31 October 2007

Competing definitions of a free market

The Competition Commission has found that supermarkets serve customers well. According to the limited economistic, marketistic mindset from which they see the world this is actually the correct conclusion. It is that mindset, and its political support, that we need to unpick in order to understand how they could have arrived at this frankly shocking conclusion.

The problem we face is that, as a society, we are undergoing a paradigm shift. For those of us living in the sustainable world of the future, diversity means a range of types of shopping, different shops or makers selling subtly different versions of the same product, or whose ownership structure or style suits our value system. To the Competition Commission diversity means four monocultural shopping outlets within which you can buy a range of 100 different fish all of which taste of very little. If you only have one of these you lack competition; if you have two the free market is functioning well for you.

For the proponents of supermarkets they are efficient places because you can buy everything you need as quickly as possible for as little time as possible, allowing you more time to make money to buy more. As a capitalist production-and-consumption unit supermarkets allow you to be as efficient as possible. The fact that they rely on global agribusiness which uses 10 calories of energy to make 1 calorie of food (according to Richard Heinberg) does nothing to undermine their claims to efficiency.

Although such reports can lead to unhealthy gnashing and grinding of teeth the real problem is a political one. We are building the new, sustainable, community-focused world we want to live in. Nowhere is this more evident that in the area of food, where most greenies use an alternative system of wholefood shops or have their own wholefood co-op. The producers and distributors, many organised as co-operatives themselves, provide a parallel food economy based on the values of the future.

The problem is that the political parties who operate at Westminster are united in their support of the old way of economics. An enlightened government might link support to local businesses with their positive outcomes in terms of community and sustainability. A restructuring of the market to support local businesses rather than the global businesses who free-ride on the infrastructure we all pay for, and the commons we should share, is politically possible, but only once the stranglehold of the uniformly pro-market parties is broken.

30 October 2007

The Fat of the Lambs

Half a million lambs will be slaughtered but not eaten as a consequence of the latest outbreak of foot and mouth (http://www.guardian.co.uk/animalrights/story/0,,2201110,00.html) Is this a moral, ecological or economic disaster?

In an attempt to increase the 'efficiency' of this process some of the animals' fat will apparently be rendered into biofuel. It is a wonder to me that anybody has the machinery standing idle to perform such a grisly task. Surely the recyclers of used chip fat cannot turn their skills to rapidly towards the unwanted carcases of animals formerly destined for dinner tables?

The anguish over the 'cull' (aka kill) of animals during the first round of foot-and-mouth was always a mystery to me. Why such an outcry over the deaths of animals bred to be killed and eaten? Where did this mawkish sentimentality come from when those who displayed it were not concerned about tucking into to roast lamb and all the trimmings of a Sunday lunchtime?

Aside from this parade of phoney morality there are some genuine ethical issues raised by this whole debate. First, whether it is ever acceptable to eat the flesh of an animal. I am happy to do that when I know the animals have enjoyed respected during their lives; in the case of my own meat I have known the animals by name and been able to interact with them. Counter-intuitively this makes it easier to eat them rather than harder.

Other difficult questions--as yet unresolved to my satisfaction--revolve around the question of whether a wholly vegetarian lifestyle is more ecologically sustainable. I have not yet seen convincing evidence that the UK could be self-sufficient in food grown without animal or oil-based fertiliser. Too many vegans in the UK today are forced to eat a large range of imported foods, especially beans and pulses.

Then there are the double standards of those who are vegetarian and continue to eat dairy, when the dairy industry is closely tied to the meat industry, since male calves can only be put into the food chain or destroyed (http://www.vegaresearch.org/foodnut_vegani_going.asp).

It seems to me that the central economic problem we face here is the setting of all these questions within an intellectual framework dominated by market and profit. The 'wasteful' slaughter of cattle and sheep during a foot-and-mouth outbreak is entirely market-driven. Vaccinated animals are not acceptable for the export trade, while animals that have survived foot-and-mouth (as most do) will weigh less and therefore generate less profit for the cost of raising them. Since they offer no threat to human health, they could otherwise pass into the food chain as they do in other countries.

In a similar way the Welsh and Scottish hill-farmers are involved in production on an industrial scale that cannot allow for flexibility in terms of the quality of product (slightly older sheep) or when it reaches the market. No doubt the lamb that will be produced over the next few weeks would be welcome to many hungry mouths in this country and abroad. But this would be to 'distort the market'. Similar arguments were made during the Irish potato famine when oats were being exported to feed horses in the UK while Irish people starved.

