Sunday, 23 September 2012

140,000? I Don't Believe It!

This week saw the shallowest piece of journalistic sensationalism in Jersey for years. The Jersey Evening Post ran a front page headline that the local population was officially expected to rise to 140,000. (a 45% increase on current levels, for any non-local readers) Shocking, indeed, but then a few moments of reading on makes it clear that the figure is actually a prediction of what another 70 years like the last 10 would lead to.

The shocking thing then moves from being the vast figure to the absurd incompetence of the government statisticians, who thought this worth calculating and officially reporting. The last time in history that European civilisation went 80 years without any major social, economic or climatic upheaval must have been the 13th Century. The last 60 years have been a time of especially rapid changes. However, transformative changes are essentially short term processes. Any statistics about their effects will follow either peaked curves or S curves ramping up or down to a new level. The new levels are determined by the completion of the process, though, and it is a meaningless folly, that a professional statistician ought to be above, to calculate as if a change can continue beyond its own completion.

So much for the principle. What of the substance, that I can greet the report with a sneer for its writers instead of horror at its conclusions? The first question is, of course, where would half as many people again live? This is probably the most widely cited objection to the report's validity, but actually the weakest. With a little compromising of living standards, we could at least house 140,000 mainly in existing stock, (so long as sea levels rise slowly enough to replace coastal settlements with developments on high ground) and certainly with three generations to adapt. Singletons living alone in small flats is a very recent norm, and it would not go against the grain of human nature to return to long-proven practices of grown children staying at home, or sharing with fellow bachelors or spinsters. We could easily occupy our existing housing at much higher density than we now do, and in a worsening economy, will likely find motivation to do so. Increasing the load on other infrastructure is more problematical, though. To maintain the current standard of medical care for a population unlikely to be substantially healthier, especially since the 20th Century's hard-won knowledge about nutrition is being sidelined into a subject for crackpots, will require a much larger hospital for a start. Then there is the re-engineering of the drainage system to dispose of half as much foul sewage again. Some commentators worry about the capacity of our roads to handle that kind of increase in traffic, but I think there are more global reasons why we are already most of the way through the Age of the Car, and in even 20 years time bikes and buses will have reclaimed the streets. And so for all the infrastructure; between enlargements at the upgrades that another 70 years will inevitably require, and more intensive use, we can be ready for so many people by the time we have them. If we have them, which I very much doubt.

The 140,000 prediction ignores all sorts of constraints that any realistic forecasting and contingency planning must allow for. The world of 2082 is necessarily going to differ from ours in many ways. Despite the inclination of some to disbelieve the signs as a macho exhibition of mind over matter, global warming, from the smoke we are making to live our lives as we do now, will have changed the world, and for the worse for many people, even if we cannot yet see which unlucky numbers will come up on the dice. The present baby boom of many poor third-world countries will have grown old and be dying off in another 70 years, and it is improbable that they will themselves raise enough healthy children through decades of failing harvests to maintain the exponential growth with another baby boom of their own.

The capping of global population, by inescapably finite food supply, will then break the current growth-driven model of globalised capitalism, if it has not already been politically dismantled for its social failings. Thus, any local economy that is based in the short-term on servicing contemporary global capitalism must face a very different future, be it failure or profound change, as the present just will not last for 70 more years. This is the real rub. I simply do not believe that Jersey will be able to provide livings to 140,000 people in 70 years time. It could not do so now, and it is improbable that what we euphemistically like to call the Finance Industry will be able to operate on anything like its present scale in even 20 more years.

Without work, many residents will be unable to stay, and so the population will fall. A collapsed post-Finance economy may become a cheap place to do business and attract some re-immigration, but the great boom of recent decades will not come again, and Jersey will never support a tenth of a million permanent residents.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Time and Money Well Spent?

The widespread perceptions of inappropriate self-indulgence that are attaching to Sir Philip Bailhache's “fact-finding” foreign visits have deflected attention from a more fundamental reason why these trips are a poor use of public money.

For all that Sir Philip claims to be receiving very useful briefings, his status as a visiting official must inevitably skew the picture that is presented to him to the point of uselessness as a practical guide for ourselves. It is an ancient and worldwide tradition to show only the best and most glorious when hosting high-status guests, and hide not only the rubbish, but even the mundane nitty-gritty.

Let us imagine that the Dependencies Sir Philip are “researching” decide to send reciprocal visitors to examine how our own parliamentary system is working, in due course: Who would see them and what would they tell them? No doubt there would be a dinner with the Council of Ministers and another with the Jurats, and maybe even visits to a few carefully chosen Constables, but it would be a safe bet that nobody with any track record for favouring reform would be allowed anywhere near them.

That being so, why does anybody expect VIP visits to be anything but a poor gauge of an island's political health, compared with a few hours judicious internet browsing?

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Jersey needs an Independent Electoral Commission

The impending States of Jersey debate on setting up an Electoral Commission must not be dismissed as arcane self-obsession by the rest of us.

The present situation, in which abstentions consistently top the polls, cannot be claimed as a healthy or successful democracy. Thus, we need to develop a political scene that does command widespread public confidence. To do so, we need to improve the process, to offer the hope that public engagement will influence outcomes for the better. And, the hardcore under the foundations must be that we choose very carefully whom we entrust the improvement to.

While the Clothier Commission's proposals were not entirely to my personal taste, and the hatchet job the States did on them still less so, I can only admit it was a convincingly authoritative body to make those proposals. We must have another such Commission this time.

Unfortunately, some of the latest ideas being floated for the make-up of the Commission would rob it of that convincing authority from the outset. I can see a weak argument for including States Members, on the grounds that they are elected and paid to show leadership and make decisions on political matters. However, every last one of them has too much of a vested interest in the results to be at all credible. Only a completely independent Commission could be considered trustworthy. As a matter of principle, serving and prospective politicians must be ineligible to serve on it.

Moving beyond the abstract principle, any States Members tempted to vote against keeping the Electoral Commission independent has to beware of the complication that the Member keenest to get onto the Commission is the turkey who actually wants to vote for Christmas. Any Deputy faced with the risk of opening the way to a potential Chairman with a pre-existing desire to cull their numbers is going to be making their choice under the burden of a massive conflict of interest, even if the Senators and Constables can honestly follow their consciences on principle.

So, this vote will matter to us all. We must pay close attention to how our representatives vote.