Social justice
26 August 2013

Theresa May versus the modern day slave trade

Back in March, the Deep End featured a post about ‘human trafficking’ entitled Here’s a real challenge for Theresa May: End slavery in Britain

This is how it concluded:

  • “By the very nature of the crime, the victims of modern slavery are among the most vulnerable and marginalised people in our society. They have no voice, no influence, no impact at all on mainstream public opinion.
  • “This is how the most appalling things can go on with no effect on the political agenda. Ignored by the media, overlooked by Parliament and merely managed by officialdom. This is, therefore, an issue that cries out for true leadership.”

As you may have seen in the weekend press, the Home Secretary, backed by the Prime Minister, has shown that leadership – and is taking action to deal with an evil that has been tolerated for far too long. Writing for Daily Telegraph, Fraser Nelson comments on the latest developments:  

  • “The Prime Minister has now agreed to pass a Modern Day Slavery Bill, which aims to extinguish today’s slave trade as surely as William Wilberforce’s Bill extinguished the old one. Its premise is that the Tories, who led that fight two centuries ago, have some unfinished business.”

This is a major breakthrough for the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), whose report It happens here, documents the reality of modern day slavery in 21st century Britain. Fraser Nelson explains why it is so important that we recognise this crime for what it is:

  • “If Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson had spent the 1780s mumbling about ‘human trafficking’, it’s unlikely that anyone would have paid attention. It was Barack Obama who said last year that it was time to call modern slavery by its name. If girls are being forced into domestic service and beaten if they try to leave, it’s slavery. If Lithuanian workers are being kept in debt bondage working on a Kent chicken farm, that’s slavery.”

Of course, these abuses are already serious offences under British law, so why is the response of the British state so deeply inadequate? Drawing on the CSJ’s report, Nelson outlines the basic weaknesses of the existing system:

  • “Social workers often have no idea how to recognise, let alone treat, modern-day slaves. It is estimated that local authorities lose track of three in every five who go into their care. The police, the lawyers and the Crown Prosecution Service seem utterly bamboozled...
  • “Part of the problem is that human trafficking is not a performance indicator for the police. As one law enforcement official put it, there is more incentive to investigate the theft of some tools from a garden shed than a case of human trafficking...
  • “This is why Britain has become the perfect Petri dish for this new evil. We have 1,200 foreigners arriving each day; a capital city where a third of the population are immigrants; and a confused criminal justice system that finds it easiest to go after the victims.”

Thankfully we have a Home Secretary who has shown herself willing and able to get a grip of the situation:

  • “...Theresa May is a very unusual politician: one that wants to be known by what she does, not what she says. Her Modern Slavery Bill will bring all the various laws together, and ensure that the issue is a top priority for her proposed National Crime Agency, which starts work in October. Catching a human trafficker will be as important as catching an arms dealer, and police will be given clear instructions that the victims are not to be prosecuted.” 

In this era of austerity, it is right that we should root out the waste caused by bureaucratic inefficiency. But it is even more important that we should concern ourselves with the evil that creeps in when authority fails. 

Tags: Modern day slavery, Theresa May, Centre for Social Justice, law enforcement, border control, immigration

23 August 2013

Heresy of the week: Solar power is the most rightwing form of energy

Until shale gas came along, nuclear power was the form of energy most associated with rightwing politics. This is odd when you consider just how dependent the nuclear industry is on the state for its continued existence.

Technologically and economically, nuclear is too risky for the private sector to go it alone. Though some private businesses may be involved, the industry is and always will be a project of the state (the French state in particular).

Solar power is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Indeed, it is the only significant technology that enables ordinary consumers to generate their own electricity. For that reason it shouldn’t just appeal to environmentalists, but also to those of a libertarian mindset.

In the Guardian, Giles Parkinson reports from America, where parts of the Tea Party movement are starting to see the attraction:

But isn’t solar power ridiculously expensive – costing much more than wind or nuclear, let alone gas-fired generation? 

The thing to remember with energy cost comparisons is that the situation is never static, it moves with developments in the relevant technologies. In the case of solar, the pace of change is dramatic:

  • “This push to elevate solar energy as an individual right is being carried by the new economic case for solar power: the plunging cost of solar modules – they have fallen 80% in the last four years – means households can install rooftop systems and lower their electricity bills. The emergence of these ‘prosumers’ is challenging the revenue and the profit pool for network operators and fossil fuel generators.”