The story offers yet more reasons why we should explore the ethical underpinnings of the market within which food is produced, which was always a social construct and therefore open to a different system of values and to a radical reconstruction in line with the general welfare, rather than the profit margins of the large-scale businesses who have created the dubious and far-from-free market we operate within today.

25 October 2007

Clone Towns, Drone Towns and In-the-Zone Towns

I have been spending the past couple of days undergoing the slightly unpleasant experience of unpicking a long-held prejudice. The specific item is my dislike of 'the home counties', a mythical region I imagined as extending in all directions around London about as far as Dorset, in the West, and East Anglia in the North. I had imagined it stuffed full of Tories and snobs ever since unpleasant experiences with some public school alumnae many years ago in Oxford.

The Transition Town of Lewes was, consequently a revelation. Sussex is apparently outside any conceiveable definition of 'home counties' and even I could never have included Brighton in the realm of received pronunciation, over-indulgence and inexpressibly repressed emotions personified by Celia Johnson. But Lewes turns out to be a home of anarchists and subversives with enough rebelliousness to keep me happy for a lifetime.

Tom Paine lived there for a number of years. I love Tom Paine because he not only engaged in practical revolution but also indulged in numbers, personally recalculating the national accounts of his time in a notebook to demonstrate the rip-offs at play. This subversive spirit has continued in the annual ritual of Bonfire held in the town which led to the last reading of the Riot Act in 1847. Ostensibly a local extension of the national 5th November celebrations, Bonfire in Lewes is surely in reality a revival of much older anti-authoritarian pagan rituals.

Lewes residents have expressed their anarchic spirit more recently by refusing to accept the new parking scheme imposed on the town against the wishes of the citizenry. The local council had underestimated the pyrotechnical expertise of its opponents and so many of the meters have been blown up that the scheme is generating massive losses. The latest high-tech version can apparently wail a warning that it is about to explode but this has done nothing to lessen the level of attacks.

Since this blog has found its niche by focusing on economics I should mention that Lewes, in spite of all its character, has, according to the most recent survey, moved to the borderline between home town and clone town according to NEF's definition. I am sceptical about this. The town still thrives with local shops and is nothing like the drone towns producing willing workers for the City of London suggested by my now-foresaken prejudice.

I have always prided myself on living in havens of radical thought--Wales or Stroud to name but two--where we were right-thinking and shared none of the opinions of the media Utopia. But it is beginning to dawn on me that the media literally creates a utopia--a non-place--where we are all narrow-minded and selfish to conceal the fact that the whole country is in fact heaving with dangerous radicals.

22 October 2007

It's a ballot, Jim, but not as we know it

What is it about numbers that makes us so competitive? Being an economist I live in a world of numbers and so I am always deeply sceptical about them. So what am I to make of the fact that I appear to have been ranked seven in a list of green blogs in the UK? This is a datum that confuses me personally, as well as statistically.

Let's start with the easy stuff. The number in itself is meaningless unless I know how many green blogs I am contending with. Last year it was 100; this year only 20. Has Jim eliminated the rabble to allow more glory for those of us who remain? Or have the serious people found something better to do, so that even being 7 out of 20 only proves I have been left behind in the rush to the next great media revolution?

Perhaps Jim didn't even rank the list, allowing the citizenry to do that via the People's Vote. And if he did how does 7 compare with 1: is it seven times less good? Are we dealing with logarithmic scales here? Incidentally, while I'm on the subject of numbers, have you ever noticed how, when media people get into discussions like this one, they start referring to rocket scientists. As though finding ways to travel to other distant planets to colonise and mess them up were somehow cleverer than finding a way to survive on our own beautiful planet, which already has life on it.

What is distressing me most about this process is that I actually care about it. I am a sad competitive person masquerading as a co-operative green who isn't interested in status. Can I blame it on capitalism, the need to compete to survive, or is it just my personal karma? This is summed up by the fact that my deepest regret in life is never having been on University Challenge, although this may now have been surpassed by the regret that I didn't write the book called Starter for Ten.

Oh, shit, there it is again: a number. Why ten points for a correct answer, rather than 1 or 20 or 200? That is such a University Challenge thing isn't it? You know what: I've depressed myself. This strange relationship with the numerical is what being an economist does to you. . . I would still like your votes, though. You'll have to go to Jim Jepps's site at: http://www.jimjay.blogspot.com/ to help me out of my misery. Or will it just make it worse?

