Why won’t our leaders pick the best future?

Like most democracies, we elect leaders every several years on the basis of an overall package of promises, which are too often later forgotten or given lip service.

I can easily understand leaders mostly doing what they want, and only doing enough of what we want to get elected. What I don’t understand is why they seem to make so many choices that are bad for everyone, and why we can’t find leaders who would make better ones. It seems as though the choice of leaders we currently have is among awful, terrible, and really bad. It isn’t obvious with 63 million people why we can’t find better leaders, but then again, the USA doesn’t do much better with over 300 million.

Governments are not short of advice. They have access to huge quantities of data and research, and ready access to many supposedly smart people and consultants. They even have their own futurology departments, so they really should have a reasonable idea of what is coming down the road. So why is that with all the possible futures to pick from, they so often pick the worst? I am UK-based so will use UK examples, but I feel confident that most readers will find equivalent examples in their own country, especially in the USA and down under, where many of you are.

Starting off with a few recent errors (please forgive me if I stray into the occasional rant):

Road deaths in the UK are the lowest in the world, while our health service has one of the worst records in a developed nation. Some estimates put the numbers of deaths caused by poor NHS hygiene, negligence and errors at over 50,000 a year, compared to 1800 deaths on the roads. So you might have expected that a government wanting to save lots of lives would focus on fixing the NHS rather than the roads. Furthermore, only 10% of deaths on the roads are caused in significant part by excessive speed, so the most that can be expected to be saved by reducing the rural speed limits to 40mph is a couple of hundred. Compared to the inconvenience caused and cost to the economy, the savings of lives for both time and money spent would be far higher by addressing NHS problems.

There are lots of environmental policy examples.

Our UK governments of late have fallen fully for the anthropogenic global warming doom-mongering, and as if that isn’t bad enough, they have then gone for the worst possible ways of fixing it, assuming it were a problem in the first place. By concentrating solely on CO2 emissions, and then choosing solutions that provide the most expensive, least environmentally friendly, and least effective ways of reducing them, they have managed to delay CO2 emission reductions while costing taxpayers and bill-payers a fortune during the worst recession since the 1930s, and causing many manufacturers to leave the UK just as we need to get expansion of the manufacturing sector. Related policy decisions such as introducing carbon trading have already increased crime and caused environmental and social devastation in many countries. Predictable, but not taken into account by government.

By contrast, while the UK and the EU as a whole have chosen to use carbon credits and hold back shale gas development, and thereby perversely incentivised the resurgence of dirty coal, kept and even reinforced the problems of high gas prices, hostile suppliers, poor energy security and disadvantaged industry, the USA avoided such errors of commitment, encouraged shale gas, and has seen its carbon emissions fall enormously by adopting shale gas while seeing economic boom (apart from California which has copied the EU’s error). It is now likely that the EU will burn US coal.

Even the alternative energy policy is wrong. If we do want to use alternative energy, it make sense to get as much as possible for the money. By insisting that we have to rush, we are paying top prices and huge subsidies, transferring money from the poor to the rich. With any sign of global warming on hold now for 15 years or more, there was clearly no big rush, the government sponsored climate models got their predictions spectacularly wrong time and again because of the perverse way that government pays for its research. In the real world, we have plenty of time to wait for prices to fall, at which point we would know the science behind climate much better, having filtered out the worst of the nonsense, and could plan our actions with fewer disastrous unexpected side effects, and when we do invest we would get far more bang per buck. So if  there was a Nobel prize equivalent for stupidity, this and the last government would be joint winners. Other polices connected to the environment seem almost as dumb.

Fisheries policy over the last decade has forced fishermen to throw a lot of their catch back into the sea, dead, apparently to preserve fish stocks. Dead fish don’t breed well, and their bodies have instead created great unbalance in the ecosystem. The number of lobsters has rocketed, the number of sea-birds too, and also seals. The demand of the increased seal population for fish has rocketed by 100,000 tons per year, and they and the extra sea birds and lobsters will still want to eat once the dumping policy is terminated.  This isn’t a case of hindsight, it should have been obvious to all concerned that this would happen. It was entirely predictable.

Also obvious to anyone with any common sense, and without any need for hindsight, you shouldn’t build homes on flood plains, they might flood. However, two successive governments have allowed builders to put many new homes on flood plains. Now, government response to the inevitable flooding is simply to force more sensible buyers (who choose not to live on flood plains) to share the cost of flood insurance for them. You couldn’t make it up!

At a time when disposal of plastics is a problem, and landfill sites are filling up fast,  government regulations prohibit waste plastic bales from being used to prevent coastal erosion. Instead, concrete blocks must be used, which also adds hugely to CO2 emissions.

Changing topic, to remuneration policies for senior civil servants, BBC celebs and doctors, these too seem to be illustrations of lack of foresight (as well as lack of application of sensible market principles, by which the rate offered should be tailored until there is only a modest number of applicants – many public sector jobs get thousands, a clear indication that they overpay).