Furthermore, because photovoltaic panels can be installed at the point of use, solar doesn’t have to compete with the wholesale price of electricity. Rather it is the much higher retail price that is the relevant benchmark. In cool and cloudy Britain, we're still a long way from this so-called 'grid parity'. But in sunnier parts of the world – like the southern United States – solar is closer to being competitive. Needless to say, the local utility companies are less than thrilled at the prospect:

Solar, of course, has an Achilles’ heel: it only produces power when the sun is shining. Further improvements in battery technology will be required before consumers can independently compensate for the intermittent supply provided by their panels. For this reason, the utility companies are still in a position to kill off the competition.

Whether they are allowed to do so is down to the politicians: 

  • “It sets the stage for an intriguing clash of two strands of conservative thought – one that remains true to its ideology of individual rights against centralised control, and the other where ideology is cherry-picked and co-opted for the protection of vested and incumbent interests.”

Tags: Solar power, nuclear power, state control, utility companies, consumer rights, prosumers, libertarianism, the Tea Party

22 August 2013

Inside every terrorist there’s a petty bureaucrat trying to get out

This would be funny if it wasn’t so serious. It’s a eye-opening piece by Jacob Shapiro for Foreign Affairs, on the petty-minded, nit-picking mindset of your typical terrorist supremo:

  • “In addition to being a ruthless jihadist, Ayman al-Zawahiri long ago earned a reputation for being a terrible boss. When he took over al Qaeda in 2011, senior U.S. intelligence officials were already pointing out his penchant for micro-management. (In one instance in the 1990s, he reached out to operatives in Yemen to castigate them for buying a new fax machine when their old one was working just fine.)”

An over-zealous approach to cost control may be the least of al-Zawahiri’s faults, but it is of relevance to the war on terror:

  • “Given that terrorists are, by definition, engaged in criminal activity, you would think that they would place a premium on secrecy. But historically, many terrorist groups have been meticulous record keepers. Members of the Red Brigades, an Italian terrorist group active in the 1970s and early 1980s, report having spent more time accounting for their activities than actually training or preparing attacks...
  • “Placing calls, sending e-mails, keeping spreadsheets, and having members request reimbursements all create opportunities for intelligence agencies to learn what terrorists are up to and then disrupt them. In that way, Zawahiri’s failures are not just a reflection of his personal weaknesses but a case study in the inherent limits that all terror groups face.”

Shapiro argues that terrorist groups have no choice but to be bureaucratically-minded:

  • “...managers of terrorist organizations face the same basic challenges as the managers of any large organization. What is true for Walmart is true for al Qaeda: Managers need to keep tabs on what their people are doing and devote resources to motivate their underlings to pursue the organization’s aims. In fact, terrorist managers face a much tougher challenge. Whereas most businesses have the blunt goal of maximizing profits, terrorists’ aims are more precisely calibrated: An attack that is too violent can be just as damaging to the cause as an attack that is not violent enough.”

Terror bosses face some tricky personnel management issues too:

  • “ the alleged chief of the Palestinian group Black September wrote in his memoir, ‘diehard extremists are either imbeciles or traitors.’”

Contrary to what one might imagine, disciplinary options are limited:

  • “When Walmart managers want to deal with an unruly employee or a supplier who is defaulting on a contract, they can turn to formal legal procedures. Terrorists have no such option. David Ervine, a deceased Irish Unionist politician and onetime bomb maker for the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), neatly described this dilemma to me in 2006. “We had some very heinous and counterproductive activities being carried out that the leadership didn’t punish because they had to maintain the hearts and minds within the organization,” he said…”

Therefore, with staff you can neither easily trust nor punish, top-down micromanagement is the only way to keep things under control.

Of course, there is another explanation for why terror-bosses tend to be such control-freaks – which is that they enjoy it.  Most terrorists are totalitarians, and totalitarianism and bureaucracy go hand in hand. From Joseph Stalin to Adolf Eichmann, history's greatest monsters do like a spot of paperwork. 

Tags: Terrorism, bureaucracy, totalitarianism, human resources

Work and prosperity
21 August 2013

Soak the savers, we’ve got a national debt to pay off

These days almost anything can be described as a tax. The leftwing campaign against the ‘Bedroom Tax’ – actually a reduction in benefits – is a prime example. From the other end of the political spectrum, the Daily Mail pulls a similar rhetorical trick, portraying the Government’s policy of low interest rates and above-target inflation as a tax on savers.

