Space disco, Kate Bush, and more: the ASI’s best of 2014

Ben:

Song: #####.1 by #####

Album: It’s Album Time by Todd Terje

Musician: The Pizza Underground

Movie: Grand Budapest Hotel, but I’m ashamed to say I only saw five

Book: Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Restaurant: Rex and Mariano, Soho (runner up The Manor, Clapham)

Favourite article: I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup, by Scott Alexander

Favourite moment: #Gamergate

Favourite person: Scottish highlander on BBC Question Time

Kate:

Song: Wild Child by Kenny Chesney, with Grace Potter

Album: 1989 by Taylor Swift

Musician: Jason Aldean (for continuing his tradition of writing songs about trucks)

Movie: Magic in the Moonlight

Book: Goodbye, Mr Chips by James Hilton (1939)

Article: Bring Back the Girls – Quietly by Peggy Noonan (WSJ)

Political moment: #Bridgegate

Person: Senator-elect Cory Gardner, CO (I have now forgiven Colorado for their nightmare decision in 2012. Ohio, on the other hand, I am still not speaking to)

Charlotte:

Song: minipops 67 [120.2][source field mix] by Aphex Twin (because it only took 13 years to come out proper)

Album: Rivers of the Red Planet by Max Graef (jazz/hip-hop/house, good background music)

Musician: Kate Bush (the year I got round to listening to her albums)

Movie: Under the Skin (amazingly shot)

Book: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind (one of the few I actually read)

Restaurant: Bone Daddies, Soho (who can’t love a huge bowl of pig fat & garlic)

Article: The Socialist Origins of Big Data - The New Yorker (on Chile’s project Cybersyn)

Political Moment: The world thinking Kim Jung Il’s public absence was because he broke both his ankles because he ate so much Emmenthal (because obviously)

Person: Shia LaBeouf (for everything he’s given us)

Sophie:

Single: Shake It Off by Taylor Swift (I do not enjoy this song but LOVE watching Charity, one of my best friends and Swift’s greatest fan, singing it)

Album: Artpop by Lady Gaga (the pop genius’s works are not only the epitome of freedom of expression and individualism but Gaga demonstrates the natural force with which the world sucks up anything walking into a gaping hole in the market)

Musician: Kate Bush (my eyes opened to her brilliance and creations this year by Sam, her sounds and voice open creative avenues in my mind)

Movie: La Grand Bellezza (released 2013 but watched this year, you MUST see this, it’s an indulgent party for the senses to devour)

Book: The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley (only read this year though it was released in 2010)

Restaurant: Le Relais de Venise, Mansion House (holds fond memories of both an amazing steak and my first time dining with the ASI team)

Political moment: remaining a United Kingdom (were endless obscure and hilarious ones in 2014, though building up to the referendum for two years and the elation experienced at the result makes this undoubtably number 1)

Person: Malala Yousafzai (the 17-year-old global role model is courageous, ambitious and hard-working, existing to fight for others’ education—I was reduced to tears of inspiration when she spoke at my university)

Nick:

Song: Fancy by Iggy Azalea and Charli XCX (albeit for entirely non-I-G-G-Y related reasons)

Album: Kenny Dennis III by Serengeti (see No Beginner, Off/On)

Musician: Jonwayne (partly for being the neckbeardiest rapper/producer going – see Andrew, Be Honest)

Movie: Locke (of the four or so I watched)

Book: Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis (1991) or The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958) by Matthew Young (honourable mentions to We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1921) and Girl, 20 by Kingsley Amis (1971))

Restaurant: Jam Jar, Jesmond, Newcastle, if only for their Cow vs. Pig burger

Article:Tories should turn their backs on Clacton’ and ‘Voters, not the politicians, are out of touch’ by Matthew Parris, King of trolls (Times)

Political moment: The UKIP defections and the resulting betting, which netted me a sum of no less than £10

Person: For me, 2014 was the year of the unimullet (s/o r/YoutubeHaiku)

Sam:

Song: Attachment by Hannah Diamond (My top 50 singles of the year are here, Youtube playlist link here)

Album: It’s Album Time by Todd Terje (Thanks Ben for introducing me. I also enjoyed FKA Twigs’s album LP1 and got into Susanne Sundfor in a big way this year)

Musician: AG Cook / the PC Music grouping in general

Movie: Interstellar (but I only saw about 5 films all year)

Book: Vanished Kingdoms by Norman Davies (Worth it for the chapter on the Kingdom of Dumbarton Rock alone. Matt Ridley’s The Red Queen, on the evolutionary biology of sex, was a close runner-up)

Restaurant: Santana Grill (a burrito stand on Strutton Ground near the office—just delicious; I also ate at KFC at lot)

Article: An open letter to open-minded progressives, by Mencius Moldbug (I disagree with much of Moldbug’s work, but I can’t think of a more interesting contemporary political thinker)

Podcast: Serial

Political moment: Shinzo Abe storming to victory in Japan (also for his amazingly awkward handshake with Xi Jinping)

Person: Richard Dawkins (boring as an atheist, brilliant as Social Justice Warrior-bait)

Philip:

Song: Turn Down for What by DJ Snake and Lil Jon

Album: Syro by Aphex Twin

Musician: Matador

Movie: Guardians of the Galaxy

Book: Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking by Daniel Dennett

Restaurant: Gymkhana, Mayfair

Article / blogpost: How Farming Almost Destroyed Ancient Human Civilization by Annalee Newitz

Political moment: The landing of the Rosetta spacecraft’s Philae probe on Comet 67P

Person: David Sinclair (for his work on lifespan extension)

Local government cuts needn’t be the end of the world

Local governments are having their spending power cut by 1.8% in real terms next year. Local councils pay for things like social care, some education, public transport and roads, and some of the arts. So this cut is not so popular in some quarters.

