Adam Smith: also right about watches

In Book One of the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith writes:

The diminution of price has . . . been most remarkable in those manufactures of which the materials are the coarse metals. A better movement of a watch, that about the middle of the last century could have been bought for twenty pounds, may now perhaps be had for twenty shillings.

He is looking at a particular industry to verify his claim that there had been sustained productivity movements over time. And it also functions as a nice argument in two economic history debates: whether sustained productivity improvements came first with the Industrial Revolution; and whether productivity was centred around a few key industries (coal, cotton) or was a more general phenom.

A new paper from Morgan Kelly and Cormac Ó Gráda, entitled “Adam Smith, Watch Prices, and the Industrial Revolution” (pdf) looks into the values people gave to the police when their watches were stolen, and finds that prices trended down steadily, consistent with rising productivity. Indeed, assuming quality trended up too, the numbers they get are pretty close to Smith’s.

To test whether watch prices had been falling steadily and steeply since the late seventeenth century we use the records of over 3,200 criminal trials at the Old Bailey court in London from 1685 to 1810. Owners of stolen goods gave the value of the items they had lost, and, because watches were frequently stolen, we can reliably track how their value changed through time.

Contemporaries divided watches into two categories, utilitarian silver or metal watches; and more expensive gold ones. Adjusting for inflation, the price of each type of watch falls steadily by 1.3 per cent per year, equivalent to a fall of 75 per cent over a century.

If we assume modest rises in the quality in silver watches, so that a watch at the 75th percentile in the 1710s was equivalent to one of median quality in the 1770s, we find an annual fall in real prices of 2 per cent or 87 per cent over a century, not far from what Adam Smith suggests.

Most of the cost of a silver watch was the labour involved in cutting, filing and assembling the parts, so we can gauge the rise of labour productivity in watch making by comparing how the price of a watch fell relative to nominal wages. During the period 1680–1810 real wages were roughly constant so this rise in labour productivity is similar to the fall in real prices of watches.

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I find the whole area very interesting and fruitful. And, as ever, it’s nice to see Smith’s educated conjectures backed up by hard data.

RIP Matthew Young

MJYoung June 2012

 

We are very sad to report the death of our friend Matthew Young, who died suddenly at the weekend following an undiagnosed illness. He worked on major projects for the Adam Smith Institute, but also had a significant career in government, under both Labour and Conservative administrations.

Matthew rose quickly through Whitehall to become Private Secretary to Lord Armstrong, head of the civil service under the Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath, in 1971. He went on to be Press Secretary to the Labour Prime Ministers Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, conducting twice daily Lobby briefings in Downing Street and preparing instant responses to the numerous political issues that arose.

From 1976 he became responsible for policies to control and reduce costs in the civil service, with direct responsibility for controlling expenditure limits on government departments. During this time he exposed some of the profligate spending in ministries – such as the Ministry of Defence, which he found was still issuing detailed specifications on headlight seals for their trucks, long after this technology had been replaced by cheaper, more reliable one-piece headlight manufacture.

In the Thatcher years, Matthew worked on privatisation, drafting plans to privatise HMSO, the Laboratory of the Government Chemist, the Building Research Establishment and the Agricultural Development Advisory Service. He also pushed forward the contracting-out of Defence functions such as Navy Air Training, Radio Communications, and Met Office observation functions. He estimated that these activities amounted to more than £300m of savings for the taxpayer.

In the 1990s he directed major projects for the Adam Smith Institute, involving key players from industry, government and the civil service. One of these, the Trafficflow Project, identified the potential for road congestion pricing in the UK, and convinced the then Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, to adopt it. Another, involving national pension and finance experts, laid out plans for a simplified pension system, which was the foundation for the Stakeholder Pension introduced soon after.

From 1996, Matthew created his own think-tank, Public Policy Projects, concentrating mainly on health policy. Hundreds of key players from private and public sectors would attend his events and Parliamentary Breakfasts, to hear an impressive array of ministers and experts talking about current concerns.

The Adam Smith Institute has lost a good and loyal friend, and someone who not only thought deeply about the structure of government, but actually made change happen.

