Monbiot returns to form today with a scathing piece about Labour's PFI scheme to widen the M25. The way this £5bn-sized slice of insanity works appears to be as follows: as usual, the Government pretends to externalise the risk to a consortium, but in this case it then lends them £400m of the £1,300m required to build the project.
£500m more comes from European taxpayers via the European Investment Bank, and the remainder is being loaned by the Royal Bank of Scotland (i.e. us) and then underwritten by the Treasury (i.e. us again).
The contracts are also so long and so perverse that if some future government actually tried to reduce our dependence on oil, we taxpayers would then have to compensate the PFI consortium for the reduced traffic. It's hard to imagine a more incompetent and venal financial scheme, and all for a project which is as useless as the second Forth Road Bridge itself.
Remember this next time Labour complain that the SNP have abandoned PFI. And also remember that John Swinney has admitted that the Scottish Futures Trust is from the same family.
Nate Silver from 538 has an interesting and related piece on General Motors, their pension plans and their relationship with the unions. Between the 1950s and the 1980s they made some very generous retirement benefit deals with their employees, deals which weren't even on their balance sheets until 1992. Now those deals are paying out, and the company is on the verge of bankruptcy.
"This issue is wrongly portrayed by both the liberal and the conservative media as one of management versus labor, when really it is a battle between General Motors past and General Motors present. In the 50s, 60s and 70s, everyone benefited: GM and its shareholders got the benefit of higher profit margins, and meanwhile, its employees benefited from GM's willingness to cut a bad deal -- for every dollar they were giving up in salary, those employees were getting a dollar and change back in retirement benefits. But now, everyone is hurting." (thanks, Aaron)
PFI and the SFT work on a similar basis. The Labour and SNP approaches to public spending are not about making savings, they're a battle between current Ministers on one side, keen to deliver shiny photo-ops transport projects but not to pay for them, and on the other side, future taxpayers, who neither government seems to give a monkey's about. Future Ministers are, to a lesser extent, losing out: they will have less money to spend on public services while having to tax harder to get there.
In 2030 those taxpayers will find themselves still paying for shabby hospitals long pulled down and roads schemes which sit unloved and barely used as we (hopefully) make that transition to a low carbon economy. Meanwhile the architects of their problems - Brown, Swinney, Major and the like - will all be retired and writing volume four of their memoirs.
Perhaps we can surcharge them and reclaim a bit of our money from their advances. It won't cover the bills they're leaving behind, but it'll make us feel a lot better about it all.