IT IS ONE of the curses of our world that politicians have to adopt an attitude of certainty. Today in politics, this need for a defined “fix” to a problem is concentrated by the houndings of the media. Politicians have a need to “perform”; not only in the now of a maelstrom of reportage, but in results from their propositions of certainty.
The notion of policy measures that adopt “action plans” and “clear objectives” done through “working hard” with a “determination to do the right thing” belies the reality of a world in which we all generally have to muddle and struggle to get things done.
One such measure is the idea of “shovel ready”.
The phrase appears to have come through President Obama. It captures the ideas of shirt-sleeves rolled up, bending down to some hard graft, and getting on with things … except that it’s silly. And it is at its silliest when attached to the idea of large scale civil engineering associated with infrastructure investment being used as a mechanism for economic stimulus.
The Scottish Government has put enormous faith in the idea that a ferocious amount of shovelling will help our economy to grow and new work to be created for those who have none. Hmmm.
At TaxpayerScotland our tax-sensitive noses tickle at the SNP government’s repeated mantra of capital investment being the source of future honey and roses. Can it really be true that this latter day version of Mr Keynes’s hole-digging could be so good for us? We decided to have a look.
We know a few economists who point out that stimuli need to be timely, targeted and temporary, so we dug up (sic) the thirty-six projects that Mr Salmond waved in front of Mr Cameron’s face in March seeking more loan money to get his shovel ready work started.
We sought, through an FOI request to the Scottish Government, the duration, tender to contract status and whole life costs of the proposals; trying to establish a baseline for an assessment. Oops, the response was that this information was not held by our Government. Baffled head-scratching followed. So, we pulled together a small panel of civil engineers and asked them what the answer to our questions might be.
You will have to read our paper to find the enumerated answer, but let’s just say that timely these projects cannot be. As for targeting, if we are looking for jobs for hungry seventeen year-olds and small firms to supply kit, we can forget it. Steel from Asia, cement from Mexico, fuel from Big Oil and skill from imported labour is the reality.
And as for temporary, don’t make us laugh. Ok, a wee roundabout on a by-pass might not need much looking after, but a Virology Centre at the University of Glasgow? What sort of high tech, remote-controlled, biologically secure, multi-functional inter-disciplinary facility could be more complex than the life sciences laboratory? As they say in Glasgow; Jings!
This is where the adoption of certainty among the political classes really falls down. Their commitment to the down-to-earth goodness of being ready for some shovelling is not in doubt. Their humility in the face of a technical world of infrastructure that needs constant and expensive servicing using our tax money is non-existent.
Mr Salmond’s and Mr Swinney’s shovel ready approach is seriously lacking in common sense. What a government needs to do is to set a steady rate of capital investment, stepping out of the way where private property rights can be offered that will let private capital do the job in place of taxpayer funding.
Governments are lousy at trial, muddle and error. Sustainable infrastructure needs others who can absorb and manage risks, especially the risks of losses from failure. We need to persuade our politicians to drop old-fashioned Keynesian ideas that infrastructure investment is always good and always a public good. Let’s swap certainty for managed uncertainty that doesn’t cost Scottish taxpayers a fortune.
TaxpayerScotland’s paper “The State of Scotland – The State of Infrastructure Investment” can be found at: http://www.taxpayerscotland.com/pubs/StateofScotland_Infrastructure_Oct2012.pdf