Local government cuts needn’t be the end of the world

Local governments are having their spending power cut by 1.8% in real terms next year. Local councils pay for things like social care, some education, public transport and roads, and some of the arts. So this cut is not so popular in some quarters.

I hate relying on ‘waste cutting’ as a way of making spending cuts, but local councils really do seem to waste a lot of money. Since 2010 they’ve made £10bn in efficiency savings, and a third of councils say they can make bigger savings. I’m sure at least some of the other two-thirds are just being shy. The Local Government Association estimates that local governments can continue making efficiency savings at between 1 and 2 percent per year. So that’s something.

The big spending items are social care and waste spending. Both of these can be reformed so that people who can afford to have to pay for themselves. Waste collection is often contracted out, and there is academic evidence that doing so results in significant cost reductions. (There’s an easy way for councils who do not already do this to save some cash.) But more significantly there’s no real reason that more of the actual payments for this should not be moved to private residents as well, at least those who can afford it. 

Social care is much trickier and, as the population gets older and lives for longer, paying for it is becoming a bigger and bigger problem. Those people who can afford to pay for their end-of-life care should do so, but there is the problem that this disincentivises saving. Nevertheless it is hard to see a case for people who live in social housing and earn low amounts of money paying for the end-of-life care of people who own the big houses that they live in. Reforming this wouldn’t solve problems in the short run, but it might help stave off a bigger funding problem in the medium run.

Normally everyone focuses in on arts funding. In my view, there is no role for government in arts funding at all. I won’t convince you of this here, but Pete Spence might. And there are all the weird little things that local governments spend their money on that could be cut to save even a tiny bit of money. Where I live, in Lambeth, half the adverts I see seem to be thinly-veiled political campaign posters (paid for by me and my neighbours).

And, funnily enough, there’s one way councils could raise quite a lot of money and solve another problem in the process. The country needs a lot more houses, and planning permission is the main thing standing in the way. In some parts of the country, a piece of agricultural land that gets planning permission rises in value by one hundred times. Councils should be allowed and encouraged to auction off development rights for new houses. That would raise money for them and help tackle the housing shortage.

The problem here is that housing demand is not equal across the country, and it’s the richer places like London and the south east that would benefit the most from this. So there’s probably a case for some minority fraction of the money raised being redistributed to poorer authorities. In general I like the principle of council funding redistribution from rich to poor parts of the country, but that does reduces the incentive for councils to improve the economic prospects of their own areas. Though perhaps they lack the powers to do this anyway.

We have a government deficit that most people want reduced, some very large areas of central government spending that most people want increased (pensions, healthcare), and a general consensus that economic growth is a good thing (so tax rises are out). Something’s gotta give and there is almost nothing that can be cut painlessly. But given some willingness to reform alongside cutting, local government cuts could be the right way to go.

They’re spouting rubbish about rubbish again

We’re really got to get ourselves a new group of people running our public services you know. The current lot seem to have missed the point of the whole exercise. For, at root, the entire exercise of politics and state power is really a method of deciding who empties the bins.

There are certain things that simply need to be done. There’s also a group of things that can be done individually, one of those that can be done by simple voluntary cooperation and another group of things that can only be done by some fairly strong compulsion. And those that are properly the province of that state, this government idea, as those that must both be done and can only be done with that compulsion. And taking out the rubbish is one of those things that is both. Yes, a free market would indeed deal with most of it but the public health benefits of not having those remaining piles of stinking ordure mean that there’s always going to be some state compulsion necessary.

At which point we get:

A town has been left overflowing with rubbish bags after binmen have refused to pick them up – because the sacks are the wrong colour.

Mountains of household waste is lining streets in Weymouth, Dorset, after residents were given blue bin bags as part of a new waste collection scheme rolled out in the town.

But some claim they did not receive the new blue sacks, and have continued to use the standard black ones – only for them to be left by the side of the road by binmen under strict orders not to take away the ‘unauthorised bags’.

Piles of rubbish bags have been mounting up in streets around the town for the past two weeks, to the anger of residents.

What?

The council-run Dorset Waste Partnership said it is ‘applying its policy’ to limit residents to one household rubbish bag a week in the hope they will recycle more.

The loons have taken over the asylum. We need to fire these people and get a new set.

Please note this is not about party politics and it’s also not about the “shortage of landfill2. We don’t have such a shortage. The country produces about the same amount of waste each year as the number of holes we dig each year for other reasons. The only shortage is in the licences to be allowed to put the rubbish into the holes we already have available.

What this is about is that we’ve simply got the wrong group of people ruling us and that needs to change. On the basis that government really is about deciding who take out the rubbish and if they can’t even manage that then….well, why don’t we try finding some people who can manage that minimal task?

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.

OKeeffe