Competing monetary rules: modern free banking possibilities

With the emergence of new digital currencies and, in particular, crypto-currencies (the most prominent of which, being Bitcoin), one can wonder how different Free Banking might look in the modern economy.

In the past, monetary rules had been based on metallic content. Now, they are often focused on inflation-targeting, nominal-GDP targeting and so on. Though Free Banking would be desirable, Ben Southwood and Sam Bowman have previously argued for nominal GDP targeting in its stead, as the pragmatic, preferred alternative for monetary policymakers. Saying that, George Selgin argues that most free banking systems lead to effectively 0% NGDP targets.

Of course, the one thing that all these monetary rules have in common is their aim to foster expectations-stability. However, stabilising expectations with respect to one variable often still leaves unstable expectations with respect to another variable; modifications of the Taylor rule may stipulate that we should raise or lower interest rates according to the output gap, inflation rate etc. but this still does not mean that people will be able to forecast when or by how much the interest rates will rise in advance since one’s expectations with respect to other important variables are hardly stable.

Bitcoins have a monetary rule with respect to the rate of increase of the money supply that is determined by an algorithm that periodically halves the speed at which Bitcoins are rewarded to the successful miner (mining being the process by which they are created) and, furthermore, the number of bitcoins in existence can never exceed 21 million. However, Bitcoins still suffer from exchange-price volatility. Other crypto-currencies also have different monetary rules. So it’s quite clear that developments in the state of technology enable different types of monetary rules to be implemented.

In a modern free banking system, then, there would be competing monetary rules between the various different currencies (whether they are issued by banks or obtained through other mechanisms made possible by the state of technology). Since each monetary rule implemented hitherto attempts to stabilise expectations with respect to a certain variable, picking a currency would essentially involve each agent choosing between differing monetary rules and, therefore, independently and rationally stabilising their expectations according to their priorities.

Even Keynes wrote on the importance of understanding “the dependence of the marginal efficiency of a given stock of capital on changes in expectation, because it is chiefly this dependence which renders the marginal efficiency of capital subject to the somewhat violent fluctuations which are the explanation of the Trade Cycle” since “this means, unfortunately, not only that slumps and depressions are exaggerated in degree, but that economic prosperity is congenial to the average business man.”

So even in a Keynesian framework, modern free banking, through more diverse, competing monetary rules, could help ease the excessive malaises of business ‘cycles’!

Left – Right / Open – Closed

James Kirkup over at the Telegraph has an article on how the Left-Right divide no longer seems to apply to the UK’s political parties. We should expect Left-wingers to be hostile to free markets and big business, he argues, and Right-wingers to embrace them. However, reality is far less clear-cut.

UKIP is increasingly honing an anti-corporate edge, criticizing both the European Commission and the Labour party for being in bed with large, multinational firms with little regard for ‘the national interest’. UKIP are simultaneously daubed ‘more Thatcherite than Thatcher ’ – and indeed, plays up to this when useful – yet considered left of the Conservatives by voters.

Kirkup also notes that whilst Labour, UKIP and parts of the Conservative leadership are busy immigrant-bashing, a ‘curious band of political actors’ are fighting the immigrant’s corner, including ‘nasty party’ London Mayor BoJo, the ‘old lefty’ Vince Cable, and (apparently, shock horror!) the ASI.

Libertarians have long claimed that the Left/Right distinction is largely redundant, arguing that the Nolan chart – which plots support for economic & political freedom across two axis – yields far clearer understanding of political ideology. Today, variations of such political quizzes and graphs abound, including the somewhat absurdist 5-axis offering.

Kirkup’s analysis is simpler; that politics is no longer about Left or Right, but whether we should be an open or closed nation.

This certainly makes some sense in the current political climate. UKIP isn’t really left or right, but ‘closed’ – looking inwards for a sense of ‘Britishness’ and for British values we may or may not have ever possesed. The distinction can be broken down further, with individual policies analyzed the same way. Conservatives are, for example, typically open to business, but closed to immigration. You could widen the definition of ‘open’ and ‘closed’ out, too – for example, the Lib Dems are open to the issue of prison and drug law reform, whereas the Tories are far more closed. They’re open to things like NHS and schools reform, though – whilst Labour tend to be closed to such possibilities.

It might then be a useful strategy not to consider whether a party is Left or Right wing, but whether individual policies are broadly open or closed. Disregarding the left/right stigma could help individuals focus upon what it is they actually care about. Clearly, this dichotomy doesn’t work for everything – monetary policy, for example, or attitudes towards the EU – although you could argue that openness generally correlates with a preference for smaller government.

Certainly, openness is a defining characteristic of the ASI. We favour openness in terms of international trade, the movement of people, competition, experimentation in the public sector, and social attitudes.