I hate relying on ‘waste cutting’ as a way of making spending cuts, but local councils really do seem to waste a lot of money. Since 2010 they’ve made £10bn in efficiency savings, and a third of councils say they can make bigger savings. I’m sure at least some of the other two-thirds are just being shy. The Local Government Association estimates that local governments can continue making efficiency savings at between 1 and 2 percent per year. So that’s something.

The big spending items are social care and waste spending. Both of these can be reformed so that people who can afford to have to pay for themselves. Waste collection is often contracted out, and there is academic evidence that doing so results in significant cost reductions. (There’s an easy way for councils who do not already do this to save some cash.) But more significantly there’s no real reason that more of the actual payments for this should not be moved to private residents as well, at least those who can afford it. 

Social care is much trickier and, as the population gets older and lives for longer, paying for it is becoming a bigger and bigger problem. Those people who can afford to pay for their end-of-life care should do so, but there is the problem that this disincentivises saving. Nevertheless it is hard to see a case for people who live in social housing and earn low amounts of money paying for the end-of-life care of people who own the big houses that they live in. Reforming this wouldn’t solve problems in the short run, but it might help stave off a bigger funding problem in the medium run.

Normally everyone focuses in on arts funding. In my view, there is no role for government in arts funding at all. I won’t convince you of this here, but Pete Spence might. And there are all the weird little things that local governments spend their money on that could be cut to save even a tiny bit of money. Where I live, in Lambeth, half the adverts I see seem to be thinly-veiled political campaign posters (paid for by me and my neighbours).

And, funnily enough, there’s one way councils could raise quite a lot of money and solve another problem in the process. The country needs a lot more houses, and planning permission is the main thing standing in the way. In some parts of the country, a piece of agricultural land that gets planning permission rises in value by one hundred times. Councils should be allowed and encouraged to auction off development rights for new houses. That would raise money for them and help tackle the housing shortage.

The problem here is that housing demand is not equal across the country, and it’s the richer places like London and the south east that would benefit the most from this. So there’s probably a case for some minority fraction of the money raised being redistributed to poorer authorities. In general I like the principle of council funding redistribution from rich to poor parts of the country, but that does reduces the incentive for councils to improve the economic prospects of their own areas. Though perhaps they lack the powers to do this anyway.

We have a government deficit that most people want reduced, some very large areas of central government spending that most people want increased (pensions, healthcare), and a general consensus that economic growth is a good thing (so tax rises are out). Something’s gotta give and there is almost nothing that can be cut painlessly. But given some willingness to reform alongside cutting, local government cuts could be the right way to go.

A miracle cure for central bank impotence

Are central banks ever unable to create inflation? The question may seem absurd – why would we ever want them to create more inflation?

The typical answer is that deflation can be a lot worse than inflation. But this ignores the fact that prices can fall simply because we can produce things more cheaply. Falling oil prices mean cheaper production, which should mean cheaper consumer products. That’s ‘good’ deflation.

But ‘bad’ deflation, caused by tight money, can be very harmful, and indeed is what Milton Friedman blamed the Great Depression on. A variant of this view, which looks at market expectations, blames expectations of deflation for the crisis in 2008. Those of us who think that nominal GDP is what matters – since contracts and wages are set in nominal terms – recognise that deflation can knock NGDP off-course and cause widespread bankruptcies and unemployment that would not have taken place in a more stable macroeconomic environment. (Free banking, say.)

So if inflation is sometimes desirable, when it prevents deflation (or collapses in NGDP), the power of the central bank to create it really does matter. That’s where Paul Krugman and the Telegraph’s Ambrose Evans-Pritchard have clashed. In response to Krugman’s claim that central banks are impotent when their interest rates are zero, Evans-Pritchard writes:

Central banks can always create inflation if they try hard enough. As Milton Friedman said, they can print bundles of notes and drop from them helicopters. The modern variant might be a $100,000 electronic transfer into the bank account of every citizen. That would most assuredly create inflation.

I don’t see how Prof Krugman can refute this, though I suspect that he will deftly change the goal posts by stating that this is not monetary policy. To anticipate this counter-attack, let me state in advance that the English language does not belong to him. It is monetary policy. It is certainly not interest rate policy.

The piece is worth reading in full. I’m less convinced that ‘helicopter drops’ are actually needed now – if central banks said that they’d do as much conventional QE as it took to raise the inflation rate or NGDP level to x%, that may well be enough. But Evans-Pritchard’s basic point that central banks are never ‘out of ammo’ is what counts.

