A guest worker programme for Syria’s women

I have previously written that we should let Syrians come to work in Britain through a guest worker scheme, arguing that the effects for natives are unlikely to be very bad, and I suspect may well be positive. But how might such a scheme work?

Typically guest worker programmes are seasonal, allowing workers to migrate during harvests to work in agriculture. The UK ended its Seasonal Agricultural Workers schemes in 2013 when it was scrapped alongside work restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians being lifted. New Zealand’s programme has supplied workers for its growing wine industry, which quadrupled in size between 2004 and 2012 (from NZ$300 million to NZ$1.2 billion).

Britain’s agriculture sector is growing less quickly, and shows less of an obvious need for new workers. But we do have a problem with high childcare costs and, perhaps relatedly, low native fertility rates leading to an older population.

So I suggest we set up a guest worker programme for Syrians to come and work in the childcare sector here. This would reduce costs – labour costs account for around 78% of total childcare costs, in part because we have such tight regulations about things like staff:child ratios compared to most other Western European countries.

But interestingly, this could have a significant knock-on effect on fertility. A paper released last year found that, by reducing childcare costs, immigrant inflows can boost the fertility rate of high-skilled native women. By reducing the cost of having children, highly-educated women are able to have more of them (and may be less inclined to leave the workforce when they do have kids.)

Virtually all childcarers – 98% of them – are women, so the visa programme could be opened to women only without distorting the existing shape of the UK labour force.

This would have the added benefit of avoiding most of the crime that people (possibly exaggeratedly) worry about immigrants causing – the UK’s male prison population is about nineteen times the size of the female one (i.e., women account for 4.6% of the prison population). Of course we could require that applicants have English language skills as well.

This would also significantly boost the incomes of Syrians back home or in refugee camps – the New Zealand guest worker programme led to per-capita income gains of 30-40% in countries like Tonga and Vanautu with per capita GDPs significantly higher than Syria’s.

I have heard objections to this that Syrian women would simply not be allowed to come by their families, which seems to me to be a misreading of the strictness of Syria’s religious culture. But even if I’m wrong and there’s not much take-up, the few people who do come would still be made better off. The main downside might be what would happen to the men in Syria if the gender ratio became significantly lopsided – an argument against doing this on a massive scale, perhaps, but not against taking an extra twenty or thirty thousand people.

A programme like this is obviously going to be limited in scope. It won’t solve the Syrian crisis, but it could be very good for the people who take part. And it would have the nice bonus of reducing costs for British families and boosting the birth rate among high-achieving British women. So what are we waiting for?

We would blame central heating ourselves

Science has discovered a mystery:

It may be the final straw that kicks off intergenerational war. Hard-pressed millennials already resent their parents’ generation for their free university education, generous pensions, higher employment rates and ownership of mansions they bought for £18.50.

Now it turns out baby boomers even had it easier when it came to dieting. A new study has found those consuming a given number of calories were 10% heavier in 2008 than 1971.

The difference, it turns out, is not down to Generation Y spending all its time sat on their well-padded nether regions playing computer games and sexting. Those with the same calorie intake and physical activity levels had an average body mass index 2.3kg/m⁲ higher in 2006 than in 1988. While average food and energy intake around the world has risen in recent decades, research has undermined the notion that weight gain is simply the result of people consuming more calories than they expend.

Well, actually, calorie intake in the UK has declined over that period. But this paper is specifically looking at the US:

Between 1971 and 2008, BMI, total caloric intake and carbohydrate intake increased 10–14%, and fat and protein intake decreased 5–9%. Between 1988 and 2006, frequency of leisure time physical activity increased 47–120%. However, for a given amount of caloric intake, macronutrient intake or leisure time physical activity, the predicted BMI was up to 2.3 kg/m2 higher in 2006 that in 1988 in the mutually adjusted model (P < 0.05).

If that were a British result we would immediately “blame” central heating. Something unusual in 1971 and near universal now. As an American result we’re less certain.

Factors other than diet and physical activity may be contributing to the increase in BMI over time. Further research is necessary to identify these factors and to determine the mechanisms through which they affect body weight.

But that is the first thing we would go and look at. Given that we are, in fact, mammals. And that the major use of calories in mammals is the regulation of body temperature?

