Friday, 3 June 2011

Schoool Milk and Priorities

When I responded to a call to comment on the school milk fiasco last week, I was taken to task by one of Jersey's leading bloggers for not directly linking the matter to the even bigger fiasco of the mandarins' payoffs. However, I think that they are galls growing on different branches, and you have to go back nearer to the trunk to find the connection.

Free school milk was of immense nutritional value in harder and poorer times than we now live. But starving paupers have, for our era at least, been eliminated. Should you ever have cause to drive down La Motte Street on a weekday morning, and see the Income Support queue, it is striking how an overwhelming majority are conspicuously overweight. However, milk's own advantages, and drawbacks, as a food supplement do not disappear just because there is plenty else available as well or instead. Risky though a high dairy consumption may be for the middle-aged, it is the natural staple for all young and growing mammals, humans included. Therefore, it is still a good thing to make it available for children, and a better thing than most alternatives that they may wish to drink in school instead. (Except for the minority who outgrow their ability to digest milk by puberty.)

Farmers do not produce milk just out of an altruistic desire to nourish the public, of course, but to earn their own livings, and the processing and distribution are also business propositions in pursuit of profit. So “free” milk has to be paid for by somebody. Once, there was a clear case for that somebody to be the States. Now, when every family's food budget will buy rather more calories than it takes to lead an active life on, that case is no longer so clear. It would still be reasonable and practical for the state to facilitate the provision, and some level of subsidy may help to encourage takeup and stabilise supply. However, it would not be an outrageous burden on the vast majority of parents to divert a small part of their children's weekly sweet money to a milk subscription, and certainly no burden on those children's health. When we have a need to be very careful how we spend public money, 100% funding of school milk is hard to justify in the context of 2011 Jersey.

“When we have a need to be very careful how we spend public money...” I can work back towards that along another branch altogether:-

The previous rant was not enough to satisfy my anger at the ridiculous payoffs made to rid us of a couple of failed mandarins. When a man is hired to provide high level management skills in a politically sensitive environment, blundering through with respect for neither due process nor public opinion can only be viewed as gross incompetence. Gross incompetence has always been a deal-breaker in any job, and urgent departure has always been the remedy. It is ridiculous to suggest that massive inducements should be necessary to persuade the failed incumbent to pre-emptively resign. The ignominy of the alternative is generally enough. If the sky-high payments were a bribe to keep the departing staff from blowing the whistle on orders from above that made their jobs impossible to carry out competently, then they would be at least understandable, although still inexcusable. But, although there are allegations that the beneficiaries of these jackpots were involved in untoward conspiracies with certain politicians, their downfall has been very much due to their own failings in how they played their parts.

Had it been insufficient to just point out that their positions were becoming untenable, to make them step down, it should have been possible to remove them by disciplinary procedures. In fact, there is some circumstantial evidence that Ogley's departure is closely connected with the disciplining of an unidentified civil servant, the details being much too sensitive and confidential for public consumption. Unless they could produce some very embarrassing evidence in their own defence, though, it is hard to see why it would not have been better to simply remove them. It may be a bit of a fuss, and leave a bad taste in a few mouths, but it would take even more mismanagement to run up a six-figure bill on the sackings.

I would contend therefore that buying the delinquents off instead of sacking them was not so much a necessity as a luxury. Only, we have a need to be very careful how we spend public money, and this is not a careful use of it. This is a quite different matter to school milk, but it touches on the same issue: How do we prioritise the claims on the public purse? There are several aspects to consider: How good is something? How desirable? How necessary? How important? How valuable? How expensive? All the same kind of question, but not exactly the same things, and certainly not all the same answer.

Even if there are objective answers to at least some of that list of questions, others have inherently subjective answers, and weighting or ranking those answers is more subjective still, which is where the politics come in. The idea of a representative democracy is that you vote for the candidate whom you expect to make the judgements that seem most right to you. If you squander your vote by choosing on spurious grounds like having a nice glossy poster, then tough luck, if you dislike the consequences. If you are outvoted by those who think priorities should be different to you, that is tough, too. All you can do is try to persuade them that they would like your ideas better, if they tried them next time.

Anyway, to return to the examples in hand: School milk I would categorise as good, myself, but see Tom Gruchy's comment two posts back for another viewpoint. But does it score enough for necessity and importance to balance out the high score for expense? VFC says it does, I say not quite, and Phil Ozouf says not at all. Paying the ministers' right-hand men vast sums just to go away is certainly not good, desirable, important or valuable. However I can imagine circumstances where it is necessary from the viewpoint of those who can authorise such payments, not that such circumstances would be to anybody's credit; like knowing too much about cases of gross maladministration or corruption, for instance. (Imaginary and hypothetical circumstances of course.)

To sum up, both cases are matters of priorities, and priorities of democratic governments are matters of voter preferences. So, if you don't like the current incumbents' priorities, drag yourselves away from the TV for a few minutes, next election day, and vote for someone else.


Tom Gruchy said...

Humans, as other animals, drink their own milk but 70% of the world's adults are lactose intolerant with regard to cow's milk.
Why persist with the faulty science to defend the Jersey product - let go of this along with many other false beliefs that underwrite our flawed society.

There are so many other reasons why Jersey milk should be abandoned in favour of other liquids - let it go - retention damages your wider reasoning...

Ugh, It's Him! said...

Thanks to a few millenia of Darwinian evolution, only a minority suffer lactose intolerance in ethnic groups that have used dairy products since prehistory, such as Western Europeans and Mongols. Your global 70% includes a lot of Africans and South and East Asians - the population of Jersey does not.