An insight into how the law is made these days

From the Commons environment committee, telling us about the perils of fast fashion and clothes being cheap enough that even the factory girls can have a change of them:

“In the UK we buy more clothes per person than any other country in Europe. ‘Fast fashion’ means we overconsume and under use clothes. As a result, we get rid of over a million tonnes of clothes, with £140m worth going to landfill, every year.”

That’s from Mary Creagh and the correct response is “To whom?”

Those clothes being landfilled are worth £140 million to whom that is. They’re not worth £140 million to those who threw them away because they’ve just thrown them away - a fairly clear valuation of zero. They’re not worth £140 million to anyone else either as if they were then people would be collecting the clothes so as to gain that value. Outside government circles £140 million is still more than small change after all.

It’s the next bit that shows that not even Creagh thinks they’re worth that sum. For she calls on a tax to be spent in preventing such landfilling. Some reuse or something perhaps. But if we’ve got to use tax money to subsidise the reuse then the reuse isn’t worth the market price, is it? Even if that market price is nothing, entirely freebie.

All the information we’ve got tells us that these clothes going into landfill are worth nothing. So why should we be spending extra money to save that zero value? But sadly it appears that it’s Ms. Creagh who makes the law here, not you or I.

The importance of Copernicus

On February 19th in the year 1473, Nicolaus Copernicus was born in Royal Prussia in the Kingdom of Poland. Despite dropping out of two university degree courses, he went on to become proficient in astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and economics, and practiced for a time government and diplomacy.

He is celebrated for his book "De revolutionibus orbium coelestium" (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), a book that created a revolution in thought. For 1,300 years people had supposed from Ptolemy’s Almagest that the sun revolved around the Earth, the centre of the universe. This accorded with what appeared to be an everyday observation of the sun moving across the sky, and with the religious view that the Earth, the abode of humanity, was the centre of God's creation.

Copernicus had formulated his heliocentric view by 1510, but told only close friends, holding back publication of his ideas because of the controversy he expected they would cause. He finally allowed publication just before his death in 1543, the story being told of how a copy of the newly printed book was rushed round and placed into his hands so that he could see it before he died.

It aroused curiosity at first, and controversy later. The Catholic Church banned Copernicus’s book completely in 1616, regarding it as a threat to its authority, and in 1633 convicted Galileo of heresy "for following the position of Copernicus, which is contrary to the true sense and authority of Holy Scripture."

His significance is that Copernicus helped pioneer a scientific revolution that saw observation and intelligence as a pathway to knowledge, instead of using only the interpretation of scripture. Knowledge could be advanced, not by authority, but by competition between different ideas, provided that people were free to assess them, to evaluate them, and to choose between them. It parallels the way in which economic progress can be made by people freely choosing between competing products.

As an economist, Copernicus developed in 1517 a quantity theory of money, a very modern idea, and in 1519 put forward the idea that where there are alternative currencies, the more valuable will disappear as people hoard it and pay out with the inferior one. This is now called Gresham's Law. His truly was a revolutionary mind.

We welcome The Guardian realising this, of course we do

We are entirely happy that The G realises this, we’d just like to see them applying it to rather more of life:

The A380 proves that it’s profit that really makes an airliner fly

Even a great aeronautical achievement like a superjumbo can be brought low by the vagaries of economics

It’s not a vagary of economics it’s the point.

Sure, back two decades the idea of the superjumbo looked pretty good. No one knew it would work but the runes looked like it might. So, what we desire is a system in which people get to try out things that may or may not work. That being what a market based economic system does for us. People get to try stuff out.

We also need a method of deciding whether something has worked. This also being what is achieved by a market based economic system. If people don’t freely and voluntarily buy it then it’s not worked. Even, if enough don’t to mean no profit is made then it hasn’t.

We look forward to the application of this new found knowledge to such things as Sure Start, council housing and whatever else The G thinks our money should be spent upon. That markets work and one way they do is to tell us what we should stop doing.

Kublai Khan – international trader

Kublai Khan, who died on this day 725 years ago, is recognized as one who realized the enriching value of trade, and who implemented policies that massively extended and expanded it. The grandson of Genghis Khan, he completed the conquest of all of China and became the first ruler of the Yuan dynasty.

