The terrible error of Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein tells us that the polluter must pay. Something that is both logical and true. Then she tells us that the fossil fuel companies must be made to pay for the damage that they do. Also logical and true:

Up until the early 1980s, that was still a guiding principle of environmental law-making in North America. And the principle hasn’t totally disappeared – it’s the reason why Exxon and BP were forced to pick up large portions of the bills after the Valdez and Deepwater Horizon disasters.

We might quibble about whether the damage was quite what was described or paid for but the basic principle is entirely fair. However, here comes the error:

The astronomical profits these companies and their cohorts continue to earn from digging up and burning fossil fuels cannot continue to haemorrhage into private coffers. They must, instead, be harnessed to help roll out the clean technologies and infrastructure that will allow us to move beyond these dangerous energy sources, as well as to help us adapt to the heavy weather we have already locked in. A minimal carbon tax whose price tag can be passed on to consumers is no substitute for a real polluter-pays framework – not after decades of inaction has made the problem immeasurably worse (inaction secured, in part, by a climate denial movement funded by some of these same corporations).

Assume, for a moment, that CO2 emissions are indeed causing damage. So, who is responsible for those emissions? Who is the polluter here who must pay?

When I drive to the shops it is me making the decision to do so, me making the decision to emit CO2 in gaining my supply of comestibles. I am therefore the polluter. That’s why, if there is to be a tax on polluters it should be upon me, the polluter. Which is the entire point of a carbon tax that can be passed on to the consumers. It is we consumers who are the polluters which is why we should have that tax which falls upon the polluters.

This is the most appalling and most basic error by Klein. We do not consume fossil fuels because Teh Eeevil Corporations force them upon us. We consume them because they provide us with things that we desire, transport, heat, light and so on. The fault, as it were, is not in our suppliers but in ourselves.

Of course, as many do around here, it’s entirely possible to reject the entire thesis. But working within the logical structure of the IPCC we still end up with the result that a tax which falls upon consumers is the correct action: as every single economic report about the problem, from Stern through Nordhaus and the IPCC itself, has pointed out. Because it’s the consumers who are the polluters and yes, the polluters should pay.

How food banks trump the welfare state

On the face of it, the figures are damning. Food banks in Britain helped over 900,000 people last year, up around a third over the year before. It seems Britain has a real problem with food poverty. Our benefits system just isn’t coping.

But, like so many media headlines, the truth is a lot more subtle. Nearly all food banks in Britain are run by a single Christian charity, the Trussell Trust. In the last few years it has found a niche, sharpened its act, and opened a lot more. So not surprisingly, care professionals have been sending more people along. It may not be that the underlying problem is getting worse, just that it is being better served.

Nor is it the government’s benefit reforms that explain the rise. Food banks were growing long before the measures were passed in 2013, and many of the reforms have not even been implemented yet. And by merging scores of benefits into a far simpler universal benefit, the reforms should hopefully help ensure that people do not in fact fall through the gaps in the over-complicated welfare net.

The underlying problem that food banks help solve is not food poverty, any more than it is shoe poverty, clothes poverty, electricity poverty or water poverty. It is the temporary crises that people sometimes get into when they are unemployed or on low pay. Around 60% of food bank users are once-only users. They hit a crisis and can’t afford the groceries; that is why care workers refer them.

Around 30% of them have problems because their benefits payment has not arrived in time, or they are being penalised for not showing up at interview, or they have simply filled in a form wrongly. And you can blame that on our over-complicated, bureaucratic, distant and unfeeling state benefits system. We spend £94bn a year on it, a seventh of all government spending (and the government spends a lot). If we devolved the process to local communities and voluntary groups, it would work much better.

No government can do much about the fact that food prices have risen nearly 35% since 2007. Well, actually, they could stop subsidising biofuels, which has diverted huge amounts of agricultural produce out of human mouths and into gasoline tanks. And they could do something about the fact that other essentials have been soaring in price too. Government-mandated to renewable energy adds about 15% to the fuel bills of businesses and private sector organisations, plus about 6% on the gas bills and 11% on the electricity bills of domestic customers. That is why poorer people run out of cash and economise by going hungry.

