April 9th 2001

 

Revolting?

Old Grumpy reads of a huge uproar over plans to conduct GM crop trials in North Pembrokeshire..

Leading the revolt is our esteemed MP, Jackie Lawrence, who is said to be "appalled" that this decision has been "taken by scientists at the DETR" without any consultations with the Welsh Assembly or local people.

Her indignation is compounded by the fact that the owner of the land on which the GM crops are to be grown is former Tory MP Tony Marlow.

Close on her heels is our AM, Dr Richard Edwards, who is said to be "incandescent with rage" and describes as "quite obscene" that government scientists are tramping around the county during a foot and mouth epidemic "to further the interests of greedy multinational corporations"

"Who do the DETR think they are, acting in such an arrogant and contemptuous way?" he thunders.

Perhaps Old Grumpy can help out.

DETR is the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions headed by Mr John Prescott, who is, of course, also the deputy leader of the Labour Party under whose banner both Mrs Lawrence and Dr Edwards were elected.

So, it is no use trying to blame "scientists" and smear an ex Tory MP for a decision which is their own government's sole responsibility.

And, I might add, the reason the government is "arrogant and contemptuous" is that sycophantic Blairite toadies like Mrs Lawrence have failed in their duty to hold it to account on the floor of the House of Commons.

 

Ignorance is bliss

In 1986 the American economist Professor James Buchanan won a Nobel Prize for his work on Public Choice Theory (PCT).

Put simply PCT divides people into four groups: politicians, bureaucrats, interest groups and voters. Interest groups can be further divided into campaigning organisations and businesses.

Most people are familiar with the grasping businessman out to maximise his profits (see above) and even scheming politicians out to maximise their vote (see above) but tend to accept that bureaucrats, and campaign groups such as Greenpeace and FoE, act, selflessly, in the public interest.

But, Professor Buchanan says, this is a naive view because all the evidence suggests that, most of the time, people pursue their own self interest.

Bureaucrats seek to increase their own power and influence, not to say their salaries, while campaigners have a vested interest in hyping up their concerns to attract donors. After all, why sent off a cheque to Greenpeace if the world is not threatened by global warming or some other environmental disaster?

So far, we have not discussed the role of voters in this scheme of things. According to PCT, voters are at a serious disadvantage in this power struggle because they are ignorant about most of the issues while the other players are experts - not least in their ability to manipulate the media. Not that Prof Buchanan would criticise the voters for their lack of knowledge which he describes as "rational ignorance".

Rational, because, in an increasingly complex world, it would be a futile waste of precious time to even try to acquire sufficient knowledge to fully engage in these debates.

Voters, therefore, depend to a large extent on the media for information. But the media itself is beset with rational ignorance, particularly where scientific issues such as GM crops and global warming are concerned.

Most media folk, mostly refugees from university humanities departments, know next to nothing about science.

Furthermore, the media has deadlines to meet and it is much easier to regurgitate a press release from FoE than to dig around for the truth.

And the print media, in particular, depends on selling newspapers for its continued survival and "Earth faces global climate meltdown" makes a much more compelling headline than "Negative feedbacks may cancel out Carbon Dioxide forcing".

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the media's routine description of Carbon Dioxide - the basis of all life on the planet - as "a pollutant".

 

The invisible men

My Fishguard correspondent has again e-mailed asking that I devote more of my efforts to reporting the activities of the so-called Independents who control the County Council.

In vain do I protest that if all the words I have written on this subject were collected into a book it would make 'War and Peace' look like an airport novel.

She is especially concerned that I record how they vote on important issues affecting their constituents.

If only I knew!

The situation is that, from the public gallery in the chamber, it is only possible to see about a dozen of the 60 members.How the other 48 vote is a mystery.

All I can say is that those I can see (all leading members of the Independent Political (sic) Group) put their hands up to support the party line with all the precision of a troop of synchronised swimmers.

When the new County Hall was being built the opposition Labour Group proposed the installation of an electronic voting system but this was kicked into the long grass by the ruling clique with the result that the electors are denied the basic democratic right to know how their representatives use the votes with which they have temporarily entrusted them.

Matters are actually a good deal worse because, with the exception of the dozen or so Independents visible from the gallery, members of the public, not as familiar with the cast as Old Grumpy and other regulars, have no idea of the identity of the disembodied voices arising from beneath their feet.

I did write to the County Council querying whether the public's statutory right to attend meetings was met by a situation where they could have no idea what was really going on.

The Council's Monitoring Officer, Huw James, wrote back informing me that plans were afoot to improve the position but that was more than a year ago so I am not holding my breath.

 

Lottery winners....... and losers

Last week's editorial in the Western Telegraph waxed lyrical about the 300 jobs created by the £1m raised by the Pembrokeshire Lottery.

Lack of space, presumably, prevented the Editor mentioning that, as a member of the Lottery Board, he had an interest to declare in the matter.

Add these jobs to the hundreds created by the County Council's Economic Development Unit's small business grants, and hundreds more claimed by the Wales Tourism Board, and, like me, you may be forgiven for wondering why Pembrokeshire still has an unemployment problem.

My own theory is that these jobs are mostly mere figments of the fertile imaginations of their creators.

Even if I am wrong about that, a bit of careful economic analysis will demonstrate that these jobs are largely illusory.

From what I can gather from the figures, about 45p of each pound invested in the Lottery is returned to the players as prize money, a fiscally neutral rearrangement of the deck chairs.

Of the remainder, 40p goes to "good causes" i.e. businesses which the Lottery Board consider worthy of support and the remaining 15p on administration.

If there was no lottery this 55p would remain in the pockets of the players who could spend it with businesses of their own choosing - boosting the turnover of those businesses, and, therefore, their job-creating potential.

The question to be asked about all these so-called job creation initiatives is why it should be the case that a panel of "experts" - be it the Lottery Board or County Councillors doling out our taxes as business grants - are better able to decide which businesses to support than we ourselves through the free market?

The answer is that they can't, which is why past government policy of "picking winners" has been abandoned as a monumental failure and why, a couple of weeks ago, Mr Blair was in Stockholm lecturing his fellow European leaders on the need to jettison their corporatist economies and embrace the Anglo Saxon free market model.

The Pembrokeshire Lottery should be regarded as a fairly harmless bit of fun and not puffed up as the saviour of the County's economy.

Much more dangerous for areas like Pembrokeshire is that "tax on innumeracy" the National Lottery.

Assuming that Pembrokeshire people have the same propensity to buy tickets as the rest of the population, I calculate that some £120,000 is spent locally each week.

In theory, about half of that is returned to the local economy through prizes, though in reality the tendency for jackpot winners to decamp to the south of France or the Bahamas means the recovery rate of prize-money is somewhat less.

Be that as it may, that leaves some £60,000 fleeing the county each week (£3m a year) to fill the coffers of the Lottery Commission and the pockets of Camelot's directors and shareholders.

A proportion of that, £1m say, comes back into Pembrokeshire as Lottery grants, leaving a net outflow of £2m a year - enough to create 600 jobs if the Pembrokeshire Lottery is to be believed.

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