Nevertheless, there is much to pay attention to in James Coney’s report:

  • “A stealth raid by the Bank of England has stripped savers of more than £170billion, a Money Mail investigation can reveal.
  • “By slashing the base rate to a record low of 0.5 per cent and allowing the cost of living to soar for more than four years, the Bank has whittled away the value of cash sitting in High Street accounts through a ‘secret tax’...
  • “A saver who has kept £10,000 in the best easy-access account has seen the value plunge by £1,243.”

The purpose of this raid is to help the country pay off its debts. Both high inflation and low interest rates help debtors – therefore when this combination forms the basis of government policy, it can certainly be seen as a form of redistribution:

  • “Renowned economists have also noted the sneaky way in which governments use inflation as a form of secret taxation. Milton Friedman, for example, observed that ‘inflation is the one form of taxation that can be imposed without legislation’.
  • “And John Maynard Keynes said: ‘By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens.’”

It’s worth noting that the state is not the sole beneficiary of this redistribution. Private sector debtors also benefit – as do the banks:

  • “[Losses to savers] have been compounded by the introduction of the Government’s Funding For Lending scheme, which has given the banks a cheap source of cash. They no longer need to pay interest to attract savers’ money and so have been cutting rates.
  • “There is currently £1.2trillion sitting in High Street accounts and it’s earning an average interest of 1.66 per cent. With banks and building societies now slashing the payouts on closed deals and reducing what they pay on best buys, this average is likely to plunge further. In total, since 2009 the inflation raid has cost savers £170 billion.”

One could argue that given the vast overhang of public and private sector debt the Government has no choice but to keep interest rates artificially low. If that is the case, then we should turn our anger on the policies that allowed our debts to mount up to such a level in the first place.

One can – and should – blame the last Labour Government for inflating the biggest credit bubble in British history. But Britain was hardly the only advanced economy to go for broke. Rightwing governments, as well as those of the left, used debt – both directly and indirectly – to fund their tax cuts and spending rises.

Conservatives should, of course, favour expenditure savings and/or measures to boost genuine growth as the main tools for managing the public finances. But to the extent that such measures fall short, taxation should be preferred over borrowing – because while the former is unpleasant, it is at least transparent: a proper account is made of the winners and losers. Borrowing, by contrast, is a great political deceiver – not only deferring the cost of government policy, but also exacting it with the minimum of honesty.

Tags: Debt, interest rates, savers, inflation, taxation

Law and order
20 August 2013

How the police could turn themselves into human CCTV cameras

Back in June, the Deep End featured an article about Google 'Glass' – a lightweight computer which you wear like a pair of glasses. Among various other features, Glass enables you to covertly record everything you can see and hear as you go about your business (or as stick your nose into somebody else’s). 

In a fascinating piece for the Kernel, Greg Stevens explores the implications of a police force kitted out with Google Glass or a similar device. 

In effect, it would mean turning every officer on patrol into a walking, talking CCTV camera – and surely we’ve got enough electronic eyes watching us as it is.  But Stevens’ argument is that the prime target of such surveillance would be the person wearing the device:

  • “A recent year-long study has shown that when police officers are required to wear cameras, they are less likely to behave badly. Specifically, over the course of the year, members of the Rialto Police Department [in California] were asked to sometimes wear cameras during their shifts, and sometimes not wear the cameras.
  • “Shifts without cameras experienced twice as many incidents of use of force as shifts with cameras. During the entire year when the experiment was being conducted, the total number of citizens’ complaints against the department was nearly one-tenth the number of complaints that were filed the year before.”

The key difference between CCTV and police-worn cameras is that the latter create a public record of what law enforcement officials do and say while on duty: 

This brings to mind the case of the former Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell who was accused of verbally abusing a police officer on duty in Downing Street. If the officer in question had been wearing Google Glass, then the truth about who said what to whom could have been easily verified. 

Stevens makes a further interesting point on the issue of privacy:

  • “Privacy is almost always treated as something that is inherently ‘good’, even though we universally reject the idea that a police officer has a ‘right to privacy’ while on duty.”

Because a uniformed police officer is regarded as a public figure, most people would also regard their face-to-face interactions with the police as taking place ‘in public’. This stands in contrast to the existing situation in which conventional CCTV cameras record us as we go about our private business (albeit out on the street). In any case, the direct encounters that we have with the police will often be recorded in some fashion as a matter of procedure, and it would be better for us if the record was a complete and objective one, unfiltered by the memory of the officer(s) in question.

There are exceptions, of course. When dealing with witnesses to – and victims of – crime, privacy  and confidentiality can be of crucial importance. Clear guidelines for the use of Google Glass and similar devices by the police are therefore required.

