The Obscurer

Month: July, 2007

Well Oil Beef Hooked

When people criticise labour markets as being skewed and requiring regulation, they tend to mean that the employer has far greater bargaining power than the employee. It seems obvious that the corporation has the upper hand over the individual, so we need unions and/or employment laws to protect the latter against the former. So it is interesting to read this recent(-ish) article from The Economist regarding the situation those all-powerful oil firms face in Alberta, Canada, and the problems they have in recruiting staff.

It seems that “drug abuse in the northern oil patch is more than four times the provincial average”, and that

about 40% of the workers test positive for cocaine or marijuana in job screening or post-accident tests. Companies worry about lower productivity (due to absenteeism or sloppy work) caused by drug abuse, and the safety risk. On drilling rigs and in oil-sands mines a small mistake can easily result in injury or death. Some experts believe Alberta’s rising job-site accident rate (up 17% in two years to 180,000 cases in 2006) is partly due to drug abuse.

Most of the biggest companies conduct drug tests before hiring, as well as after any accident. But many workers have learned to get around these with synthetic-urine kits from drug-paraphernalia shops. Many smaller contractors prefer to turn a blind eye for fear of losing workers in such a tight labour market. Lawrence Derry, an addiction expert at the University of Alberta, says that one contractor told him that “if I brought in drug testing, I’d lose half my crew—they’d go right over to my competitor.”

So there we go; reports of the oil companies’ evil omnipotence have been overstated, the employment market is not as simply one-sided as has been assumed, and we can all calm down a bit. Do we really need unions and protection for employees after all if they wield such power?

But doesn’t this example make the same basic point; that however much we may wish it, the market does not provide solutions to all our problems? Sometimes it will work perfectly, but at other times employees are at a disadvantage; sometimes, as in this case, it is the employer who is on the wrong end of an asymmetrical relationship.

It is probably fair to say that no employer in Alberta wants drugged up workers on its books; that some still put up with them is because they feel the market leaves them with no choice. This recalls some of the points that have been made regarding the recent smoking ban I mentioned a few posts ago; some opposed the ban on the grounds that because the market sanctioned smoking in pubs most people must have been happy with the situation. But isn’t it also very possible that most landlords, bar staff and customers would have preferred a smoke free environment, and that it didn’t happen without legislation because landlords were scared to lose custom, bar staff didn’t want to lose their jobs, and customers, subsequently faced with a choice of a number of smoke-filled venues, had to put up, shut up or stay at home.

Anthony at The Filter recently(-ish, again,) complained that the ban was down “people failing to get their preferences through the market, and therefore turning to government”; but isn’t that one way to describe market failure, and so a possible justification of a role for government? If the majority of people would prefer a smoke free environment – and whether related or not, my local is now busier than ever on a Friday night – and the market didn’t provide it, then has the recent legislation done us a real favour? And even if you feel that smoking per se isn’t a suitable area for government intervention, isn’t the principle of government intervention to alleviate a market failure sound?

Let’s face it, the market is a brilliant concept; anyone who has ever spent a chill December evening in Manchester’s St Anne’s Square with a steaming mug of gluhwein in one hand and a chargrilled bratwurst in the other cannot fail to appreciate that fact. Given half a chance I think I would prefer the market to decide on the provision of pretty much everything; but it should be the servant, not the master, it is there for our benefit, not to dictate to us. Where the market fails to provide it should never be enough on its own to allow us to just shrug our shoulders, say “well market forces have spoken”, and so justify the status quo and signal the end of the debate. Perhaps all things considered a “market failure” is a sign that we should do without; but more needs to be taken into account before we can arrive at that decision, and if necessary we shouldn’t be afraid look elsewhere – to the charitable sector, or, as a last resort, to government – to remedy the situation.

Addendum: Anthony makes some interesting points in the comments, and as a result I feel the need to clarify my position.

I am making two main points in this post; first a general one, that markets are imperfect, and so I don’t therefore feel you can justify the status quo in any given situation by simply assuming that market forces have already delivered what people want. The second point, more specific to the smoking ban, is that I can well imagine that more landlords, staff and customers would prefer a smoke free environment than wouldn’t, and so the recent smoking ban on health grounds has inadvertently addressed that situation.

How can the market have failed to respond in this instance? I would say that landlords would have been reluctant to go smoke-free unilaterally even if they had wanted to knowing that while other pubs did allow smoking they would lose the custom of their current clientele who are smokers and their friends; it would be a gamble to hope that enough new non-smoking customers would be attracted in to replace the shortfall, and I doubt in practice that would happen. With an outright ban, however, where all pubs must multilaterally go smoke-free, there is not the same concern. There is a worry that some smokers will stay at home, but I doubt they will in any numbers if at all, and in addition pubs are now more attractive places for those who would previously have steered clear because of the smokiness.

