The contract to…

The contract to distribute Cold Salad cuttings from the Luddites’ Gazette has effect from June 1st.  The next edition of the Luddites’ Gazette is set for the night of June 4th , provided that all staff perform as they should, and consequently the next selection of cuttings should appear a couple of days thereafter.

    In the interim we post here an item hors série, dealing with an informal meeting addressed by Simple Simon, our office intern.  His father (who owns 50% of the shares in the holding company) suggested that Simple Simon might be allowed to insert commentaries of his own into the distributions of cuttings  As a trial run we asked him to make an in-house presentation to members of the team summarising the current negotiations in Bonn on a replacement for the Kyoto agreement.  Here is the record, as near verbatim as we could make it, of the meeting.

Simon:  Right chaps, well, we all know that climate change is a horrible problem for humanity and I’m going to tell you how to solve this business about the Kyoto agreement running out, and no follow-up in sight. Oh, do be quiet, fair hearing, please! Right, Kyoto is running out.  Seems the prospect of sweltering droughts, worldwide disappearance of coastal cities, even the collapse of international tourism, hasn’t done the trick.  Which is odd  because everyone agrees there’s a problem.  In fact just about every government in the world agrees on three things: a) major long-term action is needed; b) someone else should take it or at least take it first; and c) the time is not yet anyway because the next election is coming up.  At a pinch there could be a compromise over c) if the first two could be sorted out – which is like saying that the business of one billion humans being short of food or actually starving could probably be sorted out if more food could be grown and its distribution could be improved.  Actually a lot of people with tunnel vision think the food situation is half-way to solution because more food will be grown, prime steak for instance (which only needs 100,000 litres of water for one kilo of meat, not to mention the little local difficulty of the gigantic output of greenhouse gas from the produce as it gambols round the ranch on its way to maturity and the slaughterhouse, nor the other problem of the huge extent of grassland required which could otherwise be put to some productive use, eg golf, though this may not be entirely bad since golf not only needs massive amounts of water, but has an obviously corrosive effect on social cohesion, and actually reduces the overall possibilities of healthful….

Deputy Editor [forte]: I’m not having any more of this. You’ve sailed so far off the point you’re in the wrong ocean.  Back to the point or it’s back to the coffee machine and the paperclips this minute, never mind who your father is.

Simon:  All right, all right.  No need to get rat-featured.  Well, then, the answer we need, to get action started on reducing global warming without waiting for governments to organise it, is already hard at work in most advanced countries.  It’s privatisation.  Each country cheerfully takes on a full batch of obligations under the Kyoto agreement or whatever replaces it, no nasty, long negotiations; then each country sells them to whoever comes along to bid for them.

Uproar followed, continuing for several minutes Then a tall fellow near the front stood up and waved the others into silence.

Fawkner-Corbett: Look, Simon old chap.  I think everyone in the room except you has spotted the flaw in your plan.  Privatisation works extremely well where a government has been providing some service, and making a mess of it.  Say, a government starts off by running a mail service for business and citizens in its country.  Public service and all that.   The trouble is it gets too big.  Regulations accrete like plaque on a dinosaur’s fangs, corruption eats away at efficiency, the whole system develops elephantiasis, costs rocket, mail gets ever slower.  Right, privatise.  First benefit is the government is no longer blamed for the terrible mail service.  Second benefit, a large sum of money deposited into the government’s piggy bank.  But the new company is quite happy to pay, because it is going to make a lot of money.  To start with it ‘adapts’ the services ‘for efficiency’.  Reduces number of deliveries, especially to difficult areas, i.e. more than five kilometres from the sorting office.  It adopts new definitions, e.g. ‘high speed service’ (= old service, whereas new ‘standard service’ = ‘gets sorted on days we bring in part-time staff – Fridays)’.  But the more important savings come in other ways.  The workers no longer work for the government and of course they cannot be on their original contracts so one third of the payroll is chopped at a stroke.  The service has acquired a lot of property on the way, as government institutions do, and this can mostly be sold off, down to the metal boxes for collecting mail by roadsides, which can be sold for scrap or as souvenirs to Japanese tourists.  Offices which remain can be ‘enhanced’ with sale of anything from pens and sweets to heavy goods vehicles, all to be done by remaining staff in between dealing with mail, and if they don’t make a profit they don’t remain.  Most important, though: with any luck it will have been possible to lose the pension rights for employees at the time of the takeover.  What the new chairman gets paid is no concern of the government, even if he is a former minister.  But all this privatisation only works because there is a service running which the public needs.and is willing to pay for.  Now it’s like that for medical care, education, public transport, and so on. But there’s never been a queue of people lining up to ask for a piece of obligation under the Kyoto Protocol.  So your idea’s a non-starter.

