Nowhere Left To Grow

“Perhaps the answer is that it is necessary to slow down, finally giving up on economistic fanaticism and collectively rethink the true meaning of the word “wealth.” Wealth does not mean a person who owns a lot, but refers to someone who has enough time to enjoy what nature and human collaboration place within everyone’s reach.” – Franco Bifo Berardi

This weekend will see the SNP conference and the long awaited vote on whether or not to adopt the Sustainable Growth Commission’s report as the party’s main economic strategy for an independent Scotland. After almost a year of discussing this document, the party will have their final say on whether or not to adopt it as party policy.

I have written tens of thousands of words of critique, commentary and policy work on this topic. There will be more to come between the time that this blog is published and the vote on Saturday afternoon. Much of it has been centred around currency and the macroeconomic policies. Here, I’d like to look at things from a slightly different lens. How does the Growth Commission reflect upon Nicola Sturgeon’s plan to introduce a Scottish Green New Deal?

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The Limits of GDP

“Distinctions must be kept in mind between quantity and quality of growth, between costs and returns, and between the short and long run. Goals for more growth should specify more growth of what and for what.” – Simon Kuznets, developer of the measurement of GDP on the limitations of the statistic.

There’s a measurement of technological advancement in science and science fiction circles known as the Kardashev Scale. It measures how advanced a civilisation is by how much energy it consumes or is able to harness using its technology.

A Type 1 civilisation is able to use the same amount of energy as falls on their home planet from their home star. For Earth-Sol, this is a power consumption of about 7×1017 Watts.

A Type 2 civilisation is able to harness the entire energy output of its home star – either by colonising many star systems or by fully enclosing their home star by energy gathering technology like a Dyson Sphere. For our star, this is about 4×1026 Watts or about 500 million times the energy consumption of a Type 1 civilisation.

Finally, a Type 3 civilisation has the technology to harness the entire energy output of a galaxy – a feat rarely reached in even the most ambitiously scoped sci-fi but see Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee Sequence for beings which are capable of at least this and more. This level of tech involves the consumption of about 4×1037 Watts or about 100 billion times the power used by a Type 2 civilisation.

And where does our wee planet sit in all of this? Carl Sagan extrapolated from these points to create a more comprehensive mathematical formula for calculating a given civilisation’s Kardashev number. He also estimated in 1973 that humans generated an average of 8 Terawatts of power which gave us a Kardashev Number of about 0.70. As of 2015, our energy generation has increased to an average of about 19 TW which makes us now a Type 0.73 civilisation. Extrapolating out linearly, we should hit Type 1 around the year 2325.

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Imagine that the only thing that the scientific community really cared about was our progress up this scale. All of science was bent towards our expanding our power generation and consumption base. And all that politicians cared about was their “Kardashev Growth per year”. It wouldn’t matter if your discipline was physics, chemistry, biology or whatever. Anything that grew the Kardashev number was funded. What would we be missing if that was all we cared about?

(For my academic friends who want to draw parallels with the current obsession with citation number and impact factors…you’re not wrong, but…next time.)

It’s worth noting that whilst total global power generation has increased by a factor of 2.4 since 1973, global population has only increased by a factor of about 1.8. The “global average human” today is using about 33% more power than the “global average human” of 1973. This is due to a massive reduction in global poverty and an unbelievable expansion of buying power and access to technology around the globe.

Of course, there are limits to this kind of measurement. Technology doesn’t just get more powerful and more widespread as it develops, it also gets more efficient. The fitness band I’m wearing right now weighs less than 100g but has orders of magnitude more computing power and uses orders of magnitude less electrical power than my first desktop PC from the mid-1990s – never mind the room-sized behemoths of the early days of computing in the 1950s and ’60s.

We also must think about the environmental impact of our technology – another major difference between 1973 and now is the exponential expansion of renewable energy technology at the expense of fossil fuels.

A 2015 Megawatt emits about 20% less carbon dioxide than a 1973 Megawatt and that figure is about to fall dramatically over the next decade as we electrify our heat and transport industry.