But that is just me speculating, and what I am not saying is that I would support a government intervention because Westminster bureaucrats know better than pub landlords, and should engineer a situation to increase the popularity and profitability of pubs. If the ban were simply a case of the government trying to second-guess consumer demand then I would rather leave such things to the market. A ban designed to protect the health of staff is I feel far more justifiable, but may as a consequence have delivered what more people would prefer. Time will tell if that is correct.

As Anthony says, “perfection is not for this world”, and I don’t think the state should tinker in every little thing where is could be perceived that the market is imperfect. But neither do I think that government intervention should be criticised on the grounds that market forces would simply have sorted things out if there were a genuine demand for it.



PJ O’Rourke was interviewed for The Independent about his latest book …on The Wealth Of Nations, concerning, well, Adam Smith and The Wealth Of Nations. It was an interesting enough article, but it was when the subject turned to O’Rourke’s support for the Iraq War that I was particularly struck. Inquiring into the nature and causes of the current quagmire, he says

It’s amazing that no one seems to have foreseen the wrath, the bitterness and the depth of the anger and violence that followed the war. I never heard anyone predict what has happened. In fairness to all of us idiots everywhere, at least we have plenty of company on this.

As with that other fallacy often voiced by Tony Blair (who?) amongst others, that “everyone believed that there were WMD inside Iraq prior to the war”, the statement that O’Rourke “never heard anyone predict” the current chaos only goes to prove what those of us who opposed the invasion thought all along; that through all the parliamentary debates and televised discussions aired during the run up to the war; when individuals wrote dissenting newspaper articles and millions marched in defiance on the streets of the capital; as weapons inspectors and intelligence analyst presented reports full of doubts and grey areas; and while the anti-war movement put forward a string of arguments against military action; that those in favour of the war had already made up their minds, they had nothing to learn, and they simply weren’t listening.

Gouge Away

I don’t consider myself a great ideologue – I don’t know, you may well disagree – and I don’t really approve of ideologies, but I do of course have my own set of beliefs and a sense of morality that could be described as such. I am implacably opposed to the idea of private education for one thing; it seems a basic and fundamental inequity in society that the rich can buy better schooling for their offspring, and if it were in anyway practical I would like to ban the practice. But…if I could afford to, and I was faced with the option of sending my children to a private school or putting them through a state school that I felt was so poor that it would severely hamper their prospects, then I would choose the former over the latter. I wouldn’t deny the charge of hypocrisy, what I would say is that whatever my own personal beliefs, the future of my children is more important than any ideology I may subscribe to.

This thought – that there is a time and place for ideology – popped back into my mind when reading about the current debate surrounding organ donation. Liam Donaldson, the Chief Medical Officer, has called for a change in the law regarding organ donation so that we have a system of “presumed consent”; rather than “opting in”, so that you have to be on a register for your organs to be used after your death, you have to “opt out”, so it is presumed you are happy for your organs to be used unless you specifically state that they can’t. This has caused a stir; over at Stumbling & Mumbling, for example, a number of commenters have objected, arguing that the proposal violates our rights to do with our bodies as we wish, even after death, and that this is another example of the overarching state. One commenter even says that should this proposal come to pass he will opt out of it, whereas currently he opts in to the voluntary scheme.

But are those opposing the plan reacting ideologically rather than looking at the issue pragmatically? I take it that they all have an aversion to a domineering state and value our human rights, which is fair enough. But human rights are not just abstract concepts to be debated; they are there for a reason, for our benefit. In this case, since there is a clear opt out suggested, and as long there are safeguards in place that ensure any database is properly maintained, that relatives wishes are respected, and that where there are doubts about the prospective donors identity the organs are not used, then I can’t see anyone’s rights are being violated.

And in concentrating on the issue of human rights have the opponents of the move instinctively assumed their position out of ideological reflex, while losing sight of the reasons for this proposal itself; which is simply to reduce the shortfall in the number of organs currently available for donation, so to save the lives of some and to improve the quality of life of others? Even if you do feel that a policy of presumed consent violates our rights, is it such a violation that it trumps the rights of other people to live? Can it be said to be proportionate? I don’t suggest we just jettison a belief in human rights on any occasion that someone sees some benefit in doing so; each instance should be viewed on its merits and it is right to question any proposals. But in the case of organ donation, I wonder if the opponents of presumed consent are reacting on a theoretical level to what they see as an assault on our rights, rather than looking at the issue itself and at what our rights are there to achieve. I wonder if ideology has made them lose their perspective on this occasion.

