Bruno Prior's blog

Summer downpours and global warming

In what follows, I want to strike the right balance. I am not a sceptic of the anthropogenic global-warming (AGW) theory, in the sense of one who says that man definitely has no measurable impact on the climate. We ought to take account of the risk and continue to try to understand it. But neither am I an alarmist who is convinced that the science is done and dusted. I think we also ought to take account of alternative (or complementary) theories of why our climate is changing. What I say below does not mean that I have now joined the ranks of those sceptics. It is a criticism of the worst kind of credulous, proselytizing alarmist. It says, we should represent the facts accurately, and keep our eyes and our minds open to all possibilities.

A reporter on BBC Radio 5Live has just said something like "Of course, no one could have forecast the recent downpours, but experts say that extreme weather events like this will become more common if climate-change theories are correct." This was echoed by that other peddler of received wisdom, The Independent. Michael McCarty writes:

"Even though yesterday's remarkable downpours seem very much out of the ordinary, no scientist is going to say that in themselves they prove the climate is changing. There have always been floods; there have always been severe floods. The natural variability of the climate has always included extremes. However, if the predictions of supercomputer climate models are correct, rain of the unusual intensity experienced in many places yesterday is going to become a much more commonplace feature of the weather in Britain as the century progresses."

A couple of problems:

  1. Every AGW model forecasts lower rainfall in England in summers. It is in winters that rainfall (and therefore flooding) is expected to increase. This event is contrary to the models, not evidence of them.
  2. Someone did predict the downpours. His name is Piers Corbyn. His company is WeatherAction Long-Range Forecasters. He forecast on the 30th May the downpours of both the 12-14th and the 24-26th June. In the case of the 12-14th, he forecast the downpours six months previously. Piers is an astrophysicist, and a leading AGW sceptic, whose weather-forecasting models are based on the same principles that lead him to contest the AGW theories. I have asked him for permission to publish his 30th May forecast, and will put them up on this site if he agrees.

This is not probitive. But it is illustrative. The attempts by the AGW alarmists to shoehorn, by implication and innuendo, the recent events into their view of the world was entirely predictable. And thoroughly dishonest.

UPDATE: Piers has allowed me to make his 30th May forecast available. I have attached the Acrobat file (PDF) containing the detailed forecast to this post (click "Read more" if you are viewing this from the home page and can't see the link), and have copied the relevant parts of his accompanying email in the Comment below.

Energy liberalization and the EU reform treaty

One of the things that made me laugh in the BBC's typically-rigorous reporting (I think in last night's Newsnight) of the proposed EU reform treaty was the claim that the extension of Qualified Majority Voting would bring benefits such as the opportunity to force the break-up of national energy monopolies. Isn't that already required under existing agreements on deregulation of European energy markets? QMV is more likely to enable the majority of our partners who would rather protect their "national champions" at all cost to backtrack on this sort of requirement.

Campaign for a referendum?

I don't like referenda. But it is perfectly obvious that the majority in the country does not believe that the "Reform Treaty" is not the Constitutional Treaty dressed up, and that they want a referendum on the subject as promised. And yet Tony and Gordon seem inclined to push on with ratification without allowing the public to have a say. The question is, what are people going to do about it?

If we leave it to the parliamentary process, Gordon will be able to ram it through despite opposition. People need to demonstrate their strength of feeling on this issue, to force him and his MPs to consider the electoral consequences.

The Telegraph has the right idea, but is botching the implementation. They have launched an online "petition" for a referendum on the subject. Except, it's not a petition, it's a poll (and as such will be accused, rightly, of not being based on a representative sample). And you have to register with their site in order to vote. Currently, 58 people have voted. I wonder how many clicked on the "Yes" button, but then, like me, gave up when they were asked to register with the site before their vote could be registered? This isn't going to work, and will be used by the Government to argue that opposition is negligible.

