What happens when you ban e-cigarettes

A quick note on what happens when governments ban e-cigs: cigarette smoking rates rise among teenagers.

Regression analyses consider how state bans on e-cigarette sales to minors influence smoking rates among 12 to 17 year olds. Such bans yield a statistically significant 0.9 percentage point increase in recent smoking in this age group, relative to states without such bans. Results are robust to multiple specifications as well as several falsification and placebo checks.

And, from an earlier version of the paper:

Among those with the highest propensity to smoke, ecigarette use increased most while cigarette use declined: a 1.0 percentage point rise in ever use of e-cigarettes yields a 0.65 percentage point drop in this subgroup’s current smoking rate.

The idea that e-cigarettes ‘glamourise smoking’ has always struck me as being extraordinarily stupid. Turns out I was right. Now, will people who should know better like Public Health England please stop trying to get e-cigs turned into prescription-only medications?

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?

Simon Jenkins is quite wrong about the housing crisis

Simon Jenkins says that there is no housing crisis, and lists 11 ‘myths’ that have misled people into thinking there is. I usually really like Jenkins’s pieces, but I think almost all of his rebuttals of these ‘myths’ are wrong:

1. That there is a housing “crisis”. There is none. Too many people cannot find the house they want in London and the south-east, which is where most politicians and commentators live. …Average prices in London may be £500,000, but in the north-west and north-east of England they are £150,000.

There are even cheaper houses in the Scottish Highlands, Spain and Bulgaria. The point is that London and the south east are not just where ‘most politicians and commentators’ live, they’re where most of the best jobs are being created, and hence where people want to live — from 2007 to 2011, “London’s economy (GVA) grew by a nominal 12.4% compared to between 2.3% and 6.8% across other UK regions.” There’s a good case for trying to rebalance but for now it’s easier to build houses where the jobs are than move the jobs to where the houses are.

2. That an average is a minimum. It is not. Housing hysteria is based on averages. When someone asks “How can I possibly afford £500,000?”, the answer is: you cannot, but somebody presumably can. But go on Zoopla and there are houses in parts of London for £180,000. Even the poorest newcomers seem to find somewhere (usually private) to rent.

The problem here is that the average house is not affordable for the average earner. So the cheapest houses Jenkins can find in London go for £180,000 (actually, I’m not sure this is true because I can’t find any on Zoopla) – where does that leave people on the lowest salaries? So ‘the poorest newcomers seem to find somewhere (usually private) to rent’ – never mind if those places are squalid, far from work and cost half those people’s incomes, eh?

3. That there is a national “need” for 250,000 new houses a year. … Housing need implies homelessness. It should refer to the 60,000 people currently in temporary accommodation, who ought to be the chief focus of policy attention. All else is “demand”.

The 250,000 new houses a year figure is based on the number of new houses needed to stabilise affordability. True enough, people’s wish to have more in their lives than food and shelter – a bit of disposable income for themselves or their kids – is ‘demand’, not ‘need’. They won’t die if they don’t have it, they’ll just have worse lives.

4. That the solution to house prices lies in building more new houses. …The chief determinant of house prices is the state of the market in existing property and the cost of finance. During the sub-prime period, prices soared in America and Australia despite unrestricted new building. It was cheap money that did the damage. The house-builders lobby equates housing to “new build” because that is where their interest lies.

No doubt interest rates have an impact on the price of houses, as with any investment good. Simon Wren-Lewis explains why here. But think of interest rates and housing supply as two blades of a scissors: the only reason houses are an investment good rather than a simple consumer good is because the supply is so inelastic. There is no investment market in TVs or cars because the supply of these things responds to changes in demand for them.

The story Jenkins gives of the US housing bubble is a popular one but isn’t well supported by the evidence. Jenkins is extraordinarily ignorant if he thinks that building was or is ‘unrestricted’ in the US – planning controls mean that US GDP may be 13.5% lower than it would otherwise be. Houston, Texas, which (in)famously is the only major US city with no zoning code, actually escaped the subprime collapse virtually unscathed, and Texas issues so many building permits annually that median home prices in Texan cities are a fraction of that of tightly-controlled California.

5. That the solution lies in the green belt. This is an anti-ruralist’s version of myth four. Even were the green belt obsolete, which few accept, or partly so (which I accept), it will not dent the pressure of overall demand. Nor is sprawl remotely “sustainable” development. It requires new infrastructure and puts more pressure on roads and commuting. It is bad planning.

Jenkins does not explain why he thinks building more houses in places people want to live ‘will not dent the pressure of overall demand’ so it’s hard to rebut this. There is plenty of land around existing train stations into London that could be built on. Certainly new infrastructure would be required. I’ve discussed some ways to capture planning gain and use impact fees to fund other new infrastructure here.

6. That high buildings are the answer. They are inefficient as the higher you build the more is spent on servicing. London’s most popular and economic housing is “high density/low rise”. Towers have supplied mostly empty pads for the rich, housing no one.

I mostly agree with Jenkins here. “High density/low rise” housing is popular because it is relatively cheap, as he suggests. There is a clear price premium for lower density terraced and semi-detached housing – compare similarly units in the same areas in almost any part of London. This is the sort of thing people seem to want to live in, if we built enough for them to afford it. The reason we can’t do this is – you guessed it, and Jenkins later acknowledges it – planning laws.

