Dear Dr. Sarah Wollaston MP

I write this open letter to you in the hope that you have been grievously misquoted by the Daily Mail. For it would be painful to have to believe that a sitting MP, and a qualified doctor to boot, could be quite so ill-informed about food, prices and obesity. It is thus my hope that your words have been manipulated by the newspaper rather than that you actually believe any of this tosh.

For example, you are quoted as saying that:

‘There is a huge amount of personal responsibility. But it is now so serious we need to state to step in and take some measures.

‘The choice is you either do nothing and carry on saying it’s all down to personal choice and you continue to pick up a huge bill through the NHS.

‘We have to take out junk food calories and help to get people moving and more active.’

The problem there is that obesity does not cost the NHS anything at all. Indeed, the price to the NHS of obesity is negative. The reason being that the NHS is a system of lifetime health care and those who are obese die earlier. Yes it is true that they incur healthcare costs while alive and fat: but these are more than outweighed by the savings to the NHS when they are dead and buried and not requiring those longer years of health care.

This means that there are substantial private costs to people of being lardbuckets, entirely true, but it is not true to then say that there are public costs to their being so, as you well know.

‘One of the reasons why the most disadvantaged people are running into difficulties is partly because the healthy food is more expensive.

‘If you are struggling on a budget, you are much more likely to pick food on special offers. But all of the special offers tend to be on crisps, sweets and junk food.

That is also not true. Rice, beans, onions and tomatoes may not be a very interesting diet but it is still both healthier and vastly cheaper than any form of junk food calorie for calorie, whatever the BOGOF or discount that is being offered. This is something that we both know and so for the Mail to be quoting you as it did is obviously something you’ll want to correct.

And finally the paper seems to be making a good attempt at making you look like an idiot:

She warned voluntary agreements with big chains had not worked and regulation was now needed to force stores to offer discounts on fruit and vegetables.

This is price fixing and price fixing does not work. By definition price fixing does not work: clearly a Tory MP is well aware of this fact for the following obvious reason. If we fix prices below the market clearing price then we will have fewer suppliers willing to produce at that price. We will also have more people desiring to consume that good or service at that price: the result is instant shortages of those goods and or services. We need only to look at the provision of toilet paper in Venezuela, well reported recently, to see that. Similarly, if we fix prices above the market clearing price then we find that consumers desire to purchase less of these goods and services while producers will be squeezing every extra unit out they can. Leading, as the European Union showed us when they did it, to vast gluts in the form of butter mountains and wine lakes.

Price fixing thus leads to either dearth or glut unless we fix those prices at the market clearing price itself. In itself that has a problem for as you well know we don’t in fact have any other mechanism than the market itself to work out what that market clearing price is. But even if we did, again as is obvious to both of us, what’s the damn point of fixing prices where they would be anyway?

Quite clearly you’ll want to make sure that the Daily Mail corrects this terrible misrepresentation of what any sane or sensible person could possibly believe on this subject. My suggestion is that you start by calling 020 7938 6000 and ask for a certain Mr. Paul Dacre. He should be able to sort out matters for you.

Yours etc

Tim Worstall

It’s our dreadful colonialism that caused the South Sea Islanders to get fat

This just in: that appalling colonial thing we white folks did is what made the people of the South Pacific so dreadfully fat today:

Anthropologists Dr Amy McLennan and Professor Stanley Ulijaszek found that islanders lost many of their traditional food cultivation, preparation and preserving skills after settlers insisted that they learn western ways of eating.

They taught the locals to fry fish rather than eat it raw, and forced them to import unhealthy produce after co-opting farmland for mining.

“Under colonial rule, much changed in how food was sourced, grown and prepared and the social change was swift,” said lead author Dr McLennan

“What happened to the land also changed as colonial agriculture and mining industries expanded. There was an increase in family size meaning food was increasingly imported.”

It’s that last sentence that should have been a clue to our intrepid scientists. A change in diet, a change in the amount of food available (for that’s what imports manage) leads to a removal of the Malthusian limits on family size. They couldn’t have large families before because there wasn’t enough food to feed them. After that dreadful, hateful, arrival of the colonialists food supplies increased and it was possible to raise larger families.

Or to make the same statement another way: the colonialists improved the diets of those who lived on such islands. It might not be an improvement by the standards of the modern prodnoses but population does respond quite well to food availability in a subsistence economy. That population and family size did increase is proof perfect that the diet was “better”.

