Numbers on tap, and no politics

I teach a course on statistics and their social context. One of the books I try to get my students to read is Joel Best’s Damned Lies and Statistics. The subtitle is considerably more telling and goes as follows: ‘Untangling numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists’.

It really looks like either way we’re going to have to pay for it, plus the consultancy fees
- Mark Anthony Falzon

The book was published in 2001, which makes it impossible that Best was inspired by Labour’s energy proposals. But I’ve half a mind to write to him with some press-cuttings, as a suggested case-study for his second edition. That’s because untangling these particular numbers from the politicians would make for some epic entertainment.

The only thing I know about energy is how to spell it. I am in no position to assess the various technical aspects of Labour’s Big January Sale. That pleasure must be left to experts like Robert Ghirlando, a professor of engineering whose opinion was carried in Thursday’s The Times.

Still, I’d like to comment about the unit cost of production, factored costs, range of estimates, timed energy mix, utlilisation rates, and combined-cycle gas turbine. The numbers I shall focus on include 18c, 9c6, 9c4, 25 years (10,6,6,3), 2014, 2015, 18.4 per cent, 187 million, 110 million, 77 million, 166 million, and 200MW. One can hardly fault Labour for having done their homework to the best of their consultants’ ability. It would have been hugely irresponsible of them to promise to reduce energy bills and leave it at that.

But there’s a problem, and it’s a big one. Their presentations effectively leave out what is probably the most crucial ingredient. There is no mention whatsoever of politics (and its tax money cost). We are expected to believe that lower energy bills will follow willy nilly on clever ‘costings’ and 25-year projections.

What Labour has done is kick up a sandstorm of technical facts and figures. Their shock-and-awe tactic of bombarding us with information looks fine. Until, that is, one asks a simple question: what if things go wrong? Will we still get our discount?

There are many things that can go wrong, truth be told. Perhaps as a kind of playful postmodern homage to the ‘Switzerland in the Mediterranean’ heritage, Labour’s plan puts a grand complications timepiece to shame. Only the moving parts are hardly well-oiled and sealed in a case by a master craftsman. Rather, they’re all over the place and working quite individually.

I refer to the many variables that Labour’s plan depends on, things like shipment costs, salaries, fuel prices, recurrent expenditure, and such. Each of these is itself caught up in chains of political decisions and contingency, environmental policy, local politics, economic growth and demand, supply, and much more. As for the ‘deal mal-privat’, readers of Private Eye will have an idea of what tends to happen when governments buy their energy from private companies.

No matter, Labour expects it all to fall exactly into place on March 10 and stay there for 10, possibly 25, years.

I am not saying that Labour’s promise is a vacant one, or that their numbers are rubbish. I quite believe that Joseph Muscat will indeed reduce energy bills by an average of 25 per cent. The reason he will do so is that he has taken a political decision in that direction. It’s a decision he’s chosen to mask behind a smokescreen of consultancy babble.

He’s also chosen the perfect person for the job. And no, it’s not his utilities spokesperson. Unfortunately for her, Marlene Farrugia comes across as a human being. She would likely say something like ‘Energy bills will go down because we have a social conscience and believe they should do so no matter what’. The warm-blooded bipedal horror.

Konrad Mizzi on the other hand talks like Delimara Phase 2 and says things like ‘check your facts’ and ‘I lived in England, I’m used to performing and delivering’ (unlike us island bumpkins). He also says ‘correct’ when Tonio Fenech occasionally gets it right. In a country with a sense of humour, Mizzi would earn his living doing stand-up parodies of consultants. In Malta he sells politics for costings.

In fairness, Labour seems to have learned from the masters. The Nationalist Government has played the game for very, very long. Take hunting. Briefly, the EU Birds Directive does not allow spring hunting. Member states may however apply for and be granted a derogation, provided they can convince the Commission that their case is sufficiently strong.

What that means in practice is that spring hunting derogations come with a mass of ‘scientific’ data and statistics on bird populations, migratory routes, and such. These ostensibly serve, first, to establish that there is a case for spring shooting at all and, second, to establish the numbers of birds that may be shot. In spring 2012 those numbers were 5,000 quail and 11,000 turtle doves.

The problem is that the ‘scientific’ data are actually fuzzy and super-complicated science (more Swiss watches). They exist simply as a veneer, a means of masking the real inner workings of the derogation. The truth is that the decision whether or not to allow spring hunting, and that about the numbers of quail and turtle doves that may be shot, are political ones. They may or may not be sane – but that is beside the point here. Labour are right to emphasise the economic workings of their plan. They are also believable when they say bills will go down. But the two don’t necessarily follow. The missing link is politics. Which begs the question: why don’t they just say so?

I think the reason has to do with subsidies. If any of the moving parts misbehaves (and when was the last time you brought in the builders to an accurate stima?), the government will have to stop the gap with taxpayers’ money. It’s all well and good to do one’s costings. The only way to guarantee low energy bills is to insure the process using public funds.

And that only part of the insurance package. Mizzi’s rehearsal of Labour’s ‘you have the space and land’/‘se ntuk l-art’ to private investors is breathtaking. Just when I thought land costs money (and I’m not even going near environmental costs), space and land failed to make it to the costings.

It really looks like either way we’re going to have to pay for it, plus the consultancy fees.

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