Even without these obstacles, the Telegraph website is the wrong place to do this. The Times, Mail, Express and Sun have all called for the Government to honour its commitment to a referendum. In this age of modern media, we ought also to consider the readership of the various blogs, and those who get their news from the TV, radio, or from one of the pro-Treaty papers (The Mirror, Guardian, and, to some extent, The Independent) but disagree with their stance on this issue. Most of these people are not going to go to the Telegraph website to register and vote.

What is needed is neutral territory, where all the papers, bloggers etc can point their readership to register their call for a referendum. There is one obvious location. The road-pricing protest showed its power. It is the No.10 petition site.

There are already a number of petitions on there on this subject, but none of them expresses the issue clearly and in a way that is likely to find the greatest common ground amongst the public. And the existence of several alternatives dilutes the message if people don't know which one to vote for.

We need a new petition, carefully worded to attract a range of opinion, from those who want a complete withdrawal, to those who support the European project but feel that there is a point of principle at stake here - for the Government to honour its commitment. Once we have a good form of words, a new petition should be created, and all the papers, pundits and other members of the media and the blogosphere (is the blogosphere part of the media? I'm never quite sure) who support the call for a referendum should run campaigns to point their readers, listeners or viewers to the petition to vote.

This must be concerted action. A half-cocked campaign that did not garner substantial support would be thrown back at opponents of the Treaty as evidence that the country does not feel strongly on the issue. But if the five papers mentioned, the blogosphere and independent TV and radio (e.g. TalkSport) threw their weight behind a petition, I am confident that they could comfortably beat the number of signatures garnered for the road-pricing petition.

So what should the precise wording be? Something along the lines of:

That Her Majesty's Government should not ratify the so-called Reform Treaty without putting it to a referendum of the people of the United Kingdom.

How would you change/improve this? Drop the "so-called"? I put it in, because I didn't want to imply acceptance that this was a fundamentally different treaty to the Constitutional Treaty by appearing to accept the alternative designation, but it is probably unnecessary. Will everyone know what is being referred to by the "Reform Treaty" or does it need more clarification? Should it refer to "honouring their promise to put it to a referendum", rather than simply "putting it to a referendum"? I kept it simple, because it offers less wiggle room for the Government to cavil about whether this Treaty is sufficiently similar to the Constitutional Treaty for their promise to be relevant.

Does this offer the option for the Government to hold a referendum and then ignore the outcome, and still be able to say that they complied with the terms of the petition? I reckon that would be a sophism too far, even for this Government, and that they would be destroyed at the next election if they tried it on. But if you think it needs tightening up, how would you clarify that the results of the referendum should be binding? Have I just answered my own question? If I make that "...putting it to a binding referendum...", does that do the trick?

Or is this whole suggestion barking up the wrong tree?

The BBC's idea of business

The BBC ran a half-hour promotion on Thursday night for government-funded investment in businesses or technologies that government judged to be promising. In other words, a promotion for picking losers (the policy, not the site, sadly). I'm sure the institutionally-biased BBC didn't think that was what they were doing, but that's what it was.

That advert was masquerading as one of their business programmes - Radio 4's In Business - which ought to be the last place that one would find such a concept promoted. But this isn't real business, this is the BBC's idea of business. Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect a commercial perspective from a state-funded organization, and from a business reporter (Peter Day) whose background is an English degree, four years with a Glasgow newspaper, and then a lifetime of service with the BBC. This guy has barely been close to a commercial organization or a set of accounts, let alone tried to run a business in a world of government-funded competition.

You can download an MP3 of the programme here (careful, it's a 12MB file). Those of a rational disposition may want to ensure that they have a punchbag (a BBC employee would be ideal) to hand before starting playback, to avoid stress-related injury due to excessive internalization of anger.

There was nothing wrong with looking at the issue of picking losers. But even the most Trotskyite of BBC producers [Tautology - Ed] might have to admit that there are two sides to this story. There was an almost complete failure to examine the arguments against, and plenty of commentary that said to the listener, in effect, "of course government should be picking losers". Let's look in detail at how the programme went about this issue.

Sarkozy, The Constitution and Free Markets

Some people claim that Nicolas Sarkozy is France's Margaret Thatcher. Yeah, right.