From the Annals of Rampant Stupidity

The latest bright idea is that apparently granny would like to scrabble in the dirt for a few potatoes the day after her hip replacement:

Even if hospital patients have always hated their food, whether it’s microwaved meals, over salted vegetables, or fresh fruit, there are still things we can learn from the past. One obvious change in food provision is the loss of the hospital garden. Until the nineteenth century many hospitals had outdoor space, part of the therapy for recuperating patients, a place for Apothecaries to grow healing herbs, and a site for kitchen gardens to feed the staff and patients. Outdoor space was lost in the nineteenth century as giant hospitals were built in crowded urban areas, and as convalescent and elderly patients were moved to homes and hospices elsewhere. There’s quite a trend for ‘urban farming’ in the twenty first century – perhaps that could extend to give hospitals back their gardens too?

The idea of a little herb garden where patients can convalesce in the sun amid the mint, rosemary and the butterflies they attract is obviously wonderful. The idea that anyone should be trying to grow bulk foods in an urban environment is simply ludicrous.

For we’ve invented this thing called “transport” as well as “economy of scale”.

Hospitals are, as they note, in urban settings. Because that’s where all the people are and it’s sensible to treat people near where they live, near where their families live so they can visit them. Excellent: but that means that land is expensive where hospitals are because that’s where all the people are. A few acres of urban land can be worth millions upon millions of pounds: using that to grow £50′s worth of vegetables is simply not sensible. What is sensible to to use that agricultural land 50 miles away, worth perhaps £5,000 an acre, to grow the same vegetables and then splash a fiver or so per tonne of food on the petrol to transport them. We thus use fewer resources to get to the same goal, feeding the sick, and this is a process that makes us richer as a whole.

It’s also true that agriculture is subject to the most enormous economies of scale. We can tell this: food grown in those 50 acre monocrops is markedly cheaper than food used to be when we all had our little 15 acres of the country to cultivate. This is true even if we don’t include the labour we used to perform “for free”. The urban poor would spend 80% of their income on food and rent in centuries gone by. Today the average is 10-15% on food.

The idea of feeding the sick from hospital gardens is simply bonkers: guess that’s why it’s being suggested in The Guardian.

Privateers and the sinister threat posed by ‘patent trolls’

Many in Britain may not be familiar with the term ‘patent privateering’ – but that may all be about to change. British courts are apparently being targeted in a forum-shopping exercise by global monopolists, who are using this technique to reduce competition and innovation in the hi-tech sector.

This new menace to the workings of efficient markets is rapidly gripping the global hi-tech sector and it threatens to stifle innovation, raise prices and constrain choice for consumers not just in Britain but across the globe. The threat has been dubbed ‘patent privateering’ and its impact on effective competition is already alarming.

Patent privateering refers to the practice whereby corporations enter into private agreements with patent assertion entities (PAEs) – effectively separate companies with no assets or manufacturing capabilities. The process works along these lines: Company X and Company Y have agreements to license a specified number of patents from each other in order to create a product. What Company Y does not know is that Company X has a private agreement with Company Z (a privateer) to hold certain patents that are essential to the production of the product Company Y is creating. Once the product is in the market, the privateer, Company Z, threatens to sue Company Y. Since it may cost Company Y anything up to $2.5 million to defend itself, most companies opt to settle. So Company X benefits from a large share of the proceeds collected by the privateer Company Z. Such behaviour cramps competition and damages the end consumer – big time.

This cynical form of economic rent-seeking is becoming more and more widespread. PAEs or ‘patent trolls’ as they are sometimes styled are now estimated to add a staggering annual burden of $29 billion on the back of American consumers alone[i].

Incumbents with a market share to defend are tempted to set up patent trolls – it’s often impossible to trace their real owner – to raise competitors’ product prices and shackle innovation and choice in the marketplace. By employing patent trolls the incumbents avoid counter suits which would risk their own asset base as well as attract unwelcome publicity and potential reputational damage.

Media reports have begun to shine some light on these questionable practices. One of the most prominent is MOSAID, a controversial patent troll which collects royalties on 2,000 patents transferred by Microsoft and Nokia while another troll, Unwired Planet, is collecting royalties on 2,185 patents assigned by Swedish telecoms giant Ericsson. Another PAE, owned by a group including Goldman Sachs and Boston Consulting Group collects royalties for patents originally filed by our own British Telecom, which stands to collect half the proceeds from the patent.