Nearly everyone in Britain is well fed – some too much so – because Britain is a peaceful, trading nation with an established rule of law. Our farmers are not afraid to plant crops in case they are stolen by thugs or invading armies. Our traders bring produce to us from all over the world. If you want to see chronic poverty, look at countries that do not have this thriving market system.

Because this market system makes us a rich country, we can afford to help people who run into problems. The biggest philanthropic sector on the planet is that of America, the world’s richest country. In fact, America, Canada, New Zealand all have large food bank movements. That is because they are rich, and because they have a strong sense of community too. In Britain, too much of that sense of community has been crowded out by our state bureaucracy.

It is actually good to see charities taking on these problems. The state is inevitably large and lumbering. Private charities are much better at tackling individual human issues, like families who run out of cash from time to time.

Of course, the state could help in a very simple way. A large number of people referred to food banks are actually not those on benefits, but people on minimum wages. The government has pledged to take everyone on minimum wage out of tax, and about time too – it is absurd to tax people who are on the breadline. And yet we are still charging them and their employers another, hidden tax, namely National Insurance Contributions. Again, it’s crazy. If you want to help people in poverty­–and get people into the world’s best welfare programme, namely a paying job–you should be making work pay, which for many of the nation’s poorest, is appallingly not the case.

Yes, of course we’re being lied to, why do you ask?

We’re all wearily familiar with the ritual incantations that it’s those nasty multinationals that dodge taxes in developing countries and that therefore little babies die. This is not, despite the frequency of those incantations, actually true. The extremely impressive researcher, Maya Forstater, has rather more of the truth for us here:

Nevertheless if current estimates are best we have to go on, they should at least be communicated clearly. One thing that becomes clear once you take away all the showmanship of the killer facts is that the estimates commonly used are simply not that much money. Global numbers in billions are hard to comprehend, but we can make honest and clear efforts to make sense of them on a country-by-country basis. According to the data that ONE sent me (which uses PWC data on national tax rates to estimate the tax revenue losses associated with GFI illicit flows estimates) it looks like most countries where aid contributes a significant proportion of government budgets have estimated trade related tax losses in the region of 15% or less of aid receipts. Not nothing, but not the grand problem-solving amounts we are led to believe.

If you look at what this amounts to on a per capita basis (based on the ONE data and my calculations), Bangladesh could raise $2.77 extra tax for each of its citizens, Ethiopia $6.81, India $9.31and China $4.14. That is dollars; single dollars. Per person. Per year.

We thoroughly recommend reading her whole piece in full. Maya’s forte is to take these various reports from the various usual suspects and then drill down into the actual numbers and assumptions that they are making and test the veracity of them. An earlier success of hers was pointing out that estimates that Zambia had been diddled out of $10 billion in copper revenues was based on the pricing structure of 2 tonnes (yes, just two tonnes) of samples that had been sent out. Thus over-estimating the correct copper revenues by a factor of five (the very boring technical detail which I was able to help with subsequent to that article is that samples cost more than production lots. Largely because customs data on pricing (which is where the prices came from) includes the cost of transport in said customs pricing. So if you send someone 20 kg of copper as a sample through DHL the customs price for that 20 kg includes the DHL package costs. Which is, as we all know, rather higher per kg than the transport costs of 10,000 tonnes of copper on a ship).

It’s important for us to recognise all of this: and Forstater’s major point here is that these numbers we’re being fed about the impact of tax losses on developing countries simply are not true.

Unsurprising: Migrants give back to new communities (often more so than natives)

Migrants in high-income economies are more inclined to give to charity than native-born citizens, this Gallup poll finds.

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[High-income economies are referred to as "the North"/ middle- to low-income economies are referred to as "the South".]

