01 November 2005

A general optimistic philosophy.

Call me naive, call me an idealist, but generally I think the world is getting a better place. I also think that governments elected under representative democracy are on balance, a force for good. It is this underlying optimism that underpins my whole philosophy and is why I believe in the environmental agenda, redistributive policies, proportional representation (PR) and yes, ID cards.

Looking back through history, it is clear the progressive agenda is winning, things that just 2 decades ago were seen as quite radical and left wing are now mainstream. Gay rights, racial equality, even public expenditure over tax cuts have won the argument.

Despite all this, there is a problem. I'm in a hurry, and although I see progress, like always it has to be fought for continually every bit of the way- it is a two steps forward, one step back process.

The biggest problem is a culture of negativity, which is particularly prevalent in first-past-the-post countries like the US and the UK, exacerbated by the peculiar aspects of an electoral system that rewards negative campaigning.

My biggest worry is the growth of a prevailing negativity about the way we are governed. This rise is easily explained and hardly surprising when we consider the drip, drip, drip concentration of sensationally negative stories in the media, day after day. Next time you go to buy a paper, look at all the front pages and count the negative story to positive story ratio, I found 5 to 1 in favour of negativity.

This negativity has infected our psyche so much that now there is not just mistrust but an almost general hatred of politicians and government. We must try and remember that the government is essentially just a reflection of the people that elect them. The more people become disenchanted and distance themselves from government the less effective government is at reflecting our will. We have to get involved.

Admittedly the representative process is inefficient, as are many aspects of the way we organise government and society. But although PR would make things better, the government still overall reflects general mainstream public opinion.

I'm sure some of you will point out that the danger with any idealism is that it is prone to follow unrealistic aims that can prove quite fundamentally incorrect, but I would argue that without it, progress is on the whole far slower. Yes we must be pragmatic, but without an ideal, we don't even know which direction to head. This is why it is essential.

Overall all I look for in a policy is something that is going to improve the efficiency and quality of life. But not just in the short term but in the medium and long term.

A problem with all democracies is that it is difficult to look more than 5 years ahead due to electoral constraints. This as I have argued here before is even more pronounced in the adversarial politics of FPTP compared to the more consensual PR.

So where am I heading with this strain of thought? Well, when I argue for environmental politics, I am looking 20 or more years ahead. The oil is quite clearly starting to run out, and yet I see huge amounts of energy being wasted with little concern. We could cure most of our problems over the next century just by using our energy more efficiently, let alone using our dwindling resources to develop truly renewable alternatives.

A brief aside here; excellent rebuffing of Simon Jenkins' argument for nuclear power over at Free Speed Nation. There are 10,000 years of reasons why nuclear power is not a viable option for our future. The industry conveniently ignores the cost of storing and disposing of nuclear waste when it compares itself with renewables.

Now, to ID cards. How does this fit in to all this I here you ask. Well quite simply, I think that the looming environmental crisis is so bad that we need to consider carbon rationing. Each individual would have their carbon ration that would be linked to their identity card each time they made a purchase (you could get credits for things like recycling etc.), this would suddenly make the decision to travel abroad using a cheap flight or driving to work while living in the city, an either or situation instead of just reflecting your financial status, the environmental cost would be factored in as well. If you believe this can't be done, read 'How we can save the planet' by Mayer Hillman. In his book he outlines how carbon rationing would work.

Unlike most opponents of ID cards, I have a totally open mind on this subject. I freely admit opponents 'could' be right in predicting big problems in introducing them. But like the impending doom predicted surrounding the millenium bug, I feel they are exagerating their claims somewhat to support their case. I have outlined here many arguments why I think they are wrong in being so pessimistic.

Most of their objections are down to their dislike of government. I don't dismiss all their arguments of course. They rightly point out a number of potential problems, but overall a lot of their doom laden predictions rely on believing that the government have some secret corrupt evil agenda that frankly I believe they have no evidence to support. Arguments against bad government are just that, they are not arguments against ID cards.

