How brexit is turning the UK into a haven…for human rights abuse

One of the main motivations for brexit was to tackle immigration. However, even before the referendum, it was pointed out to the brexiters, that their plans would be unworkable and counter productive. Job markets are fairly complicated and restricting migrant can led to labour shortages, slowing down economic growth, which can reduce the number of jobs available to locals. There would, for example, be little benefit in being able to catch more fish in UK waters. As the bulk of the UK’s fishing quota’s are held by a handful of very wealthy families. And the UK lacks the fishermen to crew these extra boats. Plus, without single market membership, no European market to export the fish into (while equally making it harder to import in the fish types the British prefer to eat).

The only way these worker shortages could be avoided would be by using agencies to bring in workers from beyond the EU. Which would A) defeat the supposed purpose of brexit. B) still be insufficient to meet demand (given the shear volume of seasonal workers required), meaning crops rotting in the field. And C) threaten the jobs of UK workers (because you can’t half run a business, if they can’t hire the staff in the UK, they’ll shut down and move somewhere else). In short, the warning was, brexit will have the completely opposite effect intended and likely decrease the number of jobs, while leaving some industries even more dependant on migrant labour.

And now post brexit, what do you know, we’re hearing stories of migrants (mostly from Africa and Asia) being brought in to crew fishing boats. Many of whom are reporting dangerously long working hours, violence & physical abuse, not to mention being paid below the minimum wage (thanks to a loophole, similar to the one P&O used to sack all of their UK staff recently).

Meanwhile its a crucial year for farming. Last year was a bit of a washout, due to a lack of farm workers and this year is expected to be worse (with it more important that harvests go off ok, given the conflict in Ukraine). So agencies are being used to bring in farm workers from all over the world. And again, we hear stories of exploitation and abuse, as the workers (and some of the farmers) are at the mercy of corrupt agencies and unscrupulous gang masters.

Even in a well paid profession like nursing, migrants are finding themselves locked into exploitative contracts with expensive exit fees. In short, there is an increasing risk of the UK becoming the Dubai of Europe (where migrant workers are essentially treated as slaves). Yes, the UK, which prides itself on being some sort of a beacon for human rights…yet is planning to deport refugees to Rwanda…and letting in less Ukrainian refugees than Ireland….I think we’d best just leave it at that!

None of this should come as a surprise. The whole reason why the EU has promoted freedom of movement as one of its core principles, isn’t because its run by a bunch of leftie liberal hippies (actually its generally run by centre right politicians). Instead its down to more pragmatic economic considerations. You are going to get situations where there are labour shortages in one place and a lack of jobs somewhere else. E.g. back in the 80’s there was a building boom in Germany, while business was slack in the UK (meaning lots of UK builders moved over to Germany), with the reverse happening in the 2000’s.

A lot of jobs often see seasonal fluctuations in demand. For example, the planting and harvest seasons for different crops are often relatively short windows of time, but these vary across the continent depending on the type of crop and climate. Meaning a group of migrant workers can move from one region to another and help fill job vacancies. Something which workers tied to one country can’t do (particularly in a highly urbanised country like the UK, which has few agricultural workers and poor public transport in rural areas).

Then there is the specialist nature of many modern jobs. For example, the Tories want to solve their energy problems through a combination of heat pumps, nuclear and fracking. Well, ignoring the practical difficulties in this strategy, the more immediate show stopper is going to be a lack of people with the right technical skills to work in these industries. For example, I was considering a heat pump when I replaced my boiler a few years ago and finding a reliable installer (who could get back to me quickly, as I had no hot water or heating) was one of the reasons I ruled this out.

And if you are worried about migrants competing against locals for jobs, well that can be solved by providing them with legal protections (also something the EU was keen to push) and a higher minimum wage. Thus an employer who doesn’t look after their staff, they’ll quit (or go on strike) and possibly report him or sue (so he gets a fine and loses his work force).

Obviously, if you bypass these rules, as the UK is now doing, you raise the risk of workers being exploited and underpaid. And these migrants are less likely to report this, particularly if they are here illegally, as they will fear the authorities will deport them. And this ridiculous Rwanda deportation policy makes things worse, as it means gang masters can now use the threat of being shipped off to Rwanda to control their staff.

And if employers can hire someone for less than the minimum wage and work them like galley slaves, well pretty soon they will stop hiring British workers at all. This is exactly what’s happened in other countries with strict immigration rules. Certain industries in America, most notably meat packing, are mostly staffed by migrant workers from overseas. Meaning what was until a few decades ago a decent, well paid job, now it resembles something akin to Upton Sinclair’s the Jungle of the 1900’s. Similarly in the Gulf states you will find few if any locals on a building site, despite massive levels of unemployment. Because who in their right mind would hire an Arab to do a job, when they can get a Pakistani to do it for peanuts (plus they could get in trouble if a local got injured or killed on the job).

It seems the brexiters, like so many populists, are having to learn the hard way why the rules they hate were enacted in the first place. Why did the EU single market come about? Because borders suck. You have to queue for hours or even days (a disaster relief charity has now been drafted in to help out UK truck drivers stuck at Dover), fill out lots of paperwork, etc. And borders tend to become a haven for smuggling and criminality. So it made sense to reach an agreement across the EU allowing them to be done away with. And thus it is no surprise that when the UK leaves the single market, you get brexiters complaining about having to queue for hours (or days!) and filling out lots of paperwork.

Similarly many libertarians complain about how national currencies are under the control of the big bad gov’mint, who put in place all sorts of rules and regulations. Not to mention the gov’mint can just print money. So they set up their own private crypto currencies to act as a form of digital gold standard. The thing is, we’ve tried this model of private currencies before and suffice to say there’s a reason there aren’t any around anymore. They proved to be unstable, at risk of fraud, often resulting in economic crashes and market panics. This is the whole reason why many governments set up national currencies in the first place. As for the gold standard, that created more problems than it solved. Hence why Nixon (a republican) decided to get rid of it.

But unfortunately, libertarians are poor students of history. And so we’ve now seen multiple examples of the very same problems emerge with crypto, including scams and outright fraud, the sudden collapses of entire currencies and market panics (imagine being paid in bitcoin and because of some tweet from Elon, your salary loses 25% of its value before you get to spend a penny). The only difference is, these crashes are occurring on a much larger scale and impacting far more people. Plus crypto is also helping criminals (or rogue states like North Korea) launder their money. As well as providing a nice new revenue stream by rug pulling millennial’s. And similarly NFT’s have proven to be little more than a repeat of tulip mania….only at least the investors back then got a few nice flowers out of it!

As the saying goes history doesn’t repeat, but it often rhymes. So before you start complaining about some law, or regulation, or asking why don’t we do things a different way instead. It might be a good idea to go look up why this law was put in place in the first place.

Posted in crime, cults, economics, environment, EU, history, housing, ireland, news, politics, scams, sustainability, sustainable, technology, transport | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Roe v’s Wade being overturned is a symptom of a wider problem: American democracy is broken

daryanblog

So it looks like the conservative majority in the Supreme court is about to overturn Roe v’s Wade, sending abortion rights in America back to the 1970’s. But this is about way more than abortion rights. If those can be overturned, then so can pretty much anything else, such as LGBT rights, freedom from discrimination (back to the Jim Crow days) and freedom of speech and the right to protest.

And while some on the right might not see the problem with that, the issue is it cuts both ways. A precedent is being set. If the left ever get control of the court again (and a few dead justices is all that takes), they can also overturn gun rights (until the last few decades the Supreme court viewed the 2nd amendment as provisions for civil defence not personal defence). Or the right…

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The search for a 30p meal

daryanblog

So here in the UK we have a cost of living crisis. Food prices have skyrocketed, with millions suddenly facing the choice between heating and eating. Something that is putting huge pressure on charities and food banks (cos the government are no help). And while other government’s are announcing various measures to help tackle the crisis (windfall tax on energy companies, a non-means tested rebate on energy bills, etc.), instead the Tories have been offering up excuses, or threats to fire civil servants (so more people can end up in poverty, note that they had to hire 50,000 more civil servants to deal with brexit), as well as doling out their own brand of patronising helpful advice.

