Of course poverty traps exist: but they’re possible to escape

Over at The Economist some musing on whether there really is a poverty trap that developing economies can get stuck in. and the answer is yes, of course there is: but also that it’s potentially possible to escape such traps.

DO POVERTY traps exist? Academics seem to think so. According to Google Scholar, so far this year academics have used the phrase “poverty trap” 1,210 times. (Paul Samuelson, possibly the greatest economist of the 20th century, was mentioned a mere 766 times). Some of the most innovative work in development economics focuses on how individuals’ lowly economic position may be perpetuated (geographical and psychological factors may be important).

But, says a new paper by two World Bank economists, the idea of poverty traps may be overblown. They focus on national economies and present some striking statistics. In the graph below, a country that manages to get to the left side of the line has seen real per-capita income improvement from 1960 to 2010.

So that’s the empirical evidence. But there’s also a basic logical point that we can make.

Three hundred years ago all countries were poor. Now some countries are not poor and some countries still are. It’s thus logically certain that it is possible to escape whatever poverty traps there are. For some places have done it. It’s also equally true that there must be things that prevent that economic growth from happening for some places haven’t had that economic growth. Thus we can assert, without possibility of contradiction, that sure, there are poverty traps but there’s nothing inevitable about them at all. It is possible to escape for some have done so.

The new population estimates are already being misunderstood

New estimates of future population size have only been out a day and already they’re being misunderstood. Firstly they’re being misunderstood by the people who actually made them:

Rising population could exacerbate world problems such as climate change, infectious disease and poverty, he said. Studies show that the two things that decrease fertility rates are more access to contraceptives and education of girls and women, Raftery said. Africa, he said, could benefit greatly by acting now to lower its fertility rate.

Piffle, stuff and nonsense. It’s a well known finding that access to contraception drives, at most, 10% of changes in fertility. It’s the desire to limit fertility which, unsurprisingly, drives changes in fertility. And the education of girls and women, while highly desirable, is a correlate, not a cause, of declining fertility. Economies that are getting richer can afford to educate women: economies that are getting richer also have declining fertility. It’s the getting richer that drives both.

But that’s not enough misunderstanding. We’ve also got The Guardian displaying a remarkable ignorance on the subject:

Many widely-accepted analyses of global problems, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s assessment of global warming, assume a population peak by 2050.

That’s not just piffle that’s howlingly wrong. The IPCC assessments do not assume any such damn thing. For example, the A2 family, which is the family that the entirety of the Stern Review is based upon (and yes, it’s one of the four families used by the IPCC) assumes a 15 billion global population in 2100. That is, it assumes a significantly larger population at that date than even these new estimates do. But you can see how this is going to play out, can’t you? Population’s going to be larger therefore we must do more about climate  change: when in fact these new estimates show that population is going to be smaller than the work on climate change already assumes.

As we might have said here before a time or two we don’t mind people being misguided in their opinions and thus disagreeing with us. We pity them for their mistakes of course, but that’s as nothing to the fury engendered by people actually being ignorant of the subjects they decide to opine upon.

What next after the Scotland referendum?

Within hours of the decisive NO to Scottish independence, UK markets started to recover. The pound rose, the stock market strengthened, and the Royal Bank of Scotland confirmed it would not be moving south as it had threatened. All are signs that confidence has been restored, now that the result has been settled.But there are going to be big changes, even with a NO vote. David Cameron, on the steps of Downing Street just after the result had been announced, declared that not only would Scotland be getting extra powers – something promised by all the main political parties – but that in fairness, Wales, Northern Ireland and indeed England could expect greater powers too. He did not mention the words ‘English Parliament’ but it is plain that the constitutional reshuffle that the referendum has provoked will see the West Lothian Question – the enigma of Scottish MPs voting on English issues in Westminster – finally settled.

Some say that the nationalist leader, Alex Salmond, has got what he really wanted – a continuation of subsidies from England, but the promise of more power for his Parliament in Edinburgh’s Holyrood. The truth is, he wants a lot more ‘devo max’ than the main parties are offering, with wide powers over taxation and spending.

And this is likely to happen quite fast. Former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown predicts there will be an official paper on new power-sharing arrangements in October. A White Paper, setting out the government’s proposals, will be published by St Andrew’s Day, at the end of November. A draft Scotland Act will be published by Burns Night, at the end of January 2015, though it will not make it through the legislative process until a new Westminster Parliament is elected in June 2015.

The three main parties, spooked by the apparently narrowing polls just before the vote, signed a pledge, all promising more devolution, in the hope of buying off a seemingly strengthening Yes vote. (In fact, the polls had been very consistent, forecasting a strong No vote, over 23 months. Perhaps the last minute narrowing was just Scottish electors trying to give the Westminster politicians a fright. Which worked.)

The Labour Party wants to give Holyrood power to vary income tax by 15p, meaning that the top 50p rate could be restored – something they dream of, but which would see quite a number of top Scottish executives quietly moving their domicile south. The Scottish Labour Party also wants to devolve attendance allowance (a benefit to carers of disabled people) and housing benefit (so it can scrap the so-called ‘bedroom tax’).

The Conservatives want income tax completely devolved, meaning that the Scottish Parliament would raise roughly 40% of its total budget through devolved taxes, and they would devolve housing benefits and attendance allowance too.

