A proposal to solve the housing crisis

The problem is not that people lack the resources to buy houses; it is that there are simply not enough houses.  People are living longer, more choose to live singly, and immigrants increase the population.  Schemes that help people to obtain mortgages direct extra funds into housing without increasing the supply, and put more upward pressure on house prices.

The Green Belt acts as a corset around our cities, forcing people to live beyond it and commute through it, with attendant pollution and congestion.  They need houses near the edge of cities, but the Green Belt stops them.

The first step is to classify Green Belt land into its three types.  There is verdant land, with fields, meadows and woods – what most people think of when they think about Green Belts.  There is ‘brown,’ or damaged land, including abandoned mines and quarries and former industrial buildings.  Thirdly there is agricultural land, much of it given to intensive cultivation on vast fields using fertilizers and pesticides.  It falls well short of being environmentally friendly.

Once the land is classified into its three types, the verdant land should be left untouched.  All of the ‘brown’ land should be made available for building.  In addition a one-mile deep strip of agricultural land at the inner edge of the Green Belt should be made available for house-building.  In compensation, at least a mile of agricultural land beyond the outer edge of the Green Belt should be added to it as verdant Green Belt.

The grant of planning permission within this extra land near cities would dramatically lower the cost of housing land, putting downward pressure on house prices.  The million extra homes that could be built on this land would have a similar effect.  A move such as this would increase the supply of housing and make it less expensive, bringing home-ownership within reach of many.  

Furthermore, there would be a net gain of properly ‘green’ land by the outer extension of the Belt with more verdant land.  The prospect of extra housing, a curb on the upward spiral of prices, and with no loss of green land, all suggest this might be a practical and popular help to the housing problem.

The Chancellor should unleash his inner self

As Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson made it a feature that in every one of his budgets he would simplify taxes and abolish at least one tax altogether.  George Osborne has been dealt a difficult hand, but has played it reasonably well, achieving the highest growth rate in Western Europe, and helping the UK economy create more jobs than the rest of the EU combined, more than 1,000 each day.

One senses that he is at heart a believer in simplifying taxes and lowering them wherever possible.  He wants to emulate Nigel Lawson, perhaps, but is constrained by the need to bring down the deficit and the debt.  Nevertheless, he could take his first steps down Lawson Street in his July budget.

First the abolition.  He should end stamp duty on shares.  This tax diminishes the capital available to companies for investment and expansion.  It takes money from pension funds and decreases both the size of people’s pensions and the incentives to save for them.  Its abolition would immediately increase the value of listed companies, augmenting their capital, and, as Tim Worstall points out, extra capital allied to labour increases productivity and the potential for wage increases.  Abolition would thus be a gain for both pensioners and workers, and the growth generated would soon repay its Treasury shortfall.

For simplification, National Insurance must be a prime candidate.  It is a tax in all but name, and a complex one at that with its various classes and sub-classes.  It is calculated differently from income tax and with different thresholds.  It is a huge burden on employees, especially on the low-paid.  Even the so-called “employer” contribution in fact comes from the wage pool that would otherwise have gone direct to the employee.  Many business leaders and economists have called for NI to be merged with income tax.  The Chancellor could make a start in his July budget by having NI calculated in the same way as income tax, and subject to the same thresholds.  This would avoid many of the costs that the present duplication entails, as well as making life simpler for employers calculating deductions for their workers.  It would also make it more transparent.

The call, therefore, is for lower taxes and simpler taxes.  Over to you, Chancellor.

Something important that Mr Cameron should understand

As Mr Cameron sets about negotiating a new European Union arrangement better suited to the UK’s needs and preferences, it is essential that he should understand something very important.  It is that the renegotiated terms are not about detail; they are about principle.

From the leaks and speculation surrounding Mr Cameron’s ongoing diplomacy the observer might think that they hinge on such questions as to whether immigrants should receive benefits, or whether the UK will be able to exercise some control over their numbers.  These are details, details on which the ASI has differed with some in his party.  We have taken the view that immigrants, especially skilled ones, should play an important part in the country’s future prosperity.

They are still details, however, and if all Mr Cameron returns with is a ragbag of assorted concessions here and there, he will have passed up an historic opportunity for Britain.  The principle at stake is sovereignty.  It is whether the British people through their elected representatives can make the laws that prevail in this country.

Yes, of course the UK should remain part of the single market, and yes of course the goods and services we export to fellow members of the EU must meet EU regulations and conform to EU standards.  The United States and China both meet those standards with goods they export there.  But what we do not want is a European Parliament that passes laws telling us how to feed our dogs.

Britain needs to distance itself from “ever closer union” if it is to protect the liberties that are part of its inheritance from Magna Carta onwards.  In most of the EU the laws tell people what they may do; in the UK the laws only tell us what they may not do.  Britons do not derive their freedoms from Parliament.  On the contrary, Parliament itself is a product of those freedoms.

