Thursday, May 03, 2007

Greens would condemn billions to poverty

I posted on a liberal view of Sheffield a letter I sent to the Sheffield Telegraph in which I suggested that Green Party hostility to business and trade threatened to condemn millions to poverty - billions worldwide. The Greens have replied to a similar letter to the Sheffield Star, and this is what they say:

As for Lib Dem Joe Otten's claim that our policies would be bad for business, we
are the only party to recognise fully the damage often done to the local economy
by inappropriate developments. This is why we vigorously opposed Sheffield's
Supercasino bid, and the current proposals for the New Retail Quarter and a new
market near the Moor.

The theme here is that according to the greens, there are two kinds of business. Local/small business which is good, and global/big business which is bad. The local economy must be protected from the global economy. So far so familiar.

Of course real life is not so simple. I am a one man business, which is good, but I sell all over the world, which, presumably, is bad. Although my product is transmitted electronically rather than by air freight, which is good. But it is software, so perhaps charging for it at all is bad.

Is the problem with the supercasino that it will damage all our small local casinos? I wonder.

Does this rebuttal deal with my unqualified claim that greens are hostile to business? Well no it doesn't. Big and small businesses each have their different strengths and weaknesses. Big business can pour resources into a problem. Small business can adapt rapidly, and know its customers. Each is successful where its relative strengths are decisive. Hostility to business in this case might mean refusing to recognise the benefits of this diversity and trying to impose a single model.

The bizarre thing about this belief in the moral superiority of small and local business is that it has very little to do with environmental sustainability - or - for that matter other social goods like wages and employment conditions. Why is it that greens are fascinated by what size a business is even more, seemingly, than how much pollution it generates?

Of course there are examples of good small business, contributing to civil society over and above what might be strictly necessary. And there are examples of bad big business. But the reverse examples can be found too. These examples mean very little - if you have a policy to deal with problem behaviour, shouldn't it apply equally to businesses of all sizes?

Now we do have some excellent local shops in Sheffield. One of the things that makes them excellent is that they must compete for trade. If everybody went only to their nearest shops, we wouldn't be rewarding competitiveness, we would be rewarding price gougers. Maybe you think your local shopkeeper is just too decent to gouge, and maybe they are. If so, that would be because gougers don't tend to run that sort of shop. If we rewarded them to, they would.

Wronger than the idea of protecting local business, however, is this idea of the local economy as the antithesis of the global economy. Almost all high value innovations demand a great deal of specialisation. Medicine, technology, art, you name it, to justify doing one particular thing very well indeed we need to be able to sell it worldwide. Cut off from trade it would be quite impossible to have much medicine, quality goods, never mind good renewable energy and so on. The way to build your local economy, then, is to provide goods and services in high demand and sell them as widely as possible. And with your earnings buy from elsewhere rather than trying to make do, or you will forego all the benefits of your earnings.

These are practical considerations which must trump a baseless prejudice for the small and local. Where this lesson has been learned - in much of Asia-Pacific for example - prosperity has followed. Yes, there is an environmental footprint to this - but imagine the alternative - of making do with cobbled together home grown versions of everything. If it were possible, wouldn't the environmental footprint be even higher? But it isn't possible, without specialisation and trade, to achieve anything like the standard of living people worldwide rightly demand. To try would condemn billions to poverty for no environmental benefit.


Tristan said...

As I'm sure you know, the Green Party uses environmental concern to promote its own ideology which has nothing to do with the environment.

Some of their policies would in fact harm the environment - as you point out their extreme localism would lead to higher pollution due to the lack of specialisation but also because it condemns the world to poverty (the default state of mankind) and its the poor who damage the environment most (perhaps CO2 emissions would go down, but particulate pollution, water pollution, deforestation, destruction of natural habitat and most other forms of pollution would soar).

Tom Papworth said...

Another good post, Joe.

The Greens are - as I'm sure you're aware - a repository for all sorts of former Reds who have realised that an openly-socialist party is unacceptable to the electorate. So instead they have seized upon environmental challenges as an excuse for all the same (tired) old policies that used to be promoted on economic grounds.

They are misguided for the same reasons. Just as state planning and protectionism do not promote economic welfare, so they do not promote ecological welfare. Freedom maximises wealth, and as wealth increases industry becomes more efficient.

I wonder what proportion of Greens are comfortable middle-class people with public sector jobs for whom the realities of running a business or worrying about being able to afford a (nice, semi-detatched) house are alien.

Joe Otten said...

