Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Poundland Politics

David Cameron says he wants to raise the price of MP's salads and give Minister's a 5% pay cut. The Liberal Democrats want to scrap Trident. Both Cameron and Clegg want fewer MP's. Alistair Darling speaks of "cutting costs". Yes, with the backlash from years of Labourite fiscal prolifigacy finally biting deep into the rump of every politician, the language of financial self-mortification is bubbling thickly from the halls of Westminster.

Cameron admitted that his proposals - which as far as I can see, from the figures I can glean, would save at most £120 million per annun - would barely dent the vast £175 billion deficit that sits around the government's neck like a millstone. But by combining two fashional public pursuits - dismissing MP's as fat cats and demanding that money be saved without harming the person demanding the savings - Cameron is, again, moving slickly to broaden his appeal. Yet, he and every other politician in Westminster know that spending has to come down, and hard.

When McKinsey came out the other week and called for the NHS to cut it's staff by 10%, there was the predictable outburst of NIMBYism from NHS staff, the BMA and it's kin and 'concerned' politicians. But such numbers should be seriously contemplated - leaving the budget without a heavy pruning with the coming 'grey surge', as the baby boomers retire, would invite fiscal disaster as rising health and social care costs and falling tax receipts combine to put the Treasury into a deadly vice.

We must act now if we are to create a strong, but small, state capable of dealing what is coming. This means ending public sector final salary schemes, and pegging them down at a level comparable with the private sector. This means raising the retirement level towards 70 far more quickly, and changing the law to make it far easier for people to stay in work as long as they desire, and indeed seek new employment if they retire and then decide to go back. This means merging offices and departments, stripping out layer upon layer of bureaucracy and targets to thin down, speed up and strengthen the Civil Service - if this is done at the expense of political appointees, so much the better. This means returning to local councils much greater power to decide how they will spend the money they're allocated, and encouraging public sector bodies to move money around within themselves more thoughtfully - not spending up to the limit because they have to, and moving money from areas with a surplus to others with a deficit.

This cannot, and will not, and should not, happen over night. There have been too many years of target-obssessed governments in this country, driving public sector workers into a corner with targets, plans, schemes, drives, incentives and all the rest of the senseless political jargon. If we want to make this country's public sector the best in the world - the smallest, the quickest, the strongest - then we must, absolutely must, encourage it to think for itself. We must invest in creating a system that responds to users before it thinks of it's own needs, and which treasures efficiency as much as it does impartiality.

But simply shuffling a few civil servants will not be enough. Here, Labour must take a full broadside - all this talk of 'reassigning resources to frontline services' to paraphrase the Chancellor yesterday - is so much hogwash. I may find many of the things that the Conservatives are proposing at the next election either dangerous or laughable - scrapping the Human Rights Act is a clear example of the former - but here they have me onside. They have the guts to talk of cuts, real cuts, in public spending, and take the heat for it.

Labour have decided it is better to wash away the worries about the deficit with soothing talk of 'preserving' frontline services by mysteriously making money move from a million parasitic backrooms, it would seem, to classrooms, wards and job centres up and down the country. Yet, by simply moving the same resources around, by 'reassigning', surely one isn't actually reducing what one is spending, merely moving it elsewhere? This lack of appetite for fiscal reality makes me extremely wary of the party and their plans. They've already shown they don't like to stir the waters by delaying tax rises until after the next election. So much for 'tough' decisions, Mr Brown.

A really tough decision would be to decide which public sector jobs -have- to be cut, which services -have- to be reduced and who takes responsibility for this mess. All the scapegoating of bankers by Labour MPs won't remove the fact that it was they who spent the country into a deficit during the good times, then hurridly picked up the mask of Keynes when the going got rough - even though Keynes would probably have spat teeth at them for ignoring the vast bulk of what he said. They were the ones who let the government carry through financial regulation which effectively gutted the system of responsibility. They have failed to make the government actually make the tough choices it speaks so highly of, and they should pay for this by loosing the next election.