For example one minister suggested that the poor should buy value brand items instead. Well no sh*t sherlock! Of course, you get want you pay…

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Here we go again…..

So the Tories have suddenly realised (after 14 years in office) that the UK doesn’t have an energy policy. And that this might be something of a bad thing. So, over a few lines of coke, Boris and co have spaffed together something which they think vaguely resembles an energy plan.

The grand scheme is to increase renewables, but also prioritise the building of 8 nuclear reactors, as well as more oil and gas drilling. However in truth the plan doesn’t add up to anything. It promises much, but without any roadmap for how to achieve its aims (if it was that easy, we’d have solved the energy problem decades ago). It sounds more like the Boris burrow or the garden bridge all over again.

Let’s start with renewables. While it is good to see they’ve finally gotten the message (that renewables are cheaper and actually scalable), in reality there is nothing of substance to this plan. It doesn’t allow for onshore wind (the cheapest of all electricity generating methods these days, cheaper even than fossil fuels now) and doesn’t include much in terms of long term subsidies. It just seems to assume Harry Potter will come along, wave his magic wand and wind turbines/solar panels will start popping up.

Put yourself in the shoes of a renewable energy executive. You are thinking of building a solar panel or wind turbine factory in the UK. While yes the government claims its now pro-renewable, but you are well aware of the fact the Tories have an ingrained hatred for renewables (something which the moratorium on onshore wind demonstrates they aren’t over). You know they have reneged on past subsidy promises for renewables and that they are in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry (notably certain middle east governments). You are also aware of the politics behind this announcement (i.e. distract everyone from partygate). Plus the fact that Johnson’s wife Carrie is under the deluded impression that she’s an environmentalist. Hence said policies might only last as long as Johnson is in power…or until he starts chasing after another woman. I think most renewable executives will pass.

As for nuclear, well first of all, in order to get the 24 GW’s of nuclear power by 2050 they talk about, you’d need 15-24 reactors depending on size. It seems unlikely any one company could build more than two reactors at a time. And EDF are already preoccupied with Hinkley C. So you’d likely have to go for other designs which would require reactors types from different suppliers being built at the same time.

The trouble with that is, anything other than an EPR needs to be certified, it needs a fuel cycle fleshed out and developed. And the UK government’s decision to leave Euroatom means that’s going to be a slow and expensive process (unless you plan on becoming hooked on Russian Uranium instead of Russian gas!). Obviously operating reactors built by different suppliers will also create a regulatory nightmare in terms of monitoring and operating these plants. And, as the UK lacks the expertise to build, let alone operate these reactors, post-brexit immigration controls will have to be relaxed (wait till the gammon’s here that one!).

There are also a number of key bottlenecks in the nuclear supply chain. Notably as regards large forgings for the reactor pressure vessels, which will likely have to be sourced from JSW in Japan. Problem is, they’ve gotten burned by past Tory grandiose plans (adding extra capacity for reactors that were never ordered). So they might not be too keen on getting burned again. Meaning the UK will be told to take a number and go to the back of the queue. In short it would likely be decades before the UK sees any of this capacity built. Where do we get the power from in the meantime?

And inevitably SMR’s are touted as the solution. Well, as I’ve pointed out before, SMR’s only look better because of the grass is greener on the other side effect. That is too say, we know everything wrong with the large GW scale light water reactor concept. SMR aren’t as mature a concept and hence we don’t know what the real problems will be. Even the pro-nuclear NNL does not see them as a replacement for large GW scale reactors, as they will lack the economies of scale and be even more expensive again to build and operate (with nuclear already being much more expensive that renewables or fossil fuels).

Furthermore, where are they going to get built? 25 GW’s of SMR’s would mean 100-120 of them, depending on size. It would make sense to spread them around the country, closer to the loads they serve, rather than grouping them on a few remote sites (this is sort of the whole point of SMR’s!). You can then use the waste heat from these reactors for industrial purposes (which for high temperature gas cooled reactors can include making hydrogen via the Sulfur-Iodine process), or to provide district heating to nearby homes.

Of course if you think the regulatory hurdles are bad for large light water reactors, they are going to be ten times worse for SMR’s, designs that are largely untested in civilian service. Noting that experience with military reactors doesn’t count, as they generally run on highly enriched Uranium (unusable in civilian projects) and benefit from essentially an unlimited budget as well as the cloak of military secrecy (so any actual safety issues can be swept under the carpet). You think the NIMBY’s are bad when it comes to wind energy, wait until you see what happens when you propose to build a nuclear reactor (a military design proposed by a company that’s never build a plant like this before) right next to the M25/M1 interchange. Survey’s have shown the vast majority of people will oppose a mini-nuclear reactor on their doorstep. So this would be political poison.

Finally there is the crucial matter of costs. I heard a figure of £120 billion being thrown around…until Sunak heard that too and threw his toy’s out of the pram. Well even if that were true, £120 billion is not far of the expected lifetime costs for Hinkley C. So this is spending that’s already been committed too. Granted Hinkley C is a crap sandwich and its reasonable to assume any other nuclear project won’t be as expensive. However what made it such a mess was the fact the Tories didn’t listen to the critics and painted themselves into a corner on Hinkley C. What’s to say the same thing won’t happen with these new reactors? Hence the £1.7 billion already announced probably won’t be enough to pay for the artwork.

And if we are throwing around sums of money in the hundreds of billions, well with that sort of money you could solve the cost of living crisis by just giving everyone on low income a few thousand every year to pay for heating and subsidise their food costs. By contrast, its been estimated that, given the higher costs of nuclear electricity, Johnson’s plans would likely push up energy prices (at least in the medium term), rather than bring them down.

And this is on top of the Tories essentially becoming loansharks to many low income families, loaning them money to pay for energy. Meanwhile in the rest of Europe countries are simply giving people money to help ease the cost of living crisis. Indeed the Irish government even pointed out that there was little point in making these payments means tested, as this would cost more in administration costs than it would save. Which is the problem – it is against the Tories religion to simply give money to needy people. They’d rather squander it on some boondoggle scheme than give away a penny of it (because everyone living on benefits is a scrounger…except Tory voting pensioners of course!). After all, its only tax payers money. And its not like the Tories pay any taxes.

Or if you want to invest money in energy, for the same money being committed to Hinkley you could add vastly more renewables, with change to spare for energy storage. Which I might add is something we don’t get around with nuclear, as it will need some level of energy storage too in a post-fossil fuel world where there aren’t any gas fired power plants to meet peak demand.

Speaking of which, it would seem that the Tories plan B, of more fossil fuel drilling, is actually the plan A. Which probably explains why there’s not been many objections from the climate denial lobby within the Tories so far. They know that Boris is just going to piss a few billion of taxpayers money against the wall with his nuclear plans. And once that’s failed, they’ll get to ignore the UK’s net zero pledges.

Well actually, even this part of the plan might not work. The problem for the UK is that all the low hanging fruit, the cheap and easily produced fossil fuels are gone. All that’s left are the smaller offshore fields in deeper water, or shale gas reserves, etc. These are going to be much more expensive to drill and produce. Which might seem fine now when oil prices are high, but might not look so good if oil prices drop in a few years time.

And being dependant on fossil fuels when the rest of Europe seems to be planning to move away from them would be problematic. Recall that most of the gas pipelines from Russia run through Europe. So if the Europeans start cutting those up and posting them back to Putin, the UK is kind of screwed. And a bloc as large as the EU will always be able to source deals at a more affordable price than the UK.

Worst of all is what’s not mentioned in the plan. For example energy efficiency. By far the most cost effective way of fighting climate change and reducing dependence on foreign oil and gas is to simply use less of it. The UK has some of the worst homes in Europe for energy efficiency, largely because the Tories have scrapped legislation that would have forced house builders (including many Tory donors) to adopt higher standards of energy efficiency. They also made a pig’s ear of schemes to retrofit existing homes. Noting that such schemes did previously exist under labour and worked fine (of course, that’s the problem, they worked because they gave money to the people who needed it, while the Tories have to construct an extremely wasteful system that funnels the money to Tory donors instead).