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So obviously, rendering a civilisation’s level of technological development down into a single number and then measuring the growth of that number might be interesting and may be useful as a very broad comparator but it probably doesn’t tell anything useful about the shape of that society or what’s going on inside it.

So why do we expect the same from other renderings such as Gross Domestic Product?

This measure – essentially the sum value of all economic activity within a country in a year – was developed in its modern form in the 1930s and has since become the gold standard of national statistics. Huge swathes of statistics are measured either in relation to it (think of “national debt as a % of GDP”) or as a derivative of it (GDP growth” or “GDP per capita”, for instance).

But even at its inception, the creator of it noted the limitations. A measure of the growth of GDP says very little about how that growth has occurred or who has benefited from it.

I was able to discuss some of these issues when I visited the Scottish Parliament’s Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee earlier this week as well as in an article in CommonSpace yesterday.

The Scottish Government has, to its credit, tried to improve some of the measurements it uses via program like the National Planning Framework. One of these is the idea of “inclusive growth” which explicitly states that measures should be taken to ensure that when economic growth occurs, it should not simply accumulate with the top few percent.

It’s a laudable goal but I still have my reservations in that the metric is still pinned onto the concept of “growth”. Just as a growing economy may accumulate wealth in the top, it’s possible that a recession could increase inequality too. Imagine a drop in the economy that causes mass unemployment, reduction in working hours, an increase in casual, part time and “gig” labour whilst at the same time the wealthiest are bailed out by the state. You know…a bit like what happened in 2008.

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Just as it’s possible to try to ensure inclusive growth, it should also be possible to ensure inclusive de-growth when recessions come and inclusive stasis when economies are themselves static. The government would be well advised to focus as much on inclusivity as it does on growth, maybe more so.

To be fair, there was at least some logic to using GDP as our measure of economic development. For many years, wage growth was pretty firmly linked to economic growth. If the company you worked for did well, you did well. But two great shifts have happened in the past 40 years. The first came in 1979 with the rise of neoliberalism. The economic programs enacted by Thatcher and others were coupled with a decoupling of wages and growth such that the latter started to pull away from the former. The gutting of the unions and the reduction of collective bargaining was perhaps chief among those reforms.

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The second decoupling came in the wake of the 2008 Financial Crisis. This time it came in “productivity” – the amount of GDP generated by a given hour’s labour. It’s a complex topic but part of this has come from the rise of the “gig economy” where folk have – often through somewhat convoluted means – become “self-employed” and have lost access to even individual bargaining. With no commitment at all to the company that they “service” (rather than work for), it’s no surprise that innovation and investment have declined. Not that it’s the fault of those workers. With no commitment to them, the company needn’t care beyond short term profit extraction and share price either.

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Another possible reason for the decoupling of productivity and wages (as well as the stagnation of productivity overall) is the rise of certain sectors of the economy that don’t quite fit with older measures such as “added value” and suchlike. I’m talking here about jobs like personal care. It could be possible to “increase productivity” in personal care but if that means “service more clients per shift” then what you’re asking carers to do is cut visiting times from 30 minutes down to 15 minutes down to 10 minutes…

So maybe we don’t want “productive” care. I’d prefer effective care. And maybe jobs like care don’t produce huge feedback multipliers in the economy but there are other ways that such care could be considered “valuable”. Especially to the person receiving that care.

So, just as the Kardashev Scale is for technology, GDP should only be dubiously taken as the be-all-and-end-all of economic development. Politicians really should start taking note of what’s going on underneath that headline number. It’s a harder story to tell, true, but economies are far too complex for the “simple” story to be sufficient.

And if it turns out we’re simply not measuring enough to answer our questions, well…that’s a story for another day.

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Four Walls and a Roof

“It seems obvious: the reason only a tiny percentage of new…buildings and retrofits aren’t green isn’t cost. It’s lack of ingenuity or knowledge of new construction techniques — architects and builders wed to the ‘same-old,’ lenders leery of anything unconventional.” – Sustainable Energy Africa

Housing – buildings in general, in fact – needs to be about more than just four walls and a roof. It also needs to be about more than vague promises of “more houses built” or about a volume-based industry which tries to extract as much profit per square metre as possible or being about more than the landlords who swoop in afterwards to do the same.