There may be some good arguments against presumed consent; The Economist last year reported that although Spain already has this policy, it has only “pushed up supply a bit” – which itself suggests that there has been no mass body snatching by the state in that country – and that it has not solved the supply problem. The Economist’s solution with regards kidneys is to allow people the right to sell one of them; this has happened in Iran, so eliminating their waiting list for the organ (they don’t offer a solution to the shortage of organs for heart transplants, though.) My initial reaction, perhaps because of my own ideological position, is to reject the suggestion; but if, as is claimed, the surgery is safe, and if it is true that with proper regulation screened donors with one kidney actually live longer than the average person with two, then why not? Shouldn’t it at least be considered, whatever the understandable concerns?

But perhaps there is a another, simpler way to solve the donor shortage for those who so hate the state interfering in our lives. When the law requiring people to wear seat belts in cars was first introduced I remember Doctors at the time commenting that they were seeing a reduction in the number of suitable organs becoming available for transplant, as people who would have previously died in road accidents were surviving, so denying the world of their organs. Well, doesn’t the seat belt law, and indeed the requirement to wear a crash helmet on a motorbike, infringe our civil liberties? Don’t we have the right to wear what we like when driving as long as it doesn’t affect others? If so, and if these laws were indeed repealed, would the likely increase in fatal road accidents that resulted perhaps provide us with all the organs that we so clearly need?

Coffee Republic

Despite the Thatcherite revolution of the ‘eighties that promoted privatisation and put nationalised industries to the sword, there is still much ideological discussion about exactly how and where the private and public sectors should operate, about where each sector should draw the line. Nowhere is this perhaps more true than in China as it continues its global economic advance; but evidence that some people there are still having trouble trying to understand the respective roles of government and enterprise is revealed in this news story reporting that the branch of Starbucks in Beijing’s Forbidden City has been closed down following an online campaign.

The leader of the protests, Chinese television star Rui Chenggang, complained that the existence of the coffee shop “undermined the solemnity of the Forbidden City and trampled on Chinese culture”, and you can understand his concerns. After all, the Forbidden City is over 500 years old, its historic pagodas form a world-famous UNESCO heritage site, and traditionally in Communist China if anybody was going to indulge in a spot of culture-trampling then it was going to be the state, not big business. It is no wonder then that the campaigners feel baffled and confused, not to say a bit peeved.

China’s emergence into the modern world has been haphazard to say the least, and stories like this illustrate just how far they have yet to go. But I have every confidence that in time they will continue to allow the state to withdraw while giving private companies the freedom to expand into the vacuum, so to bugger things up in ways only the government has hitherto been able to. Because in the end it isn’t the speed you travel, but your direction that is all-important.

Life In A Glass House

What do you think has been the most annoying element in this story regarding the “storming off” furore that probably won’t be featured in the forthcoming documentary A Year With The Queen?

In the first place there is the fact that the BBC and RDF appear to have constructed a preview tape that does not conform to reality, and that is bad. It is simply not on for a programme maker to misrepresent its subject, or in this case for subjects to misrepresent their monarch. Perhaps I am being too sanguine, though, but I do view this incident as simply a mistake, just a lazy error. I can’t rule out wilful deception, but I also can’t imagine many people purposefully manufacturing such a situation when they would surely anticipate the utter shitstorm that would occur (and has occurred) once the palace caught wind of what had happened, and would realise that the negative PR consequences would far outweigh any extra publicity gained. Perhaps I’m the idiot, but the initial incident, while valid for criticism, doesn’t vex me all that much.

More irritating has been the media’s response. I haven’t read the papers today – I rarely do – but on hearing the paper review earlier on Radio 4 it seemed to suggest that the nation’s press were as one in condemning the BBC for their actions. Fine in so far as it goes, but it was the papers’ attitude that irked, as if the Queen has suffered some cruel, unusual and unique mishap. If this story hadn’t featured the Queen but some lesser mortal then there would be criticism of the BBC for sure, but not quite the tone of apoplectic moral outrage that we have seen. Why get so worked up because it is the Queen who has been affected? Just because. I’d hoped that I would be old enough by now not to get worked up by such double standards, but it seems such attitudes still get on my tits. Oh well.

But the most annoying issue hasn’t been the accusatory media’s message but the accusatory media as messenger. As I see it this whole incident may have been (and probably is) a mistake, but at worst it is an example of a media organisation twisting the facts to fit with their agenda. That is a serious accusation – especially for a publicly funded broadcaster – but just what media organisation isn’t routinely accused and frequently found guilty of exactly the same thing? It smacks of hypocrisy right out of the top drawer. I mean good God, if I didn’t dismiss almost everything I read in the Mail, Express and Mirror as laughable bias, half-truth and selective reporting then I’d never be off the phone to the PCC. Not to mention the fact that the self same papers now condemning the BBC also gleefully reported the story in the first place, without making any background checks to corroborate the facts.

If the BBC has been guilty of lying and manipulation then they deserve all the criticism they receive; I just don’t think the press should be the ones taking the moral high ground. They don’t belong there.