Just for once, it would be good if the political response to these possibilities stayed one step ahead of the technology.  So, this time, let’s have the public debate before the operational decisions are made.

Tags: Google glass, wearable computers, CCTV, police, privacy, state surveillance

Home and family
19 August 2013

Population decline is real and happening in Europe right now

Until recently, German house prices were remarkably flat. In fact, it wasn’t until the collapse of property bubbles elsewhere in Europe that investors began to look to the German market. There are various explanations as to why the Germans should be so out of step on this matter. These range from a comparatively low rate of home ownership to the accommodating nature of local planning policies.

There’s another possible cause – in Britain there aren’t enough houses for people to live in, but in many parts of Germany there aren’t enough people to live in the houses. Reporting for the New York Times, Suzanne Daley and Nicholas Kulish describe the impact of depopulation in the town of Sonneberg: 

  • “At first glance, this town in central Germany, with rows of large houses built when it was a thriving center of toy manufacturing, looks tidy and prosperous. But Heiko Voigt, the deputy mayor here, can point out dozens of vacant homes that he doubts will ever be sold.
  • “The reality is that the German population is shrinking and towns like this one are working hard to hide the emptiness. Mr. Voigt has already supervised the demolition of 60 houses and 12 apartment blocs, strategically injecting grassy patches into once-dense complexes.”

This isn’t an isolated example. The cause is a national decline in fertility rates, a problem which Germany shares with several other European countries:

  • “There is perhaps nowhere better than the German countryside to see the dawning impact of Europe’s plunge in fertility rates over the decades, a problem that has frightening implications for the economy and the psyche of the Continent. In some areas, there are now abundant overgrown yards, boarded-up windows and concerns about sewage systems too empty to work properly. The work force is rapidly graying, and assembly lines are being redesigned to minimize bending and lifting.”

For once, Germany has failed to set an example for the rest of Europe to follow:

  • “Germany… an island of prosperity, is spending heavily to find ways out of the doom-and-gloom predictions, and it would seem ideally placed to show the Continent the way. So far, though, even while spending $265 billion a year on family subsidies, Germany has proved only how hard it can be.”

Daley and Kulish identify cultural factors as a big part of the problem. Germany is a country that has “long glorified stay-at-home mothers,” they say. What they don’t mention are the inflexibilities of the German labour market. Workers enjoy strong employment protections, but that can make it very hard for women to get back into the jobs market after having left it to have children.

It is a similar story in southern European countries like Spain and Italy – only here there is a big additional threat to fertility rates:

  • “Several recent studies show that historically high unemployment rates — in excess of 50 percent among youths — in countries like Greece, Italy and Spain are further discouraging young people from having children. According to the European Union, the total number of live births in 31 European countries fell by 3.5 percent, to 5.4 million from 5.6 million, between 2008 and 2011. In 1960 about 7.5 million children were born in 27 European countries.”

This doesn’t quite add up to the “demographic death spiral” that some commentators foresee. But to a large extent demography really is destiny. Europe’s future can only be diminished by the shrinking size of each new generation.

Tags: Germany, demographics, southern Europe, housing, employment regulation

16 August 2013

Heresy of the Week: Middle England is a different place from the Tory heartlands

Andy McDonald, the Labour MP for Middlesbrough, has an article in the New Statesman about Britain’s economic divide. It's pretty partisan stuff, but it does contain an interesting idea. 

McDonald takes the constituencies of the 21 MPs who are full members of the Cabinet and combines them into a single entity called “Cabinetland”. His point is that the Government is led by people who don’t really understand how bad things are, because they represent parts of the country which have dodged the worst of the economic downturn: 

  • “In [Cabinetland], unemployment is 2.6 per cent. The number of people claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance is down over nine per cent on last year. Youth unemployment has plummeted by 19 per cent in the last 12 months, and even over-50s unemployment is down. Each constituency has just 300 people unemployed for longer than twelve months.”

Because MPs with safer seats can afford to spend more time on national politics, they tend to climb higher up the greasy pole than colleagues in more marginal constituencies. For this reason, most of Cabinetland is situated deep within the Tory heartlands (the five Lib Dem seats being the obvious exception). 

To win a majority at the next election the Conservatives must win over the swing voters of ‘Middle England’. It is an evocative name, redolent of thatched cottages and country lanes, but it gives a misleading impression. Middle England and the Tory heartlands are not the same place at all. By and large, senior Conservatives do not represent the communities they most need to reach out to.