One solution to the energy storage conundrum is a smart grid. However, as I’ve discussed before, this would take time to develop. Yet the Tory plan does not include provisions for this. And this is likely due to their ideological opposition to such an idea (as it would involve, god forbid the government doing some central planning!).

In short, this energy plan is just a rehash of previous failed Tory plans. Thus it is fatally flawed, as it must conform to Tory ideology. It will go nowhere fast, after allowing a couple of Tory donors to burn a few billion more of public funds.

Posted in cars, CHP, clean energy, climate change, economics, efficiency, energy, environment, EU, fossil fuels, future, Global warming denial, housing, Japan, news, nuclear, Passivhaus, peak oil, politics, power, renewables, Shale Gas, Shale oil, subsidy, sustainability, sustainable, Tar Sands, technology, transport | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Why the cost of living crisis isn’t an accident

daryanblog

The UK finds itself in a severe cost of living crisis. Inflation is at its highest level since the 1980’s, while energy costs are up 54%, along with rents and mortgage costs. And with food price increases as well, this puts some in the dilemma of having to choose between heating or food. Last week there were even reports from some food banks of people turning down fresh vegetables, such as potatoes, because they couldn’t afford to cook them (granted that probably only costs 6-10p per serving to cook, but if you’ve had a high bill you are likely now paranoid, plus shared households, which increasingly many of the UK are forced to live in, it requires approval from a congressional committee to turn on certain high energy appliances).

And what is the government going to do about it? Sweet FA of course. In fact the…

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When populists go to war: Russia’s failure in Ukraine

So Putin’s war in Ukraine doesn’t appear to be going according to plan. Rather than a swift race to victory, instead his army is getting bogged down in bitter street fighting. And they are facing increasingly bold counter attacks from the Ukrainian army. And rather than being greeted as liberators by the Ukrainians, instead he’s only succeeded in uniting the country against him (as well as the EU and NATO). It is the unfortunate consequences of what happens when the magical thinking of populist leaders meets the realities of war.

There’s an old saying, that arm chair generals talk about tactics, megalomaniacs obsess about war winning wonder weapons, while the real generals focus on old boring logistics (I think it was Eisenhower who said that one of the key war winning weapons of WW2 was the Deuce & a half truck or the Jerry can). Well I think we can tell which category Putin and his inner circle fall into. Russia’s logistics have been truly awful. On many occasions their tanks have run out of fuel and had to be abandoned (Russia being one of the world’s largest oil producers). Then towed away and stolen by irate Ukrainian farmers (I mean you are parking a tank in his field, count yourself lucky he didn’t sent the bull loose!). Short of food, Russian troops have been seen looting shops.

And Russian tanks have been proven vulnerable to Western made anti-tank missiles. Which shouldn’t be a huge surprise as the capabilities of such weapons (and the weaknesses in Russian armour) have been known about for sometime. Worryingly for the Russians, the Ukrainians have apparently been focusing on hitting softer targets like fuel truck convoys & APC’s, rather than tanks (they are destroying just enough each day to make the Russian tank crews cautious, but they aren’t the main focus…for now!). This battlefield attrition has meant they’ve started running out of trucks and been forced to use civilian dumper trucks or even mini-vans as troop transports (which are of course horribly vulnerable to incoming fire, meaning Russian casualty figures will only get worse).

Meanwhile in the sky’s, a month into the conflict and the Russians have yet to establish air superiority. With the Ukrainian air force still able to carry out drone attacks and the odd air strike against the Russian forces. And if you think things are bad now, some experts reckon the Russians will exhaust their battlefield logistics within another week or two. Meaning they will not be able to advance, nor resist Ukrainian counter attacks. And the spring thaw is now upon us, meaning the Rasputitsa (mud season) will start soon, limiting the ability of the Russian forces to advance….or even retreat!

But what about all these advanced weapons the Russians have been working on? Like hypersonic missiles, such as the ones Russia’s used a few weeks ago. Well there’s an element of semantics at play here. Hypersonic speeds refers to anything capable of going faster than mach 5. We’ve had regular ballistic missiles (or anti-ballistic missile interceptors), capable of those sorts of speeds since the 1950’s. Its nothing new.

Hypersonic weapons is generally meant to refer to either a scramjet powered weapon, or a gliding lifting body (skipping across the top of the atmosphere like a stone across a pond), which can manoeuvre and evade air defences. Although on this last point, while difficult to detect and guard against with existing missile defence systems, that would likely change very quickly (e.g. while they are difficult to detect on surface based radars, the amount of heat they generate makes them easily detectable by air or satellite infrared tracking systems).

The Kinzhal missile the Russians launched a few weeks back would be more accurately described as a air-launched ballistic missile. We’ve had weapons like that since the 1970’s. Interestingly such programmes never moved beyond the development stage for a variety of practical reasons. They are bigger, bulkier and more expensive than conventional cruise missiles (a B-52 could carry 4 air-launched ballistic missiles…or 24 cruise missiles with a similar range and payload). They also need air fields, which are impossible to hide and vulnerable to attack (missiles on trucks or in subs can be dispersed and hidden).

And if you think that’s bad, the Russians are also working on a variety of doomsday weapons, such as nuclear powered cruise missiles, or nuclear powered torpedoes. Similar weapons were looked into during the cold war but eventually abandoned, because even back then nobody was batsh*t nuts enough to go forward with such ridiculous projects.

Now it has to be said Russia has been working on some real hypersonic weapons. And some analysis suggests they might be ahead of the US (which should tell you how corrupt and inept the American Military industrial complex has become). However, this would be counter productive, as it will inevitably provoke a response from the NATO.

We’ve been here before. Back in the late 1950’s, the Soviet’s seemed to have taken a lead in the deployment of ICBM’s. Inevitably this missile gap” got blown out of all proportion and NATO reacted by building a vast network of thousands of its own (often better) ICBM’s. Which ultimately played a role in both provoking the Cuban missile crisis (an attempt by the USSR to get back to something resembling parity with the west) and one of the reasons why the soviet’s blinked first. So all Putin is doing is provoking another arms race that he can’t win (as NATO has a vastly higher budget and larger production capacity) and will see Russia surrounded by vast numbers of hypersonic missiles.

The very fact Putin has pushed ahead with such boondoogles indicates the Kremlin either isn’t listening to its experts. Or the experts are too afraid to speak out. Its what I’d call the Aladeen effect, a reference to this scene from the movie the Dictator. If your boss is a dumb-ass tyrannical despot and he tells you he doesn’t want his missiles round at the top but pointy (so they can stick in the ground and go kaboom), well that’s what he’s going to get. Whether it works or not, or it is just a complete waste of time and money, that’s someone else’s problem. In short, if Russia had a free press and a congressional oversight committee, none of these weapon systems would have ever been funded.

Its also clear that Putin and his generals have started to believe their own propaganda. For example, the Russians have made various bold claims about having advanced APS defences (Active Protection System, capable of detecting an incoming AT rocket and shooting it down before it hits) to protect their tanks. Such systems are nothing new, the Israeli’s have been working on those for sometime. However, they have their limitations, notably as regards top attacks, swarm attacks (firing multiple missiles at a tank from different directions at once), kinetic energy projectiles (a big ass gun firing solid armour piercing rounds at very high velocities) or indeed low tech solutions such as IED’s or Molotov cocktails. Bottom line, a clever anti-tank team will find a way to get around such defences, while an experienced tank crew won’t let themselves get into a situation where they are vulnerable to such attacks.

However, the Russians have made bold claims about how their APS systems are so advanced they are immune to such attacks, even the AP rounds from NATO tanks. A claim many consider to be highly dubious and probably impractical. Well it will probably not come as a huge surprise to learn that one of the prototypes for this weapon system was recently found in a burning heap on the side of a road in Ukraine, with its turret blown off. While its not clear what killed it, a hit from an AT rocket seems probable.

Then there is the matter of corruption, which after all played a key role in America’s defeat in Afghanistan. If you are a Russian general and you’ve got a multi million rubble budget to maintain your trucks and buy fuel. Well you could do that…or you could spend half the money and put the rest in your pocket (I mean its not like we are going to go to war or anything). You bill Moscow for 1000 guns or missiles, but then only buy 200 and split the difference with the Oligarch selling you the weapons. Which makes it even harder for anyone to speak up. As now you aren’t just accusing your boss of being an idiot. But being a corrupt idiot who is picking the state’s pocket.