And with around 53% of all energy use in Scotland being used for heating and only a small fraction of it coming from renewable resources, it needs to be about more than throwing up any old building and passing the costs and consequences on to those who’ll have to live and work in them for decades to come.

Recently, I got the chance to experience a glimpse of what a better future might look like in the form of a tour around South Lanarkshire College’s ‘Aurora’ Low Carbon House.

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We Need To Talk About: GERS (2015-16 Edition)

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us. To see oursels as ithers see us! – To a Louse, Robert Burns

It’s that time again. The annual Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland report is out. Click the link or the image below to read it for yourself.

GERS 2015-16

Actually it seems like only March that the last edition was out. What’s happening here?

Well, there was a consultation that almost no-one knew about which discussed a few methodological changes to GERS in line with the ‘new powers’ we’re getting and it also asked if the next report should be brought forward. I’m completely convinced that the fact that this means that we’re getting the report well before the Council election campaign next year is absolutely just a convenient side effect(!)…but no matter. We’ve got the data.

Tomorrow’s Headline Today

Scotland’s budget deficit remains at a little under £15 billion. As with last year, don’t expect a single news outlet to go one single step further with the story than that. Except maybe to say that oil revenue has dropped from £1.802 billion last year to just £60 million this year.

So what’s happened? Why hasn’t Scotland, which is “totally dependent on oil”, completely collapsed now that oil revenues have basically dropped to zero?

Last year, total revenues dropped by  around £500 million on 2013-14. This year, total revenues have INCREASED by £181 million. In fact, total revenue is higher than it was in 2012-13 when we received some £5.3 billion in oil revenue.

It’s also worth noting that if you only look at GERS 2015-16 then it looks like our deficit has increased by a couple of hundred million in the past year but if you look a bit deeper, and compare the numbers to previous GERS reports then something interesting happens.

In GERS 2014-15 our deficit was recorded as £14.8 billion but in GERS 2015-16 the 2014-15 deficit has somehow dropped by £622 million to £14.3 billion. Essentially, this shows one of the limits of GERS in that it is based on sometimes highly speculative estimates which get revised over time. It may be five years before we finally know the “true” accounts figures for this year. This accounting adjustment is extremely significant compared to, say, our “budget underspends” but unless you’ve read it here I expect it to pass entirely unnoticed.

Now, what about our all hallowed GDP? It’s down by 0.45% from £157.502 billion in 2014-15 to £156.784 billion in 2015-16 (with non-oil GDP having increased by over £2.2 billion, the highest it’s ever been).

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You know, perhaps it’s time we started measuring our economy in terms other than just GDP. We know it’s flawed. We know it throws up extremely strange results like Ireland’s “economy” growing by 25% because a few American companies moved their nameplates around. We know it doesn’t even particularly correlate to things like tax and ability to service debt very well.

Maybe it’s time we started measuring (and taxing) our country based on the things which actually matter.

But back to GERS.

Dutch Disease with Scottish Characteristics

So what’s going on here? Essentially it’s the same pattern first picked up last year. As oil prices drop, so do fuel costs. Which means everything from the costs of transporting goods to the heating and lighting costs for your home drops. This means you have more money to spend in the economy and companies have fewer overheads leading to either greater profits (thus, ideally, more tax revenue) or more room to invest in expansion.

This is a clear demonstration of the so-called “Dutch Disease” where high oil prices choke off the non-oil based economy in the form of the aforementioned fuel costs (it also tends to harden one’s currency but this is less of a factor in the Scottish case given that we don’t yet have one).

At the time of the last report I was criticised for pointing this out on the grounds that the oil price collapse “hadn’t fully fed through” hence I was jumping the gun on the observation. It shall be interesting to see if anyone says the same thing now. Could revenues drop any lower?

This should serve as somewhat of a warning to those itching for the return of high oil prices and certainly for those desperate to “replace” offshore oil with onshore fracking. It’s maybe time to have a good hard rethink about what kind of resources we want to develop in Scotland. Now, to be sure, I’ve nothing against our offshore industry and for those folk out there it’s been a pretty dreadful time. It’s just that, certainly as a Green, I think our offshore industry is on the wrong side of the country and should be based on wind/wave and tide rather than oil. You can be sure that  if the wind and tide stops flowing we’ll be dealing with problems a little bit larger than the state of our finances.