To quote from the BBC report:

"A reference to 'free and undistorted competition' was pulled from the draft [Treaty that isn't the Constitutional Treaty] after French pressure late on Thursday. Instead, the treaty refers to 'social cohesion' and 'full employment'."

Sarkozy did not hide his contempt for free trade during the election. This is consistent with his position. But those who thought they were getting an economic liberal, simply because they heard someone who talked tough on immigration and liked to swing a handbag, were fools.

Anyway, two good things stem from this.

Firstly, it is clear that this is not just a tidying-up exercise, and that this goes to the heart of what Europe is about. The Government has absolutely no excuse to deny the British public a referendum, given their promises that one would be held for any significant changes.

Secondly, Jose Manual Barroso, Angela Merkel and the rest of the con-merchants can no longer argue that certain aspects, such as voting rights, ought not to be opened up again, as they have already been settled. If something as fundamental as this is still subject to change, then nothing should be off-limits. We should support the Poles in demanding that the German stitch-up on voting rights be re-examined. They were right anyway, but now there is no excuse for trying to railroad them.

Modern Islam

That's it, I've had enough. You want to be moderate. You want to excuse the imbecility as the words and actions of an extremist minority. You fear that you may come to regret any sweeping statements of condemnation in response to the latest example of intolerance, and that by overreacting to their overreactions, you are sinking to their level.

But I can't stand the self-imposed equivocation any more. I don't believe it, and neither, I suspect, do many of their apologists. It is time to stop fooling ourselves.

Do the LibDems know what "liberal" means?

Iain Dale has demolished in a few short words Ming Campbell's proposal to abuse local-authority powers to get more social housing built, so effectively that even the LibDem NorfolkBlogger agrees with him. This has provoked an unintentionally funny response on NorfolkBlogger's site from Tim Leunig, Lecturer in Economic History at the LSE, and original author of Ming's proposal:

"In what sense are CLAs illiberal?
1) Allow local authorities total control over how many houses are built in their area
2) Allow local authorities total control over what proportion are social houses
3) Will lead to lower house price inflation, so that hopefully your child and mine can afford to leave home in 2030

Freedom and social justice: a good combination, surely?"

In what sense is "total control" by the authorities "illiberal"? If you need to ask, Tim, you are probably beyond help.

Who guards the guards?

JG pointed out Boris Johnson's comments on Blair's speech about the modern media. It deserves a post of its own.

Boris wants to characterize Blair's comments as being mainly about the media's treatment of him. If you read Blair's speech, very little of it was about his treatment at the hands of the media. And he acknowledged his complicity.

Boris must be assuming that most people will not bother to read Blair's actual words, and will instead rely on what they hear about it through the media. Would that be the same "media-literate" public who he claims "can almost always see behind the hysteria and the hyperbole, and work out what is really going on", who "find it relatively easy to blow the froth off a story and get to the nub"? Would you like any cream with your disingenuity, Boris?

Misrepresenting Blair's argument is not enough. He must also recast the media as poor, set-upon creatures, deserving of our sympathy, as they struggle in the glare of the public spotlight against the harsh criticisms of the blogosphere. A mistake, that. It is so over-egged that most readers, however credulous, will smell a rat. A "new and terrifying threat"? "Hordes of lynx-eyed brainboxes out there in cyberspace"? Journalists "increasingly accountable, increasingly vulnerable to the pithy rejoinders of the man or woman on the net"?

I don't know if this counts to you as a pithy rejoinder, Boris. But let's see what difference it makes. Are you feeling threatened? Are you taking account? Do you think this post will make the slightest difference to your journalistic career? You, and most of your readers, probably won't even know it exists. You wrote your piece because you knew you could get away with it, not because you feared that you couldn't.

Blair is right too

First Bush. Now Blair. What is happening to the world?