I think this impasse is where the argument will be left because, unless they change this underlying belief, there is little we can agree on with this aspect.

I can accept practical problems with the scheme, but nobody has demonstrated to me, why they will be so bad that the scheme will not be worthwhile. Opponents point out problems with database schemes but no-one argues that computer databases and other software haven't brought enormous benefits in efficiency to our society. For example, I was in the bank today, no sooner had I paid some money in, that 30 seconds later I could check on an ATM, and there it was proudly in the system. This is the sort of efficiency we should bring to government in all aspects of our life. Technology is obviously going to keep improving, we should take advantage of this and not bury our heads in the sand.

I believe in efficiency and long term arguments, short term costs and problems will be overcome. I see a parallel with the arguments against ID cards with those used against joining the Euro, which I believe we should have joined in 1999. The short term gains of not joining will be paid for later when we have to catch up with the more efficient Eurozone market they will emerge in the future. It is simple economics. I can hear the sceptical voices now, but you have to look beyond the initial practicalities, without this vision, the EU itself would not exist with all the obvious benefits it has brought to Europe in terms of peace and economic efficiency. Sometimes you have to be brave and make calculated gambles on long term gains.

To sum up, my main arguments here are old fashioned hope, idealism and a non-luddite attitude to new technology which are after all the biggest drivers to real improvements in our life.


  1. Crikey it's for carbon rationing now - and you still don't think it sounds a trifle authoritarian? The ID card as internal passport - no doubt with the rich trading their allowances. I'm not trying to wreck the planet any more than you are but now you are starting to worry me about how you think ID cards might be used.

    The old eastern european planned economies felt they were paving a brave new optimistic way to a future where total state control made everything work properly - it was a lovely idea in its way - but it didn't work.

    I'm all for optimism - in fact I'm mostly optimistic. We Brits are a pretty sensible (and honest and decent) bunch on the whole - hence I'm optimistic that we simply won't give in to a plan to allow any government to take our fingerprints and iris data and lease it back to us at our expense for zero benefit.

  2. By the way - I think it's more than a trifle ironic that you have tried to dismiss oponents concerns over state control but now tell us one of the benefits we'll get is rationing (run by the state). Not even the conspiracy theorists would have seen that one coming.

  3. Carbon rationing is a radical idea and a scary one at that. But if we carry on like we are, then its bye bye civilisation in this century. This is just my radical idea, it has nothing to do with the government. I'm sure they have little or no interest in it. It certainly isn't a policy that could be sold in the next decade or so. I'm looking more long term than that.

    Whatever happens with ID cards, carbon rationing will eventually happen, even if it just wealth that rations it. I was just putting forward an egalitarian system that gives everyone equal access to carbon resources. The alternative is to let the poor suffer as energy prices soar.

  4. Rather than carbon rationing, why not encourage fixing the problem at source? See what happened in Germany when recycling legislation was brought in.. Queues of hausfraus removing unecessary packaging from produce & putting it in supermarket bins. The supermarket's costs increased & they pressured their suppliers to reduce packaging.

    And stop & think about linking yet another crazy idea to the ID card. How would recycling credits work with a card? Are all the recycling bins going to require biometric scanners in the future?

    For extra irony, the ID cards will be plastic, and require a lot of energy to create & run the scheme..

  5. Ho ho. More alternative currency proposals, with the ID card as electronic wallet. Funny thing is, we already have a perfectly good mechanism for allocating resources in the presence of scarcity (in this case, the resource is the right to use carbon, and the scarcity is enforced by our desire not to end up underwater or with a climate like Newfoundland). The appropriate solution to this one is carbon taxes, applied to uses of fossil fuels according to their impact on the atmosphere (e.g. jet aeroplanes inject carbon dioxide into the troposphere, which causes a larger warming effect than carbon dioxide emitted at ground level).