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Scotland’s offshore Wind Power Density map

Sweet Fiscal Autonomy

As mentioned earlier, part of the methodological changes discussed in the GERS consultation was to do with looking at the taxes to be devolved to Scotland under the series of “vast, new powers” we’ve been generously granted.

In terms of actual revenue, chief amongst these is income tax (excluding interest and dividends, the ability to move the Personal Allowance or to adjust the definition of “income”) and VAT (excluding any actual control at all. We’re getting the VAT added to Scottish coffers and then an equivalent amount removed from the block grant. Yay.) along with comparatively minor taxes like landfill tax, aggregate levy and air passenger duty.

In total, the Scottish government will directly receive 40.5% of Scottish revenue (£21.8 billion this year) and, given the limitations on VAT and income tax, have actual, practical control over perhaps half of that. Devolved expenditure, however, will soon sit at 63.1% of total (£43.3 billion). Basically the Scottish government can only directly control enough income to fund perhaps about a quarter of what it’s directly responsible for delivering.

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There’s a side issue in all of this related to that old topic of the budget underspends. Tucked away on page 47 of GERS there’s an interesting line which looks at the confidence intervals for some of the tax revenues used. Remember that the revenues given are estimates and are subject both to revision over time and change due to circumstances that the government cannot control. For example, if you move job half way through the tax year your income, therefore income tax, can change. If your job moves you to England, your entire income tax contribution moves from the Scotland side of the budget to the rUK one. Hence, the total income tax revenue estimate is subject to a margin of error, in this case of 1.0%.

The same goes for other taxes to greater or lesser degree to the effect that the margin of error over all of the taxes measured there is 1.6% or ±£570 million.

Remember that the Scottish Government has extremely limited borrowing powers. It can only “overspend” on the current budget by £200 million in a single year and cannot exceed a total current debt of £500 million. And yet income revenue, on which expenditure must be planned, has a margin of error of ±£570 million.

In the event, this year Scotland’s “underspend” was only £150 million. If you think you can plan a budget better than this then please, send it in. If not, might be a good idea to stop reporting and moaning about underspends.

Paying For It

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Another little line that seems to have been added to GERS this year (on page 37) is a breakdown of the annual costs of financing Labour’s PFI and the SNP’s replacement NPD loans. There’s been a bit of a milestone reached there with the availability costs of PFI now exceeding £1 billion per year or over 15% of Scotland’s total capital budget and slated to increase even further over the next decade unless something is done about it. Don’t be surprised if this becomes a major issue for the council elections next year.

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Of course and once again you wouldn’t know this if all you did was watch our Great British Broadcaster, the BBC. Their recent “investigation” into PFI couldn’t even bring itself to mention the name of the party which lumped this crippling financial burden on us.

Finally

I could go on. We could nip-pick at details like the mysterious addition to the expenditure budget of net EU contributions (there’s always been an annex discussing this but this is first year it has explicitly been counted in a separate line in Total Expenditure) or notice that for the first time in at least five years our debt interest paid has increased as our UK debt increases have started to outweigh the effect of falling bond yields.

It’s all a shell game though. We know that GERS isn’t nearly as important as people hold it to be nor is it nearly as informative as it should be. It’s not going to change many minds on its own nor does it tell us one single thing about the finances of an independent Scotland. If we want to do that, we’re going to need to build a national budget from scratch, taking into account all of the taxes (existing and new) that an independent Scotland might choose to levy. We also need to have a look again at what Scotland actually needs to spend its money on. Could we use Citizen’s Income to create from scratch a welfare system worthy of the name? Would a Scottish Government able to issue its own bonds on its own debt be able to get a better deal than the one we have right now?

Quite simply can Scotland as a nation see ourselves as better than others would prefer us to be seen?

