John Blundell, 1952—2014

The Institute has lost a talented and much valued friend, and those who work to spread economic and personal liberty have lost a staunch and effective campaigner. From the ASI’s foundation in 1977, we worked with John, who was then Press & Parliamentary Officer for Federation of Small Businesses. During his spell in that post from 1977 – 1982, he was also a Lambeth Councillor, and combined knowledge of what worked for business with deep insights into the workings of local government. He was a leading figure among the very small band who worked to restore free markets and opportunities to a nation worn down by years of centralism and state planning.

He engineered a joint publication between the ASI and the Federation of Small Businesses in 1979. Called “An Inspector at the Door,” it detailed the various powers of officials to enter premises and seize materials. It was a media sensation, with numerous articles about Britain’s “Society of Snoopers.” Margaret Thatcher expressed her concern in Parliament, and set up a commission to review and curtail some of those powers.

It was an early example of John’s effectiveness and his skills as an organizer and a communicator. Those skills saw him in good stead when he went to the US, where he became President of the Institute for Humane Studies, the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, the Charles G Koch Foundation, and the Claude R Lambe Foundation.

His appointment in 1993 as Director General of the Institute of Economic Affairs was an inspired one. He rapidly reinvigorated the IEA and restored it to its former glory and influence. Assiduously he built up its network of supporters and its range of influential publications. John’s own temperament, outgoing and enthusiastic, helped turn the IEA’s meetings into ones not to be missed. John’s benign presence not only left its stamp on the IEA, but on the numerous outside bodies that he generously helped to build up and support. Internationally he helped to establish other institutes, and was a stalwart of the Mont Pelerin Society, founded by F A Hayek to propagate liberal, free-market ideas.

John had many publications to his credit, including “Waging the War of Ideas” (2003), together with some important works he co-authored or edited. Under his leadership the IEA supported and publicized works by outside bodies, often hosting launches in the IEA’s premises. Those premises were transformed during John’s tenure, giving the IEA the space it needed for its extended tasks.

He was a good friend and a loyal one. We shall miss his huge personality and his wry humour. He made a major contribution to making the world into a better place, and will deservedly be remembered for that.

Ahhrgh! Terror! The robots are coming to take our jobs!

We’ve another one of those little horror stories that the robots are coming to take all our jobs. This is a follow up, concerning Europe, on a US report that decided that near half of all jobs could simply disappear to the robots (who are coming to take all our jobs, recall) in the next couple of decades. Sadly, both reports fail to note one obvious and simple fact:

Having obtained these risks of computerisation per ISCO job, we combine these with European employment data broken up according to ISCO-defined sectors. This was done using the ILO data which is based on the 2012 EU Labour Force Survey. From this, we generate an overall index of computerisation risk equivalent to the proportion of total employment likely to be challenged significantly by technological advances in the next decade or two across the entirety of EU-28.

The answer being, no not 42, more than 50% of all jobs are threatened by technological obsolescence in the EU over that next couple of decades.

Is this something we should be worried about? Clearly the authors of the paper think it worth bringing to our attention, but is it actually worth worrying about?

Well, no. Because even the most slerotic of European economies is going to destroy and create more jobs than that over that same time period.

Using the UK as a rough example, there are around 30 million jobs in the economy. 3 million of these are destroyed each year: around 10%. The economy also creates around 3 million jobs a year. Roughly you understand: and a recession isn’t, in general, when more jobs get destroyed, a recession is when fewer jobs get created, that’s what makes the unemployment rolls go up.

So the claim is that 50% of jobs in the EU might get destroyed by robot competition in the next two decades. And yet we would expect, just as a straight line estimate, that the EU economy will destroy and create four times as many jobs as that over that same time period, 200% of the current static workforce.

Even if this is something that we want to worry about it’s a worry at the margin, it’s a little bit more of a known and understood process that we can in general observe that we can deal with, rather than some horrific step change in our lives that we’ll have trouble adapting to.

There is one more point here. If you do want to worry about this it’s important to note that it’s not large companies that create jobs, it’s new and small ones. So, if you want to make sure that the robotic unemploymentaggeddon doesn’t in fact carve a swathe through Europe you’ll need to reduce the regulatory and legal burdens that new companies face in establishing themselves. Deregulation, ease of entry into the market, these are the solutions even if you do want to panic.

Goodbye, Green Belt!

Last night BBC London News aired a short film I took part in about the Green Belt. As part of a series of ‘authored’ pieces about various solutions to London’s housing crisis, I suggested that we should allow construction on the Green Belt around London to increase the supply of developable land.

Cheshire-htg-fig-1Land, as Paul Cheshire likes to point out, is the key. The graph above shows how closely house price rises have tracked land price rises. Land-use restrictions on the Green Belt are quite strict: under the National Planning Policy Framework, local councils face a very high burden of proof to approve new developments on Green Belt land. If they were made less strict, then the supply of land and housing would increase and the price of both would fall.

I usually think of people who want to preserve the Green Belt as being motivated by financial considerations. If you own your house, you don’t want its value to fall, so you have a strong incentive to oppose any measure that will increase supply. Perhaps a large proportion of people involved in campaigns to ‘protect the Green Belt’ own their own homes. (And if not, that would certainly falsify this view.)