Rather than, say, blaming the food industry for advertising yummy things to us which we regard as the inevitable outcome of this current approach.

Transport for London could dissipate its goodwill

Transport for London has quite a good record. There have been significant improvements in London’s transport, and TfL can take credit for some of them. We have the new Routemaster buses with the open back that you can hop off in a traffic jam, or hop on or off at traffic lights. There are the new wide tube train carriages that allow you to talk from one carriage into another in search of a seat. We are soon to have all-night tube services on some lines.

The new traffic lights that tell pedestrians how long they have to cross are a good innovation, as is the reconfiguration of some congested crossings that were previously more dangerous to pedestrians. TfL took part in some of the consultations that led to these and other improvements.

The leaked proposals under consideration on Uber could dissipate all of the goodwill TfL has earned, however. There is no conceivable benefit to Londoners in having to wait 5 minutes before a car can pick them up, or in preventing them from seeing which cars are nearby. This is typical corrupt rent-seeking, trying to hobble competition through political lobbying in order to protect incumbents and keep up prices.

Uber has provided Londoners with a service that is more flexible, more convenient and less costly. An estimated 1.2m users have taken to it. They do so because it is of value to them. Black cabs provide a good service, too. Most cabbies are cheerful and helpful, and they know the shortcuts. There is room in London for both types of service. The way to benefit most Londoners would be to ease the regulations and costs of the black cabs, rather than to legislate away the benefits that Uber brings.

The black cab drivers’ association and those representing licensed minicabs boast openly that they were behind the now-public consultation proposals, and influenced TfL to take them on board. TfL should now ditch those proposals as ones bringing no benefit and great disadvantages to Londoners. Unless they do so, they will rapidly lose all of the goodwill gained by their other, more sensible, innovations.


The best part of Britain’s health care

This is a slightly strange thing for the Guardian to be trumpeting:

The UK is the best place in the world in which to die, according to a study comparing end-of-life care in 80 countries.

The integration of palliative care into the NHS, a strong hospice movement largely funded by the charitable sector, specialised staff and deep community engagement are among the reasons cited by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).

Not that most of us tend to like thinking about it but yes, death is an inevitable part of any health care system. And here we’ve got an analysis of the one part of health care where Britain really is the world leader. Which is very interesting, of course it is, to know that we are still, at times, world beaters.

But what’s even more interesting is that this one world beating part of the overall health care service is the one part of it not run by the NHS and not financed through taxation: that hospice movement. Which is rather food for thought about how we might look to organise, run and finance other parts of that health care system, isn’t it?

Perhaps, even, the original decision to amalgamate all of the private, charitable, municipal health care systems into that tax funded NHS wasn’t the quite the right thing to have done even?

Yes of course Donald Trump is wrong about Nafta

More interesting is why Trump is wrong about Nafta:

Recently, Donald Trump made a strong claim about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in an interview on CBS 60 Minutes:

“It’s a disaster. … We will either renegotiate it, or we will break it. Because, you know, every agreement has an end. … Every agreement has to be fair. Every agreement has a defraud clause. We’re being defrauded by all these countries.”

And we have an, admittedly incomplete as yet, theory for why we think businessmen are often quite as bad as they are at economics. We would expect them, given that they are usually playing in the private sector, to be rather better than they are at how private markets work. And certainly someone in Trump’s industry should understand public choice arguments.

But our theory is that so much of what a business actually does is trying to beat economics that the knowledge of the underlying theory rather gets missed. Just as one example, every business is trying to gain market power, the ability to set prices. From the economic theory point of view this is a very bad idea: and it’s the competition that markets provide that stops every business from gaining that market power.

And something similar happens with trade: when running a business you are obviously going to try to reduce your inputs. Of anything: one of the ways to succeed is to minimise inputs. And yet when we talk about the whole economy, about trade, the aim and point of the entire exercise is to maximise those imports, those inputs. That’s why we’re doing it, to gain the maximal amount possible of the resources and labour of foreigners that our people get to consume.

So, much of the time, running a business is trying to beat economics. Thus a businessman can often have a distorted idea of what desirable economic policy is.

There are those who will make the leap from this claim to the one that therefore we must regulate businesses because they are “anti-economic”. To which we would respond yes, of course , we must do so. And we do do so, we insist on competitive markets which is exactly the correct antidote to such attempted behaviour.