Let’s start 2009 on a high note with free-thinking occasional Guardian contributor Tim Worstall:
It’s one of my favourite truisms about economics that we don’t actually have solutions, we only have tradeoffs. Yes, we can make some things better but it will be at the cost of making some other things worse: or at least different.
Whether we think that the overall bargain is worth it is often a matter of personal choice, of course, but we do need to look at all of the effects before making such.
This simple point is at the heart of why policy-making so often goes awry.
"Yes, your splendid new policy can do X and Y. There are grounds for thinking that it may do Z too.
But have you accepted, Minister, that while that is happening unwelcome side-effects A and B also will be occurring? And down the road we’ll probably see unexpected consequences which also are likely to be harmful?"
Ministers love proclaiming the supreme merits of X and Y. They leave it to the Opposition to warn about A and B. Yet A and B may turn out to be the bigger and worse consequences of the policy choice.
Not all outcomes are expected or necessarily malign. But all decisions do have outcomes, if only the fact that in doing P you have not done Q.
Take a simple case: having age-limits for youthful ice-hockey players.
Those who just miss whatever age-limit is imposed have to wait almost a year to join the higher level. Yet that extra year can be highly beneficial:
Outliers is also the title of a very insightful and very readable new book by best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell. The book’s subtitle is “The Story of Success.” It is a study of the factors behind people who have had spectacular achievements in fields ranging from hockey to computers.
One of the first groups of outliers studied are top-level Canadian hockey players, a wholly disproportionate number of whom were born in the first three months of the year. … The key factor turned out to be a fixed date — January 1st in both countries — for selecting young boys to be placed on special hockey teams that were the elite of their age groups …
Obviously a boy born the day after the selection date would be virtually a year older when the next selection date came around, compared to a boy born the day before the selection date, even though they were both officially the “same” age, competing for places on the same elite hockey teams.
… Being tracked into elite hockey teams, early on, allowed that initial advantage to be parlayed into an ever larger advantage of experience and training with elite teams over the years.
This also explains why the not-so-rich tend to get absolutely richer faster than the poor do – small positive differences compound up over time.
Which brings us to the EU Working Time Directive.
Before Christmas the European Parliament voted to end the UK’s opt-out from these norms. The effect of this vote, as and when it comes into force, is to set new limits on the hours employed people can work.
Various other Guardian contributors such as Stephen Hughes gloated at this European blow for civilisation and against ‘tiredness’:
Who wants to undergo a life-saving operation performed by a surgeon who is falling asleep on his or her feet? What about that electrical appliance you are about to plug in – was it assembled by an exhausted worker? A moment’s thought shows that in just about every walk of life, tiredness puts people at risk.
This move by the European Parliament is Bad. There is no conceivable majority for this sort of legislation in the UK Parliament, so a load of foreigners with low democratic legitimacy ratings impose it on us with a view to deliberately reducing flexibility in UK labour markets (flexibility which many other EU countries still do not extend to each other).
New rounds of haggling will ensue. But insofar as this new set of norms or something like them come into force, they will have Consequences.
Some of those will, as defined by Stephen Hughes et al, be ‘positive’: more employed people will work rather fewer hours.
But some will be negative. Employers are unlikely to take on extra people to do that work now not being done. Everyone loses.
Or take this consequence. My doctor friend in the NHS tells me that a direct result of European ‘Health and Safety’ requirements is that doctors are qualifying with far fewer hours having been spent practising real medicine. And that this will lead inexorably to more botched operations and more costly litigation against the NHS: "suing doctors is the business to be in"
So, Mr Hughes, tell us.
When you have your complex operation in a few years’ time, who would you rather have leading it?
The doctor with lots of experience gained from tiring longer hours earlier in his/her career?
Or the bright, untired less experienced doctor who tends to make more ruinous mistakes carving through your pallid flesh, thanks to the EU Parliament being unable to mind its own business?
Personally I hope that he gets the latter doctor.
One should always have one’s New Year dreams come true.