If QE avoided a Depression it doesn’t matter if it increased inequality

I’ve just come from a fascinating event with The Spectator’s Fraser Nelson, on his recent Dispatches show, How the Rich Get Richer. In general the show was very good, and it’s extremely refreshing to see someone as thoughtful as Fraser get half an hour of prime time television to discuss poverty in Britain from a broadly free market perspective.

But I did take issue with the show’s treatment of Quantitative Easing (QE). Fraser described this as ‘perhaps the biggest wealth transfer from poor to rich in history’. The evidence for this was the rise in asset prices following QE, particularly in stock markets. Since rich people own assets and poor people don’t, the rich got richer and the poor didn’t.

That’s a common view and I understand it, but I think it’s wrong. 

Consider the Great Depression. When the money supply (and hence nominal spending) collapsed in the 1930s, the US economy did too, for reasons outlined in Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz’s Monetary History of the United States.

Basically, contracts are set in nominal terms, so if nominal spending collapses, you’re left with a musical chairs problem where you have too little money to go round. So people are laid off and firms go bankrupt that would not have done so if money had remained stable across the board. Enormous amounts of wealth were destroyed unnecessarily because the government mismanaged the money supply. (It shouldn’t be managing money at all, in my view, but if it is we can at least try to minimise the harm it does.)

Perhaps inequality fell during this period because the rich lost proportionally more than the poor – they had more to lose, basically. But who cares? Everyone became worse off. That’s what matters.

The point of QE since 2008 has been to try and avoid a repeat of the 1930s by boosting the money supply. Its supporters wanted to avoid another massive destruction of wealth that would make everyone much worse off. 

Yes, QE boosted stock markets a lot. But there is nothing about QE that meant that banks or other investors would have to invest there – it’s not an ‘injection of cash into stocks’, as some people seem to believe. Stock markets rose because investors reckoned that QE would help avert a much worse Depression, which meant that firms would be (much) more valuable compared to a QE-less world where many of them may have gone bankrupt, or at least taken severe losses, instead.

Yes, that increased inequality because rich people own stocks and poor people don’t. But if everyone would have been worse off without QE, the extra inequality is beside the point. It’s people’s absolute wellbeing that should matter, if what you’re avoiding is a big Depression. You might as well think economic growth is bad because it makes everyone richer, but rich people a little more so.

Of course, it’s an open question whether QE actually did work as intended. Perhaps it made things worse, or did nothing at all. That is a question worth asking and it’s not one I can answer. But focusing on whether it increased inequality or not is beside the point – what matters is whether it prevented a Depression.

Are immigrants dangerous criminals?

Sometimes supporters of strict migration controls criticise my focus on the economics of immigration. They more or less accept that free movement leads to productivity gains, innovation gains, entrepreneurial gains and fiscal gains for the receiving countries, ‘brain gains’ for the migrants’ home countries, and even that it leads to massive welfare gains for the immigrants themselves, but suggest that the non-economic costs of immigration are very large too, and we basically ignore them. 

They have in mind costs like increased crime, reductions in social trust, a decline in democratic support for important institutions like the rule of law and free speech, and the dilution of the native culture. To some extent I believe all of these things are costs of certain kinds of immigration, and may justify certain controls on immigration, but none are reasons to support the immigration controls that we currently have.

In this post I’ll consider how much impact immigrants have on the crime rate. I’ll come back to some of the other points in future posts.

So: crime. Crime only seems to rise in line with certain kinds of immigration, and does so for basically economic reasons. A 2013 study looked at two different waves of immigration to the UK – asylum seekers in the 1990s and early 2000s (mostly from places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia); and immigration from the “A8” countries (Poland, Czech Republic and the six other Eastern European states that joined the EU in 2004). 

The paper looked at crime rates according to areas where these waves of immigrants settled. It found that neither of these waves had any statistically significant impact on the overall rate of violent crime. A8 immigration actually had a small negative impact on crime rates, driven by a reduction in property crime rates. 

On the other hand, asylum seekers did cause a statistically significant rise in property crime, but still a small one. This  equivalent to an increase of 0.7% in property crime rates per 1% percentage point share of the local adult that was asylum seekers. Note that this is a percentage increase to the existing crime rate – if crime rates were already 10% and a new wave of asylum seekers suddenly accounted for 1% of the population, crime rates would rise to 10.07%, not 10.7%.

According to the report’s authors,

“Across all England and Wales [asylum seekers] averaged 0.1% of the local adult population, so the average property crime rate might be 0.07% higher as a result – only around 2% of the average property crime rate of around 2.7%. Of course, some authorities had appreciably more asylum seekers located in the area, though shares larger than 1% of the local population were extremely rare.”