In a related piece for the New Statesman, Rafael Behr expands on this theme. He warns that ministers risk being led astray by their constituency mail bags:

  • “MPs for leafy constituencies say they are mired in frenzied local battles over new developments. The government’s efforts to relax planning regulations earlier this year provoked backbench fury. With Ukip poised to mop up Tory discontent, No 10 is sensitive to the charge of spraying bricks and mortar indiscriminately across the party’s electoral heartland. Once fracking is added to the mix, Cameron and Osborne are easily depicted in a conspiracy against all that is green and pleasant in England.”

It’s easy to dismiss the need for new development when you already have what you want from life:

  • “Privately, senior Tories concede that many of their most stalwart supporters have been relatively untroubled by the economic turbulence of recent years. To the retired officer in his Kentish conservatory or the Surrey banker commuting into the City, it hardly felt like there was a crisis at all – at least, until Osborne’s diggers appeared at the bottom of the garden.”

This is, however, a rather over-simplified argument. The implication that it’s only comfortable commuters who object to new development is incorrect. Furthermore, typical Tory voters are hardly immune to the effect of the economic crisis – anyone who relies on interest from their savings could tell you that.  

Nevertheless, Rafael Behr does deliver some home truths:

  • “For all the veneration of Thatcher, the Tories are miles away from repeating the Iron Lady’s record of throwing open the doors of stuffy Conservatism to new recruits.”

It is a sad fact that, in Britain today, the rate of home ownership is falling. It is hard to see how this trend can be reversed with house prices on the rise and housebuilding at historically low levels:

  • “ Britain millions of people are being priced out of the middle-class dream. If they see Cameron taking the side of the minority who dodged the recession, they will feel priced out of ever being Tory voters, too.”

Tags: Conservatives, Middle England, home ownership, planning policy, austerity

15 August 2013

Italy: the ticking time-bomb at the heart of Europe

So that's the economy sorted, then. 

Jobs, growth, investment, exports – all on the up! Of course, the usual caveats apply, all that stuff about long-term challenges, underlying weaknesses and so on. Still, the next two years are looking good – and for shallow political types, that’s all that really matters.

There is one cloud on the horizon, though – the remnant of a storm that most people think has blown itself out. Simon Johnson, writing for Bloomberg is not so sure:

What could possibly go wrong? The answer to that is Italy:

Does all that debt really matter? As Johnson reminds us, other “countries have grown their way out of even larger debt burdens.”

Unfortunately, the Italians have a long-standing problem with growth as well as debt:

This looks like a fundamental weakness, one that started well before the financial crisis and which will continue long after it:

A lot of this is down to regional variations within Italy:

The implication is that deep-down cultural change is required, of the sort that could take a generation or more – which means no quick fix for Italian debt:

And if interest rates don’t stay low for a long time? Right now, the Eurozone is in a strange situation where low interest rates suit all member states. But there are signs that the healthier economies will be back on their feet soon – at which point they’ll be needing higher interest rates.

Thus it could be recovery, not recession, that tears the Eurozone apart.

Tags: Eurozone, Italy, debt, interest rates, economic recovery

Work and prosperity
14 August 2013

Why low paid jobs are a bigger problem than they used to be

According to James Surowiecki in the New Yorker, low pay is a now is big issue in US politics:

  • “A few weeks ago, Washington, D.C., passed a living-wage bill designed to make Walmart pay its workers a minimum of $12.50 an hour. Then President Obama called on Congress to raise the federal minimum wage (which is currently $7.25 an hour). McDonald’s was widely derided for releasing a budget to help its employees plan financially, since that only underscored how brutally hard it is to live on a McDonald’s wage. And last week fast-food workers across the country staged walkouts, calling for an increase in their pay to fifteen dollars an hour.”

Why the sudden interest? It’s not as if there’s anything new about low-paying jobs. Furthermore,  “low-wage earners have long been the hardest workers to organize and the easiest to ignore.” Also, with so many people still out of work, you’d think that any kind of paid employment would be gratefully accepted.

Nevertheless, there’s a very good reason why we should be more concerned about this issue than we used to be:

  • “…[it’s] not that the jobs have changed; it’s that the people doing the jobs have. Historically, low-wage work tended to be done either by the young or by women looking for part-time jobs...”

