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What a waste… July 10, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, Irish Politics, Uncategorized.
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I’m not a big fan of Fintan O’Toole (and his comments on comments are irritating), but his column on waste collection and Greyhound in particular isn’t too far of the mark. As he notes, no one every consulted him, or me, or you, about pushing waste collection to the private sector, and now that it is in the private sector as ‘customers’ we have no purchase at all on what the company, and its like, do whatsoever. But beyond even the fact a service which was not just good, but more importantly essentially invisible because it was good, has worsened appreciably, his point that we have been forced unwillingly and with no choice to collude in worsening the conditions of those working in Greyhound. Of course our collusion in their impoverishment is actually a collusion in our impoverishment too further down the line. By the way this piece here by Shane Ross from a few years back is well worth reading…

Reading in the SBP about the current dispute in Greyhound it is difficult not to come away with a sense of the futility of privatising these ‘services’ in the first place.

Greyhound claims that its new lower wage rates are still slightly better than those paid by rival companies. Cost has become a major factor in the competitive world of privatised refuse collection.

It’s an entirely artificial competition. There aren’t fleets of bin trucks from competing providers filling our streets, at least not in the north inner city, and it wouldn’t be a good thing if there were either. The competition, such as it is, is more drawn out and across a longer time period and in such a way that cost benefits (from the perspective of consumers) are minimal.

Some good reports from Monday’s protest both in terms of turn-out and the rhetoric coming from SIPTU. Let’s hope that latter will be matched by support and action.

There’s also the thought that it may all be pointless in a broader sense. Anna Karpf in the Guardian at the weekend noted the following:

Hilary Wainwright, in a powerful new booklet – The Tragedy of the Private, the Potential of the Public – describes water, health and education as “the commons” – an excellent term. What’s remarkable, and hitherto fairly undocumented, is how all over the world a quiet process of remunicipalisation is taking place. Wainwright gives examples from Newcastle to Norway. In the UK, she found over half of 140 local councils bringing services back from the private sector. In Germany, by 2011 the majority of energy distribution networks had returned to public ownership. Even in the US, a fifth of all previously outsourced services have been brought back in-house.

It’s also not difficult to understand why, when ‘privatisation’ has generated faux-markets, we have seen an attrition in service provision, impacted negatively on consumers and workers. Nor is it a simple return to business as usual models of ownership. Karpf also notes that …

….new social forms of ownership are emerging in which public utilities are run by coalitions of workers and service users. Theirs isn’t just a defence of public services but an attempt to democratise them so they are not the top-down bureaucracies of old or simply job-saving strategies (important though these may be). They become what Wainwright calls “new forms of collectivity” – unions and public managing common resources together for shared benefit.

Of course there are dangers in that too, as in any human effort, but compare and contrast with what we face with respect of one of the most basic and yet important of services in our daily lives. Those sort of genuine reforms which place workers – both as workers and as users of services – at the heart of communal endeavours are a world away from what has actually happened.

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1. hardcorefornerds - July 10, 2014

I had a quick skim of the Wainwright booklet mentioned: http://www.world-psi.org/en/tragedy-private-potential-public Quite interesting, although very clear that it’s an active process of contestation. I was looking to see if there was any discussion of the principle of charges – which I’m guessing are extant in most of the cases discussed – and didn’t find it, though there is a section on the influence of fiscal contexts restricting local municipalities from having the capability to ‘escape’ privatisation.

The argument that charges are a necessary precursor for privatisation – whether waste or water – is relied on by the left here, although it doesn’t follow that they are a sufficient base if there is an effective and positive movement towards (re) municipalisation. Admittedly the latter becomes a more difficult task, in that it must fight against the neoliberal impulse of modern governance, but I’ve always found the upholding of the status quo opportunistic at best – as if Ireland were a progressive utopia with its centrally-funded services rather than a legacy of national stroke politics and underfunded local government.

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2. Gavin Mendel-Gleason - July 10, 2014

Tying cost to the service provided is the first step towards commodification. The left “relies” on it, because it’s an absolutely necessary (though not sufficient) step for commodification.

In the European context however, it shifts from being necessary but insufficient to bordering on the sufficient. The reason for this is that there are various EU directives which force one to open up to competition areas in which there are charges.

The idea of a public good – that is one that can not be quantified in such a way that each individual payment funds the service. The model completely fails to account for the systemic problems which derive from such a model.

First, there is the question of what services in an advanced and productive society people should be entitled to at a bare minimum. In my opinion things like water and effective waste management should be among these as it was clearly possible to do so even in 1950 much less 2014.

Secondly, there is the question of the global impacts of individualising services which are a direct public good. Rubbish collection is a public health and quality of life issue. If someone does not have their rubbish collected then everyone suffers – we see the massive increase in dumping which has resulted from individualisation of payments. Similarly with privitisation of fire coverage in some places in the US. This endangers everyone, not just the person who doesn’t pay. Again this also caries over to public health provision, public transport and many many other public goods. They can not be accounted for on an individual basis.