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This Could Be Home

“It seems obvious: the reason only a tiny percentage of new…buildings and retrofits aren’t green isn’t cost. It’s lack of ingenuity or knowledge of new construction techniques — architects and builders wed to the ‘same-old,’ lenders leery of anything unconventional.” – Sustainable Energy Africa

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Sign the petition or get involved here.

The Scottish Greens have launched our new #ThisCouldBeHome campaign aimed at greatly strengthening the current movements towards better land reform.

There are currently around 11,000 hectares of land in Scotland current derelict or un- or underused which, through the application of a Land Value Tax, could be freed up to build a new generation of affordable housing. Here is Andy Wightman introducing the campaign.

As the campaign points out, the current UK housing bubble is pushing rents up beyond the affordability of far too many people and those increasingly fortunate few who can scrape together a deposit and have secure enough employment to sustain a mortgage are looking with trepidation towards the day that the Bank of England starts pushing interest rates back up towards pre-2008 levels. For hard pressed people who can barely afford to pay the bills as it is, moves like this could result in yet another crash in the housing market and more families facing default, foreclosure and eviction.

We also live in a country with the second highest level of excess winter mortality of any European country north of the Alps, driven in large part by our lax building standards and fuel poverty.

For this reason, we should take this opportunity to ensure that those new houses which are built adhere to strict building regulations which push the limits of our technological abilities to ensure that energy bills and the other ongoing costs of running a building are kept at an absolute minimum. Of course, buildings are themselves often constructed to meet only the very minimum standards set by law as to do otherwise would eat into the private construction industry’s precious profit margin.

Of course, as the headline quote states, cost isn’t nearly the greatest obstacle to greener housing development and, as I have written previously, the Scottish government will soon be handed the power to borrow money far cheaper than can any bank or private company (As an alternative, the Common Weal has also pointed out that the Government has the power, today, to set up Scottish Housing Company to perform the same function) and could use that money, paid back through rents, to undercut the private industry and ensure that the highest green standards are adhered to. The precedent for this already exists in Scotland where, according to official government figures, the social rented housing stock are generally more energy efficient than private builds and contain a higher percentage of B and C grade housing (where the overall Scottish average is merely grade D). If we are willing to push things as far as we need to to reach a zero-carbon economy then a greater pool of cheap, efficient housing will force the private sector to either step up its game or step aside.

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A Thermal image of an energy efficient “Passive House” compared to a more traditional, less well insulated dwelling behind it. Source: Passivhaus Institut

But how do we get everyone to A grade? One pathway can be found in the Passivhaus Standard which employs a strict understanding and approach to engineering and techniques such as solar thermal panels on roofs, underfloor ground source heat pumps, insulation throughout the house and architectural elements designed in from the start to minimise heat loss and maximise the amount of energy which can be harvested from the environment. Properly employed, these standards reduce a house’s heating requirements to below 15 kWh per square metre per year. By comparison the average Scottish house requires approximately 140 kWh per square metre per year to keep it warm. It’s no wonder so many of us struggle in winter. (Fun fact about Passivhaus, they have built a compliant dwelling now on every continent on Earth. Including Antarctica!)

With heating making up 55% of Scotland’s overall annual energy demand and only 10% of that heating coming from renewable sources (including renewable electricity) then it is clear that this is the area which, if targeted, will have the most potential to reduce our requirement to run a carbon based economy. This needs to be stressed. Whilst the Scottish Government has made great strides in pushing renewables (and despite the UK government’s increasingly hostile attitude towards them) if we only focus on meeting of our current electrical demands then we’ll still be reliant on fossil fuels for over three quarters of our energy and this doesn’t factor in the doubling of electrical demand which will come if we translate our transport system over to electric vehicles (assuming we don’t also reduce demand there too).

To achieve this may seem to require brave choices. But we can’t sustain the “same old” attitude for much longer. Pretty soon, doing nothing will be even “braver” (in the Yes Minister sense). I believe that a strong Green voice in the Scottish Parliament from May will help the government make those brave choices and your vote for the Greens in May will help that happen. As noted earlier, it’s not a problem of money or power holding us back here. Merely the will to roll up our sleeves and do it. We’ll be glad for it once we have. We’ll wonder why we didn’t do it sooner.

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