Formerly separate and isolated cultures were drawn into a continental system that had the re-established Silk Road as its primary transport route. This made for greater safety and security for traders and travellers, and reduced the frequency of tribute payments.

Caravans took Chinese silks, and from the Spice Islands conveyed pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger to the West. Along the way were picked up Indian fabrics and precious stones, and carpets from Persia. From Europe in the opposite direction went such wares as fine linens, horses and silver to both the near and far Easts. Each side encountered new goods, as did nations along the route, and new markets were developed. The increased volume of trade enriched those who participated in it, and saw the expansion of many of the cities involved.

Kublai Khan was, in effect, an early globalist. He established an extensive Maritime Silk Road, with Chinese vessels plying for trade across the Indian Ocean, and thence to the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. They ventured to Eastern Africa, and there is even evidence that they may have reached South America.

Of course, along with the traded goods went ideas and people, mingling with and learning from each other. The Yuan paper money, made from the bark of mulberry trees, and backed initially by silver, copper and coin, was one example. It facilitated and reduced the costs of trade.

We remember Kublai Khan for many things, including his unsuccessful attempt to invade Japan, and perhaps for the stately pleasure dome that he decreed in Xanadu. But on this anniversary of his death we should remember the legacy of his commitment to trade, and his inspired efforts to make it safer and easier. China's new Silk Road today is a direct descendent of his own. He recognized what many leaders today do not seem to understand, that a wide and expansive trade generates prosperity in its wake, a prosperity that uplifts the lives of peoples.

Well, yes, but perhaps this is the point?

Fracking for natural gas is indeed controversial. And there’s certainly a theoretic possibility that it could trigger an earthquake or two. So, sensibly, let’s have some rules about earthquake triggering from fracking. Being able to heat our houses, cook our dinner, in 2030 may or may not be worth Lancashire tumbling to the ground in its entirety.

But the question then becomes, which or what limits?

UK fracking industry pushes for review of earthquake limits

Firms say regulations forcing operations to stop if they trigger tremors greater than 0.5 magnitude threaten viability

0.5 is, as these things go, a triviality. This past month has seen 13 earthquakes in the UK of this or greater size. We’re unaware that Newdigate is - having suffered a quake near 100 times greater than this limit - now rubble.

We have a certain suspicion here. The limit is there to make sure in the unviability of the process:

Opponents said the lobbying drive showed companies were in trouble.

“We are seeing an industry that is desperate and knows it’s not viable. I think you’re really seeing an industry in its death throes,” said Jamie Peters, an anti-fracking campaigner at Friends of the Earth.

Those “safety” rules are set at a level designed to make sure that fracking cannot be done. That sounds like a really good reason to revisit them.

Venezuela Campaign: the collapse continues

Venezuela’s collapse continues and its complex humanitarian emergency is worsening. The Catholic NGO Caritas has just reported that child malnutrition has exceeded critical emergency levels in two states, Vargas and Zulia.  In Vargas state the level reached 22.7% and in Zulia, 17.6%. These are both well above the 15% emergency threshold set by international organisations. Children are close to starvation in Venezuela.

Venezuela’s food diversity score has worsened again, falling by 1% with families reporting that they consumed only five different types of food. Caritas stated that 90% of the households interviewed have insufficiently balanced diets. Less than 30% of the households surveyed consumed any foods of high nutritional value, such as meats, fish, dairy products, fruits and vegetables, showing that the bulk of the population is deficient in proteins, iron and vital vitamins.

In an indication of further deterioration of the health sector, patients from the Juan Pablo II" Dialysis Unit in Caracas staged a street demonstration last week to protest the absence of water in the unit, which prevents them from completing their daily dialysis. A patient interviewed stated: "we are not asking for crumbs, what we are asking for life, health, what we want is to continue living." Deaths of patients have increased, not only because of the absence of water, but because of a lack of medications such as intravenous iron that have not arrived for a long time.

Domingo Luciani is the last hospital in Caracas with a paediatric surgical unit that still functions; but of its 18 operating rooms only three are still in use. There are 500 children on the waiting list for urgent surgery. Electricity at the hospital is intermittent, and virtually no medicines are available. Doctors at the hospital rely on donations to feed their patients. "Most of the children come to us in a state of malnutrition," said one doctor. Doctors give lists of needed medical supplies to visiting NGOs.

