Saturday, December 03, 2005

Pensions and power stations

Two apparently unrelated items of news this week in the UK got me thinking that perhaps all was not lost as far as climate change (and indeed Government competence and willingness to to its job) is concerned. And I say that as someone who would not have voted for Tony Blair in the last election even if I'd had a vote to waste use.

The first is pension reform. It's long been clear that something had to be done, with people living longer, and no increase in the number of workers (through population growth and/or immigration) necessary to keep them in the style to which they would like to become accustomed. The Govt seems to be heading down the obvious and entirely appropriate path of staged increases in the state pension age, perhaps raising it to 68 by 2050. This in itself won't be quite enough (or indeed acceptable) while they maintain their present unsustainable retirement age of 60 for all public sector employees, but it's always struck me as a stupid waste of ability to throw people out of work at such an early age and I'm sure this will change too (this rule applies to scientists such as me, assuming I return). In fact, it's often even worse than it sounds, because the early retirement packages are attractive to anyone past the age of about 54. Prior to coming to Japan, it seemed like the number of early retirees at my lab substantially outweighed those who survived to full term. For a lab with a budget deficit, it makes some sense (in the short-term) to replace an old expensive employee with a youngster on half the salary. The retiree also gets about half his old salary as pension, but this doesn't come out of the lab budget. So as far as the national economy is concerned, the net result is the same payment for (probably) less good work. But the lab stays afloat to struggle on for another year or two. If this sounds grim, it's because it is :-)

Of course, I'm not against people retiring as early as they want to, so long as they can afford it. Us scientists are certainly lucky to get paid for what sometimes feels like a hobby, and I'm sure that some people don't enjoy their work as much. I don't much fancy 30 years of golf, but I don't discount the possibility that I might feel differently in a few more decades. Anyway, a more gradual wind-down seems more sensible to me than a sudden stop, at whatever age. My father-in-law is still working quite gently in a university department at age 75 - he goes in about one day a week or so, and churned out his 100th paper not long ago (and in fact Jules and I co-authored one of the previous ones, which was fun). That seems like a very civilised approach to retirement. But anyway, I digress.

The other issue which has hit the headlines is the fuss over nuclear power. Many of the UK's existing nuclear power stations are due to close by about 2020, and with the North Sea gas also running out, new nukes is one obvious option. It's not without problems of course - mainly opposition from various environmental groups. I'm certainly not overly keen (it seems to me that the level of funding they seem to require could be usefully applied to research into renewables, which are now close to the point at which they could make a real contribution eg, not that the UK is particuarly well-suited to solar power). Nuclear power should cut CO2 emissions, but perhaps not by as much as one might hope, due to the energy demands of extracting the fuel (plus construction and disposal, I guess).

The point I want to draw from this lengthy ramble is the encouraging fact that the Govt is prepared to take a long-term view - not something that any politicians (and especially the present crop) have often been accused of. 50 years into the future is usually way off the radar and even 2020 is far off. On this time scale, climate change becomes a significant consideration, and it is possible that we will see the meaningful debate that has so far been largely absent. The emissions argument is already being used as a justification for more nuclear power, although it's been said that the possibility of rising sea level may also interfere with using some of the best coastal sites (actually, I find it hard to believe this is really a serious issue given the rate of a few mm per year - note that we have a 6 metre tidal range in some places). I'm not sure if this is Tony Blair trying to create a lasting legacy, or simply not caring about re-election. Either way, I think they deserve some credit for at least being prepared to address the problems, whether or not they choose exactly the solutions that I would prefer. In contrast, here in Japan, the long-anticipated population crash has already started a couple of years ahead of schedule. The population is declining (for the first time ever, near enough) and the proportion of retirees is rocketing. With lifetime fertility now below 1.3 children per female (replacement rate being about 2.1) this is shaping up to be a crisis of epic proportions compared to the UK's relatively stable situation. And what do we have in the way of planning? Occasional giggles in the scandal-sheets over how some naughty politician or other has been caught not paying into the voluntary-compulsory national pension scheme that everyone knows cannot possibly cope with the future demands. As for the pension rights of foreigners - that can only be described as state-sponsored theft, but that rant is for another day.