In this context, open policies reflect the freedom of individuals to make their own choices without unnecessary restriction. They encourage new ideas and welcome change. In contrast, closed policies seek to restrict potentially disruptive activity and unwanted influence, in an attempt to maintain some status quo or protect particular interests. This tendency cuts right across the political spectrum, but, as a think tank, is one that we endeavour to avoid.

Professor Dennis O’Keeffe

We are sad to announce that Prof Dennis O’Keeffe has died. He was a very distinguished educationist who did original and influential research on subjects that included truancy and teacher training. He was Professor of Social Science at the University of Buckingham. He attracted national attention with his report on “School Attendance and Truancy (1995),” taking the view that truancy was an almost inevitable result of poor courses that failed to entice the attention of students.

With the Adam Smith Institute he published “The Wayward Elite” in 1990, a major critique of British teacher-education, and sat on the ASI’s Scholars’ Board. He was a keen supporter of several of the Free Market think tanks in addition to the ASI, including the IEA, the CPS, and Civitas, and participated in many of their activities. His attendance was always appreciated at our lectures and lunches, as much for his goodwill and charm as well as for his considerable intellect.



People respond to incentives

That people respond to incentives is an obvious point but I feel like every reiteration is worth it. One of the clearest examples of where people respond strongly to incentives is retirement. If you raise the retirement age, many people who’d otherwise be eligible continue to work.

Since retirement probably increases life satisfaction/happiness and perhaps even health we obviously want it to happen at some point, but since it’s also very costly in terms of benefits paid and productive activity not done, we want to be mindful of both costs and benefits.

A new paper in The Review of Economics and Statistics by Kadir Atalay and Garry F. Barrett at the University of Sydney adds to a large literature:

Governments around the world are reforming their social security systems in light of the challenges posed by population aging. We study the 1993 Australian Age Pension reform, which progressively increased the eligibility age for women from 60 to 65 years. We find economically significant responses to the reform. An increase in the eligibility age of one year induced a decline in the probability of retirement by 12 to 19 percentage points. In addition, the reform induced significant program substitution, with increases in enrollment in other social insurance programs, particularly the disability support pension, which effectively functioned as an alternative source of retirement income.

Raising the retirement age for women led to lots more of them working, but also more of them claiming other benefits.

Every single paper I’ve ever seen on the topic has found a similar result. For example in the UK raising the pension age from 60 to 61 led to 7.3pp more women in employment at age 60 (separate paper with more evidence). In Spain, people with worse health were more responsive to financial incentives. Less generous pension payouts in France (normal retirement rather than disability insurance retirement) meant 14% higher total work hours, on average, between the ages of 55 and 64. Another paper found that pensioners respond to incentives in a different way: if they stand to gain more by waiting before they claim then they are more likely to wait.

The point of all this is not to say that we should pack the elderly off to the workhouse until they’re 90, but more to note that incentives matter, against the common claims that the homo economicus model is rarely or never a good approximation for real humans.

D’ye see why we get puzzled about food banks?

We’ve the news today that it’s just appalling that a supermarket that runs a collection scheme for food banks should actually indicate, in its stores, which foods might be suitable for purchase to a food bank.

The Co-op has faced criticism on social media after a customer tweeted a picture of an own-brand grocery display touted as ‘ideal for the food bank’.

Dan Paris, a Scottish National Party activist, shared his picture of the promotion and remarked: ‘It’s easy to get used to these things but a shop advertising tinned food as “ideal for the food bank” has floored me.’

It led to a furious response from Twitter users who accused Co-op’s charitable appeal as a scheme for ‘pushing stuff customers won’t buy just to make a profit,’ as one put it.

Umm, what?

In response, Mr Paris explained he is himself a supporter of food banks.

He tweeted: ‘I’m sure this was done this with good intentions but I found it genuinely upsetting that food poverty has been normalised to this extent.

‘Nobody should be asked to buy food for the poor when they’re doing their weekly shop. That’s what the welfare state is for.’

We wouldn’t normally say this, that people should look to La Toynbee for actual information on anything but she did, on the same day, point out this:

As the Church of England report revealed, the most common reason for using food banks is benefit delay and “sanctions”.

The reason that we don’t want food banks to be a part of the welfare state is because they’re a reaction to the incompetence and or malevolence of the welfare state. It’s also worth reminding ourselves that the Trussell Trust says about itself that it started to take an interest in the issue back in 2000. when it was horrified to find out that there were people with no actual food in the house because of incompetence in the paying of benefits. This isn’t a new problem. and it’s not even entirely a problem with the simply incompetence of the State organs. Any system that tries to deal with tens of millions of tax and or benefit accounts simultaneously will screw up from time to time. And the sheer numbers just mean that at any one time some tens of thousands of people at least will be getting screwed. Which is rather why it seems like a very good idea to be using an entirely different system, operating in an entirely different manner, to be dealing with that problem.

All of which is entirely beside the basic moral point at issue here. What the heck’s wrong with private charity? Why does the solution only become sanctified when it is washed through the Holy Church of the taxing offices?