How policies get dropped and positions reversed.

Political policy changes constantly in a democracy. It does so primarily in response to the changing concerns of its electorate, because by addressing these concerns, politicians hoping to gain office naturally expect to attract votes by catering to these concerns.

When the economy is prosperous and the employment rate is high, the electorate’s concerns tend to be more nebulous since, by and large, they’re doing well. They really don’t have anything major to worry about so politicians have to seize on any issue, no matter how trivial or illusory it might be, to whip up a bit of interest in their election campaign. In local politics, there is nearly always a real local issue which can be campaigned on. In the good times and at a national level, substantial issues of any importance to the electorate tend to be hard to find.

In an extraordinarily long upswing in the economic cycle, the emerging threat of global warming was a godsend for the politicians. Saving the planet was seen as a noble endeavour and made everyone feel good and righteous. They didn’t have to sell their commitment to this noble task to many people for a number of reasons. When times are good, the middle classes tend to take little interest in national elections, since they’re busy making a buck and enjoying spending it. The poorer elements of society never vote anyway and as there will always be roughly equal numbers of committed left and right-wing voters, this just leaves the floating voter and the first-time voter to sell the idea to. Essentially, the small segment of people they had to convince the threat was real were the politically fickle and the politically innocent.

What made using the notion of catastrophic global warming particularly attractive was not just the willing authority figures, in the shape of alarmist climate scientists quite happy to scare people with their dire predictions, but the fact that it would require very little expenditure of money by the political machines. The mainstream media (MSM) were wholly supportive of the idea, because the hoped for side effect of addressing the problem involved a global redistribution of wealth, which appealed to its overwhelmingly liberal sentiments.

There were also a significant number of powerful campaigning organisations, such as Greenpeace, already in place and for their own selfish interests, were more than willing to stoke the fires of alarmism.

Once carbon trading became part of the proposed solution to the threat, the moneymen got involved, since it represented a huge opportunity to make a lot of money. Purely as a matter of sound investment, they started funding the politicians, the scientists and the activists who were pushing the alarm buttons.

The stage was set. The politicians would make use of the scientists and the green organisations to hype the hysteria, so they could use the momentum to help gain office. It worked. Once there, they implemented a raft of green policies which, while they generally made no financial or environmental sense, satisfied their supporters and anyway, there was apparently lots of government money to burn, even for such delusional policies as subsidised windmills, which would always require conventional backup generating facilities.

Then came the recession and the attendant crash of the financial system.

Policy changes in a different fashion when an economy, and therefore the electorate, is in trouble. As the job losses mount, people’s demands become quite simple. They want policies in place to create jobs and bring back the good times. The usual pattern tends to be the previous administration, of whatever political stripe, voted out of office when the crash comes, a new administration opening the books and finding all the money is gone, steadily rising welfare costs, steadily dropping taxation income and an electorate who are in no mood for any shilly-shallying around. They want real action and they want it now.

Globally, the economies of most countries are now in this situation and we’re just heading into the second dip of a double dip recession. Things are not going to get better any time soon.

There has only ever been one set of policies to get a country out of recession. They correspond exactly to what you as an individual must do if you find yourself in financially straightened circumstances. You cut back on all non-essential spending, get a second job to increase your income and try to get some bridging loans to tide you over until times get better. In government terms, these correspond to savage cutbacks in public spending on anything that isn’t creating jobs, higher taxes to raise more revenue and the flotation of a lot of public debt on the international bond markets. The degree to which each of these steps is used is a matter of judgement but none of them are optional. The usual procedure is to apply all of these policies for the first two years of the administration and then, assuming things are getting better, start backing them off for the next two years, which will give you some chance of being re-elected.

If these policies, or their equivalent, are not implemented and the government essentially goes into denial about the true state of the economy and what changes must be made, then the pressure builds inexorably until you finally get complete economic collapse. This extreme scenario is the explanation for the sudden implosion of the USSR. The economy eventually collapsed and therefore the whole political entity followed suit.

To get through a recession, most of the outlandish promises made in the good times will have to be broken. The trick here is not to just announce that fact but rather to gradually change policy, as you must by the transition from good to bad times. The politicians have two things on their side that aid them in this transition.

The first one is that it’s invariably a new administration, so most of the economic ills can safely be blamed on the previous one but you can only get so much mileage out of that ploy before you have to start showing some improvement. The new broom sweeping away the old administration’s policy excesses plays well and anyway, people no longer care about imaginary threats, because they’re by now having to contend with some pretty concrete ones.

