20 June 2011

Greek crisis is taste of things to come

So says City AM editor, Allister Heath in his latest column.

You see Greece is ultimately going to default. The alternative is for the hard-working taxpayers of Germany, France and other wealthy Eurozone countries (and possibly non-Eurozone) to be ransacked by their own politicians to prop up the profligacy of the Greek public aided and abetted by the politicians they voted for over decades.

The real problem is that the Greek public doesn’t really want to change and simply doesn’t accept economic reality – and that the EU has been too slow to learn the lessons of the crisis of 2008. One poll found that 47 per cent of Greeks reject the austerity plan and want new elections – and just 35 per cent back the measures. The Greek public is in denial: it doesn’t want to start living within its means – and yet ordinary hard-pressed taxpayers in other countries are being called upon to stave off Greece’s total collapse. There is no justice in that.

A default would be right, because not only are the Greek public unwilling to balance their budget, but the financial institutions who loaned money to the Greek government to continue its unsustainable way banked on Greece being bailed out.  That bet should fail.  The banks (mostly Greek, German and French) should bear losses as a result, but the inevitable will be more painful.

Is there an alternative? Well there was.  The Greek public could have voted for politicians who promised to balance the books, but they voted for politicians who promised Western European style socialist welfare, health and education systems paid for by borrowed money.   The fact that Greek politics is dominated by thieving socialists speaks volumes.  Of course ordinary Greek citizens think that they are not to blame, after all they couldn't have borrowed as the state did, or spend other people's money so flagrantly.  However, they did sit by and let it happen.   In a democracy (Greeks shouldn't need reminding of this), power is meant to reside in the people, and in this case they don't want the responsibility of their casual blindness to what the last few decades has been built on - borrowed money.

So Greece will default.  Its banks will collapse, it will leave the Eurozone, and the savings and incomes of its population will be wound back around 15-20 years.  There will be more riots on the street.  Foreign investment will flee and the Greek economy will be rebuilt on tourism and low value exports in a highly devalued currency.

Meanwhile, EU politicians will try to evade reality for a little longer, for fear their own banks will face collapse once more.  That shouldn't scare them, as long as depositors up to a certain level are protected, the banks should fail.  It will be an object lesson to the Europhiles that their federalist economic experiment is a failure.  Ironically, but unsurprisingly it will be under the watch of supposedly centre-right governments in Germany and France, though there should be no delusions that it would have been different had the left been in power in either country.

However, there is more to come.  Yet it is important to note how much of this crisis is NOT about the privately owned banking sector being profligate, but about government evading economic reality.

As Heath says:

the biggest error is the establishment’s inability to accept that increasingly, the biggest systemic risk will come from states, not private financial institutions. It is not just Greece, Portugal and Ireland – Belgium is in real trouble, while Spain and Italy are also in the frame. At some point, something will have to change in Japan, a country with an exploding national debt and a weak economy. America is also in terrible trouble, and not just because of short-term issues over debt ceilings.

During times of austerity and cutbacks the left thinks it has an advantage, as it typically promises to spend other people's money on the things that give comfort, like pensions, health, education and subsidised pseudo-employment.   Yet it is failing to capitalise on it, because enough of the public actually understand that governments cannot perpetually run budget deficits and accumulate debt.    Even 35% of Greeks support serious levels of austerity, not a majority, but a significant number are facing the truth.
The obvious biggest accumulation of problems is in the Eurozone, where even France has a longer term issue of sustainability with its finances.   The ramifications of a Greek default and break up of the Euro will be profound.  In the long run it will be good for Europe, but the casualties along the way will be high.  Those are casualties caused directly by the failure to face austerity and controls on government spending in the past.   The people who benefited from profligacy will, in many cases, not be facing the cost of it.

Yet Japan and the USA on top of this are more worrying.  Japan has been engaging rampant Keynesianism for well over a decade now, and failed miserably to restart its economy.  Given it is on the doorstep of China this is scandalous and shows just how featherbedded and corrupt the Japanese state became under the good years, with the Liberal Democratic Party so deeply entrenched with protectionist business (and indeed the Yakuza).   The USA at least has some facing reality, although that doesn't include the President.  Sadly the forthcoming Presidential election shows little sign that the Republican Party can lay old ghosts to rest in favour of a candidate who actually believes in the economy first.

No doubt some time will be bought for Greece with other people's money.  The bigger question is how long is the inevitable going to be delayed, for the longer it is, the more painful it will be - and very few politicians elected in liberal democracies like having to face up to spending less of other people's money.