Simon: No, no, you’re wrong, because I’m coming on to, actually, the most important thing about all those privatisations is that the government gets rid of its responsibilities.  It doesn’t always make a profit on the deal as it can with a mail service (or may not, if you work out all the knock-on costs once everyone faces huge increases for sending anything by any new delivery system).  For instance in Britain public rail transport after privatisation got far worse, and got far more money from the government than before.  But, what is one of the most basic functions a government is supposed to provide for its people?  Military protection!  Now armies cost governments a lot, especially when they’re fighting, even if they’re only fighting their own populations.  But it’s not only the cost; there are horrendous ongoing complications in having your own military forces, at all points from having to negotiate arms deals to provide the generals with the latest lethal gadgetry, to long-term medical care for infantry maimed in combat, to arranging cover-ups when your footsoldiers massacre civilians outside the rules set down by the Geneva convention. (And there’s always the chance that the generals may take over.)  So more and more states are getting private companies to take over as much as possible.  Quite apart from the public part of the deals they will be able to see ways to tap sources of revenue which governments don’t, or can’t really admit to.  But the really big gain for governments is deniability.  If anything goes wrong they can just turn the other way and say ‘Nothing to do with me, rosebud’.  Some double-amputee is not getting his pension?  That’s none of your business now.  Now climate change is a survival issue for governments on the same level.  So what I’m suggesting is the same idea for dealing with Kyoto.  Kyoto or post-Kyoto are going to be not only shockingly expensive but also a huge drain on ministerial effort which could be much better spent on far more agreeable activities.  International treaties and opt-outs and exemptions to be agreed and ratified, research committees to be set up and chaired and organised, and probably every country will probably need an intranational carbon trading scheme.  Countless changes to laws will have to be drafted, regulatory institutions will have to be set up, and staffed, and regulated themselves, and someone will have to establish a whole leafy green clean energy industry.  There will be endless international conferences.  The money is bad enough but the strain – and the deniability, when things go wrong as they will – is more important.  Much better to set up a company or several, offload obligations onto them, even add extra ones to show off to other nations, and then let them pay to take the whole cartload away.  Call it National Authority for …..whatever, to make it sound as if it is still part of your government, but make jolly sure it doesn’t actually tie the government down to anything.

Objector (unidentified):  But why should any company want to bid for a contract with all those obligations?

Simon:  Because they’re going to make a lot of money.  You let them set up the regulatory institutions and then issue licences to allow exemptions from the things that are supposed to be forbidden; even let them impose fines, except they have to be called retrospective compensatory payments or some bullshit like that.  You give them the contracts for setting up the leafy green clean energy company, which they then run the same way your private companies run the train service.

 Confused chattering breaks out; then again

Fawkner-Corbett:  But Simon, I know your ma is a gov’t minister, but I wonder if you’ve noticed.  What you’ve produced is a solution for governments faced with a difficult problem, but that’s not a solution for the problem.

Simon: Does that matter?

Deputy Ed.sotto voce: coffee machine and paperclips for you, my lad.