    The alleged wrinkle here is that we couldn't charge aeroplanes landing in the UK for the carbon used in their flights here. This is, of course, rubbish: we perfectly well could. If only the UK were to do this, people would fly to other nearby countries and go to the UK by train or whatever; alternatively, we could impose the carbon tax at the EU level, on the basis that the EU is to large for aeroplanes to conveniently fly around, and if you want to get to Europe, you pretty much have to land in an EU country (what else are you going to do, turn Switzerland into the London Heathrow of Europe?).

    There's no particular reason for using an alternative currency as the mechanism for a carbon tax, and even if there were, the ID card would not be a good vehicle for it. Firstly, it's hideously over-engineered as a solution (no need for biometrics, audit trails, or indeed much of the rest of the central Register); and secondly, tourists flying into and out of the country, and transfer passengers, who spend only hours here, are both substantial users of carbon burned in the UK, but neither will be eligible for ID cards.

    As an aside, personal carbon budgetting is probably impractical anyway. Consider the example of taking a one hour high-speed train from point A to point B. The train generates, let's say, 1kg carbon dioxide per second of operation. Now, let's say the train is completely empty apart from you. You should be charged for 3.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions; whereas if it is full, carrying -- let's say -- 600 passengers, you should be charged for 6kg of carbon dioxide. Now, the way we handle the equivalent problem for the running costs of the train is to charge each passenger a certain price for their ticket, and fiddle with the ticket prices (and subsidies!) until the costs of running the thing are covered by revenue. You wouldn't expect to get on the train at the station, wait for the guard to count everyone on board, and -- once he had done so -- have to fork over one Nth of the running costs of the train for the journey you're taking. But personal carbon budgeting implies that you have to do exactly that in respect of the carbon dioxide emissions from the train. If you're not going to, you may as well just use carbon taxes, which would be a hell of a lot cheaper to implement anyway.

    Re. that "Free Speed Nation" piece -- remember that for every MW of wind generating capacity you build, you also have to build a MW of non-wind capacity to use on calm days. You might hope that having wind turbines sufficiently scattered about the place would be good enough, but as I understand it, this is not the case for Britain, because we quite often get a calm day across the whole country. Now, for the non-wind capacity, you have to go for technologies which can be switched on and off at extremely short notice, of which the only real option is natural gas (the alternative would be to leave the backup plants running all the time, in which case the wind farms were a bit pointless). Substantial investment in wind farms implies continuing reliance on natural gas. Not great for the environment, and pretty rubbish from a security-of-supply point of view.

  6. But what about the world of work and the decline of the trade union presence.

    Long hours culture.
    Employers virtually forcing opt outs from the Working Time directive.
    Variable to zero time contracts.
    Electronic tagging of workers.
    Threats to pension entitlement.

    The decline of working class leadership in industry has had other consequences since many of these people helped provide advise and a sense of cohesiveness in working class areas

  7. Well the government can't do much to help in day-to-day problems, but employment legislation is achieving across the board what only the best employers or the more powerful trade unions could provide. That's encouraging.

    Of course, looking ahead, some jobs will cease to exist, and other lower-value ones in this country as we specialise in response to international cost competition. I don't see any future for the Working Time directive as the more mundane jobs are replaced by those that demand and reward greater commitment. I suspect it's already pretty meaningless in the IT world.

    Also, while it may be no consolation to those on company pension schemes today, the future is private pension funds, more saving, and top-ups from the government, so that, finally, people can afford a decent retirement without overloading a dwindling band of younger workers.

    I'm all in favour of technology to solve problems, and integrating databases so that one magic card can "do it all", it's just the compulsion, the secrecy, and the government's record that make the current ID plan seem such a nightmare.

  8. "I can accept practical problems with the scheme, but nobody has demonstrated to me, why they will be so bad that the scheme will not be worthwhile."

    Sorry, I guess the examples I gave weren't good enough.

  9. Well you can agree with it all you want. I don't and I beleive they Guys at www.no2id.net more than you, so I'm not going to have one.