18 October 2007

The Fat of the Land

More horrifying and frankly bewildering statistics about the increasing number of fat people in our society were fed to us with our cornflakes this morning. My main confusion arises from the fact that 'by 2050 most of us will be "obese"' which my mind automatically substitutes with 'by 2050 most of us will be dead'. Perhaps it's just the time of year?

You may have noticed that I refuse to use the word 'obese' outside protective quotation marks. This is because being fat is something we all understand: it is a normal human condition resulting from a combination of eating too much and not using up enough calories through exercise or thought (yes, I know, but indulge me!). Obesity, on the other hand, is a medical condition for which, down on the pharm, they are busy developing pills they can sell to us at vastly inflated prices creating fat profits to match their fat customers.

While fat may indeed be a feminist issue it is also decidedly a class issue, but not in the direct way we are led to believe. The relationship between over-eating and health has been found to be related to the structure of society under capitalism, rather than a class-related propensity for eating too many chips. In Britain on the Couch Oliver James argued that the competitiveness inherent in a capitalist economy and the hierarchy it generates leads to low serotonin amongst the ‘losers’ in society.

Later research has shown that the levels of serotonin in the brain are, indeed, lower in middle-aged men and women in lower social classes. A relationship has also been identified between lower serotonin and over-eating, as well as smoking and drinking alcohol to excess. In other words it is the unequal distribution of power, and the chemically based depression this creates, that is a central cause of the increase in obesity.

Food is the most basic of all human needs. Capitalism is failing to meet our need for food adequately. The food that is available is often so adulterated and so lacking in basic nutrition that it creates ill-health and cravings for other, more satisfying foods. The connection between food and the locality, the identity that is built through seasonal foods or local cuisines is being destroyed by a global fast-food culture.

More fundamentally still, the distribution of food between the West and the South is so poor that, we sit unhealthily on our sofas, obediently over-eating, while watching our brothers and sisters starve in Africa or North Korea. This is a fundmenteal indictment of capitalism as an economic system: it is failing in the central role of an economy, the efficient distribution of our most basic commodity, food.

16 October 2007

Transition Towns Make Money!

In spite of my advanced years I have recently embarked on a new career as the face that launched a thousand community currencies. Well, ok, just one so far with another coming soon and an open invitation to Brixton for something exciting in the near future. Next week on 24th I'll be in Lewes launching the community currency associated with the Transition Lewes process. In terms of Transition currencies I'm hoping to keep my 100% record, so invitations are welcome.

You may be wondering why Transitioners have the creation of a community currency as one of their top priorities, alongside growing carrots and eco-building. Why should such practical folk consider the effort involved in launching and sustaining a community currency to be worthwhile?

The disasters at Northern Rock exemplify the most important reason: the global financial system is, if you'll excuse me, rocky. Yes I know I'm an economist and so money is my bread-and-butter in a way it isn't for you (and you would not believe how difficult this makes decisions about mortgages and so on) but if you begin to think what life would be like without a functioning monetary system you may come to understand this sense of urgency.

In fact there is no need to imagine it because this situation happened, just a few years ago, in Argentina. The default of the peso led to a monetary vacuum into which commodities such as grain and soya became sucked, to become useable as currency. But the local currency that environmentalists had established a few years before was more flexible and soon became the main medium of exchange. You can find out more about this and its implications for local currencies in this country here: http://www.uea.ac.uk/env/ijccr/contents.html

In numerous other communities from Hungary to New Zealand and from South Africa to the USA local communities have decided to extract their labour and their lives from the global financial system and its inequities. In the case of the Transition Towns the impulse is predominantly about increasing resilience and ensuring that, if climate change brings financial meltdown on the Argentinian pattern, we will have a functioning shadow currency system to turn to. Peter North describes the adventures of these various pioneers in his book Money and Liberation (http://www.upress.umn.edu/Books/N/north_money.html)

There are quite a few questions for community activists seeking to launch their own currency. Should it have decay built into it by imposing demurrage, a sort of reverse interest that means money is gradually worth less over time? The mechanism was invented by German economist Silvio Gesell to increase the velocity of circulation of money, thus increasing economic activity during the 1930s recession in Europe.