Actually, the feigned surprise could be considered disingenuous. This author does not generally perceive politicians as knaves or fools. Mostly, they are decent and intelligent people trying to do what they think is best. Of course there is sometimes corruption and incompetence, but most of the many failings of government can be attributed not to individual failings but to the intellectual climate, both in shaping politicians' false conceptions of appropriate ends and means, and (perhaps more importantly) in shaping the public perceptions that they have to satisfy. What is surprising is not that these people have shown their intelligence, but that they have used that intelligence to reach unpopular and unconventional conclusions, and moreover that they have felt able to go public with them. What a pity that politicians with the freedom of not seeking re-election are not reported more often.

(It is this, by the way, and not whether you agree with what he did, that makes Blair's valedictory excuse - "I did what I thought was right" - so feeble and irrelevant. It is outcomes and not intentions that count.)

Anyway, what Mr Blair is right about is a decent chunk of his analysis of the role and behaviour of the modern media. Not in the regulatory solution at which (as so often) he hints. But in his assessment that there is a problem.

The media have said sayonara to subtlety, dispensed with detail, kissed goodbye to considered analysis. Everything must be immediate and black-and-white. In echoes of Hollywood, there must be "good guys" and "bad guys", a very simple plot, and two-dimensional characterization.

Key prejudices

There is a marvellous booklet, published by the Social Affairs Unit in 2000, called the Dictionary of Dangerous Words. It contains modern definitions, provided by many great thinkers and Oliver Letwin, of words "which once meant something good and now mean something bad, which once meant something and now mean nothing or vice versa, or which have in some interesting sense changed". If the SAU were thinking of bringing out a new edition, I would recommend that little word "key" for inclusion.

I was looking at the speaker-list for an energy conference, and it was pretty much the same list as for every other conference on the subject, of which there are dozens a year. This particular conference was organized on behalf of the Institute of Economic Affairs, which, of all organizations, ought to have been trying to encourage alternative perspectives. I wondered how the organizers came up with such an uninspired and conformist list, and happily they provide an explanation on their website. Their "target list" is put together "following extensive research and consultation with key industry executives". And guess what: their list of speakers is chock-full with those same "key industry executives".

So I add the phrase "key industry executives" to those other abuses of English: "key workers" and "key stakeholders". "Key" is used in this sense to mean "the people (or things) that we think matter". No standard is provided by which this assessment is made. The implication is that it is self-evident that these people (or things) are clearly the most important. "Key workers" are to be contrasted with those unessential workers in the economy, "key stakeholders" with those whose voices need not be listened to, "key executives" with the other executives who don't know as much about or aren't as important to their industry.

And there is worse. The phrase "key civil liberties" is starting to be used more commonly. That would be to distinguish from the unimportant civil liberties, would it? The ones that we need not guard so jealously?

Bush is right

Shock tactics to get your attention. I know it sounds unlikely. But really, he is.

He is calling for a "new framework" to replace the Kyoto Treaty (which comes to an end in 2012). David Miliband helpfully clarified on Radio 4's The World Tonight, that he didn't really mean it in the sense of a replacement for Kyoto, because he had acknowledged that the new framework would also be under the auspices of the UN. I'm sorry David - you might want to look for signs of continuity, but in no sense does this imply the continuation of Kyoto, any more than your second wife would imply continuation of your first marriage, just because you are still living in the same house.

What Bush means, in particular, is that any replacement for Kyoto must not be based on the failed cap-and-trade approach, as embodied in the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme (EU-ETS). And it is this that he is right about. Cap-and-trade is the wrong approach, in principle and in practice. What follows is a long and technical paper I have prepared (PDF version here) explaining why it is wrong, but let me first summarise it for those of you who have got better things to do with your time.

