 year event.

Another freak weather event? - Except that this was caused by an increase in European average temperatures for that year of just 2.3 degrees Centigrade above the norm. What happens when, as the temperature data from Yeovilton is telling us, the norm increases by 2.3 degrees and more?

When will otherwise intelligent people realise that to simply carry on hoping (contrary to all the evidence that experts like those at the UK Met Office are providing us with) that climate change is some sort of scare story made up by environmentalists to give people nightmares is reducing our chances of being able to prevent the worst case scenarios, and, in the final analysis, save people's lives? Just because we don't like it (and believe me, I really wish global warming wasn't happening) won't make it go away. We need to take appropriate actions to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere, not try to pretend that we know better then the overwhelming majority of scientists with up-to-date experience in the relevant subject areas.

If a doctor tells you that you have got cancer, you don't ask for a second opinion from a politician - because the politician is more likely to tell you what you want to hear, instead of what you need to know.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

The Problem With Spin

With just a few days to go to the June 4th elections all the parties are putting every last bit of effort into saving or gaining seats. As a result sometimes judgement becomes impaired, especially when individuals start to see well-planned political careers going awry. At that point otherwise reasonable people seem to adopt a "win at all costs" approach where the end justifies the means.

It would be too easy to fall into the trap and start to list examples of statements published in campaign leaflets distributed by the other parties (we Greens of course are saints and would never do such a thing - well, I might, but there are wiser heads running the campaign). Suffice to say, that there are a number of examples of statements in the leaflets that have recently been pushed through letter boxes on their way to the recycling bin that are economical with the actualite - they spin past events to provide a more pleasing (to the spinner) version of history.

The problem with this approach of course, is that once you accept that a little bit of revisionism, a touch of plagiarism, and a dash of a white lie, mixed together with an unhealthy amount of cynicism, can produce something that can be acceptably served up for public consumption, you begin to remove the ethical barriers separating you from the next level of deceit.

If you are willing to be deceitful about implying that you wrote a paragraph of personal outrage rather than copied it from a colleague, it probably doesn't seem so bad pretending that a leading question you asked was your own rather than copied from the notes of a lobbyist for a commercial interest.

If you are willing to imply that you live in the ward you are standing in, when in fact you don't even live in the city, what is so wrong about flipping your first home to your second home?

If you are happy to misrepresent the reasons for the actions of a colleague to the public - what so wrong about misrepresenting the reasons for starting an illegal war to the public?

And on it goes.......and the local councillor moves up the career ladder to Westminster and suddenly we see their name in the paper and former colleagues in local government all say; "that wouldn't happen here, we only become councillors to serve the local population, we're not like them". Oh, but you are........you are just at the end of the slippery slope where the opportunities to deceive are more infrequent.

One particularly negative campaign leaflet did include one positive statement that should be foremost in the minds of all current and prospective councillors - "local people deserve better" - indeed they do, but somehow I can't see them getting treated better anytime soon.