Why is it necessary that the charges be individualised? Surely this can be an issue of taxation if it can be made an issue of individual charges. Either the money exists objectively or it does not. If it does not than the question isn’t funding model but really a question of de-servicing the poor so they do not have to be covered.

In a related note, when the eastern bloc states were in the transition to privitisation there were documents circulated by American economists on combined-heat-and-power (CHP). They wanted to remove CHP because the meters that would be required to determine how much heat was being used per household could not be quantified and effectively liberalised. This is waste-heat which is from power generation! They effectively wanted to remove use-value and absolute general efficiency because of the incapacity to derive a revenue stream.

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hardcorefornerds - July 10, 2014

“In the European context however, it shifts from being necessary but insufficient to bordering on the sufficient. The reason for this is that there are various EU directives which force one to open up to competition areas in which there are charges”

I would agree with the first part but not sure about the second, as I’ve not heard of specific wording to that effect – generally it’s been sectors which have been opened up to competition, and while charges are of course necessary for something to be a traded service (but not sufficient, in that bin collection itself is not very ‘tradeable’ as wbs points out) I don’t know if that itself would be the trigger.

As for individualisation, there is the conservation/reduction issue – I know people have argued against that here, and I would be sympathetic to the idea of less neoliberal approaches to addressing the structural and behavioural problems with the environment, but I just don’t think the status quo offers them.

I say the left ‘relies’ on the privatisation issue because otherwise it’s no different from a populist anti-tax (or austerity) position. However if one accepts the battle against charges has been proven to be rather quixotic, then a constructive engagement with alternatives to privatisation seems a better strategy. Or engaging with the mechanisms of the EU which define the limits of competition policy, even if one rejects the basis of the policy itself.

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Gavin Mendel-Gleason - July 10, 2014

Article 106 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union:

“2. Undertakings entrusted with the operation of services of general economic interest or having the character of a revenue-producing monopoly shall be subject to the rules contained in the Treaties, in particular to the rules on competition, in so far as the application of such rules does not obstruct the performance, in law or in fact, of the particular tasks assigned to them. The development of trade must not be affected to such an extent as would be contrary to the interests of the Union.”

This applies also to state services, and it isn’t the only place where such ideas are expressed.

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hardcorefornerds - July 10, 2014

RBB made the same point about water privatisation and it seems to be circulating around without any reference to actual competition policy or case law: http://www.unitedleftalliance.org/kenny-wrong-or-lying-eu-law-means-water-charges-equal-privatisation/

Being a “revenue generating monopoly” is just a way of defining a service I think – perhaps if there were no charges, it would still be a service of “general economic interest”? I still think the significant issue is whether the sector is designated for liberalisation – which there is at least a movement at the EP level to secure water’s exclusion from (part of a more constructive approach).

There are diverse systems in Europe, generally with charges but not necessarily privatised; why should Ireland be any different? On your point below, perhaps the wider social base is across Europe, with people affected by liberalising policies.

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Gavin Mendel-Gleason - July 10, 2014

We might be able to get around the privitisation of electricity by strapping magnets to our arms and rolling over even faster.

The reason we’re losing is not a result of resisting and not capitulating earlier and more fully. Do you think we’re going to create a larger and more forceful social base by giving in faster? If not, then why will these capitulations not simply go the same way they are going – that is – to support the interests of the ruling class?

The commodification of these services is objectively (for the vast majority) a bad idea, it’s objectively in opposition to the general public interest and objectively in opposition to efficiency in terms of public utility. The only people it suits are the Dennis O’Brien’s of the world.

I can at least *imagine* trying to inspire some sort of a social base on the basis of these clear cut facts, and the real material interests that people have in going the opposite direction. What are you intending to build a social movement based on?

Our real problem is our organisational failure in building a serious left movement. It has absolutely nothing to do with resisting too much.

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Mark P - July 10, 2014

Even if the privatisation argument was wrong – and it isn’t – and could be waved away as you wish – and it can’t – opposition to service taxes still could not be dismissed as a “populist anti-tax position”.

There is nothing “anti tax” about opposing particular forms of taxes. Anti water tax and anti bin tax campaigners were (and are) all in favour of funding public services through taxation, as indeed those services were funded all along. The issue is whether they should be funded from general taxation or from flat rate charges. The latter is a reactionary, right wing, approach, which shifts the burden of taxation onto the lower paid. It is not, therefore, surprising that it is the option preferred by both Labour and the rump Green Party.

No amount of meaningless waffle about “constructive engagement” can obscure these core purpose of service taxes – privatising public services while screwing people with less money.

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hardcorefornerds - July 10, 2014

Indeed, because they’re not taxes, they’re charges. And if they’re per use, they’re not flat-rate either. But opposition to ‘the X tax’ has a natural appeal, even if it’s about upholding a system where local revenue was supposed to be replaced by general taxation but actually wasn’t (not saying that’s the left’s fault, obviously, but it’s the existing situation).