These developments risk turning patents into a tool of litigation rather than innovation. Abuse of the patents principle runs counter to the original intent of patents, which was a set of exclusive rights granted by a government of a sovereign state to spur innovation and provide entrepreneurs with a reasonable return for their innovative research collected on a fair, reasonable and non discriminatory (what lawyers term FRAND) basis.

In the computer software industry over 100,000 patents are filed each year. Many of these are for innovations which are not particularly novel and are likely to be independently invented by a host of IT engineers. In practice, it is often impossible for a software firm to know that it is not infringing on an existing patent. In the US, where wilful infringement triggers treble damages if proved in court, software developers have a powerful incentive not to conduct a patent search.

Competition watchdogs need to cast a careful eye on these worrying developments. Already in the US, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has begun to collect information on patent trolls’ corporate structures, their portfolio of patents and the way in which they acquire them and enforce them. Congress is also considering legislation[ii] aimed at outlawing deceptive patent demand letters and granting the FTC civil penalty authority to tackle this rapidly emerging threat to consumer welfare.

In Europe, regulators have yet to really tackle the problem posed by patent privateers. Yet, as Robert Harris, a law professor at the University of Berkeley, California, points out, “Given the harm to competition that patent entity sponsored privateering, there are important roles for anti-trust authorities: blocking potentially anticompetitive patent transfers and bringing enforcement actions against anticompetitive conduct by patent entity sponsored PAEs”[iii].

Due to the lack of regulation of this anti-competitive practice, the courts in England, it seems, will be the first in Europe to evaluate and rule on patent privateers. Cases are expected to begin in the High Court from the end of 2014. U.S. courts have already suffered from bruising judicial battles that have proved a perfect case-study of how rent-seeking through the courts can harm the effective functioning of a dynamic market.

The hope is that we do not have to learn the lesson the hard way, as the Americans have done. It’s about time our troop of regulators woke up to the threat posed by the growing ranks of rent-seeking patent trolls.

[i]                  See ‘As Congress and Enforcers Contemplate Patent Trolls, Don’t Forget about Privateering’, by David   Balto (a former policy director at the FTC), Huffington Post, 4 December 2013.

[ii]                 The House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing & Trade of the Committee on Energy & Commerce has been holding expert testimony hearings on a draft Bill with respect to deceptive patent demand letters (see FTC testimony, 22 May 2014).

[iii]                 PAEs & Privateers: Economic Harm to Competition & Innovation, Robert G Harris, Georgetown Law Annual Antitrust Symposium, Georgetown Law School, Washington DC, September 2013.

When your results should give you pause for thought

It’s entirely possible to construct methods of measurement that will prove anything you want them to. But when you do so it’s always worth just checking your results to see if they make some sort of sense. As with that delightful survey from nef a few years ago, where they tried to list the best places in the world to live coming up with Vanuatu as the answer. That they arrived at a place where a penis sheath is the major fashion accoutrement and they worship the Duke of Edinburgh as a Living God (which he is of course) leads to a certain questioning of the metrics they used to decide upon “best place to live”.

So it is with this report about how the children in England are horribly downtrodden, depressed and unhappy:

Children in England are less happy and satisfied with their lives than those in the majority of other European countries and North America, with only South Korean and Ugandan children worse off, a study by The Children’s Society has found.

Although 90% of English children in the study rated themselves as having relatively good wellbeing levels, England still ranked ninth out of a sample of 11 countries around the world in the study, which involved 50,000 children – behind countries such as Romania, Spain, and Algeria and ahead of only South Korea and Uganda.

When we look at the details of the report we find that three of the four happiest places (in the larger sample) to be a child are Greenland (60,000 people stuck on an ice floe), Armenia (per capita GDP around $6,000) and Macedonia (per capita GDP $10,000 or so, under a third of the UK). Among the smaller sample of 9 countries the very best place to be a child is apparently Romania: and aren’t we still sending teddy bears to the appalling orphanages there?

Perhaps being a child in England can be made better but it’s not entirely obvious that this report is using the correct ways of measuring that “best place”. Or even methods that are even remotely sensible.