What explains this? There might be because of some inherent difference between, say, Polish and Iraqi people, but violent crime levels were not significantly different (in fact, A8 migrants were slightly worse here than asylum seekers). What may explain the difference is that A8 immigrants were free to work however they wished, whereas asylum seekers are not allowed to seek legal employment. The authors of the 2013 report suggest that this explains why only property crime was higher for asylum seekers.

This data is not broken down by nationality, so it is rather blunt. According to another 2013 paper, arrest rates (which are broken down by nationality) were significantly higher for immigrants than non-immigrants – 2.8 arrests per 1000 for UK nationals and 3.5 arrests per 1000 for non-nationals (excluding immigration-related arrests). However, controlling for age this difference disappears. Having more young people seems to lead to more arrests; in and of itself having more immigrants does not.

Finally, there is the issue of second- and third-generation immigrant groups who cause disproportionately more crime. According to the Metropolitan Police, the majority of men held by police for gun crimes (67%), robberies (59%) and street crimes (54%) in London in 2009-10 were black, even though only 10.6% of London’s population is black. There is no easy explanation for this, and it may be due to a combination of factors that we cannot control – or, indeed, easily change.

The ultimate lesson of all this may be that immigration in general does not have a big impact on crime, but certain immigrant groups might if they do not assimilate culturally. Then again, Eastern Europeans don’t seem to be a problem at all, and they seem to be the ones we’re most concerned about right now. 

My friend Ed West has a point when he says that there is no such thing as an ‘immigrant’ – only an American, a Pole, a Somali, and so on. In the course of my posts on the non-economic impacts of immigration, I will suggest that a compromise position between my libertarian preference for very free movement and Ed’s conservative preference for restrictions. We may yet be able to square the circle of immigration policy.

Would being more like Qatar be a good way of fighting poverty?

Eric Posner and Glen Weyl have a provocative essay in the New Republic this month arguing that massive guest worker schemes could help facilitate large numbers of immigrants from poor countries to come and work in the developed world. Their model is the Gulf States, which have enormous numbers of workers—85% of the population of the United Arab Emirates, for instance, are guest workers:

If the OECD countries copied the migration policies of the GCC countries, they would reduce global inequality by much more than their welfare systems do within their borders. For example, if OECD countries welcomed migrants in proportion to their GDP at the same rate and from the same poor nations as Qatar does, this would reduce global inequality by about twice the amount that eliminating all internal inequality in the OECD countries wouldand by twice the rate that taxes and transfers in these countries reduce global inequality. If they  adopted the same per-citizen rate at which the UAE takes migrants, they could accomplish much more. By taking in the 60 percent of the global population who make less than the bottom five percent in the United States and paying them $5,000 per year, the U.S. and Europe would reduce global inequality by roughly a third.

We citizens of OECD countries take pride in our political and civil rights, and our generous welfare systems. Yet we maintain our high standard of living by giving no rights and trivial money to people who live outside our arbitrary borders. While we fuss over whether we should raise or lower our marginal tax rates, we ignore the plight of the most desperate people in the world. And yet we are surprised that leaders of China and the GCC accuse us of hypocrisy when we criticize their records on human rights.

It’s a controversial idea. These schemes seem to address most of the intractable problems that people have with immigration—these guest workers cannot vote, their children do not become citizens of the states they are born into, and they have to return home after a certain period of time, so they can’t have the negative lasting impact on culture that some people say immigration will lead to.

But, as I and many other visitors to the Gulf have noted, the system feels almost like slavery. Indeed in cases where workers’ passports are confiscated it essentially is slavery. Posner and Weyl are not suggesting this, but their plan would bring the reality of global poverty right up to our doorsteps—provided they know what their lives will be like, we can assume they would be made better off by this, but many people would find actually seeing this kind of deprivation on a daily basis to be unacceptable. But whether we could tolerate this and whether we should tolerate it are two very different questions.

We need a Negative Income Tax, not a Living Wage

The new Living Wage rate was announced today. I’ve written a bit about the Living Wage already. If it’s private, it’s probably not a big deal, although it could still lead to unemployment. I suspect it’s done by big firms that don’t have many low-skilled workers as a PR move but I quite like PR moves that involve paying low skilled people more. And I worry that people will generalize from those big firms to assume that the whole market could bear a mandatory Living Wage, which is almost certainly untrue and would be very harmful to many of the people it’s supposed to help.

What’s more interesting is the problem of low pay in general. Even though unemployment has fallen a lot in recent years in the UK, real wages have barely risen at all. Even as wages do begin to rise on average, it’s possible that wages for low skilled workers may not as jobs for them are outsourced to cheaper countries. The ASI has proposed raising the personal allowance (including National Insurance threshold) to the minimum wage rate, but this doesn’t do much good for part-time workers or currently-unemployed people who would earn below the minimum wage if we scrapped that, as I think we should.

So low pay may be a problem without any clear solution, for which most popular ‘solutions’ don’t actually work.