Giselle, of the NGO Comparte Por Una Vida which helps 35 public hospitals, said delivering medicines and other aid in person was the only way to guarantee it gets into the hands of those who need it. "The government doesn't deliver it, it keeps it or sells it in the black market," she said. Hospitals are guarded by the police and pro-government militias, who are on the alert for western humanitarian aid. In reality they try and steal the few medicines that are available in order to sell them on the black market. In the last few days military police raided Fundacion Mavid in Carabobo State and stole milk and medicines that had been donated for children with aids.

Meanwhile, the illegitimate President Maduro has been selling off what remains of Venezuela’s assets, mainly gold, in order to keep financing his military supporters and regime cronies. He announced that his priority was to make "sufficient investment for Venezuela" to strengthen its anti-aircraft and anti-missile defence system, and equip the militia with "the most modern missiles in the world."

Maduro continues to deny that there is a humanitarian crisis, describing it as ‘a show.’ Rather admitting that 3 million refugees have fled, he claims that there are “more than 10 million immigrants coming every year to Venezuela.” It’s a level of falsehood that should make even his last supporters in the west wince.

With Maduro in brazen denial and blocking the arrival of humanitarian aid, what is the international community to do? When a complex humanitarian emergency exists, international protection frameworks can give legal authority to international humanitarian intervention. Urgent action may be needed sooner rather than later if more deaths are to be prevented.

More information on the Venezuela Campaign can be found on their website

Giordano Bruno and the freedom to enquire

On the 17th of February in the year 1600, the Dominican Friar, Giordano Bruno, was burned, hanging naked and upside down, at a stake in a central Roman market square. His ashes were thrown into the Tiber, and all of his works were placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum shortly afterwards.

His ‘crime’ was heresy, that is, refusal to accept the authority of the Church as the one and only basis of knowledge. The Church taught that the stars were part of a celestial sphere, all at the same fixed distance from the immobile Earth at the center of the sphere. Its diurnal rotation had been gifted upon it by God. Bruno, by contrast, had publicly embraced the recent Copernican heliocentric model. Bruno suggested in addition that the stars were distant suns surrounded by their own planets that might foster life of their own. He also proposed an infinite universe that had no centre.

These and other heresies were at odds with the Church’s teaching that humankind and the Earth stood at the centre of God’s creation. After a long trial by the Inquisition, in the same room in which Galileo was later to be tried, Bruno was condemned to death. He is reported to have responded to his judges, "Perhaps you pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it”. He was one of many thousand heretics executed by the Inquisition; some say 30,000, and others put it at 300,000.

The dispute was not about science or religion; it was about authority. The Church told people what to believe, and it was heresy to think otherwise, or to suppose that people could learn and discover things by themselves. The Church of his day was not the only body to think and act in this way. In more recent times totalitarian governments have punished dissident thinkers by imprisonment and execution. The Soviet and Chinese authorities killed many millions more than did the Inquisition.

At issue is the freedom to think differently, and to express those thoughts freely. The rule, summed up by John Stuart Mill, should be that people shall be free to express dissident or controversial views, however upsetting and disquieting they may be, provided they do not incite people to commit acts of physical violence. Some of today’s campus bodies hold that inquiring minds, such as that of Bruno, should be silenced. They have more in common with the Inquisition than they would like to suppose.

The latest claims about organic food and pesticide residues

A new paper insisting that organic foods leave fewer pesticide residues in the human body than conventional diets.

What the pesticides in our urine tell us about organic food

A study helps answer a question many of us ask when deciding whether to buy organic food: does it really make a difference?

The full paper is here.

In the interests of reducing narrative tension the answer is no.

One detail in the paper is that they don’t in fact measure the levels of the residues. Instead they note movement across the level of detection. So, for example, malathion residues can be detected down to 0.02 ng/mL 87.5% of the urine samples on the conventional had above this level, only 43.04 % on the organic did. Moving one way or the other across the detectability boundary might not be thought to be all that important.

For, as Paracelsus pointed out, it is the dose that is the poison.

Which is where we get to the larger point abut this paper - dosage. So, what do we think is an amount of malathion exposure that is important? The EPA tells us “ 0.1 mg/L for lifetime exposure of adults “. That’s not an entirely useful number because that’s going into the body, not what’s present in urine coming out. But still a useful enough guide to orders of magnitude and so on.