  1. The reasons why Phase 1 failed have not gone away. The EU-ETS is failing to deliver sufficient savings from the sectors and countries covered by it to make their contribution to a target which, if achieved, might reduce temperatures by 0.06°C relative to what it would otherwise have been in 2050.
  2. Is it anyway possible to devise a rational basis for allocating emissions-rights? Looking at the current allocations, there is (presumably) method to these allocations, but not logic. This is a central-planner's wet-dream, and a libertarian's worst nightmare.
  3. One of the problems with the EU-ETS is its failure to deliver long-term price signals. It is typical hubris of politicians to imagine that they can reduce this uncertainty by declaring their intentions for a time when they will almost certainly not be in power, and for a market over which they have only partial control. It is likely that not even increased federalism would be sufficient to deliver greater certainty, and only a Napoleonic solution would suffice.
  4. Even if the EU-ETS could be made to work efficiently, fairly and on a long-term basis, it would disadvantage European nations for as long as other nations did not impose similar costs of carbon on themselves. We will be suckers in a rigged global market for hot air.
  5. The allocation of emissions rights to existing players rewards dirty incumbents and disadvantages their cleaner and newer competitors. The role of government, almost the only real role in the anti-trust/competition area, should be to prevent incumbents from erecting barriers to entry, not to institute those barriers for them.
  6. All carbon emissions have an equal impact and should be valued accordingly. Our incentives are upside down, and they are largely so because there is not a single carbon-price applying equally to large and small installations and to the fuelling of electricity, heat and transport. And the reason that we do not have such a simple, integrated pricing mechanism is largely because we fetishize a discredited cap-and-trade system that is not only wrong in principle and practice, but cannot practically be expanded to cover all sectors.
  7. Even if cap-and-trade mechanisms like the EU-ETS could be broadened to cover all emissions sources from all locations and tightened to provide meaningful savings through tight and strongly-enforced targets, they would be the wrong approach:
    1. Cap-and-trade produces an irrational, discontinuous demand curve.
    2. All current cap-and-trade schemes focus only on gross emissions, and usually only from particular sources.
    3. They apply a positive price to non-carbon rather than a negative cost to carbon, which has unavoidable ramifications for the misvaluation of the contribution of various solutions.
    4. Cap-and-trade assumes that there is any rationale for an arbitrary cap. The balance between investing in adaptation and mitigation should not be decided for us by scientists, but discovered in markets that establish people's preferences and perceptions of the balance of risks.

There is no way of adapting cap-and-trade mechanisms to satisfy these objections. We should carry through with Phase 2 of the EU-ETS, because the market had a reasonable expectation that it would be implemented. But we should agree now to put it out of its misery after that, and to use the period before 2012 to negotiate an alternative system to replace Kyoto – one that provides a more rational price, reflecting all sources and sinks, and taking account of adaptation as well as mitigation, and that is agreeable to all nations, or at least all major emitters. There are alternatives, if Europeans are prepared to open their minds.

Anyway, the full paper follows below. You might want to make yourself a cup of tea before you set to work on this.


Reasons to get merry, Part 3

What better reason could there be to top up your glass (and make it a big one), than that the Government and the BMA want to "crackdown on middle class wine drinkers". Some people damage their health by drinking too much, so of course it is necessary for the Government to try to control the drinking habits of all of us. And while we're at it, I hope the Government will be cracking down on the prevalence of STDs amongst certain groups by promoting abstinence for us all.

Epileptic logo

More trouble for the extraordinarily expensive Olympic marketing efforts. The promotional video, jazzed up (or barfed over, depending on your point of view) with animated figures based on our fantastic logo, has been causing epileptic seizures. A 20-second section, showing "a diver diving into a pool which had multi-colour ripple effects", has had to be cut. So we can show our concern for those with disabilities by integrating the Paralympic logo with the Olympic logo, but checking the video for impacts on epileptics is beyond us.

Global citizens

Just lent my copy of P.J.O'Rourke's Give War A Chance to a friend, so decided to replace my lost copies of Eat The Rich and Parliament of Whores, to re-read them (and extract a few quotes for this site in the process). Went into the local W.H.Smiths and couldn't find an appropriate section. Would it be Politics or Philosophy or Economics or Current Affairs or Humour? Strangely, there didn't seem to be sections for the former, or anything targeted at the over-14 age-bracket in the latter. There were, on the other hand, several bookcases devoted to "Tragic Life Stories" (a sub-genre of autobiography that I hadn't realised the need to distinguish, like the big sections for the "life-stories" of 22-year-old footballers and media celebrities). Rows and rows of fantasy books and puzzles, too, but nothing too taxing.