This is the inevitable end state when populists go to war, When their magical thinking based on misguided nationalist myths bumps into that most dangerous of enemies – reality. Because unfortunately reality has a strong bias towards the truth. And Russia’s ongoing problem are just another good example of this. Sure Putin can use his hold over the media to try and hide this reality, but its not going to go away. As some have commented, whatever his war plan was he’s basically already lost.

Now that said, Russia does have a very large and dangerous arsenal of weapons. And it would be all too easy to shift the goal posts. e.g. secure a big chunk of southern Ukraine, abandon the positions in the rest of the country and sell that back home as some sort of victory. Then ride out western sanctions and hope his ally Trump get’s back in next election and all will be forgiven.

Well if that’s the plan, its a crap plan. Capturing land and holding it are two very different things. Recall the Russians pretty much conquered Afghanistan within a few days. It was holding that land that proved to be the problem. In fact the Irish war of independence, or the troubles, are probably good examples of how things in Ukraine will pan out. And the more brutal the Russians are, the more brutal Ukrainian partisans will be to the Russians. And not just the Russian army. Attacks against civilian targets in Russia becomes a real possibility (recall the Ukrainian government doesn’t necessarily have control of all these groups and will have even less control during a prolonged guerrilla war).

And what if Trump doesn’t run (he could just die of old age….or get bumped off by the CIA!) or he losses (or he ends up in prison!). Or the military industrial complex makes him a better offer (they need another war to sell their wares), and he launches a bunch of proxy wars around the globe. On which point, Putin’s decision to call in favours from Syria or Chechnya might come back to haunt him, as he’s running down those forces, risking renewed conflict in those countries. He’s also been accused of sending in troops from ethnic minority communities and using them as cannon fodder, which I might add was another failing of the soviet’s in Afghanistan. And was one of the reasons a whole bunch of civil unrest kicked off not long after that conflict was over.

And what is likely to be the final end state? A stronger EU and NATO (the opposite of Putin’s goals) and even if Ukraine (or Finland) officially stay out of NATO, a significant military presence there right on his border. I hate to break to Putin, but you don’t have to be a NATO member for the US to station forces in your country. The US has hundreds of bases worldwide and the vast majority of them aren’t NATO members, or even formal allies of the US. Hell Japan is officially a neutral country with a pacifist constitution and they host a massive US military presence.

Then there’s these not so little things called “aircraft carriers”. The US and NATO have dozens of those. They could have several large battle groups in international waters, just off the Russian coast, doing doughnuts and there’s nothing the Russians can do about that. Plus Putin’s use of some fairly shady mercenaries (as in neo-nazi linked ones), gives the US a green light to do the same. They could send a large army of military contractors to Ukraine (employed by a firm in the Cayman Islands), arm them with some pretty dangerous weapons and legitimately claim to have no troops in the country.

So I’d suggest Putin adopts a different strategy. When you are in a hole, stop digging.

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The chickens come home to roost on UK energy policy

For years I’ve warned of the dangers of the Tories policy on energy. Well now we see the inevitable end result. People in the UK are getting letters warning them of a massive increase in energy costs from April the 1st onwards. And I’m afraid, its not an April fools joke. Bills are going up by an average of 54% across the board. Gas is effectively doubling. And while its not such a steep rise for the unit cost of electricity (I think its about 20-25%), but the standing charge is essentially doubling. And these price rises are mostly down to factors unrelated to Ukraine. The fallout from that on bills will hit in October, when further price rises are expected.

And this is all the inevitable consequences of a Tory energy policy that has amounted to giving corrupt party donors whatever they want, even if its counter productive, or conflicts with basic common sense. And why come up with a working policy (which involves lots of thinking and hard stuff like that), which can provide actual energy at an affordable price, when you can just papering over the cracks with lots of media spin from a pro-Tory press (green new deal….based on fracking and coal!). As well as populist policies such as a price cap system that destroyed competition and drove most of the UK’s energy firms into bankruptcy.

Energy policy is about long term decisions, as it takes decades to develop new energy sources, and for the impact of these changes to work their way through the economy. But of course if there’s a sudden energy crisis, the impact is felt straight away. Most European countries have dealt with this by adopting a long term energy plan. Germany’s Energiewende is a good example. Crucially these European energy plans are often built on the basis of cross party support. So, while the conservatives in Germany have sought to stretch out the time they can keep using coal and nuclear. By contrast the Greens have tried doing the opposite and speeding up the roll out of renewables. Similarly in France, whose energy plan is nuclear heavy, priorities have increasingly switched towards renewables, as the prices fell and technology improved. My point is, that while individual governments might come and go, and they will alter the plan in line with current technology, events and politics. But they aren’t going to significantly change the plan (at least not without consulting with the other parties first) or scrap it completely.

In essence the reason why the UK is in this mess is that its never really had a long term energy plan and successive governments have kept taking various stabs at it….and failing! We’ve had energy minsters whose sole job was to turn off the lights and go home. Hell at one point they even got rid of the whole energy department entirely for reasons related to the internal politics of the Tory party. We are talking about policies being hastily stitched together by spin doctors and then implemented without any sort of due diligence (e.g. the Northern Ireland’s RHI scheme), then having to be scrapped later (such as Johnson’s Green homes scheme), when it was turned out to be unworkable. Its flip flops on flip flops.

So for example this rise in the standing charge. Well this probably due to the fact that, while there is a price cap on the unit cost of electricity, there is none on the standing charges. So they might as well jack it up as much as possible, even if from a national point of view this is a bad idea. As pushing up the standing charge means that energy efficiency measures aren’t going to be as effective (as you still have to pay it regardless of how little energy you use). Its also likely to lead to an increase in fuel poverty.

Of course the other benefit of a price cap rise is it allows the Tories to continue with their favourite hobby of bashing renewables. I can guarantee you, come April they will be blaming this price cap rise on green energy. In truth the Tories cut most renewable subsidies along time ago. And the price of renewables has been steadily falling, to the point where renewables are now the cheapest way to generate a unit of electricity. Yes, there are other costs related to operating a grid. But clearly encouraging investment in renewables is an excellent hedge against high gas prices.

The Tories hatred for all things green is so strong, they not only cut subsidies but banned certain types of renewables (such as onshore wind) and even removed tax breaks on renewables, so you have to pay taxes for the privilege of going green (and for private companies those taxes find their way onto your energy bill). And while there has been a rise in the overall “green tariff” this is, as noted, largely down to failed energy schemes mismanaged by the Tories. In fact analysis by Carbon Brief has shown that the decision to cut the “green crap (as the Tories call it) has directly contributed to at least some of the recent rises in energy bills.

The closest the UK came to a working energy plan was under the labour government of the 1970’s. Then the wicked witch of the west Thatcher/Major government, came along and advocated for a mixed approach of fossil fuels, but with more of an emphasis on gas over coal (more to stick it to the labour voting coal miners than for economic & environmental reasons), with nuclear power promoted as well and some renewables added as an after thought.

However, thanks to the Tory policy of privatisation, nuclear was unable to deliver, largely on reasons of cost (they planned ten reactors under this programme and only built one). British energy, the UK’s primary nuclear energy company, would essentially go bankrupt before being bought out by EDF, a state owned French company (so this was basically the UK paying the French government to nationalise their nuclear industry for them, as it was against the Tories religion of free-markets).

During the labour government, the energy white paper of the 2000’s largely ruled out nuclear and coal and focused more heavily on renewables (which would be promoted with subsidies) as well as on gas….although they weren’t exactly clear about any sort of a timetable for getting off fossil fuels nor where this gas was going to come from. Labour did backtrack on nuclear briefly, likely because they’d been schmoozed by pro-nuclear energy cheerleaders. But since this lot didn’t know what they were doing, it went nowhere really.

