Sandy and broken windows

Preparing for disaster may have "economic benefits". But it doesn't have real benefits.

Slate's Matt Yglesias makes a very important point with regard to the economic benefits of adapting to climate change:

The basic issue is the same as the one where jobs installing iron gates on windows and alarm systems in houses are economic activity just like jobs installing refrigerators and AV systems. Living in fear of crime is annoying all on its own, and needing to expend real resources on private crime-mitigation efforts rather than improving your quality of life is annoying, but as far as "the economy" is concerned a job is a job and a sale is a sale. Much the same is true for a wealthy society's response to adverse weather shocks.

Of course, the same can be said, to a certain extent, for the economics of fighting climate change. While environmentalists are right to trumpet the economic benefit of putting huge amounts of effort into efforts to decarbonise the economy, some of those benefits may follow a similar sort of logic to that described above. If there is no intrinsic advantage to wind farms over gas power stations other than ameliorating climate change, then decarbonising the economy may "boost GDP", but it is still using real resources on something which will have no effect on quality of life.

Except, of course, if it succeeds in preventing climate change.

Coincidentally, the comic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal made the same point today in a rather different manner. And it's all really just a rephrasing of Bastiat's 1850 elaboration of the broken window fallacy. But still worth a mention.

A panel from today's Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. Image:

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.