Decided I must just be being obtuse, so asked at the desk. "Is that P.J. as in the letters, and how do you spell O'Rourke?". Oh dear. Nothing in the computer. Curiosity piqued that they seemed only to offer books for the lobotomised, I enquired where I would find the sections for P or P or E or CA. "We don't really have a section for them, but you might find something in the History section." A bit of lateral thinking required: "Where do you keep your Boris Johnson, then?" This is Maidenhead, and Boris is not only hopefully a well-enough known celebrity even to oiks, but MP for the neighbouring constituency of Henley. Must be a bit of Boris on the shelves.

Taken to look at the History section. Logical enough, given his excellent Dream of Rome. But no Boris in History, which is 80% Military History, and 80% of that about WWII. Instead, tucked away amongst the Spitfires and Shermans are a couple of shelves of "General Interest", which is intended to cover P,P,E, CA and much else besides. Finally, there is Boris, but sadly Maidenhead's intellectual capacity will only stretch to his book on cars (gives you an idea of the range of interests intended to be covered by those two shelves). That, it seems, is all we want to hear about from our politicians and pundits.

Maidenhead is typical of every bland High Street in the country, and it seems that, judging by their reading tastes, the typical shopper in the typical High Street in England is BRAINDEAD. Mind you, some more than others. At least Maidenhead's Smiths carries some current-affairs magazines, though tucked away at the back as though they are a little ashamed of them. And so infrequently attended that they are still displaying the Spectator from the week before last.

Still, that beats Newton Abbot, where I once got stuck for a couple of hours on the way back from Torquay. Looking for some reading material, I walked into town, stopping into each newsagent for a current-affairs magazine. After three failures, I asked the shopkeeper if he had anything suitable - something like The Economist, or Time or Newsweek, or some other obscure intellectual magazine like them. "Not much call for that round here." But there was clearly plenty of call for magazines about tractors and carp-fishing. Jethro is not exaggerating about the west-country.

Anyway, to the point. Below the General Interest shelves (back in Maidenhead) was one for books to help with your Citizenship test (another sign of the times). The Government's official publication, Life in the United Kingdom - A Journey to Citizenship, caught my eye. A theory and a game suggested themselves.

The nuclear "option"

It was probably no more than a happy coincidence (for the Government) that the Planning and Energy White Papers were published on consecutive days. Nevertheless, as most people have noticed, the two are intimately linked by the need for a change to planning policy to enable the development of new nuclear power stations within the ten-year period that would be necessary for them to fill the threatened "capacity gap" in our power generation. Let's not worry here whether that capacity gap is inevitable (it is not) and whether the nuclear power stations will be ready in time, even with the Government's proposed measures, to replace much of the closing capacity (unlikely for much of it). What I want to consider here is the price that is to be paid in terms of the undermining of communities' rights to decide what they are prepared to tolerate in their area.

The Government's consultation paper on nuclear power proposes that, if they decide to enable a new generation of new nuclear stations, they will not intervene financially to support the technology, but they will introduce measures that are almost all focused on reducing the planning obstacles. They should be congratulated on their resistance to providing any direct form of financial leg-up for nuclear, and there is no denying that the Sizewell B enquiry was a circus that environmental groups used to filibuster the process. But are their proposed changes to the planning regime proportionate and consistent with our respect for the rights of individuals and communities not to have developments foisted on them?