 

From 2009-2011, 51% of migrants who moved to developed countries from other developed countries said they donated money to charity, whereas only 44% of native-born citizens claimed to donate. Even long-term immigrants (who had been in their country of residence for over five years) gave more money to charity than natives–an estimated 49%.

Even 34% of migrants moving from low-income countries to high-income countries said they gave money to charity in their new community – a lower percentage than long-term migrants and native-born citizens, but still a significant turn-out, given that most of these migrants will not have an immediate opportunity to earn large, disposable incomes. The poll also found that once migrants get settled, their giving only goes up.

Migrants seem to donate their time and money less when moving from one low-income country to another; though as Gallup points out, the traditional definitions of ‘charity’ cannot always be applied to developing countries, where aid and volunteerism often take place outside formal structures and appear as informal arrangements within communities instead.

It’s no surprise either that the Gallup concludes this:

Migrants’ proclivity toward giving back to their communities can benefit their adopted communities. Policymakers would be wise to find out ways to maintain this inclination to give as long as migrants remain in the country.

This is yet another piece of evidence that illustrates the benefits of immigration for society as a whole. (It also highlights the insanity of Cameron’s recent proposal to curb the number of Eurozone migrants coming to the UK). Not only does the UK need more immigrants “to avoid a massive debt crisis by 2050,” but apparently it needs them for a community morale boost as well.

How to fix the Eurozone

It’s rare that an economic question is clear cut. Nearly all issues are two sided, with substantial costs and benefits to all approaches. But the reason the Eurozone crisis has resumed is pretty obvious—’bad’ disinflation and deflation almost universally across the bloc, and a failure of the European Central Bank to provide even the most basic monetary stability. The solution is equally obvious: meet the inflation target and commit to a level target to prevent future cock-ups.

Household, firms and sovereigns take out (nearly all of) their debts in nominal terms, i.e. not adjusted for inflation. They are likely to build in expected inflation. However, if inflation is higher than expected, debtors incomes should rise faster than they expected, while their debt is still fixed, making the burden lighter. Of course, this means creditors receive less than they expected. It’s the same on the other side.

If the central bank promises 2% inflation per year over the next ten years, and the markets believe it, then the yield of a gilt that matures in 10 years will take this into account. This goes (approximately) for all other assets in the economy, like mortgages, consumer credit, business loans and so on. If inflation departs from target it enriches one side at the expense of the other, contrary to what they all could have reasonably expected when they signed these contracts.

There is a complication: there is a difference between the inflation and deflation caused by supply shocks and that caused by demand shocks. When prices rise because everything really has become more costly to produce (a supply shock like an OPEC oil price hike) then this makes debts harder to pay, but worth no more. When prices fall because everything has become cheaper to produce (a supply shock like Chinese labour coming onto the world market) this makes debts easier to pay, but worth no less. But central bank expansions and contractions are demand shocks, not supply shocks.

This means that the national debt will be harder to pay if inflation comes in lower than target for monetary reasons. Inflation has been below the European Central Bank’s target for nearly two years, and is falling further below it. Twelve countries have either zero inflation or deflation. Unless there were massive supply-side improvements across the Eurozone—which we would see in the form of impressive real GDP growth or productivity improvements—this would usually mean that firms will find it hard to make good on their investments, and governments will find their national debts increasingly hard to manage. This is exactly what we are seeing.

As I said above the weird thing about this situation is we actually have an easy-ish solution. Commit to meeting the inflation target, making up the deficit of the past few years and targeting a level path of inflation (or total income) in the future. That means that if the ECB makes a mistake and ‘undershoots’ its target, it doesn’t allow this to distort the economy but does a little extra inflation in the next few months; if the ECB ‘overshoots’ it does a little less. This is not baleful central bank ‘intervention’ or ‘disortion’—the distortion was letting the rules of the game depart so far from those they signed all of their contracts expecting.

The alternative is a ‘lost quarter century’ of stagnation while everyone slowly adjusts to the new monetary arrangements they have been hit with.