Just found this from TASC making a case for water charges and tax credits as a fairer system than relying on general taxation which is, overall, regressive: http://www.progressive-economy.ie/2014/04/water-charging-and-affordability.html

I accept if you want to reject the principle of individualisation (which I would with things like health and education) that’s an unattractive argument.

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Mark P - July 10, 2014

“Charges not taxes” is pure sophistry. Flat rate refers to ability to pay. Any tax which does not scale with wealth or income is regressive.

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WorldbyStorm - July 10, 2014

HCFN I’m sympathetic to the idea that concentration on taxes is problematic, not least in that it can engender or exacerbate an anti-any and all tax attitude amongst people. And it is also problematic because the nuance can be lost, that focus on certain taxes doesn’t mean that we’re against all taxes.
In fairness the limitations facing the left in terms of support, resources and so on means that it is necessary to resist broad processes with pin point campaigns driven by one or two issues.

But that said I think water/waste charges are of a different order from property taxes (I’m not against the latter, though I do take the Michael Taft view that they have to be much broader than just housing). Water/waste charges takes no account of ability to pay or individual circumstance. They are in and of themselves regressive. And more to the point I can’t see a compelling reason why the services cannot be funded from central taxation as they always were.
I find the ‘waste of water’ or ‘too much rubbish not enough recycling’ arguments very thin indeed. Take the first, the current water tax proposals merely allow those with greater financial resources to use as much as they can afford. Hardly a recipe for saving (actually if there was a genuine wish to ‘save’ water I can’t see why they don’t do what has been the de facto situation for years where I live and lower water pressure considerably). And one which penalises those who don’t have the financial ability to pay higher bills.
As to the latter, we have a situation where people are schooled to divide up rubbish, and are aware of excess plastic and other waste, so if services were rolled back into the state and costs into general taxation I suspect that that side of recycling would actually continue much as it does – but truth is a lot of the problem actually starts at the packaging end, something which none of this does anything to address.

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3. Tomboktu - July 10, 2014

If I remember correctly, Canada had a law that prohibited private suppliers from charging for medical procedures that were provided free by its equivalent of the HSE, which meant the quality of service was good for everybody. However, a legal challenge overturned that.

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4. Liberius - July 10, 2014

On the point of the EU’s drive towards privatisation and ‘competition’, have a look at this example from Sweden with their system of state-run off-licenses. They’ve been facing competition from online sellers who according to the EU can’t be prevented from operating in Sweden. The breakdown of state control over alcohol is likely to have a similar consequence as the flogging off of Sweden state-run chemists as had with the rampant misuse of paracetamol that can now be bought like a pack of smarties. It’s needless to say that the paracetamol problem applies in Ireland too, though we haven’t had this stark example of why the state is a better provider of medicinal products than profit seekers to make us think.

http://sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=2054&artikel=5910658
http://sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=2054&artikel=2813348
http://sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=2054&artikel=4303029

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Mark P - July 10, 2014

I’d be all in favour of a state monopoly on off sales, but it must be said that other aspects of Sweden’s licensing laws are infantilising, backwards and an all round pain in the bollocks. Like McDowell’s 10 o clock law multiplied by a thousand.

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Liberius - July 10, 2014

I suppose that’s the negative consequence of the temperance movement that was quite strong in Sweden. I’ve been reading the Martin Beck series of novels as an antidote to my heavier reading for the last few years and have been constantly amused by how frequently the ‘temperance board’ gets mentioned, something that seems totally alien to a twenty-something like myself.

On the laws in this country, I find that it’s the 10.30/12.30 in the morning law that causes me problems as it prevents me doing early ‘smash’n’grab’ raids on the supermarket, something I find an irritating inconvenience, all because some pillock reckons under-age drinkers only shop between specified hours.

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Mark P - July 10, 2014

The historic links between the Swedish temperance movement and the worker’s movement are interesting to compare with the religiosity of the temperance movement here. Despite the differences though, I retain an instinctive hostility to busybody movements of this sort.

Irish off license laws are an incoherent, bordering on insane, mix of leftover Catholic paternalism, modern public health busybodying and sops to the publican lobby.

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WorldbyStorm - July 10, 2014

The Sunday morning one is particularly irritating, though that I think has to be deliberately arranged to make supermarket sales less easy (for whose benefit could that be?).

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6to5against - July 10, 2014

I’m pretty sure we can thank Brian lenihan for that actually. McDowell pushed the idea of cafe-bars, of limited size and with a food tie in, which i thought was pretty much the only positive suggestion he ever made to improve irish life.
But the he backed down on it

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5. 7% Herring - August 1, 2014

Alcohol Politics: A Few Thoughts

Recently in the comments over on the Cedar Lounge Revolution the topic of the Temperance movement in Sweden came up off the back of my invocation of the Swedish state-run chain of off-licences called the ‘Systembolaget’. As a sort of continuation of th…

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