I spent my high school years living on the Inner Hebridean island of Islay.
My school bus-route skirted the shores of Lochindaal - a magnificent sea loch which is home to thousands of barnacle geese in the winter. The journey would take about 45 minutes. Of course the nearer I got to home the emptier the bus would become and I'd gaze out of the window and let my mind wander.
Did she really smile at me today as she got off the bus? Of course not, she's just being polite. Way out of my league.
The last few miles of the journey were on single-track roads. That's when I'd transport myself through the window and travel along the wires strung between the telegraph poles. With enough mental effort I could keep up with the bus through a combination of running & speed-skating, jumping when the wires crossed the pylons, surfing when they sloped downwards. It passed the time.
Forgive the whimsy, but these memories have been roused by debates I've become embroiled in recently. Let me explain.
Think about the average transport cost of getting pupils to school when the communities served are remote and the travel distances long. Think what it costs to build and maintain miles of roads, some of which serve just a handful of people. Think about the telegraph line and power cable cost-per-person when delivering these vital services to remote areas.
With islands of course you have the added costs of sub-sea interconnects for power and telecoms, you have ferry subsidies. One of my summer jobs involved driving the hospital van to take laundry to the mainland, staying overnight and returning with clean laundry and fresh hospital supplies. Break a leg on Islay and the air-ambulance will fly you to Glasgow.
These are all illustrative examples of what we mean when we say that Scotland is a high "cost-to-serve" country. We have island communities and remote rural villages, our population density is only 20% as high as England's. It's inevitable that - if we are to come close to delivering equal service levels - our infrastructure and service costs will be higher on a per person basis than the rest of the UK.
As I've shown elsewhere on this blog (> Full Fiscal Autonomy For Dummies), this higher cost-to-serve is the main cause of the potential £7.6bn "black-hole" that Scotland would face if we were to be fiscally autonomous. Actually I don't like the tabloid friendly hyperbole of "black-hole" - let's just say "that would make us £7.6bn worse off".
Which is where we come to the dreaded "subsidy" word.
Nobody likes to think of themselves as subsidised and island folk are no exception - subsidy is a word laden with negative connotations. So in the context of the devolution debate and with my island upbringing you'll forgive me if I wearily suggest that I've kind of been here before.
Those of you who read my blog regularly will be aware that - when debating Scotland's national accounts (GERS) - I have been trenchant in my criticism of those exploiting confusion over how whisky duty revenue should be attributed.
Islay is home to 8 active distilleries and it used to be said you couldn't buy a blended whisky in Scotland that didn't contain at least one Islay malt. So it's perhaps not surprising that - normally when complaining about poor road surfaces or frequent power cuts - Ileachs are inclined to mention the amount of whisky duty the island generates on behalf of the Scottish government.
I have a confession to make here: as a teenager I never questioned that logic. So I really do understand how compelling that feels as an argument. I get why, in the context of the Scottish independence debate, some grievance seeking nationalists instinctively feel they should be able to claim any UK duty paid on whisky as "ours".
I won't waste time here explaining why whisky duty generated from sales of Bowmore whisky in Edinburgh is no more "attributable to Islay" than the duty charged on Scottish whisky sold in a London is "attributable to Scotland" (or indeed the duty on Russian vodka sold in Glasgow is "attributable to Russia"). Duty income is generated by the consumers buying the product (in whatever territory they may be). If you doubt this see the addenda to this post > Sowing The Seeds - it covers the logic and various arguments around attributing consumption taxes in soul-sapping detail.
Of course the whisky industry does create huge value, most obviously through direct employment, associated support industries and corporation tax. But if we're to draw the analogy of "Islay is to Scotland what Scotland is to the UK" then all of those sources of value are already correctly attributed in the GERS numbers. But let's not get lost in the technical detail again - this is all a side issue compared to the point I want to make.
If you ran the pro-forma national accounts for Islay I imagine they would show that Ileachs would be worse off independent than remaining in Scotland. Does that mean we should accuse Ileachs of being "subsidy junkies"? Is that a sad indictment of Scotland's treatment of the island over the last few hundred years? Of course not. In fact that observation should be a source of celebration, it's an illustration of how well our sharing society works.
It costs more to get kids on Islay to school than kids in Glasgow, it costs more to fly someone to hospital than to drive them. But I'm guessing that most Glaswegians don't give that a second thought. The principle that all citizens within our nation should be entitled to a good education and reasonable quality of healthcare is so engrained that it barely needs to be argued for.
Within a nation, we don't draw circles around groups of people and say "you're not paying your way". There will always be circles we could draw within a national map that will define net contributors and net beneficiaries. We don't do that because - I hope - it's instinctively the wrong thing to do.
But the devolution debate has been characterised by cries of "it's our oil" on one side (when the oil revenues are high) and "you're subsidy junkies" on the other (when the oil revenues are low).
It appears to me that the nationalists have been responsible for framing the debate in these blunt "economic value transfer" terms. So it's rather ironic that - having set out their grievance-stall based on the fact that Scotland contributes more than it get's back - the resultant focus on our finances has demonstrated that in fact the reverse is currently true.
Don't get me wrong: I think we should know what the simple financial implications of fiscal autonomy (or indeed independence) are, we should understand our pro-forma stand-alone national accounts. Indeed most of my blogging activity has been taken up by trying to ensure that we are honest with voters about what those numbers show us. But to allow the debate to be couched in these bean-counter's terms, to suggest that the right answer is simply a question of working out which solution makes us richer now (or might make us richer in 10 years' time) is surely wrong.
Once you pass a certain threshold of personal comfort and security it is - I hope - a natural and fundamentally decent human trait to want to look out for those who are less well off than you. That's why the welfare state exists, that's why we have the NHS. It's why we have Universal Service Obligations around essential utilities, so that those who live remotely aren't financially penalised.
Of course there are pros and cons of throwing your lot in with a wider group. If you don't have sufficient political influence or fiscal control, how exposed are you willing to be to the downsides of others' actions? We'll hear plenty more on this topic during the EU referendum I'm sure.
But putting the politics to one side, our willingness to throw our lot in with others - to "pool and share" - is, I suspect, largely dependent on our intuitive sense of likely reciprocation.
Which is where we come to the joyously positive example of the United Kingdom and how well it's worked for both Scotland and the rest of the UK.
When the windfall gain of North Sea oil appeared in the 1980's it meant that Scotland became a massive net contributor to the UK, we more than paid our way. We shouldn't feel aggrieved that that happened, we should celebrate it. We should no more resent the periods when we contribute than we should be embarrassed by the periods when (like now) we benefit.
Over time wherever you draw those circles on a map there's a chance that net beneficiaries may become net contributors and vice-versa.
For me that's why - whether we're discussing Scottish independence or EU membership - the objective should be to draw wider more inclusive circles, not smaller more insular ones.