6 comments:

James Aach said...

If you wish to learn more about nuclear energy (the good and the bad) in a painless fashion, there is a techno-thriller novel about the American nuclear power industry on the net, written by a longtime nuclear engineer (me). This book provides an entertaining and accurate portrait of the American nuclear industry today and how a nuclear accident would be handled. (Some of Japan's reactors have roughly the same design, if not the same culture, etc.) The novel is called “Rad Decision”, and is at RadDecision.blogspot.com. There is no cost to readers.

http://RadDecision.blogspot.com

Kooiti Masuda said...

The Japanese government has the Council for Science and Technology Policy, and it invites public comments to the draft of its basic policy. The deadline is 11 Dec. and the URL is http://www8.cao.go.jp/cstp/pubcomme/kihon/kihonseisaku.html
(Japanese only).

I do not like its tone with emphasis on winning international competition rather than on building global commons. But I heard that it will have strong influence on the government's policy anyway.

The draft (.../pubcomme/kihon/tousinan.pdf) explicitly says that Japan should attract foreign researchers (on p. 6 = the 11th page of the PDF file; p. 16-17 (21-22); p. 39-40 (44-45)), and the government should improve their situation with respect to residence, visa, etc.

But it does not mention pension as far as I have quickly browsed.
I think you had better claim the issue of what you call "state-sponsored theft" to the government taking this opportunity. (I do not suggest you to use that harsh wording, of course).

I myself want to mention the issue of intellectual commons, and thus probably do not have enough time to discuss the issue of foreign residents.

James Annan said...

Masuda-san,

Thanks for the tip. Maybe I will give it a go, but I can't help but think that if they wanted my (and other foreigners') opinions, they would have asked for them. Talking about visas is rather missing the point, of course. If they were serious about internationalisation rather than just short-term visits, they'd be talking about tenure and eliminating the previously-mentioned pension theft.

I'm surprised they didn't talk about the Gaijin Chip and how it will add to the "protection" and "convenience" of foreigners :-)

Kooiti Masuda said...

By the way, I wonder whether public opinions to global warming and to nuclear power is correlated. More specifically, these two ideas:

1. Climate change due to anthropogenic greenhouse gases is an important issue for us (i.e. all human beings) demanding some political action. (It implies that the probability of some significant climate change due to that factor is thought to be significant, but not necessarily that it is thought to be very high.)

2. We should use more nuclear power than the present level.

Personally I am moderately positive (i.e. It is a serious issue but not the number one item of political agenda) to "1", and strongly negative to "2".

This question came to my mind because one of the few maybe "reputable" skeptic on global warming in Japan is a long-term anti-nuclear-power advocate (originally a physicist). He started thinking both issues in 1970s and he has not changed his mind. (He insists on global cooling. It seems that his basis is something like Charney (1975)'s theory of desertification that degradation of vegetation results in cooling.) Maybe there was positive correlation in 1970s (I am not sure), though there were few people who expressed either positive or negative opinions to "1" then (I am sure).

My guess that the correlation broke down in 1986 when, for "1", the book by Bolin et al. (Villach workshop report) was published, and for 2", the accident of Chernobyl occurred.

But now positive correlation may be being built up again, given the feeling that most of us do not want to give up convenience of electric power. Maybe not.

EliRabett said...

I have noticed that people who advocate extending retirement age tend to come from social strata where work is not physical. While we all have heard of (some of us, not me, are related to) 90 year old farmers who go out in the field every day, folk do physically break down, lots of work is boring as hell and you will notice that around 60 people start coming up with their own fiddle.

I don't know how to reconcile this with longer lifetimes and shorter pensions, but I do know that simply extending full retirement age will decrease the pensions of the people who need them the most, who from physical necessity will retire early

James Annan said...

Eli,

I would hope that any civilised society would have an adequate safety net for those who are not physically capable of work. But we must remember that a long retirement is a purely modern invention, an accident borne out of a greatly increased lifespan combined with a fixed retirement age. And forcibly kicking people out at age 60, even when they are still working productively, certainly seems like madness.