06 June 2011

Banks backs boondoggle blow out

Cut wasteful spending, implores ACT Leader Dr. Don Brash.

Build the underground rail loop, using taxpayers' money says ACT candidate John Banks according to the NZ Herald.

For every dollar of costs it generates benefits of 40c, says an independent Ministry of Transport/Treasury review of Auckland Council's wildly optimistic demand for taxpayer funding "business case", even taking into account so-called "wider economic benefit".

So why is Don Brash supporting him?

Does a party that supports smaller government and less government spending believe in pouring NZ$2.4 billion into a project that:

-  Will continuously require subsidies to be used and maintained because the people who would use it wouldn't pay the fares necessary for the trains to operate, let alone dig the hole and build the stations for the trains to use;

-  Is based on a substantial portion of new Auckland commuter trips being from as yet unbuilt high density housing built adjacent to railway stations, even though there is little evidence Aucklanders want housing more closely akin to London, Manhattan and Paris, than New Zealand;

- Will not cater for the majority of increased trips forecast, as buses are meant to cater for those;

- Will only remove 3,800 car trips a weekday from the roads, which over a thirty year period is over $100 per car per day if you consider the capital cost over that period including interest.   It would be cheaper to give all of those people a free daily commute sharing a door-to-door shuttle with six people in each one;

- Wont cater for the 89% of Aucklanders employed who do not work in central Auckland.

So does Don Brash have to give John Banks a slapdown, otherwise nothing will really have changed.

03 June 2011

My birthday rant

I've been extremely busy, so have had little chance to rant.  So here are my two cents on the events that have provoked me:

Mladic the thug:  Few events were more shameful for Europe (and the United States and New Zealand as a member of the UN Security Council at the time), in my view, that the brutal neo-nazi style genocide inflicted in the Balkans in the 1990s.  It is astonishing that if a civilian kidnaps children and then massacres them en masse, that there is more horror than when a "general" is given endorsement by politicians to do the same, that there is craven appeasement to it all.   UN peacekeepers sat by and did nothing whilst Srebrenica - a town declared a "safe haven" (for whom!) by the UN Security Council, was "ethnically cleansed" by Mladic and his knuckle dragging fascists, all happily appeased by the Serbian Orthodox Church as well.  The role call of dishonour and shame at the time is long and disgraceful.  It took Slobodan Milosevic's attempt to do the same to Kosovo for serious action to be taken, by then thousands of men and boys had been slaughtered in a style reminiscent of the Nazi death squads that rounded up and annihilated Jews in Lithuania.   The other victims, the women and girls (don't think too long about the cutoff age because there really wasn't one) who were raped, not only as conquests by the semi-literate Serb brutes, but also to breed little half-Serbs as part of a deliberate "race" driven policy.   However, as blatant and disgusting as was the Serbian ethno-fascism, one shouldn't forget Croatia was led by men who were not much better.  Visit the Krajina region of Croatia today, and try to find the Serbs who still live there, after Croatia's military terrorised the Serb population and chased them from their homes and farms, families with roots there for generations.  It is a primary reason why Croatia should not be allowed to join the European Union - for it must fully face up to its past.

The arrest, trial and condemnation of Mladic should provide an opportunity to remind us all of this period in history and how easy it is to provoke poorly educated, semi-literate young men to perform atrocities with the endorsement of politicians and religious leaders.  It should also remind Muslims that the Western interventions in this case were to save Muslims (albeit moderate or even nominal ones).   It should also provoke at least some consideration from the self-styled "peace movement" about what should have been done, since the left was divided about humanitarian intervention in this case. 

Brash ACT:  Don Brash's takeover of ACT is a lifeline, and also notable among libertarian circles is Lindsay Perigo's employment related to ACT.  I'm cautiously optimistic.  The greatest weakness Don Brash faced in 2005 under National became those in National who sought to spin and populise messages in ways that backfired.  His willingness to address state activities that granted differential treatment of Maori was not portrayed well with "Iwi, Kiwi" which implied something it should not have.   However, Brash is both economically and socially liberal.  He has the intelligence and the ability to take ACT down a path of being consistently in favour of less government and being tough on crime that involves victims.  He is no libertarian, but if this is a chance to shake up the next National government and wean it off of the statist racists in the Maori Party, then it shouldn't be dismissed out of hand.  I'm going to be watching this space very closely.  It is clear I have always been affiliated with Libertarianz and remain so, but Brash's leadership could cause me to think carefully about who to vote for this year.  