Sorry about the poor formatting, originally in this post. I sent it from my phone while on the train. So I wasn't blogging when I could have been knocking up, OK?

Have popped into the excellent Hal's coffee house Argyle St, Glasgow, to fix it.

DarrenJ said...


If The Green Party is just a depository for former reds who have no real interest in the environment, how come I've spent 20 years in the party, managed to represent the Greens on the London Assembly for the past seven years, lead a Group of six on Lewisham Council - and no-one thought to tell me I had to be a raving marxist to do any of this?

If all our councillors are rabid marxists how come they elected me as chair given my outright hostility to the far left and revolutionary politics? Or is that all part of a cunning plan to hoodwink the electorate? Wow - a conspiracy theory. How exciting. Do explain more.


Joe Otten said...


Good to hear from you again - I always thought you were one of the sounder greens.

I'm not suggesting a conspiracy. I do think your econonomic policies are a fudge - a necessary fudge because a party united by its desire for sustainability has disparate ideas about how to bring it about.

Over the 90s the left in the party gained the upper hand - you must have noticed this. Now you have elected Derek as Principal Speaker - this says something about the party, don't you think?

And some of those who are not of the 'left' economically are if anything even worse - the whole funny money brigade, about whom Derek is quite rightly scathing.

If a third of the delegates are marxist, a third funny money and a third moderate, obviously no unfudged economic policy can be agreed.

And fudged hostility to business is still hostility.

DarrenJ said...

Hi Joe!

I don't accept that the Green Party is hostile to business. In fact, given our serious engagement with some of the big green energy providers, for example, as well as the work of elected Greens I think we have a far better relationship with business than we did when you were a member back in the 90s. Yes, we are hostile to unnacountable, overpowerful corporations like Tesco and McDonalds but hostility to neoliberal economics does not equate to hostility to business per se. Promoting greater economic self-reliance is not about saying no to any trade at all either. If we were really advocating autarky why would Greens have put so much energy into promoting fair trade initiatives?

Yes there are some marxists in the party and yes there are some with eccentric theories about monetary reform but in no way do either of these groups amount to a sizeable block in the party - never mind the two-thirds of the party you suggest. I would say that most Green Party Members are indeed to the left of the Lib-Dems but way to the right of the SWP. I don't find that an uncomfortable place to be in and it does not prevent us from working constructively with other mainstream political parties in local and regional government, the Scottish Parliament and the EU.


Joe Otten said...


Obviously you know the current state of the party better than I do. But I would have thought that if people like Matt Sellwood or Brian Leslie (sorry Matt, for that juxtaposition) were a small minority the party should have been able to agree a clearer economic policy. While either can win just a few votes on the floor, the policy will be fudged at best.

While indeed there are things that corporations do that we should be angry about, the emphasis there seems to be on redirecting concern for environmental sustainability ("and social justice") into hostility towards corporations is troubling. When that energy could be spent coming up with joined up solutions to practical problems (whether in the form of taxes, regulations, public spending or whatever).

It looks like a class war analysis trying to get in by the back door.

DarrenJ said...

But if Greens are hostile to markets as you suggest the Green Party wouldn't have spent time and energy advocating fiscal measures and market mechanisms (green taxation, congestion charging, eco tax breaks etc) or advocating various regulatory instruments, we would simply say what the far left say and promise to solve environmental and social problems by bringing the entire economy under workers' control. All of the policy measures the Green Pary advocates are ones designed to operate in a mixed market economy rather than a command economy. I agree, however, our economic policy needs refreshing and revising and we agreed to commission a review of this at our last Autumn conference.

Keith said...

I have to disagree with darren in that I have been in the party for the past 30 years and I and many of my collegues are on the extreme left. Not the SWP left but more the Anarchist left. Sadly there are many in the party who are middle of the road Lib Demish type people. The redeming thing about the Green party is that all these political ideologies can work together.
As for Toms statement , middle class, public sector jobs at least these people are getting off their backsides and doing something rather than critising and doing nothing. Not all of us are wealthy many are just surviving.

Joe Otten said...

Hi Keith, thanks for your comment.

I wonder if it is a redeeming thing that such diverse political ideologies can work together in a political party.

Obviously the opposite extreme of total agreement is also wrong. But I would have thought that people with incompatible political beliefs ought to be in different political parties. Otherwise what does the party stand for?

Aaron Baranoff said...

From an American prospective I find it interesting how you green movement which is much more organized then ours in the US has not figured out that it is possible to be pro-business and pro-green which is what I want and have talked about in my own blog.