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

 

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.