The proposals, as listed on p.176 of the nuclear consultation document, are (in modestly truncated form, with emphasis added):

• improving the energy planning system for nuclear power stations by ensuring it gives full weight to national, strategic and regulatory issues that have already been the subject of discussion and consultation, rather than reopening them.
• running a process of Justification to test whether the economic, social and other benefits of specific new nuclear power technologies proposed outweigh the health detriments;
• running a Strategic Siting Assessment process to develop criteria for determining the suitability of sites for new nuclear power stations. This would limit the need to discuss in detail the suitability of alternative sites for nuclear proposals during the planning process;
• taking further our consideration of the high-level environmental impacts through a formal Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA). This would limit the need to consider such highlevel environmental impacts of nuclear power stations during the planning process;
• assisting the nuclear regulators, to pursue a process of Generic Design Assessment of industry preferred designs of nuclear power stations. This would limit the need to discuss these issues such as the safety, security and environmental impact of power station designs, including waste arisings and radioactive discharges in depth during the site-specific planning process; and
• introducing arrangements to protect the taxpayer by ensuring that private sector operators of nuclear power stations securely accumulate the funds needed to meet the full costs of decommissioning and full share of waste management costs. This would avoid the need to discuss in depth during the planning process whether the taxpayer will be exposed to the waste and decommissioning costs of any new nuclear power stations that might be constructed.

That's an awful lot of subjects that need not (read, may not) be discussed in detail during the planning process. If locals fear for their health, or the impact on the environment, or the risk of accident or attack, or believe there are reasons why the location is unsuitable, or the economic risk-prevention is less than adequate, they are to keep their thoughts to themselves. The Government will decide for them and us what is in our best interests. It is inconceivable that anyone other than those involved in determining national policy could have a valid alternative perspective or come up with an aspect that has not already been considered. Truly, our national policy-makers are omniscient. Has history not proved their infallibility time and again?

The most chilling of those proposals is the Justification process. The name has an Orwellian tinge. The process is worse than the name sounds:

"It is an internationally accepted principle of radiological protection that no practice involving exposure to ionising radiation should be adopted unless it produces sufficient benefits to the exposed individuals or to society in general to offset the health detriment it may cause" (para 13.14, p.179). "It is not necessary to show that the class or type of practice is the best of all available options, but instead that there is a net benefit" (para 13.16)

Calculating the "net benefit" to society sounds superficially reasonable if one accepts (to use economists' lingo) the neo-classical fallacy that you can somehow aggregate interpersonal utility. But think what that means in practice. If you have something whose loss would be less important to you than its gain would be to me, there would be a "net benefit" if I stole it from you. Does that justify theft? Or, to use the example of which Murray Rothbard was fond, if 99% of the population can benefit from enslaving the other 1% of the population, does the excess of beneficiaries over victims justify the act? The "greater good" of "society" or "the people" has been used to justify appalling predations and impositions on minorities throughout history.

This is an excellent case in point. A reasonable person might judge that, whatever the benefit to him and to others, he is not entitled to do something that may inflict harm on someone else without their agreement. Some might add the caveat that there may be limited circumstances, where failure to inflict harm on some may cause harm to many others and where there is no alternative that avoids harm to all, where it may be reasonable to inflict that harm (for instance, where the only means to prevent a terrorist atrocity is to shoot dead the terrorist). But it takes a sociopath to argue that one is entitled to inflict harm on people even where there is an alternative that causes harm to none, or simply because there is a compensating benefit to others.

It seems, then, that we have a sociopathic government. If it is found that there is a risk to people's health, that would not rule out development. Instead, those people may be forced to accept that risk and even actual damage to health, if there is sufficient benefit to others. This is authoritarianism of the worst variety, and it does not belong in Britain.

Educational choices

The debate over David Willetts' accidentally controversial speech on education continues to rumble on. As Willetts and Cameron have themselves kept the debate alive, through Willetts' appearance on Sunday AM, and David Cameron's unconvincing protestations yesterday that the whole shadow cabinet is behind this policy, I will take the opportunity to return to the issue in more detail, with the benefit of a little more time for consideration.

Most of the commentary has consisted either of visceral, intuitive hostility from a loud and apparently-numerous internal opposition, or of repetition of Willetts' key point by Dave's Varangian Guard and a troupe of generally left-of-centre outriders from academia and the media. Let us try another approach. The merits or otherwise of grammar schools and City Academies can be debated ad nauseam, each side with its own statistics and anecdotes. There will be no resolution so long as everyone is busy deciding what sort of education is suitable for other people's children.