    Make this Labours poll tax if you want, but there are many thousands of people like me and if you want to push it, then that's up to you.

    I'm not the property of the state and I don't think it's woth the costs. As the criminals get the technology to subvert the scheme, it will become a nightmare.

    The fact a future hitler could abuse it, nevermind the odd bogus policeman as happened before and it is a no-brainer.

    You will have one hell of a fight on your hands getting this one through.

  10. Peter Clay2/11/05 1:42 pm

    What are the long term arguments for ID cards?

  11. What are the long term arguments for ID cards?

    Elimination of all other cards, passes, tickets, and form-filling... built-in file/media storage... benefit entitlement set up as soon as you lose your job or your status changes... reduced bureaucracy.

    None of these things, however, are "on the cards" with the existing proposals.

  12. Elimination of all other cards, passes, tickets,

    Come again? how would that work? - If I turn up at the tube station and feed my ID card into the barrier I get to travel and you (the government) charge me? How does the machine know it was me using the card? Or is the plan to modify the machine to scan my prints and iris at the same time?

    and form-filling... built-in file/media storage... benefit entitlement set up as soon as you lose your job or your status changes... reduced bureaucracy.

    reduced bureaucracy? you're having a laugh - once the government runs my identity for me, they'll need an army of bureaucrats to adminsiter it. Presumably I won't be able to just ring up and tell them I've changed address (and it will be compulsory to tell them) - they'll need proof that it's really me, otherwise it'd be pointless - so I'll need to attend somewhere........

  13. f I turn up at the tube station and feed my ID card into the barrier I get to travel and you (the government) charge me?

    This of course also means that the government would know the movements of everyone in the country. Nice. Stalin would be so envious.

  14. The book by Meyer Hillman has answers to all these technical questions. He said for reasons of simplicity, public transport would be exempt from carbon rationing.

  15. He said for reasons of simplicity, public transport would be exempt from carbon rationing.

    That's a bit feeble, given how significant a contributor to carbon dioxide emissions transport is.

  16. I think as a first step, encouraging a move from private to public transport will reduce carbon emissions quite considerably. I also think air travel was included in the rationing scheme. The book is actually quite detailed and it is a widely respected book on this subject.

  17. Well, air travel suffers the same problem as the train example, though it'd be slightly easier to solve since (to prohibit a secondary market in air tickets and therefore keep airlines profitable) we require people to "check in" etc. at airports. However, when they'd got everybody on to the plane and the cabin crew announce, "Since this plane is only one quarter full, we will be charging you four times your usual carbon ration", there might well be a bit of a stampede as people try to find cheaper flights, and obviously for every passenger who says "sod this, I'll take the bus" they'll have to open up the hold and fish their luggage out, turning the simple procedure of boarding into a hours-long nightmare....

  18. Looking back at the book, it seems I've done the author a disservice. Air travel would also be exempt. These issues would be tackled separately. It's a really good book, I recommend it. It goes in to a lot of detail, I can't repeat it all here. Go and read the book.

  19. OK, if you're going to exempt air travel and public transport you get away from some problems, at the cost of making the scheme of limited usefulness. But what about industry? Say I have a factory which makes, I dunno, tennis balls. Simply to keep the factory open I have to burn a certain amount of fuel every year. Imagine it's an off year for tennis balls and I only sell one. Is the purchaser now liable for the whole of the carbon dioxide I have emitted?

  20. This site explains the basics, although Hillman's scheme is more complicated than this.

  21. That site is a press release which doesn't answer the question I identify. It also mentions http://www.tyndall.ac.uk/whatsnew/DTQs.pdf, but that's 404, so doesn't answer the question either.

    In any case, if you think this scheme is such a good idea you ought to be able to explain and justify it. Go on...?

  22. You'll have to give me some time to get all the details together. This is only a side issue mentioned in passing, but carbon rationing is a well supported and outlined scheme amongst environmentalist circles.