A question of values

In my original post about New Year’s resolutions for the People In Power (PIP), one of my theses was that I would like to see them defending the values of the people who put them in power.

One area where it seems to me that they fall down on this issue is on the question of immigration. The phrase “white man speak with forked tongue” springs to mind, for the attitude of the PIP is cloven, to say the least. In theory they are all for it, because it sounds good to all except, perhaps the extreme right-wing parties. But when it comes to actually converting talk into action, they either drag their feet or act in a way that the general public experiences as contrary to what is acceptable, at least here in Sweden.

Hardly a week goes by without a report in the television news of the immigration authority’s attempt to repatriate asylum-seekers to regions of the world that everyone acknowledges to be war-zones, or where people of the same religious or ethnic origin as the asylum-seekers are persecuted even to death. Everyone, that is, except the PIP at the foreign office or the migration authority, who follow the directions of their masters in Washington or Stockholm and refuse to name the region as being a war-zone. If they do that, even the laws of the land will not allow repatriation. And yet…

There is a generally accepted view amongst PIP that “we need more people in this country”. The principal reason for this need is apparently to maintain economic growth. But I have some questions, which I believe I share with many people. Which “we” is it that needs more people? That is, who is it who sees the population of a country as being a resource, an input into some process? In a country with a serious level of unemployment, which most countries have as I write, it seems to the majority of people that what we need is not more people, but fewer. However, if you live in a world steered by the laws of supply and demand, it is apparent that more people means cheaper labour. Which perhaps gives a clue to the identity of “we”.

A great many people – far too many, unfortunately – see this, and act on the principle of their own insecurity. They do not rank very highly in the society of which they are members. They are used to being by-passed in decisions concerning them, and treated as objects without hopes or dreams. They do not want more people, but for the wrong reason. They are afraid that more people will increase competition for the limited number of employment opportunities, which they see reducing before their eyes as production units are moved overseas to where labour is cheaper. Perhaps if we stopped talking of labour, of human resources, and began talking about people, it would be a little bit more difficult to put people out of work. One of the most disgraceful examples of this kind of thinking came from a former Prime Minister of Sweden, Göran Persson, who, to his shame, talked of his fear of social tourism when the European Union passed laws requiring countries to grant to citizens of other European countries the same social security that they grant to their own. Naturally no such social tourism resulted.

If one turns to the green parties, they are definitely opposed to this thesis that “we need more people”, especially if the reason is economic growth. They would like to see, if not economic contraction, at least no more growth as traditionally defined. The greens may not yet be a majority, but they are a big – and growing – minority.

There are nearly seven billion people on this planet, which is estimated to be able to support one billion to the standard in the US, and between one and a half and two billion to the standard in Europe. Assuming for the moment the validity of the unproven thesis that “we need more people” does it not make more sense to take, say, a million poor farmers from China or India and move them to wherever “we” are, rather than procreate a million more home-grown babies? The million farmers and their families are already mature. They would perhaps need re-education in the ways of the West, but they can work and provide for themselves immediately. A new born child is not going to contribute to the well-being of more than a very few for twenty or twenty-five years.

And even worse…

If you travel by taxi in one of our bigger cities, the chances are your chauffeur will be of foreign extraction, quite probably a first-generation immigrant. If you get talking to them, and ask what they did in their home country, very often you will find that they had a position of some responsibility. They were teachers, at all levels from junior school to university level, they were doctors, they were machine engineers. Most of them are educated people, who are always the first targets of repressive regimes. None of them I have met have been janitors, refuse collectors, or taxi drivers in their home countries. If “we” really need more “people” (read productive units or resources) does it not make more sense to make use of these people who are already here and already trained, rather than giving birth to babies who will not become resources for twenty or more years?

The problem is that allowing people into a country, even if one has an immigration authority which acts in direct opposition to the sense of justice of the average person and thus has more of a function of keeping them out, is only half of the problem. You have to take care of them when they are in. You have to integrate them into the community, rather than allowing them to form ghettos of their own where everyone speaks the same language, which is not the language of your country, and where even the shop signs are in a foreign language. You have to accept that even the often unjustly suspect education of a developing country will have given them some part of the education required to meet local standards, find their level of experience, pay them at that level, and train them up to the post they had in their homeland as quickly as possible. For many people their status in the community is a factor of their status in their career. If one has been a doctor, one does not want to remain too long as a medical orderly in one’s new country.

So what do we want from the PIP? Change the law so that one pays attention to the actual situation in a country when deciding whether or not to repatriate asylum-seekers.  Start an education campaign explaining to the citizens whether, and if so, how much the population of the country needs to be increased, and why, so that people are not reacting out of fear and uncertainty, and open for immigration to meet those targets. Spend a bit of money on integrating the immigrants better – that will be repaid manyfold from the taxes paid by the immigrants when they start working and stop being a burden on the social system. Start looking again at the immigrants who are already here, and utilise their capabilities as much as possible. They will be as grateful as the rest of us. And most importantly, stop treating the citizens of your country as cattle to be bred up in good times and slaughtered in bad. Remember that it is those citizens who put you there, and who pay your wages.