Auckland rail boondoggle hog-tied:  The Ministry of Transport and Treasury have reviewed the Auckland underground rail loop business case and found it wanting. It is hardly surprising.  Auckland rail has been a faith-based initiative from the start, primarily because the enormous cost premium to move people by rail, compared to bus is not justified by the change in behaviour it provokes.   Auckland rail advocates think because it is attracting lots of passengers (all of whom pay less in fares than the cost of operating the service, let alone the cost of capital) it is a good thing, but scrutiny about where those users are coming from indicates some pretty clear home truths.

First, around half of all trips into central Auckland in the morning peak are by public transport today.  This mode share is high by the standards of any new world city, and most of them are travelling by bus.  Trying to increase this in the absence of any form of congestion pricing is difficult, as the current strategy is to take money from all motorists to subsidise a minority of trip.  The number of trips by public transport has increased by 50% in ten years.  However, 40% of that increase has been by rail, 33% by the Northern Busway alone (bear in mind this is one route that has cost around a tenth of the cost of the rail network which has 2.5 lines) and the remainder by conventional bus and ferry services.   Rail has been important, but for the money spent on it, has not delivered compared to the other modes.  

The notable figure is the 15% decline in car trips, which are partly a function of increased fuel prices.  This will have had an effect on reducing congestion, although not as much as the figure may suggest.

Given only 11% of employment in Auckland is in the CBD, this modeshift is minor in the scheme of transport in Auckland.  However, the officials and politicians involved are totally CBD focused.  In short, the impact of more trips to the CBD by bus and rail is very low on congestion.  

Furthermore, the scope for significant increases in public transport usage is limited, most new world cities would be thrilled to have this sort of CBD mode share.  

However, there is something else the rail enthusiasts ignore.  There is already a NZ$2 billion taxpayer funded commitment to electrify Auckland's rail network with projections of a doubling in rail patronage.  However, these forecasts are not realistic because, as the MoT/Treasury report states:

Much of the future patronage growth forecast for the rail network comes from areas where significant intensified residential land use in growth nodes has been assumed in the model. Future rail patronage growth, including from the electrified do minimum, is therefore likely to rely, in part, on the realization of these land use assumptions.

In other words, it will come only if Aucklanders choose to live in medium to high density housing near railway stations AND work in the CBD AND choose to commute by rail.  A bold assumption, that is not exactly plausible.  It is part of the planners' wet dream that Aucklanders are gagging to live in London, Paris or New York style apartment conditions near railway stations in the suburbs.  Yes, apartment living has appeal for some, by only typically for living near the city so one can walk.  Quite why people in Auckland would want to live in such housing in the suburbs is unclear.

In essence, a fortune is being spent upgrading Auckland's rail network based on patronage forecasts that are fanciful and difficult to believe.  If they prove to be correct, then the network will be constrained without an underground loop (although the constraint will only be in the morning and evening peak - a few billion dollars for a few hours a day).  If wrong, then not only will an inner city underground loop be a destruction of wealth, but so will the electrification.

What is most damning is this statement from the review:

Significant parts of the Business Case assessment were not compliant with the procedures outlined in the NZTA‘s EEM for calculating transport benefits.

In other words, Auckland Council gerrymandered its assessment to suit its own needs.   That isn't even counting the gross exaggeration of wider economic benefits on a scale not seen on comparable projects in other countries.

The Green Party of course went along with this, at the same time as it damned the government for supporting road projects that - analysed correctly - had negative benefit/cost ratios.   

In short, the underground rail loop in central Auckland is a boondoggle. A complete waste of money that ranks alongside the grandious highway projects the government is funding north of Puhoi and north of Wellington.   Those who damn one should damn the other and vice versa.   For the government to embrace negative BCR "roads of National significance" but not the railway, is partly hypocritical.  Partly, because roads are funded from road users, railways are NEVER funded from rail users.  However, for the Greens, the Auckland Council and the railevangelists to damn the roads, but bow down to the altar of the railway is at least as hypocritical.  It is time for the railevangelists to be honest - their belief in rail is no more than that - a non-evidence based feeling that trains are good, better than buses and that whatever it takes to build railways is justifiable.  One need only read the Auckland transport blog regularly to see the evangelical enthusiasm for spending other people's money on new rail lines all over the place.  None of it is linked to demand forecasting, willingness to pay or economic evaluation - it is just a rail enthusiasts build-fest. 

Oh and the same should apply to road building too.