He says.

Friday, 4 September 2009

High on Love

A recent story on the AP news wire caught my attention. Mexican drug gangs, who remain in a vicious struggle for influence with the government and other actors within Mexico, have taken to attacking drugs rehab clinics, in an effort to scare people into continuing to consume their 'merchandise'.

The Mexican government has thousands of troops out on the streets to fight the drug gangs, and the violence continues. The US government, and especially state and local authorities on or near the border, must surely also fear the impact the violence will have on them, and how easily it might spread to their local areas. So a radical solution is needed. Mexico needs to shrug off the violence, and contain the effects of the gangs. It also needs to deal with other problems - the health issues caused by drugs, the damage to the economy that comes from the violence and the addictions, the costs incurred by combatting it.

The answer lies on the other side of the Atlantic, some 5,000 miles away. Portugal's drug policy is a brilliant example of how to handle drugs well.

Clearly, repression has failed. If banning drugs has failed to get them off the streets, and indeed has re-inforced the position of the drug gangs, then a new angle is vitally needed. Clearly, banning drugs is making drug policy more difficult - if the users and the suppliers and the dealers are all forced underground, then it costs time and money to locate and deal with the criminal elements, and those who find themselves trapped because of drug use find the social stigma attached to them debilitating. They may not wish to seek treatment because they fear they will be arrested. Then they end up in prison next to the dealer and the supplier, and they find themselves trapped even behind bars. The system is failing.

So Portugal has tried a new angle - by decriminalising every drug, in 2001. Marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy, meth, even heroin. Drug users no longer face prison - instead, they are taken before a panel of experts (a lawyer, a psychologist and a social worker) who assess each case and assign treatment as needed (not jail) as well as community sanctions if needed.

They were told drug use would soar, that by being soft, they would encourage drug tourists and that organised crime would flourish. Instead, quite the opposite. Now, 10% of people over 15 in Portugal have used marijuana at some time in their life, the lowest rate in the EU and far lower than the US rate of 32.9% (people over 12). During the first five years of the policy, according to the Cato Institute, teen drug use fell in young and older teens, even among hard drugs like heroin. Other figures trend to the bright side - HIV infection rates among drug users fell by 17% between 1999 and 2003. More people came onto treatment programmes.

These are impressive figures. Despite a very liberal drugs policy, Portugal's drug use rate is even lower than that of the US, which has a very strict drugs policy. The central concession being made in this debate is simple - that decriminalising drugs does not increase their use among the population.

Perhaps we should go further. Perhaps legalising drugs - all drugs - would change things for the better. Then, the cost to society imposed by peoples' use of drugs can be recouped through taxation on the drugs they consume. Law enforcement can focus on other issues, such as people smuggling, violent crime and the like. If people have to go to a pharmacy or GP's office to get their fix, then they will come into contact with the services that can provide them with help and social care to undo the damage to their lives.

Organised crime will suffer - not only will drugs users find themselves able to choose who they go to, but big pharma and commercial agriculture can out-produce any illegal activity, in terms of sheer scale and price difference. Regulated drugs will be free of the many impurities - flour, talcum powder, bugs, mouse droppings, rat poison - that currently end up in the drugs on the streets, thereby reducing the health damage from them.

However, this will not be a cure all. It will need a much stronger, more pro-active social service sector in this country, able to move out and identify problems while small. Investment will be needed before tax money comes in, and major opposition from 'hard line' campaigners has to be overcome. Much work will be needed to tailor drugs rehab programmes to make sure they are as well-supplied and open as possible. Organised crime will doubtless try and either fight back, or move into other areas.

Yet, it will help address many underlying issues in society at large. For a country like Mexico, it may make the state less unstable, and weaken actors who would threaten it and its' citizens. It would be a bold step for Mexico to make. But if one Catholic, socially conservative, country can do it, why can the rest of us deny that we have the ability to try the same? After all, our current course seems to be making little impact.