But filming with the BBC made me realize that this explanation is too neat and too unfair. The preservationist I interviewed, Dr Ann Goddard, was not preoccupied with preserving the value of her home – she believed, as many do, that relatively unspoiled natural areas are valuable and important to protect from development. The meadow she took us to was very pretty and I would regret losing places like it as well. Throughout our conversation Ann made it clear that her idea of England was entwined with its image as a ‘green and pleasant land’, not just somewhere for endless suburban sprawl.

Much of that greenery is worth keeping, but I suggest that the question is not ‘what’ but ‘where’. Since Green Belt land rings cities, it is much more difficult for city slickers to access than, say, gardens or parks. And lots of London already is covered in gardens or parks – more than half, according to one estimate. Allowing London to expand outwards would eat away at the Green Belt, but also allow more people to have gardens and for more (and bigger) parks to be built.

I also realized how important symbols can be: to Ann the meadow we went to WAS the Green Belt. If we’d taken her to a piece of intensive farmland (34% of the Green Belt around London) maybe she would have cared less about the prospect of that being turned into a village. And I wonder if focusing on intensive farmland is the key to changing people’s minds. In the end, if the battle over the Green Belt is about ideas and symbols rather than pocketbooks, a change of language might help us.

A masterly piece of political game theory

This is a subject of some controversy so please, put aside your thoughts, passions and logic on the subject itself, abortion, and instead just think about the political tactic being employed here.

In general in the US it is the left that is strongly in favour of the right to abort. In general again, it’s generally the conservative right that is against. Also, again in general, it is the left that is in favour of detailed and sometimes expensive regulation of activity and it’s the right which is against. So, what would be a useful political tactic if you were against the general availability of abortion? Quite, regulate it:

The last restriction under the law goes into effect Sept. 1. All abortion clinics at that point must have upgraded their facilities to ambulatory surgery centers. Busby says many can’t afford it and more will close.

“This would basically force all the clinics to become mini-hospitals,” Busby said. “They have to have hallway widths a certain length, and a janitor’s closet, male and female locker rooms, which is completely unnecessary – and a bunch of other regulations that are really not appropriate or do anything to increase the safety of one of the safest procedures in the country.”

Pro-life groups supported the law, saying it would protect women by making abortion safer. At the time of the passage of the law, The Texas Tribune quoted Republican state Sen. Donna Campbell saying: “There’s nothing in this legislation that will close a clinic. … That’s up to the clinic. If they want to put profit over a person, that’s up to them.”

The right has been saying for years that regulations can be expensive and those who would regulate have been shouting that that’s nonsense for the same amount of time. Rather a case of the biter bit.

Sadly, of course, no one is going to learn anything from this. Certainly not those who generally propose regulation: for do note that while they argue that clinics should not be subject to this level of regulation they’re not, not at all, arguing that mini-hospitals can be trusted to work out whether they need a janitor’s closet for themselves. Still regulation for thee even if not for me.

Time for a human rights review?

The Times law report (15th July) concerned a Muslim school-age immigrant, granted asylum in France, who had come to the UK instead on the grounds that she was not permitted to wear the burka in French schools. She claimed that to be a human right and therefore the Home Secretary was wrong in seeking her return to France.

The rights and wrongs of human rights and clothing indicating religion are not my concern.  The issue here is the extent to which foreigners are entitled to legal representation to fight their cases at UK taxpayers’ expense.  Some lawyers claim that justice has no price but can that really be so?

In this case, Mr Justice Hickinbottom refused a judicial review of the Home Secretary’s decision.  On 24th June, the Court of Appeal, being the Master of the Rolls and two other Lord Justices, resoundingly supported the earlier judgment.  The appellant needed to show that there was a “flagrant violation” of the European Convention on Human Rights.  In this case, there was no violation at all, never mind flagrant.

Although the report does not say so, it is hard to believe that this school-age asylum seeker had the funds to cover the original hearing, still less the appeal. Perhaps we will be paying for a further appeal to the European Court of Human Rights itself even though the ECHR has already ruled several times that France is entitled to ban the burka in schools so long as it does not do so in general.  Other forms of education are available, e.g. distance learning.

Some will feel that an asylum seeker is lucky to be accepted at all and such acceptance should not entitle them, free of charge, to the full panoply of rights built up and paid for by the citizens.  Obviously as time goes by and they integrate, so their rights should build up but not immediately and certainly not before they have gained admission.

One solution would be to require asylum seekers as part of their acceptance to sign, with legal advice, a binding agreement that they are not entitled to legal aid until assimilated into the country as defined by learning the language to conversational level, paying UK taxes for, say, five years and not being found guilty of a crime normally punishable by a prison sentence.

Some will say that the last is both unfair and inefficient.  In effect they would be deemed guilty before being judged and self-defence by someone without the language would clog up the courts.  But the present system lands the UK taxpayer with the not inconsiderable cost of prison followed by a failure to expel them, as we legally can, because deportation is appealed and the Home Office is overwhelmed by cases.  The UK taxpayer funds not only the legal costs of asylum seekers’ “rights” but all the associated civil service, police and imprisonment costs.

Time for a review?