President Cameron and the TV debates

David Cameron’s decision on the TV debates was one of the worst of his life. No, not yesterday’s ‘final offer’ to the broadcasters of only one 90-minute debate with seven (or eight) parties represented, and held well before the start of the ‘short campaign’ prior to the General Election of 7 May. Rather, it was his decision to push for TV debates five years ago, when he was Leader of the Opposition, that caused the damage.

In purely ‘political’ terms, that decision quickly back to bite him. It gave an opportunity to the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, to come forward as the ‘Anti-Westminster’ candidate, boosting that party’s standing and forcing the Conservatives into coalition.

TV debates of course always help the underdog and damage the government. So now that Cameron is Prime Minister, he is facing the same calls for debates from Labour and the smaller parties, and is having to take the same criticism he launched at PM Gordon Brown last time, that he is ‘frit’ of defending his record.

But there are two, more fundamental problems. The first is that there is no logical way to decide which parties should be represented in TV debates. The debates are, after all, seen as a ‘national event’, rather than some throw-away entertainment, so it is important that they should be fairly structured. But it is impossible to include all of the dozens of parties, including pop-up parties, who contest seats in the General Election. So where does one draw the line? The Liberal Democrats may be sharing power, but they are polling little better than the Greens. UKIP has come from almost nowhere, but now out-poll the Liberal Democrats, so should they be included at the expense of the LibDems? And the Democratic Unionist Party (and Sinn Fein for that matter) may well stand only in Northern Ireland, but they are key forces there, so should they be on the platform too?

There simply is no objective way to decide. And no answer is going to suit every party. (And it is for this same reason that taxpayer funding of political parties can never work either – unless the two biggest parties simply divide the funding up between them and resist any claims from ‘upstarts’).

The most serious problem, though, is a constitutional issue. Britain’s governmental system is not supposed to be a Presidential one. True, the Prime Minister has many of the powers that a US President has, powers that once belonged to the monarch (like initiating wars and signing treaties, without troubling Parliament overmuch). But the Prime Minister is not just an executive, but still a member of the legislature – a Member of Parliament. When British voters go to the polls, they are supposed to be electing their local MP – someone who will actually hold the government to account. They might take into account what that might mean in terms of who moves in to 10 Downing Street, but in all but one constituency, that is not who they are electing.

There is an argument that the executive in Britain has too much power, precisely because it also controls the legislature. Of 650 MPs, a hundred are on the payroll, a hundred would like to be, and two hundred on the other side are lining themselves up with the same in mind. So party leaders and offers have enormous power, and Parliament has very little restraint on them. Maybe we should be separating the executive and legislative branches. Certainly, the last thing we should be doing is deepening the power of the executive further. But this is precisely the effect of TV debates. They focus attention on just one person, boosting centralism and central power. That is not healthy for any nation. Frankly, there should be no TV debates at all.

Caution: This Car is a Consequentialist

The Technology expo Mobile World Congress was held this week, and amongst shiny new phones and gadgets, a number of reveals pertained to the future of motoring. Across the board firms are leading with the idea of interconnected devices and the ‘Internet of Things’, and the automobile industry is no different.

AT&T showed how to control a ‘smart home’ from your ‘connected car’, whilst Visa wants us to use our wheels to order pizza. Tech and automobile companies are converging and partnering, with both Apple and Google racing ahead to provide dashboard operating systems. Of course, Google’s most distinctive contribution to motoring so far is still its cartoon-like driverless cars; a potentially transformative sector other companies are piling into.

This week Renault Nissan announced plans to bring an autonomous, connected car to market by 2016. This wouldn’t be as far down the line as a fully driverless car, capable only (pending regulatory approval) of driving autonomously in traffic jams. Whilst Renault Nissan’s head predicted that autonomous motorway travel is not far off, moving beyond that point is far more difficult because we simply can’t currently ensure that autonomous vehicles make rational decisions in an emergency.

Questions of which emergency choices would be rational, and which, indeed, would be most ethical to take are some of the most interesting in the pursuit of automated transport. Such cases bear a strong resemblance to the classic Trolley Problem thought experiment:

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: 1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. 2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the correct choice?

In philosophy this problem (along with permutations involving fat men being shoved off bridges and looping tracks) is used to tease out consequentialist v. deontological intuitions — should you always act to save the many, or is it wrong to treat people as a means to and end? — as well as moral distinctions between forseeing and intending a death, and killing and letting die.