But there may be a fix that does work – a Negative Income Tax or a Basic Income. As I’ve written before these are actually very similar even though one is almost exclusively supported by right-wingers and the other almost exclusively by left-wingers. As ever in politics, we’re speaking different languages.

A Negative Income Tax is a form of income top-up that only looks at an individual’s income, not whether they are in work or not, and tops that income up automatically if they are earning less than a given amount. The extra money is withdrawn at a tapered rate, so that for every pound you earn from work, you lose (say) fifty pence in top-up, ensuring that workers always have a clear incentive to demand higher wages, and that work always pays more than joblessness for unemployed people.

This would replace lots of existing working age benefits, including Jobseekers’ Allowance, council tax relief, the Employment and Support Allowance and tax credits. You could probably implement a decent one without increasing total expenditure. The exact rates can be determined by running trials across the country.

A Negative Income Tax like this would almost certainly be a boon to people on low pay, and would avoid most of the problems that minimum wages and current welfare schemes face.

Indeed the main objection may simply be that it is redistributive. That’s where I break with many of my fellow libertarians – I want free markets because they make poor people’s lives better, and I am OK with redistribution if it’s done in a market-friendly way that makes poor people’s lives better too. If this sounds surprising, remember that this puts me in the same boat as Milton Friedman (who campaigned for a Negative Income Tax) and FA Hayek, and indeed in the same utilitarian philosophical camp as Ludwig von Mises.

I suspect low pay will continue to be a problem for many years, maybe becoming even worse as automation renders some people permanently unemployable. It is necessary but not sufficient to simply rebut other people’s bad ideas.

In the Negative Income Tax we have a policy that can actually go a big way to solving the problem, and hopefully replace some of the harmful policies we have right now. Rhetorically, I think we free marketeers need more positive solutions to policy problems, and if we could get over our squeamishness about endorsing certain forms of ‘good’ redistribution, we may be able to surprise people into listening to and maybe even agreeing with us. If low pay is indeed the long-term problem that it seems to be, the Negative Income Tax’s time may finally have come.

David Cameron vs feminism

Today there was a minor kerfuffle about the Prime Minister’s refusal to wear a t-shirt that says “This is what a feminist looks like” after Elle, a women’s magazine, asked him to do so for a marketing campaign. Elle had a go at Cameron, saying that “It should be simple. Do you believe that men and women are equal? Do you believe men and women should have the same rights? The same opportunities? Yes? Then you are a feminist.”

Well, that sounds pretty reasonable! I don’t see how anyone could object to that. But the plot thickens later on. All these unobjectionable, bland claims apparently relate to quite specific public policy issues, like unequal pay and political representation for women. According to Elle, we need feminism because “for every £1 a man earns in the UK, a woman earns 80p. Women make up only 35% of senior managers in the UK and an estimated 30,000 women a year lose their jobs as a result of pregnancy-related discrimination. In politics, fewer than one in four MPs is a woman, and there are only five women in the cabinet out of 22 ministers”.

In other words, we need feminism so we can do something about very specific issues (presumably in specific ways, since the Fawcett Society is involved which has specific policies to address all these things).

This sounds to me like a ‘motte and bailey’ argument. Scott Alexander explains in more detail in part two of this excellent essay here (if you have the time, read that, not this). The name come from medieval times, when a ‘motte’ was a defensible castle surrounded by a profitable village called the ‘bailey’. Everyone would work out in the bailey until they got attacked and had to retreat to the safety of the motte.

A motte and bailey argument starts off by defining itself in very defensible way. “Feminism means thinking that men and women should be treated equally.” That’s the safe, defensible motte.

It then extends that reasonable-seeming claim to all sorts of controversial claims – unequal political representation demands all-women shortlists; unequal pay demands more invasive laws to equalise pay between men and women. That’s the bailey where the actual (political or cultural) advancements can be made.

Let’s say you attack the bailey by saying that you’re not a feminist because you think the policies advocated by feminists are bad, or the problems they identify are not even problems at all. Maybe you find, as Ben recently has, that “if you control for background (i.e. skills and talent) and exit (i.e. women staying in the workforce) women earn more than men and get more aggressively promoted than men”, which implies that the claims made by feminists about unequal pay needing new laws are simply incorrect.

Feminism may also be wrong about many other things, such as claims about men and women’s brains being biologically the same or the pervasiveness of a ‘rape culture’. These are substantive elements of what feminists define as feminism, and they may be right or wrong. It’s legitimate (albeit quite possibly mistaken) to think these claims are wrong, and hence to decline to wear a ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirt.

But do that and many feminists will retreat into the defensible motte, as Elle have today. David Cameron doesn’t think men and women should be equal! David Cameron doesn’t think men and women should have the same rights! Feminism is very simple!

This is dishonest and manipulative. And an open society requires honesty in political discourse. David Cameron is often accused of pandering to fashion. He deserves credit for refusing to do so this time.