We’ve then got that problem of comparing ng/mL to mg/L, most of us can’t track all those zeros in our head. Fortunately, there’s a converter out there. The level we’ve said we shouldn’t be exposed to - in itself a number of orders of magnitude reduction from what we know does harm - is thus 100 parts per billion. The level this paper is measuring to is 0.02 ng/mL, or 0.02 parts per billion.

We are this, umm, fingers and toes out, at least 4 orders of magnitude below the limit we think reasonable to impose. Nearly 5 in fact.

Does this make any difference? No, of course it doesn’t. This is a story about how much better analytical work in the lab has become, nothing else. Well, OK, a little bit else:


This work was funded by Friends of the Earth U.S, United States.

Oh, right.

Which is why the paper hasn’t gone on to do the only comparison we are really interested in. Organic food costs more than conventionally pesticided stuff. It uses more land too. Cheaper food means, obviously enough, that we all have the ability to eat more and better of it. What is the addition to human health of that as compared to this movement across the detectability barrier of pesticide residues?

No, really, that is the only interesting question. What are the costs - and or benefits - of these residues as against the costs - and or benefits - of not having them?

End of the Airbus A380

Another white elephant has died. Competition between companies means that innovative products and processes are put before consumers. There are some spectacular successes, but there are casualties along the way. The market operates by what might in macabre terms be described as a selective death rate. The new offerings that customers take to thrive and prosper, but the ones that fail to attract a following are counted out. The process converges on increased consumer satisfaction.

Fifty years ago, Boeing bet the farm on a new type of aircraft, the 747 Jumbo-jet. It almost bankrupted the company, but they won the bet. A plane that could carry twice the passenger load did not have twice the running costs. It made possible lower fares for more passengers. Over 1500 of them were made.

Twelve years ago, its European rival entered service. The Airbus 580 was a bet that the future lay with even bigger aircraft, in this case a giant that could carry 550 passengers, and even in some configurations nearly 900. Airbus took on the 747, reckoning that its huge profits were enabling Boeing to cross-subsidize its smaller planes. The WTO, on the other hand, ruled that the EU had failed to comply with its order to end subsidies to Airbus.

Boeing took a different bet, anticipating that the future would lie in lighter, fuel-efficient, twin-engine planes that could avoid the big hubs and fly direct between secondary cities. Its 787 Dreamliner has high-tech innovations that give it the same range more efficiently.

Airbus lost its bet. It announced a target of 700 planes, and predicted it would make 1500. In fact, its total production might just pass 250. On Thursday, February 14th, it announced that production of the A380 will cease. It guessed wrong. The 747, whose success it hoped to rival, lives on. Some 536 of them are still in service, and the cargo version will still be in production after the last 380 has rolled out.

This is the market. It’s a tough place to inhabit, and you have to be on your toes all the time, in order to peer above the present and see what customers might like in the future. Airbus just guessed spectacularly wrong, and its white elephant has bit the dust.

So Polly, which of these should we do?

Polly Toynbee is more than a little uncomfortable with the idea of Brexit and she makes that known often enough. She has also laid out usefully enough a decision that has to be taken. We do actually need to work out what it is that we’re going to do about tariffs and trade. While in the EU that’s something solely decided by Brussels. Outside we’ve got to make up our own minds.

We also do have to make up our minds for something must indeed be done. There is no do nothing option:

He talks of companies that long ago ordered shipments of sugar and other faraway goods, with no idea if tariffs will be sky-high or zero when they arrive after 29 March. If zero, much of British food, farming and agriculture will collapse under cheap imports; if on WTO rules, they face hefty tariffs on processed food, cereals and meat.

So, which should we choose? Should we tax ourselves lots and lots - have high tariffs - for the temerity of eating that foreign muck? And thereby save Farmer Giles. Or should we partake of the very best the world has to offer at the finest prices and leave no-longer-Farmer Giles to fend for himself?

The country has, roughly enough, 65 million people. The National Farmers’ Union has some 30,000 farming members. A simple and utilitarian calculation says ditch the tariffs and benefit the majority, doesn’t it?

So, that’s what we should do. Return to what we were for most of the century after the repeal of the Corn Laws, a unilaterally free trading nation. The one arrangement that benefits all of us as consumers.

We can thank Polly for laying out the problem for us so clearly even as she’s unlikely to enjoy the answer.