The ethics of driverless cars in this sense are particularly juicy. Unlucky drivers may experience their own trolley-like problems: should they swerve into the next lane or aim instead for the pavement? Generally, though, we’re pretty forgiving of a bad call made in a split second and under extreme duress, and wouldn’t really consider a particular choice an ‘ethical’ one.

However, what driverless cars do in a dangerous situation will be thought far more significant. Even if cars ‘learn’ with road time and experience, their instinctive behaviour will already be premeditated and decided; written in as part of the car’s program and consciously chosen by a coder.

This predetermination of the car’s behavior (and by extension, its moral philosophy) makes trolley-related problems both an ethical and legal minefield. Regardless (or perhaps, because,) of how effective driverless cars may be in reducing overall accidents, lawsuits are likely to be significant, and expensive. Whether or not a car is automated to minimize total casualties or programmed to never hit an innocent bystander, there will likely come a time when someone asks ‘why was my loved one already marked out to die in this situation?’ Applying different moral codes will inevitably lead to very different ideas of what it is acceptable for a driverless car to do.

Picking the ‘right’ ethical choice in a range of hypothetical situations will therefore be important, especially if the deployment of driverless cars relies on political and populist goodwill. There’s no end of considerations — is a forseen death acceptable? Is a child’s life more valuable than an adult’s? How do the number and ages of individuals weigh against one another? Should a driverless car prioritize the safety of its passengers over pedestrians, or should it try to minimize third party harm? Should public and private vehicles act differently? Ultimately it may be governments who insist on taking these decisions, but that doesn’t make them any easier.

There’s a number of interesting articles on this sort of thing, and  it will be interesting to hear futher development and discussion of these issues as driverless technology evolves. However, one solution to ‘choosing’ the right outcomes which I found interesting, posited by Owen Barder, would be to let the market decide and with each person to purchase a car programmed with their own moral philosophy. This may not work out in practice, but I do like the idea of a ‘Caution: This Car is a Consequentialist’ bumper sticker.

 

 

Decriminalising possession is not enough Mr. Clegg

Decriminalising the possession of drugs is better than not decriminalising it. But we’re sorry to say that it’s not actually enough: it is also necessary to legalise the production and supply of them.

Nick Clegg will today press ahead with plans to decriminalise possession of all drugs – despite charities warning the move will wreck thousands of lives.

The Lib Dem leader is to pledge that his party will bring forward plans to ensure those caught with drugs for ‘personal use’ will no longer face criminal prosecution. Instead, the maximum penalty would be a fine.

The move covers the powerful ‘skunk’ strain of cannabis and hard drugs such as crack cocaine and heroin, as well as ‘soft’ drugs including marijuana and amphetamines.

Not jailing people for ingesting the stimulant of their choice is of course a good thing. If we don’t own our own bodies and cannot decide what to put into them then we are not free. And freedom and liberty are the aim and goal, of course.

However, this is not enough, welcome though it is. For there are two problems with drugs. The first is that above, the issue of liberty. The second is the issue of safety. It’s all very well to say that we may partake as we wish, subject only to fines. But only with the legalisation of manufacture and supply can there be any form of quality control.

It’s worth thinking back to the adulteration of food in Victorian times. The first investigations into what was actually going into processed foods turned up in The Lancet in the late 1840s and early 1850s. And there was most certainly all sorts of very dodgy stuff being added to food. Sometimes knowingly and sometimes not: we seem to recall people using cadmium salts to make sweets look pretty which really isn’t something to be recommmended but they didn’t know that then.

Legislation to deal with such adulteration really only started in the 1870s. By which time the problem was largely solved. For the information about the adulteration led to producers creating brands which promised no such adulteration. And consumers bought them on such promises. It’s not from quite the same time or place but this is akin to Heinz tomato soup conquering the world. Early canning of soups was slightly hit and miss. Heinz kept better control of that process than other competing manufacturers and thus killed fewer people. This became generally known, the brand became a marker of quality and global domination beckoned.

To solve our second problem with drugs we need to allow those same processes free rein. Brands must be allowed, brands that claim to be free of brick dust, to be of a certain purity and also of a certain dose. Tax the heck out of them as well, of course, but legalisation, not just decriminalisation, is the solution to both of our problems about drugs.