The second one is rather more subtle. When people are hurting, they’re focused on what you’re saying you’re going to do right now to fix things, not what you were saying three or four years ago. Think of it as the electorate’s poor short-term memory. Politicians use it to ditch policies which are no longer financially tenable or have ceased to have any appeal to the electorate. Quite simply, you just gradually stop mentioning your former policy and people don’t notice.

Of course, the people who will notice are the ones who originally campaigned for the policy. This is usually handled by telling them that we promised a policy, delivered it, so what more do you want? Since the policy is now safely seen as a slightly historical done deed, the business of quietly defunding it can continue apace. It may take years for it to finally make its way off the statute books but pretty soon, everyone knows it’s a toothless policy shell, which will always be at the end of the priority queue. In ten year’s time, all those rusted and derelict windmills, dotted over the landscape of Europe, will be a visible reminder of this.

Spotting the use of this tactic in everyday politics is a bit like Sherlock Holmes’ remark about the dog barking being curious. On cue, Dr. Watson reminds him that the dog wasn’t barking. Exactly, replies Sherlock. Over the last two years, so many politicians, who used the global warming scare to help them get elected, barely mention it any more, if at all. The only ones who do, tend to be political has-beens like Al Gore or the true believers, who allowed themselves to become too publicly identified with an idea, which is now perceived as passé. They’re now by default stranded on the political margins because the political centre has moved away from global warming.

In last week’s State of the Union Address, Barack Obama didn’t mention global warming once. Contrast that to his grandiose promises of combating it just three years ago in his election rallies. Then he was campaigning on a low Carbon America ticket as well as the chimera of all those wonderful green jobs, which signally failed to materialise as the real jobs market contracted. Indeed, after wasting half a billion dollars in loan guarantees on a single company like Solyndra, he’s keeping very quiet about the whole green economy thing. Instead, he decided to sing the virtues of energy independence, created by his sudden discovery of the massive shale gas deposits across America. He even went on to give his backing to the fuller exploitation of all domestic oil and gas reserves.

All this would have been pure heresy a few years ago and if his former green backers are still in need of any confirmation of his abandoning them in favour of improving his re-election chances, that was it.

While it’s always useful to listen to what politicians are saying, it’s so often what you no longer hear them talking about that tells you the policy has changed. In America, as in most other countries, the green dream is over because they’ve lost the support of the political establishment. Without that, nothing but political oblivion awaits you.


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The power of dreams and the power of nightmares.


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8 Responses to “How policies get dropped and positions reversed.”
  1. Edward. says:

    Agreed P,

    Our big problem here in Blighty is the very stark fact, is that our PM is so beholden to his wife [ex – greenpeace fanatic] and she does definitely wear the trousers. Plus, Cameron was heard to mouth referring to Al Gore something to the effect of;”oh Al Gore, he certainly knows his stuff!”
    Gawd help us, even Obarmy is getting it but then of course [how silly of me to forget] Britain is now a maritime province of the greater European Socialist Empire – so no real surprise I guess = AGW rools OK still.

    Heaven help us indeed, mind you, on the plus side, one of his chief green loonies operators is battling to prevent himself from having a ‘holiday’ courtesy of Her Maj’s.

    Even though tis black, tisn’t all black.


  2. Pointman says:

    “Wind farm subsidy cut urged by MPs”

    Defunding …



    • Edward. says:


      Any move, a sound of a hint even, is a hopeful sign but to admit to and then scale back or [better] remove, to make good such gross policy errors, if only……………………… and even then, the pace will be glacially slow.


  3. sleuth says:

    Hi P I would prefer that I could email you in private as something is going on with my laptop that I think is abnormal. I don’t want to seem like a drama queen but this has happened before.


  4. Pointman says:

    “Wind power plug pulled in Illinois”

    Defunding …



  5. alexjc38 says:

    For a taste of just how the political and economic climate has changed over the last 8 years, here’s some footage of prominent politicians (including both the present and former UK energy secretaries) taking part in a “Stop Climate Chaos” march, back in 2006.

    This seems almost as far away in time now as the Greenham Common protests in the 1980s over cruise missiles. Somehow, “Green Taxes Now!” no longer seems to have the popular appeal they must have thought it once did!


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