Another New Year's resolution for the PIP

Only one country has a railway service the customers can depend on, so I have heard, and that country is Switzerland. I only have experience of two – the UK and Sweden. I don’t know which is worse. In the UK the trains are disrupted in the autumn – because of the dead leaves falling on the line – and in Sweden during the winter – because of the snow and ice. It seems that the PIP – the People In Power – in the UK hope that, this autumn the leaves will not fall off the trees. They have every year since railways were invented and indeed many millions of years before that, but perhaps not just this year… And in Sweden the PIP don’t believe that there will be snow and ice again, not this year. They really don’t need to prepare for that again.

Now I don’t have recent figures for how it was last autumn in the UK, but I have very fresh information on how it was – and still is – in Sweden this winter. Trains were cancelled in numbers that can only be described as disgraceful. If one counts local traffic, the numbers are in the hundreds of cancelled trains per day on the worst days. During the Christmas rush, with people trying to get home for the holiday, and with only a couple or three days for those who had not taken vacation, there were apparently around thirty cancelled trains a day to and from the capital city, and hundreds of trains seriously delayed from an hour to several hours. And information was generally regarded as almost non-existent. Passengers stood or sat in the Central Station and dared not leave for fear that the situation for just their train might change momentarily, and they would miss their chance if they left the building.

It is now the middle of January, and the situation is better, but still a long way from being resolved. Four weeks ago, shortly before Christmas, I was on my way to Stockholm. I was going to take the 8:15 train. When it arrived I discovered that the 7:15 had been cancelled, and my train was full with people standing in every nook and cranny. Not only that, but the train, which normally has five coaches, this morning only had four. A week later I and my wife were on our way to Stockholm again. We arrived at the station with half an hour to spare before our 10:30 train. We discovered that it was cancelled without declared reason. Fortunately we were in time to take an earlier train which would take us on a round trip through the Swedish countryside, on a two-hour trip instead of the usual one-hour journey to Stockholm, and which would still get us to Stockholm an hour earlier than waiting for the next train. Yesterday we were once more on our way to Stockholm. The 8:15 commuter train is now more or less permanently cancelled so we had to take the earlier commuter train at 7:15. This consisted of the usual five coaches, but we nonetheless managed to get a seat. On the way home one of our alternative trains was cancelled. The one we opted for was delayed by half an hour. We could not leave the platform in seven degrees below zero in case the delayed train came earlier than expected. Other trains that we saw were delayed by up to a hour. Today our son came on a visit on the same train. It was again delayed, this time by only twenty minutes.

This whole sorry story is a repeat of the situation last winter, after which the officers of the railway corporation promised to make sure that nothing of the sort happened again.  Twelve months later we are there again.

What is going on with this so important societal communications system? The officers of the company have now blamed a lack of resources which has resulted in poor maintenance of track and rolling stock for many years. Recently the national corporation was divided up into two, one part to take care of the track, the other of rolling stock, a part of a plan to open up the national corporation to competition from other operators of rolling stock.

Both parts, the corporation in charge of track and that in charge of rolling stock have long seen their board used as a retirement home for deposed politicians who, notwithstanding the best pension system in the country, apparently cannot manage without a number of cushy board fees to augment their income. What do these people know about running a railway system? The only thing they have learnt during a professional political career is how to please the PIP.

I have a suggestion: by all means pay the deposed politicians their board fee. By all means give them a room in the railway headquarters in which to meet and drink coffee and make important decisions. Just don’t let them make decisions about the railway system. Or if they do, appoint one of the secretarial staff to see that these decisions are run through the shredder and do not filter down through the system. And do not allow them to communicate with the press about the railway system. No matter what they are paid, it will be cheaper to keep them out of mischief, and put the real power in the hands of railway professionals.

Unfortunately I am forced to seriously doubt the competence of the next layer in these enterprises as well, for the reasons below, so I would like to see them put on six months’ probation. That way there is time to dispense with them before next winter if they show no signs of being able to cope.

Why, for example, when a commuter train is cancelled, are the coaches which would have made up that train not shared out to the two nearest trains? This is not rocket science. If each train holds, say, 1000 people and one train is cancelled, that means that up to 1000 people must be accommodated on other trains, Let us assume these 1000 divide themselves equally, then the train before the cancelled one and the train after will each be carrying up to 1500 people in accommodation designed for 1000. Even more important, the cancelled train was conveying not just passengers, but coaches intended to form a return train later in the day. If these coaches do not travel to their destination, some train in the reverse direction must be cancelled. Which means that two other trains designed for 1000 passengers will each be carrying 1500 passengers home.

Why is it impossible, with the electricity supply running overhead, to install some system of warming for points which will keep them free of ice. It only has to be turned on when the temperature becomes seriously lower than freezing point?

Why, in the age of information technology, is it so hard to keep the customer in the dark about what is going on? What is so hard about putting more than the word “Delayed” on the arrivals and departures display? Why can the same information – or even more – not be relayed over the loudspeaker system? Why is it impossible to do a deal with all the caterers in the station building that a valid ticket is good for one cup of coffee and a sandwich or equivalent every hour?