Mt Cameron should remember that every concession on detail can be subsequently reversed.  John Major’s opt-out on the working hours directive was subsequently re-imposed upon us through EU health and safety provisions.  What he must seek instead is a deal that recognizes the principle that our Parliament is sovereign in this country.

The hope must be that Mr Cameron will be able to negotiate a deal that puts Britain on the outside track of the EU, willingly going along with the economic aspects of union, but with UK sovereignty protected from those who seek a Europe governed in detail by Europe-wide laws.

Backing the 1%

I spoke last Thursday in the Cambridge Union on the motion, “This House Believes We Need the Richest 1%.”  I spoke in favour, giving 6 reasons for my support.

1.  The richest 1% feature many people who have provided things to improve our lives. 

These include Google, Amazon, Facebook, Paypal, YouTube, etc.  We use them regularly and have propelled their developers into the top 1%.  They made life easier, more interesting & more rewarding by providing services of value to others.  Even the much-derided bankers have made capital work more effectively and made it more available.

2.  The richest 1% act as an example to others. 

People look at the careers of Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, & Mark Zuckerberg, and are themselves inspired to develop goods and services that will similarly be of use and value to others. 

3.  The top 1% pay taxes. 

In the UK the 1% pay nearly 30% of all income tax.  The top 3,000 UK earners pay more between them than the bottom 9 million.  Their taxes support schools, hospitals and essential public services.

4.  They give to charitable causes. 

They are the mainstay of many medical & cultural charities.  They fund art galleries, museums & symphony orchestras.  They are helping to conquer disease and suffering.  The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is funding the eventual conquest of malaria, a disease that kills an estimated 2m people annually, including 500,000 children.  Warren Buffet has issued the Giving Pledge, for rich people who pledge to give or leave half their fortunes to charity.  Hundreds, including Bill Gates, have signed it.

5.  The top 1% are early adopters. 

They can afford to buy the new gadgets and try out the new processes.  The ones that fall short of expectations drop by the wayside, but successful ones go into mass production, fall in price and become generally available.  It was the 1% who bought the first large flat screen plasma and LCD TVs that are now commonplace and within reach of most people.

6.  The top 1% include those who accelerate the pace of technological advance by putting their money behind adventurous developments. 

Paul Allen made his fortune with Microsoft, and put $25m to back SpaceShipOne, winner of the X-Prize for the first private vehicle to carry people into space.  Elon Musk made his fortune from Paypal, and used it to fund Tesla because he believes that electric cars can enable a cleaner world.  He funded SpaceX, which sends Dragon capsules to the Space Station and is testing ways of landing and refueling its boosters.  He does this to speed up accessible spaceflight.

With more time I could have added more reasons, such as the fact that the 1% help create most of the new jobs that replace ones automated or outsourced.  I concluded by saying that the 1% help make the world a better, more colourful and more interesting place, and that the goods and services they make available enrich our lives.

FIFA and the wider problem of corruption

Sepp Blatter, re-elected as head of FIFA, gained so many first round votes that his opponent withdrew.  Many of those votes came from Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe.  Not many came from Western Europe and North America.  How could the man be re-elected after presiding over an administration that for decades has involved bribes to delegates and illegal payments by sovereign governments? 

The answer may be simple.  In many of the countries whose delegates gave him votes, corruption is a normal part of everyday life.  You want to do business?  You bribe a bureaucrat.  You want to move goods across the country?  You have cash ready at the police checkpoints.  You want to win a government contract?  You transfer funds into the secret foreign bank account of the President’s sister.  Corruption is endemic, and their people suffer its consequences.  This could be why so many delegates seemed relatively sanguine about its exposure in FIFA.

That corruption is so widespread is a major factor holding back economic growth in developing economies.  The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates it at more than 5% of global GDP, with the World Economic Forum putting it at US$2.6 trillion, and the World Bank putting the amount paid annually in bribes at over US$1 trillion.

It adds costs to business activity.  The kickbacks have to be factored into production costs, raising prices and therefore reducing the volume of activity.  Less wealth is created than there would be without it.  Corruption is like a tax, but a particularly toxic one because of its covert and unpredictable nature.  Tax incidence is public; it can be calculated and taken account of; but no-one publishes tables of bribes that will have to be paid.

Corruption causes resources to be misallocated, with contracts being awarded to firms that would not have won them in open competition.  Bribes to ministers lead to construction projects for which there is no genuine market demand.  Those with access to decision-makers, and with resources to bribe them with, are advantaged at the expense of those lower down the social scale with neither influence nor resources.

Because corruption is illegal, its prevalence undermines respect for the law.  It also corrodes the public trust that is part of the background of successful market economies.  The only antidote to it is a government with the moral integrity to uphold the law, and for a legal system that remorselessly exposes and punishes the perpetrators.  The FIFA scandal is about more than football; it gives us another glimpse into a worldwide problem.