When Labour sent morons to the negotiations with doctors, the doctors emerged with far greater pay for less work, and bonuses for many things they had previously done as part of their normal jobs. Not surprisingly, many of the wealthier doctors chose to work fewer hours and enjoy life, instead of working extra hours for a little more, achieving the opposite of what was intended. A bit like the England football team. Pay peanuts and get monkeys for sure, but pay too well, you get people more eager on spending than training or working.

Other top-level pay is too high mainly because it is simply unnecessary. The argument is always that you need to pay more to get the best staff, but in fact, each advertised post almost always only sees tiny differences in quality among the candidates, and any of those who didn’t get the job would probably gladly take it the minute it is vacated and do just as well. If each level of promotion only offers a few percent more than the level below, it will still be filled just as well. This is the everyday sort of foresight that most people just call common sense, but which seems nevertheless seems to escape policy makers.

Paying top pay when it isn’t needed is stupid and reckless with other people’s money. The argument that you have to compete always ends in a price war where no-one gains any long-term advantage, so extra is spent by all for no gain. As for BBC celebs, I just don’t see a problem if someone trained up as a star by the BBC wanders off to another channel, or indeed if you have to push a different button to watch a football game. The same viewers watch those channels too, and can still see them if they wish. There will be no shortage of volunteers to be made into new stars, and football associations will still have to sell the rights to broadcast their games at whatever price they can still get. And anyway, the mandate for the BBC is to produce good programmes, not to compete. Forcing prices up by competing unnecessarily is stupidity. Again, a failure of everyday foresight common sense.

Banking is a rich seam in which to find government incompetence of course. I don’t think I really want to go there, we all know the issues and are sick of reading more each day. Ditto the Euro.

The Olympics foresight is actually rather amusing, not only the estimates of costs that followed the usual error factor of 2 or 3 in any government cost estimate, but especially security, looking at it from safe outside London anyway. Giving the main security contract to G4S with their history has got to be award-winning idiocy with predictable, even inevitable result. Surely we all expected that not to work? You didn’t need much futures expertise to know G4S would screw it up. The rest of the incompetence is just day-to-day stupidity though rather than foresight failure, so I’ll ignore that.

Thanks to poor foresight, the recent 9Bn investment in rail will mostly be wasted on the wrong technology, as I just blogged for Business Weekly – I won’t repeat it here:

http://www.businessweekly.co.uk/blog/futuretech-with-ian-pearson-of-futurizon/14305-a-modern-railway-for-the-21st-century-really

Immigration policy over a few governments seems also to have lacked foresight. Surely, they should have understood a big difference in importing people from Middle Eastern (and some African) countries where terrorism has been a huge problem for decades, and where the people seem to hate us, compared to other countries. We have now imported large numbers of people into the UK that are intent on bringing us harm.

The arguments over national debt and austerity measures and even cuts in the army are party political, and although I do think foresight is lacking here across the spectrum, it is too mixed up with value sets to cleanly separate, so I’ll leave it for now.

I think I have listed enough examples where governments of all flavours have made decisions that show an alarming lack of foresight, or at least of taking any notice of it. There is no need for yet more examples. The important question remains. When it is obvious that there is a choice between two or more possible futures, and the differences in outcomes are entirely predictable, why should governments pick the one that looks worst? (Let’s ignore any potential bribery and corruption and lobbying and feathering of nests. Those are just too hard to prove in any particular case).

In some cases, notably Labour’s immigration policy, it is aimed at securing a direct political advantage, by tilting the playing field in their favour. There is a safety net assumption that the consequences will largely appear in another term, hopefully when the opposition is in power.

Another contributor is short-term marketability. In each of these cases, even though the government may know the policy will not be a good long-term idea, there is an obvious way in which the policy can be spun to the public for short-term political gain. Doing something easy and conspicuous about a small number of road deaths nicely deflects attention away from the far great numbers in the NHS, which are harder to deal with, and the negatives can easily be concealed behind emotionalism. Much of the Conservative’s green policy also falls into this category, holding back positive things like shale gas and pushing negative ones like wind farms even when the evidence is stacked heavily against them, because they perceive that voters want them to be green and those are perceived to be the green badges of honour at the time.

In areas like fishery policy, again, the need to be seen to be ‘doing something’ far outweighs the advantages of taking time to do the right thing, so legislation is reactive and badly thought out. There is always a long list of short-term things that fall into this category and so government rushes through lots of bad things rather than a few good things or indeed even tidying up the mess from the last batch of bad ones.

This short-termism is really no different from private sector abuse where top management run a company for short-term profit at the expense of long-term well-being to maximise their own remuneration. Although there are ways of ensuring the bonuses are linked to longer term results, and this is starting to happen, it isn’t as easy to force politicians to take responsibility for the longer term consequences of their actions. Indeed, they rarely have to. Any government coming in can blame things on the last one for a year or so, but after that, they get the blame and any attempt to blame it thereafter is counter-productive. So at worst, governments are protected from the long-term harm done by their policies and yet reap the short-term gains. It reminds me of the banks.

So, when we look at the availability of foresight and assume a modicum of common sense, we are left with the unavoidable deduction that short-termism is a much more powerful force than foresight. Our leaders know what is best, but choose to do something else because they are rewarded for doing so. It is as simple as that. If we want to fix that, we need to change the ways in which we implement democracy. Don’t hold your breath.

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