7. That the answer lies in new social housing. Security of tenure and low turnover – not to mention right to buy – renders the fixed stock of public housing inflexible and immobile. Increasingly it has become a generous donation by the taxpayer to a fortunate few, for life.

Yes. Very few people actually want to live in social housing – 80-84% say they’d like to own their own home, if they could. But Jenkins seems to want neither social housing nor much private housing to be built.

8. That people have a “right” to live where they or their parents lived before. Localities benefit from stable populations, but conferring and bequeathing such a right to discriminatory subsidy is in no book of rights.


9. That there is also a “right” to home ownership. The state has a housing obligation for those who need help. Home ownership is capital accumulation, developed out of the Tories’ mortgage tax relief as a form of saving for old age and to endow offspring. It promotes inequality and cannot be termed a right.

No, there isn’t and shouldn’t be a ‘right’ to home ownership or to live where your parents lived, but nor should home ownership be seen as capital accumulation only. As per above, houses are part consumer good (because people use them), part investment good (because they are scarce and valuable and their supply is inelastic). People want to own their own homes – we don’t need to use the empty language of rights to think it’s worth trying to give them that.

10. That renting is stupid. Renting is buying a service. About 60% of Germans rent. They do not think of buying until their 40s. Booming Berlin has 90% of its population renting. Renting aids labour mobility and channels savings into productive investment. As a result, Germany has little house price inflation and no “ladder” advantage to owning not renting.

Renting is great – Jenkins is entirely correct here. But a dysfunctional housing market also means a dysfunctional rental market. Rents seem to be less elastic than house prices, though they are rising, but quality and choice are dropping. A minor anecdote in evidence of this: flats that lettings agents used to show to people individually are now being shown to large batches of people, and there is a mad rush to be the first person to secure any half-decent flat that comes onto the market.

A second point: when people like Jenkins and Robert Shiller warn against owning a home, I tend to agree, but I have to wonder whether they are renters themselves. If not, why not?

11. That buy to let is evil. The poorest people rent from the private sector. The more houses are available to rent, the more flexible is the housing stock and the lower are rents for those who do not buy. Whether buyers-to-let should enjoy tax breaks and whether rents should be regulated are quite different matters.

This seems right to me. Buy to let has been demonized unfairly, although there are bad tax loopholes that distort the market in favour of it. But if you accept the logic that renting is desirable for at least some people you must accept that some people will need to act as landlords. They effectively bear the risk involved with investing in housing that renters do not want.

Jenkins’s ‘realities’ are worth reading but are all fairly lacklustre. The goal should not just be to put roofs over people’s heads: it should be houses people want to live in, in places people want to live, at prices they can afford.

TfL and the cabbies are conspiring against the public

James and Charlotte have already written about why Transport for London’s (TfL) proposed regulations of private hire taxis like Uber are a bad idea.

I have not yet seen any defence that the regulations will improve standards for Londoners – they appear to be wholly designed to protect black cab drivers. And that seems to be exactly what’s going on.

Back in August, Steve McNamara, General Secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association, wrote in Taxi Magazine (p. 3 at that link) that “all of the proposed regulatory changes were proposed by the trade in our response”, which were said to be:

  • A five minute period between booking and pick up
  • Operators must not show vehicles available for immediate hire – either visibly or virtually, via an app
  • The fare must be specified at the time of booking
  • Drivers to only work for one operator at a time
  • No ride sharing
  • Operators must offer a pre-booking facility – up to seven days
  • Operators will have to record destinations at time of booking
  • Operators to have a landline
  • PH operators will be required to have Hire and Reward insurance policy for their fleet
  • Satellite or temporary event licenses will be scrapped

These – published a month ago – are almost word-for-word what TfL is now proposing. And the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association has a seat on TfL’s board. This is regulatory capture, pure and simple.

That the LTDA have been able to dictate TfL’s policy so precisely seems like virtually ‘smoking gun’ evidence that TfL – with London Mayor Boris Johnson as its Chairman – is regulating against the public interest to protect black cab drivers from competition from Uber and similar firms.

Nobody thinks these regulations will help consumers. This isn’t misguided regulation, it’s a conspiracy against the public. We’re being stitched up here.

The housing crisis has a simple solution: build, baby, build

Over at the IB Times I’ve written about the government’s housing targets (not worth the paper they’re written on, basically), and why we want to concrete over the green belt – well, at least some of it:

By freeing up green belt land the supply of housing could grow enough to let prices fall considerably. All of this would actually require very little green belt land to be built on – less than 1.5% of it would give us the space we’d need to build an extra 1.4 million new homes. We could build one million homes around London on just 3.7% of the capital’s green belt.

Could the private sector do it? It already has – during the 1930s housing boom, private construction rose from 133,000 houses per year in 1934-45 to 279,000, in just one year – and these houses were affordable. If you come, they will built it.

The cost of extra infrastructure could be more than covered by capturing “planning gain”, with the government buying green belt land, reclassifying it and selling it at the market rate to the private sector, keeping the gains for itself.

Trimming the edges of the green belt would suffice, but I’d like to go further. Much of the countryside is worth protecting, but much of the green belt itself is not. It doesn’t provide amenity to anyone who doesn’t live there already, it’s bad for the environment, and it makes housing cripplingly expensive.

Read the whole thing. I’ve tried to make it as comprehensive as possible, as a useful ‘cut out and keep’ piece to send to people who haven’t thought about how easily we could solve the housing crisis.