The LibDems want Scotland to have more power over income tax, inheritance tax and capital gains tax, to create a new ‘federal’ relationship between the nations of the UK, and to move the block grant from Westminster to Scotland on ‘needs based’ principles.

Alex Salmond, for his part, will be going into the negotiations demanding far more control over all taxes, and over welfare spending. However, that may not deliver the outcome he would prefer. One of the reasons why the Conservatives want to see income tax devolved is because they think it would change the debate in Scotland. At present, the only debate is how the block grant from Westminster should be spent. If there is a new question, of how much should be raised in taxation, and from whom, the debate changes and Scotland would at last have a genuine Opposition in the form of all those who think taxes are too high and the government too big. And government spending in Scotland is big – £12,300 a head, compared to £11,000 for the UK as a whole.But then, according to economist David B Smith, over two-thirds (69.1%) of what is spent in Scotland is government spending – meaning that the majority of Scottish electors are highly dependent upon big government staying big. Independence would have brought some hard choices about the size and cost of Scotland’s government. The No vote will produce only prolonged grumbling about it. The really interesting and sensational change, for constitution-watchers, will be what happens in England. The taxpayers of a more assertive English government are unlikely to do many favours to a high-spending Scotland. That could be Alex Salmond’s worst nightmare.

How did we end up being ruled by the ignorant?

It always comes as something of a shock to us to see public policy being decided upon the basis of information that simply isn’t true. We expect a bit of political argy bargy, of course we do, for different people weight different outcomes, err, differently. Equity and efficiency, inequality and economic freedom, we might agree or disagree on those weights that different people place upon them but can still regard such opinions (for opinions they are and no more than that) as being valid. But that’s very different from our being told pure porkies, having supposed facts deployed, facts which just are not a reflection of reality. As the Original Tax Dodger in Chief himself pointed out, comment is free but facts are sacred.

And so it is that we come back to a favourite subject of ours, the relationship between the prevalence of obesity and the costs of it to the NHS.

Mr Stevens, who took up post last April, said: ‘Obesity is the new smoking, and it represents a slow-motion car crash in terms of avoidable illness and rising health care costs.

‘If as a nation we keep piling on the pounds around the waistline, we’ll be piling on the pounds in terms of future taxes needed just to keep the NHS afloat.’

The problem with this is that it simply is not true. Obesity does not cost the NHS money: on balance it saves it. This is something we’ve been pointing out for a number of years now. The source is here and the finding is:

Obesity is a major cause of morbidity and mortality and is associated with high medical expenditures. It has been suggested that obesity prevention could result in cost savings. The objective of this study was to estimate the annual and lifetime medical costs attributable to obesity, to compare those to similar costs attributable to smoking, and to discuss the implications for prevention.
Although effective obesity prevention leads to a decrease in costs of obesity-related diseases, this decrease is offset by cost increases due to diseases unrelated to obesity in life-years gained. Obesity prevention may be an important and cost-effective way of improving public health, but it is not a cure for increasing health expenditures.

When someone’s arteries explode at the age of 60 from that 15 cheeseburger a day habit then the NHS doesn’t have to pay for another 25 years’ worth of hip replacements. This saves the system money as a result of the shorter lifespan.

This is well known: and yet we have the CEO of the NHS telling us the opposite. And further, he’s demanding public action that he should know will make his financial problems worse, not better.

All of which leaves us with that essential question: how did we end up being ruled by the ignorant?

Compulsion doesn’t cure apathy

Australia boasts a 95% turnout rate every election season thanks to their adoption of compulsory voting in the 1920s. In Australia, refusing to show up to the polls – unless you can prove illness or an emergency to the state’s liking – results in a fine, up to $170. If that isn’t paid, a court hearing is the next step.

Advocates of compulsory voting point to high turnout numbers and claim the system ‘works’. But getting high voter turnout is not a good thing in and of itself. If high numbers are the result of engaged, politically interested people choosing to vote for on issues they care about, that’s great; that result will have stemmed from politicians taking to the streets and doing their jobs. But getting high percentages through coercion and threats of punishment isn’t something to boast about.

In September 2013, IPPR proposed that the UK make voting mandatory for first-time voters, to ensure they are registered to vote and to set them on a ‘good’ voting path for the future. Not only does the well-meaning proposal reeks of paternalism, but it is also the wrong way to get young people genuinely engaged in politics.

Many young people don’t feel they have a stake in political decisions, while others feel their opinions don’t carry weight within the parties. Couple that with making their first adult interaction with the state be one that’s compulsory, met with fines and courts, and you may just turn a potentially interested voter off for life.

But young people aren’t the only ones who feel abandoned by the political system. The integrity of democracy is breaking across western countries, as the political systems prioritize taking care of promises made to special interest groups, unions and corporations before they address the promises made to voters during the election season. Many feel voting has become a spectacle – just another occasion to glorify the state. And even if there is an option to spoil one’s vote, the state has still made people complicit in upholding a political system they may disagree with.

Those who would advocate for the Australian system and propose a compulsory vote on all adult citizens in the UK have carelessly forgotten that avoiding the ballot box in a check on government power.

Refusing to take part in what is thought to be a civic duty is an act of civil disobedience – and civil disobedience, especially when it is as thoughtful and safe as not showing up to the polls – is a health-meter for the state of the country’s political parties and political system as a whole.

The right to vote is the choice to vote – or not vote. That freedom must be upheld, both to provide a check on over-reaching governments, but also to act as a safeguard for individual liberty.