Then the Tories came along and began to fiddle. And the problem since then has been that they fundamentally do not and never have understood what they were doing. I mean we are going beyond short sighted policy focused on the next election. We’re talking about setting policy based on whether a Tory donor is going to kick back enough money to let buy me a new yacht the the end of this month. Or making sure Boris doesn’t look like a twat at a climate conference next week. And when inevitably reality won’t bend to their will (reality have a strong pro-facts bias), they adopt a policy of punishing successes (like renewables), while rewarding failure (such as nuclear or fossil fuels).

For example, nuclear energy, which the Tories have had a long obsession with. You’ll often notice a difference between those politicians in Europe who are pro-nuclear and those in the UK. The Europeans will talk about the latest light water reactor designs, or debate the long term prospects of ITER. UK nuclear cheerleaders will talk about LFTR’s, SMR’s and sometimes get fission and fusion confused. In other words, the Europeans live in the real world where nuclear energy is expensive, complicated and slow to install. Although it does have the benefit of being a reliable and carbon free source of energy. While the Tories are instead living in a fantasy world of unicorns and sunlit uplands (and presumably they think we can rely on Oompa Loompa’s to build the reactors).

As a result, the only nuclear reactor project being actively built in the UK, is the one near Bristol….being built by the French….at great expense. While all other attempts at building another have collapsed, largely because of the Tories inability to square the circle the nuclear energy costs a lot of money (and no the contractors won’t work for free), takes a long time to plan and requires close co-operation with international partners (which brexit has hardly helped out with).

The Tories other favourite delusion is fracking. Firstly there is the environmental impact. Its generally accepted to be worse than conventional gas for carbon emissions (how much worse is open to debate) and can lead to issues like ground water pollution and earthquakes. Sure you can get away with that in rural parts of the US (Trump could go to a house in the deep south, shoot the dog, sleep with the daughter, make off with the family silverware and they’d still all vote republican…and blame Biden for everything), but that ain’t going to work in the UK. Several marginal seats, including some of those in the red wall, are in the main fracking areas. Several of those Tory MP’s only got elected because the promised to vote against fracking.

The other issue is that there is a big difference between resources and reserves. That is to say the difference between the amount in the ground and what we can actually economically expect to extract. There are essentially two kinds of companies in the oil industry. The producers, who extract and sell the oil. And the exploration drillers who actually go out and find it. In order to do that, they need investors, who aren’t going to invest unless they expect to see a return. Hence the exploration companies have a perverse incentive to focus a lot on the potential resources and less on the practicalities of how much can actually be produced (that’s someone else’s problem). Or to put it less politely, they are a gang of bullshitters, con-artists and snake oil salesmen. I think you can guess which lot the Tories are in bed with.

And as with anything else energy related, this all takes time. And I won’t expect to see any major move production wise until after the next election. Unless fracking has cross party support, the oil companies will have to worry what happens if labour ends up winning and ban it (and by coming out against fracking that’s an easy few dozen seats they can win off the Tories). The oil companies will have wasted billions of pounds for no gain.

Meanwhile up here in Scotland, the Scottish government has used what influence it has over energy policy, to stick to the original plan of adding more renewables. As a consequence Scotland is now a net exporter of low-carbon electricity (once we factor in the remaining nuclear energy on the grid). And will shortly be in the 100% club for renewable electricity. So it shows what the UK could have achieved if they’d just come up with a plan and stuck to it.

Of course, there’ two problems with the Scottish plan. Firstly, only about 20% of total final energy consumption is electricity. The rest is transportation fuels and natural gas for heating. In fact as you can see below, its the spike in heating demand that’s the primary spike in energy demand for the UK.

This means that you need energy storage. Well two kinds actually, short term energy storage to even out the peaks and troughs between daily production and consumption (possibly via batteries and a smart grid). And inter-seasonal storage to deal with large seasonal fluctuations in demand (perhaps via underground storage of hydrogen or large scale pumped hydro storage). Either way, such schemes take a lot of time to build and develop. And time isn’t really on our side.

The other issue is the need to lower that big spike in demand mid-winter. The more energy efficient your economy (and in particular housing stock), the lower that spike is going to be, meaning you can get by with less need for energy storage. The previous labour government had a plan to make all homes in the UK zero carbon by 2016, which the Tories abandoned. A policy change that benefited only one group of people – house builders, including many Tory donors (as it allowed them to save a few thousand on insulation costs….even if it ends up costing the home owners tens of thousands over the lifetime of the house and leave the UK more dependant on gas imports).

The end result is that the UK has some of the worst homes in Europe for energy efficiency. We could retrofit more homes with insulation, or install more renewable heating systems (such as heat pumps, biomass boilers, solar thermal systems, etc.), something the Tories have also scrapped (hence the people lying down in the middle of roads protesting).

And the brexit dimension also has to be considered. Consider that if the EU goes ahead with its plans for a crash course in getting off Russian gas, that’s going to have big implications for the UK. Most of the supplies the UK relies on, be it from Norway or LNG, will become much more expensive (the EU will always be able to get better more favourable deals negotiating on behalf of a bloc of countries than the UK can manage) or unavailable. And sneakily buying off Putin won’t be an option, as supplies from Russia via Europe will be cut off. And while the rest of Europe tends to have large reserves of gas (typically enough for a winter). The UK doesn’t, thanks to their decision to shut down the one large storage facility the country had in 2017.

My point is, its a mess and entirely preventable. We can blame Putin for many things (notably being a war criminal on the same level as those who were hanged at Nuremberg), but he hasn’t been in charge of the UK’s energy policy for the last few decades. And if anyone in the Tory party thinks they can get out of this mess with a few meaningless slogans and randomly assigned targets (based more on bribes and ideology than what’s actually sensible), then think again.

Like I said, energy policy is about long term planning. There are no quick fixes. After all, if there were, don’t you think someone else would have done it along time ago? Unless their energy plan is well thought out (i.e. vetted by experts not Tory party hacks), realistic in its goals, fully costed and has cross party support, it will go nowhere fast. If we could run the country off of Tory hot air, we’d have an energy surplus.

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How the West failed Ukraine….and how Putin has doomed Russia to collapse

I came across this article in the Guardian that I think sums up how the west got itself into this mess. Why does the west always seem to lose to Putin? Timidity Greed & Sloth.

The west has not effectively stood up to Putin any time he’s made some sort of move. Be it in Georgia in 2008, into the Crimea in 2014, the ongoing campaign in Syria or his Belarus puppet’s interception of a European airliner. Nevermind the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London (or the attempted murder of the Skripal’s in Salisbury) or sending neo-nazi death squads into Libya (seriously a bunch of Russian mercenaries, now in Ukraine, who are going around in Nazi uniforms!). Yet at every turn the west has either done nothing, or just made excuses.

Perhaps the biggest sign of appeasement has to be the Nord stream pipelines. I mean seriously, Putin shows himself to be an unreliable supplier of gas and your solution is to spend $10 billion making yourself more dependant on him! The instant he started misbehaving back in the 2000’s, Europe should have sought to cut itself off from Russian gas imports by installing more renewables as well as energy storage facilities. And, while I’m sceptical of nuclear energy and I understand the reasons why Germany wants to decommission its nuclear plants, turning them off right now, in the middle of an energy crisis, when your main supplier of gas is a war mongering fascist, is just asking for trouble. It is my understanding that these reactors could keep operating until 2026 without any major safety issues.

Because the problem the west doesn’t get is that, as with any fascist authoritarians, any sign of concession or diplomacy by the west is interpreted by Moscow as a sign of weakness. Which means they will demand more and more, until they go too far. Unless Putin sees some sort of major push back its likely Moldova will be next, then Georgia and then the Baltic states (or perhaps Finland).

This was the problem with the policy of appeasement in the 1930’s. It actually made war with Hitler more likely, not less. Had the west stood up too him earlier, he’d now be remembered as an eccentric autocrat whose regime collapsed due to an internal revolt. For example, when the Germans marched into the Rhineland they were under orders to make a fighting retreat if they encountered any opposition from the French armies. Germany was also heavily dependant on trade with the west in the 1930’s, so sanctions imposed then would have been crippling.