Why has an enterprise which is dependent upon both a functioning track and signal system and functioning rolling stock been divided up into two? It doesn’t take a genius to see that the part which is responsible for rolling stock loses all control over the track. Unless, of course, there are serious penalties for a non-functional track and signal system, which kick in from the first minutes.

I would like the PIP to reconsider some of their decisions over the past few years, including reversing some of them if necessary, with the thought that the railway system is intended to provide reliable communication for the citizens of the country, and for goods transport, and with the aim of providing a service which can compete with that of Switzerland for being the best and most reliable in the world.

New Year's resolutions for people in power

It’s January and the holidays are over. During the holidays I used some of the time to think about where my life is now, and where it’s going and how to get from here to there. Many people do it. Some call it making New Year’s resolutions.

My life is actually looking pretty good at the moment. I am working at things I enjoy doing, which hopefully will bring in some cash to augment my other income. The garden is resting under about a metre of snow at the moment, so there’s not much to do there.  I have some repair work I can carry out in my workshop ready for the spring. My first book has just been published and writing the second one is going well. So I don’t have much to be upset about, that I’d like to change. It took some time to find out what disturbs me that I’d like to do something about.

What disturbs me is the way is the way I’m being shoved to the bottom of the heap by the people in charge. Not just me, of course, but all of us ordinary Joes living our lives, trying to make the best of things, and wondering why it gets harder and harder instead of easier and easier. So I’d like the people in charge to take a good look at what they are doing to me and millions – billions – like me, and think again.

I’m tired of being the lender of last resort, the person who foots all the bills, whether for mistakes or deliberate action. I’d like the people in charge to remember who put them there – at least in so-called democracies – and who pays their wages. It’s our interests they’re there to protect. It’s our individual weakness that they should be protecting from the power of gigantic multi-national companies. It’s our values they should be supporting. It’s our welfare they should be improving. Let’s take a few examples.

Here in Sweden, for the second year on the run, we are paying crippling prices for electricity to our homes and businesses. It now appears that for many years we have been paying much more than we should for electric power. This in a country in which nearly half the electricity comes from water power, and slightly over half from nuclear power. Why? The following explanation is based on my own research and represents the picture as I understand it. The electricity market in Sweden and nearby countries has been made so complicated that it is very difficult to get a handle on exactly how it works, but one thing is clear – it works to the disadvantage of the consumer. How?

Because for thirty years the politicians have been frozen in a debate over a rigged referendum on nuclear power which resulted in a decision to phase out nuclear power, but without providing any reliable alternatives. Instead of taking the lead in educating the populace in the economics of power generation, trying to swing opinion into being more favourably inclined to nuclear power whilst alternatives could be developed, politicians have quarrelled over how quickly nuclear power should be switched off. Research into nuclear power generation was actually forbidden by law. As a result, nuclear power stations which were designed to run for perhaps twenty years have been kept running by a process of artificial respiration far beyond their planned lifetime. They require more and more service, and are in the process of being updated with newer and safer technology, which was never intended to be grafted onto plants of this age.

The process of servicing these power plants is time-consuming. Since plants can most easily be shut down without adverse effects for customers during the summer, the price of servicing is highest then, and lowest during the winter when no-one in his right mind would take a power plant out of service, since it is during the winter that most power is needed. So the power companies postpone their service until the winter for the cheap servicing rates. But aren’t they losing money as a result?

No because they then have to import electricity from abroad. For some reason it appears that the electricity companies can buy the power they need at wholesale prices on one scale of charges but the price at which they sell to their customers is based on the marginal price of the dearest form of electricity (which I understand is coal-produced electricity). So by not generating their own electricity they are making fortunes. So much so that many large industries are running at far below optimal productive capacity as they are not competitive when paying the higher rates.

The price to consumers could be reduced at a stroke by the government changing the method of calculation so that it is not the marginal price of the dearest form of electricity, but is related to the wholesale purchase price paid by the electricity companies.

Unfortunately the government also profits from the high price of electricity. A substantial part of the price to consumers is energy taxes of one kind or another, so a high price benefits the government’s coffers. Even worse, we pay VAT not just on the price of the electricity, but on the taxes, too. And VAT on electricity is 25%. So once again, the more electricity costs, the more the government makes.

What would I like to ask the people in charge to do about this? In the first place, stop squabbling over who said what thirty years ago. It’s not relevant any more. Start building more power stations. We already need them. We’re going to need them even more. And according to one well-researched book, it can take up to thirty years to get a new power station online, with decisions on location, hearings of concerned citizens and other entities, appeals on the grounds of environmental effects or land value effects, etc. Dismantle the system of pricing to end users based on marginal price of the dearest input form. Require planned service to be carried out between May and September and impose penal taxation for planned service outside this period. And impose your VAT on the service being provided. Taxes are not a service being provided. But most important. Remember who’s paying your wages and what they’re paying you for, and start taking some responsibility.

Some of my other New Year’s resolutions for the people in power will follow.

© James Wilde 2015