But is this idea compatible with the green economist's wish to reduce economic activity? Perhaps the two motivations could be made compatible if the economic activity stimulated in the local economy displaced the more destructive global activity?

Should you deposit money in the bank to back the currency and allow convertibility? This certainly encourages confidence in the currency, but limits creation to the amount of sterling you can spare. Jonathan Dawson, Co-ordinator of the Global Ecovillage Network and a key player at Findhorn, told me that their currency, which is backed in this way, is acceptable at the rate of 100% in their local pub. Now that might get the punters interested.

10 October 2007

Going with the Grain

We have ignored the warnings about climate change in spite of floods, the total dislocation of our seasons, and undeniable impacts on familiar wildlife species. This autumn we are, for the first time, seeing major increases in prices of the very staple foods we rely on to exist. Will this persuade us to change our lifestyles?

It is a curious fact of life that the staple starchy foods of the most developed societies are grains. And an increasingly important one, as many of these grains are now being used to produce biofuels. As Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Towns movement in the UK said recently at a conference I was at, biofuels offer us the unattractive future of starving to death in a traffic jam. This future may be closer than we thought.

The first nation to experience a threat to their national staple have been the Italians, facing 30 per cent increases in the price of pasta as a result of an international shortage of the durum wheat used to make it, 40 per cent of which is imported. Italians have relied on imports from overseas, especially Canada, but the Canadians are putting their own needs first, or selling grain to the North American biofuels industry instead.

Last year the price of our national staple, bread, rose as a result of drought in Australia. This year's bizarre weather patterns have also affected wheat harvests. The National Association of British and Irish Millers (yes there is such a thing!) documents increases in wheat prices and predicts further increases this autumn. An all-time high of £190 per tonne was reached in August, with increases to £192 predicted for next month, some £90 per tonne higher than the equivalent period last year.

I'd like to feel smug about this and say that relying on my local community-supported agriculture farm, which is a short walk away, has insulated me against the vagaries of the global capitalist food distribution system. The problem is that while the theory of that is fine--closed loops, self-provisioning, minimal foods miles and so on--virtue is no insurance against climate change. First we had drought, then we had floods and all year we have had a plague of slugs. The potato blight has been something biblical.

In terms of national policy I would still feel considerably more confident if we were not so reliant on one foreign breadbasket or another to dispatch laden trucks over increasingly long distances to provide us with the staff of life. I wonder how long we will be waiting for a national Food Czar to be appointed.

5 October 2007

Blessed are the Meek

I have to say that there are few things I find more depressing than working-class Tories. People voting for their own oppression; turkeys voting for Christmas.

When car stickers started appearing on fairly modest Fiestas calling for an end to Inheritance Tax and I noticed the Daily Mail campaign to the same effect my heart sank. How can it be that the relatively poor have been conned into campaigning against a tax designed to share the wealth of the rich when they die, to prevent them from continuing to exercise their power from beyond the grave?

This has now become the headline-grabber from the Tory Party conference: only millionaires will pay tax in future. It has been packaged as a victory for the little guy. In reality it is a liberation from the oppression of taxation for those whose estates are worth hundreds of thousands of pounds which should rightfully be redistributed to the dispossessed who inhabit the wildernesses of run-down housing estates.

Even the Telegraph admits that only 6% of estates pay inheritance tax (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/09/24/nwealth124.xml), so this policy will benefit the richest sector of our population and disadvantage all those Mail readers who are being hoodwinked into supporting it. Inheritance Tax is not a left-wing wheeze growing out of the politics of envy. J. S. Mill was in favour of all wealth reverting to the state on death, and right-wing economists regret the passing on of wealth through the generations, which saps younger generations' entrepreneurial zeal.

A few years ago I attended a seminar organised by the Fabian Society--a well meaning attempt to 'modernise' Inheritance Tax to prevent just this sort of campaign to abolish it. The conclusions were fair, simple and obvious. The most helpful, which is also Green Party policy--hence my invitation--was to make the amount of tax paid relate to the wealth of the inheritor rather than the inheritee. Thus people including more relatives and friends, and especially poorer ones, in their wills, could effect distribution according to their own choice of beneficiaries.

An old friend used to say that where there's a will there's a relative. The disheartening conclusion to the media discussion of Inheritance Tax is that where there's a Tory spindoctor there's an ill-informed toady willing to believe him.

4 October 2007

"Free Burma!"