But I think it was the Greed part of the three from the aforementioned article, which is the key failing of the west. London, or should we call it Londongrad, has been awash with Russian money, with very few questions asked about its origins or whether it was earned legitimately. In short London, and the UK’s spider web of offshore banks, has acted like a giant Russian laundromat. And any attempt to stem the flow of dirty money into London has been actively suppressed. Its been pointed out that had the west taken action to punish the Russian oligarchs for Putin’s misdeeds earlier, Putin would not only have been unlikely to have attacked the Ukraine, he’d probably have been removed from power by now.

And numerous politicians, from Boris Johnson, the vote leave campaign, former German chancellor Schroeder or Donald Trump have all lined up to take Russian money. Which probably explains why the sanctions imposed by the UK are about as effective as a chocolate fireguard. For example with one Russian bank, customers were given 30 days to settle accounts (in other words move the money to some offshore tax haven).

And its also worth remembering how we ended up with Putin in the first place. In the immediate aftermath of the fall of the USSR western governments sent their economic experts into Russia to advise the Yeltsin government of how to handle the transition. And rather than going for a soft and slow approach (with the emphasis on building a democracy first and worry about free markets later), these neo-liberals advised “shock therapy. Or in other words turning the Russian economy into some sort of libertarian wet dream. Which went about as well as you can imagine. It impoverished millions, while most of Russia’s wealth found its way into the pockets of a few Oligarchs and criminal gangs. Putin was supposed to be the squeaky clean guy who would crack down on the Oligarchs. Instead he became the Oligarch’s mafia don.

And western oil companies have also profited handsomely from Russia. One of the reasons why the soviet union collapsed was the decline of its oil industry under soviet mismanagement. With the aid of western cash and expertise these declines were reversed, netting tens of billions in revenue per year for western oil companies, and billions too for Putin to spend on his military. Again, the minute Putin showed signs of going rogue (back in 2008 or 2014 at the latest) these oil companies should have been told to stop co-operating with Russia (e.g. by threatening them with a windfall tax or a massive carbon tax), which would have crippled Russia’s finances.

Granted completely cutting off Russian gas imports would take some time. In particular the energy storage part of this problem. While not insurmountable, it would take a lot of time to develop such projects. In the short term measures such as energy efficiency can help alot (when you dial up your thermostat Putin drives towards Kyiv, when you ride alone in your car, you ride with Putin). As well as looking at other sources of gas as a temporary measure.

Which is where you get an understanding of what’s really going on. You know who would be a good alternative energy supplier for Europe? Ukraine! As the vlogger Real Life Lore discusses, Ukraine has a number of under-developed natural gas and shale deposits as well as a significant renewable energy potential. And what a coincidence, several of the leading gas prospects just happen to sit offshore between the Crimea and Snake Island (one of the first targets for the Russian navy despite being miles from the front and of little strategic value), in the Donbass and near to a break away part of Moldova.

Call me cynical, but why is it that “ethnic Russians” seem to pop up (and somehow not get along with the locals) anywhere there is an alternative to Russian gas and oil? Also a lot of what we call “Russian gas” actually comes from Central Asia (Kazakhstan, et al). Now it would also be possible to pump it over the Caucasus and Black sea to Europe via an extension to an existing pipeline….if Putin hadn’t captured key points along that pipeline route in 2008, again as part of a plan to protect “ethnic Russians” in Georgia who just happened to be there.

My point is you need to understand the game Putin is playing and how to counter it. Any time the oil and gas prices have gone up, he’s become bolder. So developing alternatives to Russian gas and oil (or alternatives to fossil fuels altogether) is the surest way to hurt him. With 50% of the Russian economy based on fossil fuel extraction, it will soon mean Moscow runs out of money and has to come to the negotiating table.

Can’t Russia just trade with the China instead? Well firstly most of the gas they send to China comes from fields developed in Asia, not the rest of the country, as the pipelines to facilitate larger deliveries don’t currently exist (although they are being built). Secondly, Russia isn’t exactly in China’s good books right now. China has long promoted itself as the superpower who sticks up for the little guy against the aggressive European colonialists (whether that is actually true or not is a debate for another time). Suffice to say, this rhetoric is at odds with Russia’s behaviour. Putin’s actions have also caused Beijing to lose face (a no no when dealing with China). So while I don’t see China joining in with Western sanctions (yet), they certainly aren’t going to put themselves out helping Putin. And if he becomes a liability, they’ll ditch him (in fact I’d argue Putin’s main threat is now China, if there were to be a coup, it could be led by some pro-Chinese faction within the elites).

Which means if there’s anything hopeful about this current mess its the fact that Putin and his inner circle appear to be poor students of history. They don’t seem to understand that, with the loss of access to Western markets, he’s undone 30 years of economy development in a week. The Russian economy is now right back to the way it was when the USSR collapsed. Which is likely to be the outcome again. Except it won’t take decades to fail. It will probably take just a few years. Already one Russian bank is on the verge of collapse while the stockmarket has been shut since the war started.

This goes beyond Russians simply not being able to buy Gucci handbags and Mercedes cars. For starters consider how many people in Russia work in the business of selling western goods or dealing with western banks. Probably hundreds of thousands of well paid jobs that just vanished overnight (along with the taxes they pay). As Mentour, an aviation vlogger, has recently pointed out Russian aviation could be facing a virtual collapse, even as regards domestic routes, within months. Most of their aircraft are not only western made but western owned (via leasing companies, whom you do not want to get on the wrong side of). Aeroflot’s main service centre is in Germany. Even Russian made planes often rely on western (or Ukrainian) made components.

There’s an old soviet joke, where a man goes into a soviet car dealer and pays for his Lada and is told there is a ten year waiting list, so come back in ten years. He asks “morning or afternoon?”. The dealer says “why does it matter?”, to which the man replies “we’ll the plumber is coming in the morning”. Or another one, two Russians are in a massive queue for food one of them says “this is insane, we can’t even get bread, I’m going to go kill the premier”. He disappears for a few hours and then comes back. The other fellow asks “did you do it?” “no when I got to the Kremlin there was an even bigger queue there”.

This is what Putin has just plunged the Russian people into. And sooner or later something’s got to give, particularly if he finds himself in a new and expensive arms race with NATO.

Posted in defence, economics, energy, environment, EU, fossil fuels, history, news, nuclear, peak oil, politics, renewables, Shale Gas, Shale oil, sustainability, sustainable, technology, transport, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Debunking right wing myths: the war on bikes

Despite all their talk of freedom and low taxes, right wingers don’t seem to like bikes or public transport. Even thought car centric cities, given the poor efficiency of cars and high costs of highway maintenance, often led to higher rates of public spending and less freedom (as anyone who can’t afford a car, or is physically unable to drive, is put at a massive disadvantage). It is yet another example of right wing hypocrisy syndrome and their preference for myths over facts. And given the Tories seem to now prefer fighting culture wars over actually doing anything that would help the country, its possible cycling could be the next front. So it might be worth spending some time debunking the major right wing myths about cycling.

By way of example, the Guardian recently debunked a claim that cycle lanes were making London “the most congested city in the world”. As their article highlights, not only is this claim completely false (falling perhaps into the category of not even wrong), but the claim is entirely based on the opinion of a company that gathers data for the auto industry (so basically the story the Daily Fail/Telegraph wrote should have come with the headline “car industry doesn’t like bikes and public transport”).

The reality is that motorists should be thankful for cycle and bus lanes. Firstly, studies have shown that any “delay” due to a cycle lane is likely to be measured in minutes at worst. This was a key factor in Rob Ford’s war on bikes in Toronto, which simply ended up wasting a lot of taxpayers money and making traffic flows in the city much slower.

There is the issue of induced demand. That is to say, if you make cycling more difficult and dangerous (e.g. by taking away cycle lanes), or public transport less convenient, how do you suppose all of these ex-cyclists and bus passengers are going to get into work? Likely by getting into cars and driving. And given that a hundred people in cars takes up far more road space that the same number on bikes or in buses, you end up with much worse congestion.

This is the very fatal mistake many American cities have made, building their entire cities around expensive and inefficient strouds (a 4 lane highway pretending to be a city street), surrounded by vast parking lots. This model comes with a host of disadvantages, ranging from much higher maintenance costs, urban sprawl resulting in a lower population density (making public transport less effective) and higher costs to local residents, since anyone who can afford a car now has to own and maintain one. It also means that anyone who can’t afford a car becomes part of an underclass, who can struggle to shop or find employment.