Whether working in supermarkets or fast-food outlets, the low-paid were usually supplementing not supplying the main household income. Or, to put it another way, burger flippers and breadwinners were different people. That, however, is changing:

  • “...over the past three decades, the U.S. economy has done a poor job of creating good middle-class jobs; five of the six fastest-growing job categories today pay less than the median wage. That’s why… low-wage workers are older and better educated than ever. More important, more of them are relying on their paychecks not for pin money or to pay for Friday-night dates but, rather, to support families.”

Surowiecki describes “a tectonic shift in the American economy” – with clear parallels to our own economy:

  • “In 1960, the country’s biggest employer, General Motors, was also its most profitable company and one of its best-paying… it was not alone: firms like Ford, Standard Oil, and Bethlehem Steel employed huge numbers of well-paid workers while earning big profits. Today, the country’s biggest employers are retailers and fast-food chains…”

One might think that the rapid growth of high-tech companies like Apple and Google would have compensated for the loss of heavy industry. And, in some ways, that is indeed the case:

  • “...the combined profits of all the major retailers, restaurant chains, and supermarkets in the Fortune 500 are smaller than the profits of Apple alone.”

But here's the kicker:

  • “...Apple employs just seventy-six thousand people, while the retailers, supermarkets, and restaurant chains employ 5.6 million. The grim truth of those numbers is that low wages are a big part of why these companies are able to stay profitable while offering low prices.”

Because most of the jobs are provided in one part of the economy and most of the profits made in another, Surowiecki argues that a “higher minimum wage can be only part of the solution”, which leaves redistribution as the obvious alternative:

  • “Fast-food jobs in Germany and the Netherlands aren’t much better-paid than in the U.S., but a stronger safety net makes workers much better off.”

The trouble is that by using tax credits and other redistributive measures to prop up the living standards of low-paid workers, the state is, in effect, subsidising low-profit, low-wage business models, thus further skewing the shape of the economy.

As Surowiecki concludes, “it isn’t enough to make bad jobs better. We need to create better jobs.”

Tags: Low pay, the minimum wage, employment, redistribution

13 August 2013

It doesn’t matter how much shale gas we’ve got, we still need energy efficiency

The shale gas revolution has brought down energy prices in America. It is said by many that the same would apply to Britain if we develop our own shale resources. Regional markets make that a questionable assumption, but if it’s right, then the economic case against renewables (and nuclear) would be strengthened.

Still, it doesn't matter how cheap gas gets in this country, there's no source of energy that's cheaper, cleaner or more secure than the energy we stop wasting. Therefore, shouldn’t we be at least as excited about energy efficiency as we are about shale gas?

Well, there’s an argument deployed by those who’d prefer to keep efficiency on the sidelines of energy policy (where, sadly, it still remains). It’s called Jevons’ Paradox and in a post on his Undercover Economist blog, Tim Harford takes up the story:

  • “William Stanley Jevons was born in Liverpool in 1835… He made some important contributions to economics – the young John Maynard Keynes thought Jevons was one of the outstanding minds of the 19th century – but he died at 46, drowning in the sea off Bexhill.”

Jevons became famous when in 1865 he predicted that Britain’s “economic prosperity was at risk because the country would run out of viable reserves of coal.” Posthumously, he was proved right  – about the coal, if not the prosperity:

  • “The coal industry did fall into decline. Production peaked exactly a century ago, when there were 1.1 million coal miners – four times as many as when Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1979.”

That, however, is not what he is remembered for today. Rather it was his rebuttal to the notion declining coal production wouldn’t matter because steam engines were becoming more efficient:

  • “It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.”

This, then, is Jevons’ Paradox – efficiency increases demand for energy, because it increases the affordability of using more of it:

  • “When light was hugely expensive, a person might read by the fickle flame of a single candle; now it’s so cheap we flood our cities with it. Double glazing could mean lower heating bills but in practice it means warmer houses.”

There are natural limits to this effect. For instance, after a certain point higher room temperatures become uncomfortable. Another example is vehicle fuel efficiency, where getting more miles to the gallon doesn’t mean that you’ll want to drive more miles than you have to: 

  • “Aha, reply Jevons’s defenders: even if a fuel-sipping car does not induce me to drive much further, I may still spend my cash savings on some other energy-guzzling device.”

On the other hand, you might spend those savings on increasing the quality not the quantity of what you consume. You only have so many hours in the day to use them and, after your basic needs have been met, the purpose of consumption is to maximise enjoyment not energy use.

Therefore in a developed economy, efficiency measures not only promise to save us money, but to  meet our energy needs too.

Tags: Shale gas, energy policy, energy efficiency, Jevons' Paradox

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