I’d also note that as both a cyclist and a motorist, bike lanes on the side of a road (or bike gutters as we prefer to call them), while better than nothing, they are not the preferred option. Instead cycle paths separated from cars completely are preferred. This is the model many European cities aim for, creating dedicated cycle highways separated from road traffic altogether. Its generally a more pleasant and safe way to commute. And given the much lower costs of a concrete bike path (v’s a four lane highway) they can be cost effective too. Similarly guided bus ways can be a better option than bus lanes.

Of course the problem in many European cities is they simply were never designed for cars. There is literally no room for expansion of roads in the inner city. Take away cycle/bus lanes and you’d end up with absolute chaos and mega-jams. There also the issue of parking, as there simply isn’t room in many European cities for large number of cars to park on the street. Walk-able or cycle accessible streets can, in dense urban areas, have a 30% higher rate of retail sales, as customers don’t have to worry about parking (or rushing back to the meter before they get a ticket). The few times in my life I’ve had to commute by car to work, parking has always been the bottleneck for me (I’d usually aim to get to work very early just to make sure I got a spot to park). I used to work in an office that overlooked a large car park and antics you’d see as motorists drove around perpetually looking for a spot, double or triple parking, parking on grass verges, etc.

Now sure you can go for the model of tearing down city blocks and building vast highways and multistory carparks, but that is going to be hugely expansive, inefficient and can actually lead to a neighbourhood declining. And its been tried before, notably in UK cities like Birmingham and Coventry. Both were heavily bombed during world war 2 and suffice to say the government (who were obsessed with the idea that cars were the future) made an even bigger mess rebuilding those cities than the Luftwaffe could have ever dreamed of.

Another common lament is that cyclists don’t obey the rules of the road. And this is true, I’ve seen quite a few cyclists doing silly things. But that’ usually out weighted by the far more frequent number of times I’ve seen motorists do absolutely crazy things (one of the skills you develop as a driver is how to spot trouble, i.e. a guy in an Audi who thinks he owns the road and hasn’t gone for the optional extras, such as brake lights & indicators). The only difference being cyclists are only putting their own lives at risk, while motorists are often putting multiple other road users at risk. And its also been my experience that when cyclists do break the rules (e.g. cycling on the pavement or going on the green crossing man with the pedestrians) this is often due to poorly design road infrastructure, which more or less puts them in the position of undertaking risky manoeuvres (e.g. turning across 3 lanes of traffic) or breaking the rules.

And then there’s the usual argument about cyclists not paying road tax. Well A) road tax doesn’t exist, although there is something called Vehicle excise duty (based on how polluting a vehicle is and of course all bikes would count as zero emissions anyways). B) many other road users don’t pay road tax, including emergency vehicles, farmers, police, vehicles more than 25 years old and (oddly enough) the queen (go scream at her or tell the cops to get off the road and see what happens). And C) even this tax and all the other taxes on motorists (such as petrol duty) do not cover the full costs of motoring.

The road network in the UK, like many other countries, consists of overlapping responsibilities from local councils, devolved administrations, central government and the private sector (as quite a large chuck of the road network is technically under private ownership). For example in my estate all of our streets are private (collectively owned by all of the homeowners, a not unusual arrangement for many housing estates). But the council does have repair responsibility (and the right to impose parking restrictions) on the main thoroughfares (so that they can ensure access for emergency vehicles and bin lorries), which we pay for via our council tax (or if you get a parking ticket!). However, we are responsible for the maintenance of the remaining side streets and the footpaths (paid for via factor fees), as well as things like gritting and snow clearance. So, if we were to apply the logic of the anti-bike lobby, we should set up toll booths and ask any pedestrians to pay up.

There there’s also costs of administration. Somebody has to issue driving licenses, and the DVLA don’t work for free. A significant amount of police time is spend on traffic related matters. There’s fire and ambulance cover, the cost to the NHS of dealing with road traffic victims, the economic cost of pollution, excess delays (leading to lost productivity) and of course the fairly large costs associated with climate change. The costs of virtually all of these services come out of general taxation, which of course cyclists pay along with everybody else.

Its worth noting that a simple way of removing taxes like VED or petrol duty would be road pricing. This would price roads on the basis of the size of your vehicle against the cost of operating that road. Of course, experts reckon that road pricing would bring up motoring costs to about 20-40p per mile in rural areas, and about £1 or so in urban areas, about 2 to 5 times more than what motorists currently pay (in terms of road tax and petrol duty, but not including other costs such as the fuel itself, insurance, depreciation, etc. as these are ones personal costs of running a car and nothing to do with the state). While you could impose these costs on cyclists too, you’d be talking pennies per mile on them, amounts so small it would cost more in admin than you’d raise from cyclists. And how would you enforce it?

Similarly you’ll hear the argument that cyclists should be insured or have a license. The number of occasions where a cyclists has actually hit and caused serious injury to someone (and hence such rules would be relevant) are few and far between. Plus the courts have a nasty habit of ruling against the cyclist (not a surprise given how hostile to cyclists the UK is). For example a case where a woman, who was twalking with her phone, stepped on the street and was hit by a cyclist. Well the court ruled in her favour, rather than the cyclist. So by the same logic you should require pedestrians to be licensed and have insurance.

And how would you enforce it? Kids for example would have to be exempt, as they are too young to give their consent. But how do you tell if someone is under 18? So you’d have to make the carrying of ID around compulsory for all adults and children (also worth noting that the UK doesn’t have a national ID card system, so you’d have to introduce that, which would cost several billion). But what if I’m walking and pushing my bike, do I need a license for that? How about carrying it? (there is such a thing as fold up bikes). What if I’m on a private road or a cycle path? What about tourists? And presumably you’d need number plates like cars, where am I going to put that on a bike with out running the risk of scratching ever car that goes past? What if I have multiple bikes, or multiple people share the same bike? What about those bike hire schemes?

And before anyone says we can just trust the police to use common sense, think again. I recall an example where the police ordered a four year old girl on her tricycle to stop cycling on the pavement and ride on the road instead (yes they thought a little girl on a kids tricycle should share the road with 40 ton trucks). On another occasion the police stopped me for cycling on the pavement…only for me to point to a sign a few feet away indicating that this was actually supposed to be a cycle lane (and just to really confuse things there was a section of old painted green-way further down, which was now a footpath and NOT a cycle lane).

As for insurance, well that does exist, although it is not legally mandatory. It is probably something to consider if you are a keen cyclist. Particularly given how blatantly anti-cyclist the police and the courts are. But I suppose it depends on your circumstances. If you mostly cycle off-road, far from civilisation (or a kid on a tricycle), it would be going a bit far to require insurance. But keen cyclists, or professional cyclists (such as bicycle couriers) should probably consider it (personally, I’d argue their employers should provide it).

The reality that motorists need to accept is that car travel, while convenient and flexible, there is a price to be paid for that, as it is an expensive and inefficient mode of transport. Whether you pay those costs in taxes or running costs is irrelevant, these are expenses that have to be paid. Of course for populists, being the politics of the lazy and unimaginative, its easier to blame some easily identified and generally disliked scapegoat, rather than actually try and come up with a workable solution. But cyclists aren’t the problem. If anything motorists should be thankful for cyclists for not adding to the problem.

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Liberal hypocrisy, political illiteracy & the urgent need for political reform

I came across an article by John Harris in the NYT entitled “Liberal Hypocrisy is Fueling American Inequality. It discusses how a number of liberal voting districts in the US aren’t seeing the sorts of progressive policies that those on the left often claim they are in favour of. He mentions how, for example, efforts to build affordable homes are blocked by protesters (in a democrat voting district). Or how wealthy suburbs (again in democrat voting areas) are keeping school funding for their own schools rather than sharing it with poorer communities.

These are all good points, the roots of American inequality run deep. And its often policy at the local or county level that’s more responsible for driving inequality than at the federal level. But I feel Harris is miss-diagnosing the problem. And in the process demonstrates that the thing that is actually fuelling inequality in America is the political illiteracy of many on the left, including Harris himself.

Firstly we need to get past the idea that everyone who votes democrat is some sort of liberal leftie dope smoking Bernie bro. Or that everyone who votes republican is some sort of knuckle dragging gun totting racist. Certainly there are some who would fit this stereotype (just look at the capital riot), but not everyone. People vote for one party or another for a wide variety of reasons. Here in Scotland I know people who vote SNP, despite holding quite conservative and pro-unionist views because they’d rather have a vaguely competent government, than the cartoonist incompetence and corruption we see in Westminster (they just tune out whenever Nicola Sturgeon goes into Braverheart mode).

Secondly, we need to understand how ridiculously unfair, undemocratic and downright dangerous the First Past the Post (FptP) electoral system used in the US and UK truly is. Its possible under FptP to win an election with as little as a quarter of the popular vote. Trump “won” in 2016, despite getting 3 million less votes than Hilary and with only 26% of the electorate supporting him (once we factor in turn out). The Tories won a “landslide” victory in 2019 (one of the largest in UK history) with just 44% of the votes cast and only 30% support when we factor in turn out.

And under FptP the vast majority of seats are often safe seats which haven’t changed hands in decades. Jeff Bezo’s or Mark Zuckerberg could stand as democrats in one of these safe seats, spend the entire campaign rolling around in a pool of money, betting on bum fights, bragging about how little tax they paid. And yet they’d still win comfortably.

My point is that what you often end up with under FptP is a government which doesn’t enjoy anything like majority support. Merely the illusion of it. This makes it very easy to either ram through policies that don’t enjoy majority support (such as the recent abortion laws in Texas). Or, for a vocal and well funded minority, to block legislation they don’t like (as happens often with wind energy, where a bunch of well funded carpet baggers show up and start pouring poison into people ears). Aided of course by a media that has a strong right wing bias. And what Harris has done is merely highlight a number of examples of this happening.

And one also has to confront the inherit racism within the US, which isn’t exclusively a problem for republicans. America is a melting pot, under which the fire was never lit. Predominantly black neighbourhoods are consistently underfunded, with poorer schools and public services. Even America’s car dependant culture acts as a form of discrimination, as those who can afford too drive have access to greater opportunities, compared to those who can’t afford a car (and it will come as no surprise to learn blacks are less likely to drive than whites). As well as the fact that black motorists are far more likely to be stopped by the police, or potentially lose their license for some minor infraction.

The unfortunate reality is that when many white Americans hear about “public housing” or “public transport” they assume that means “poor peopleand more particularlyblacks”…which in their (racist) minds means drugs and crime. Hell, even Musk has demonstrated this, when he associates public transport with crime and grime (in other words he doesn’t like to share his personal space with someone who might be poorer than him, or god forbid, an ethnic minority).

I’d argue the reason why republicans are doing better in the US right now is not because the majority of Americans support their policies (actually there’s plenty of polls suggesting the opposite is true). But because the republicans understand and accept the reality that the US is, at best a flawed partial democracy….and at worst a oligarchic plutocracy. Republicans are thus willing to exploit this fact to their advantage.

Meanwhile the left’s political illiteracy leads them to do very silly things or proposing unworkable solutions. For example, let’s just get more left wingers into more senior positions in the democratic party. Well they tried that in the UK’s labour party. And it resulted in a massive electoral defeat….and this was really history just repeating itself from the time they tried that before back in 1983. And guess what will happen if, they try that again? There is zero chance of a genuine left wing candidate like Bernie or AOC ever winning a US election under the current system. And even if they did, they will achieve sweet FA. Not while the current status quo prevails.

In another example, over here in the UK, the labour party’s policy is to make brexit work….which is like having a policy of finding a way to live in burning building rather than putting out the fire. Why? Because some labour seats voted leave. This ignores the fact that between 70% and 90% of labour supporters voted remain (depending on who you count as a labour supporter) and are still anti-brexit. The leave majority in these seats was a combination of Tories plus UKIP voters and people who don’t normally vote (but had been promised £350 million a week by a bus if they voted for a leaf). So labour is proposing to continue a policy that they know will cause further lasting harm to the UK, that will piss off 70-90% of their own supporters (and the majority of all voters who now think brexit was a mistake), just so they can avoid offending the ego of the remaining 30-10% or so. Let me know how that one works out.

And worst still FptP encourages negative campaigning, as its always easier to persuade someone to vote against something than for it. This is why in US and UK elections there is such a huge focus on negative campaigning and ad hominem attacks on opponents. Which of course means you also end up with a divided nation. Which means getting anything meaningful done, or coming up with policies that will survive multiple administrations (important for dealing with threats like climate change), becomes nearly impossible.

FptP also helps reinforce the de facto segregation within US society, as such a binary political system practically encourages racial discrimination and voter suppression. It also means politicians tend to get caught up in the pantomime politics of Dem’s v’s GOP (or labour v’s Tory).In fact its interesting to note that the first thing any wannabe autocrat will often do (such as Hungary’s Orban) is to switch to FptP, as this makes it far easier to rig an election (hence why the Tories are introducing it for local councils). And there are concerns that if something isn’t done quickly to stem the rot, even the vernier of democracy America still has will soon be lost (meaning oligarchic rule forever).

The reality the left needs to accept is you can either A) stick to your principles and accept the fact that there will be no liberal progressive change in the US (or the UK) anytime in the next few decades (in fact many liberal policies will be rolled back). B) fight fire with fire and adopt similar tactics as the right (which is basically what happened in a number of South American countries). Or C) change the rules of the game, most notably by switching elections to Proportional representation (PR).

Under PR there is no such thing as a safe seat. So-called progressive candidates who don’t deliver will lose their seats and be replaced. As will conservatives who devote their time to pandering to corporate interests (or fighting a culture war, that the majority of voters see as a distraction and an infringement on their civil rights). And while negative campaigning can convenience someone not to vote for a particular candidate, that doesn’t translate into them voting for you (as they have a whole Smorgasbord of other candidates to support).

And while yes PR does mean you often end up with coalitions (although it is still possible for a party to win a majority…they just need to get a majority of votes…which is sort of the whole point!), this is actually beneficial. It means that any policy that does get implemented has had the necessary scrutiny and debate applied, rather than just being rammed through for ideological reasons. It also becomes a lot harder to overturn those polices, as you’ll be stepping on way too many toes trying to do so (and under PR no party which plans on winning power can afford to piss off a large body of voters).

Indeed, having working in the building trade in Ireland (where we have PR) I can think of several examples where projects, not unlike those Harris highlights (affordable homes for example, or renewable energy projects) did go through, despite the opposition of a small vocal minority, as the council was able to argue that they were serving a greater public good. And that happened because ultimately the politicians correctly guessed that they could afford to lose the votes of a small number of angry NIMBY’s, in return for gaining the votes from those who approved of and would benefit from such developments.

Now too be clear, I’m not suggesting Ireland is some sort of utopia. In fact we are far from it. Ireland is a fairly right wing and conservative country (its never had a majority left wing government in its entire history). And we’ve got some pretty dumb politicians (e.g. Healy Rae and his belief in Fairy forts) as well as some pretty corrupt ones (such as Bertie Ahern). And the planning system is far from perfect, as demonstrated by the story of farmer Thomas Reid and his fight with Intel and the local council.

But on the whole, I’d say we tend to not see the sort of massive injustices witnessed in the US or UK. And despite the conservative majority, we are making progress on issues such as abortion, gay rights and climate change (this last one despite considerable opposition from the powerful farming lobby), when other countries seem to be stagnating or going into reverse. And I’d largely attribute that to the fact that Irish politicians are more likely to engage in dialogue that simply doesn’t happen in other countries. And they are aware there’s only so much they can get away with.

So really the only hypocrisy Harris has highlighted is that he and many liberals actually believe that electing a couple of democrats (who are mostly centre right anyway, not progressives), via a deeply flawed system, will somehow magically change everything for the better. The US desperately needs political reform. Not to mention recognition of the systemic racism and inequality that exists in the country. Without there can be no progressivism.

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