The innocence principle

Like freedom of speech, the presumption of innocence before proof of guilt is something that almost everyone agrees is important in principle, but are occasionally reluctant to apply in practice. In recent weeks we have witnessed some examples of this reluctance that, to me, seem chilling.

Eric Garner was an obese African-American who was killed by police officers holding him in a chokehold while they arrested him for illegally selling individual cigarettes in New York City. His last words are here.

Virtually everyone who has seen the video agrees that they acted with an extreme amount of force against a man who was not fighting back although he was resisting arrest (passively – that is, in a way that would not harm the officers).

A Grand Jury found that the police officers who killed Eric Garner did not act unlawfully. I defer to the Grand Jury on this, but assuming they are correct this suggests that the scope for lawful killing by police officers is extremely broad. As law professor Glenn Reynolds (and others) has noted, killings by police are treated much more sympathetically by juries than killings by civilians.

Michael Brown was an African-American teenager who was shot and killed by a police officer during an arrest after he (seemingly) robbed a convenience store in Ferguson, Missouri. There is still some disagreement about what happened here. The initial reports suggested that the officer executed Brown as he fled or begged for his life, but the subsequent Grand Jury investigation seems quite conclusive that Brown assaulted the police officer. The Grand Jury’s conclusions prompted looting by people in Ferguson.

If Brown’s shooting was unjust, the Garner lesson applies. But if the narrative found by the Grand Jury is correct then the protests, lootings and slandering of the police officer involved are wrong. In that case, it is the media’s presumption of guilt on the part of the police officer involved (even after the Grand Jury verdict) that has led to significant destruction and violence. People suspended the innocence principle to advance a political point, and the results have been bleak.

Jackie is a student at the University of Virginia by a Rolling Stone article which alleged that she had been gang-raped by a group of fraternity men. Last week Rolling Stone retracted the story after a number of facts given by Jackie in her story proved to be false.

The aftermath of the Rolling Stone story has been extremely disturbing, with very prominent people proudly dispensing with the innocence principle. The Washington Post ran a piece titled “No matter what Jackie said, we should automatically believe rape claims” (this was later changed to “generally” believe them). The Guardian’s Jessica Valenti wrote that “I choose to believe Jackie. I lose nothing by doing so, even if I’m later proven wrong”, and that “the current frenzy to prove Jackie’s story false – whether because the horror of a violent gang rape is too much to face or because disbelief is the misogynist status quo – will do incredible damage to all rape victims.” [my emphasis]

Has Valenti considered that someone else may lose something if we chooses to believe an accusation that is untrue? Or that we may have other reasons than misogyny or incredulity to want to know if a criminal accusation is false?

Sexual assault is very common, but this does not mean that false accusations do not occur. An estimated 1.5% to 7.5% of accusations may be false. Staggeringly, a 2012 study that used DNA testing of old physical evidence and exonerated between 8% and 15% of convicted rapists.

I know why Valenti is eager to believe Jackie: because not believing a genuine story is horrendous for the victim and makes other rape victims less likely to come forward, and hence makes rape an easier crime to commit. But the inverse is also true: believing a false story is horrendous for the wrongly-accused and makes other false accusations more likely. (The Rolling Stone story did not name individuals, but guilt-by-implication can still be enormously harmful.)

In all of these cases, people who would normally say that the presumption of innocence before proof of guilt is a good thing have assumed the opposite. The rule might work in general, they may say, but this case is an exception. Police need to be able to subdue people resisting arrest. The death of an 18-year old must be unjust. Rape is too serious an allegation to question.

Like the principle of free speech, the innocence principle only produces good results if we apply it rigidly and in cases where doing so may feel deeply unsettling.

The innocence principle matters because people who seem guilty may in fact be innocent. This is why mechanisms like jury trials exist – like the ‘thick’ version of free speech that I argued for recently, they are a mechanism for sorting the truth from lies.

Hayek speculated that liberal institutions like these evolved over time, because the societies that lacked them eventually fell behind the ones that upheld them. Politically and culturally, we may be witnessing an erosion of these institutions now. That would be a catastrophe. But it is not too late to change course.

Osborne scraps the worst tax in Britain – the ASI’s reaction to the Autumn Statement

Here are our comments on today’s Autumn Statement:

Stamp duty:

Head of Research at the Adam Smith Institute, Ben Southwood, said:

The old stamp duty slab system was one of the worst taxes Britain had, and we welcome the Chancellor’s radicalism in abolishing it, rather than simply tinkering around the edges.

According to the best economic research, raising £1 through stamp duty imposes £2-£5 of cost on the economy. Though it will still, as a transactions tax, cost the economy heavily, the reform will reduce the economic cost substantially. This is a tax cut for the squeezed middle that will make a big difference to a lot of people’s lives. Politically, it could be a game-changer.

Business rates:

Deputy Director of the Adam Smith Institute, Sam Bowman, said:

A cap on business rate rises is welcome but the rates system itself needs more fundamental reform. The longer rates take to be revalued, the more distortionary the system is, penalising firms located in areas that have done badly since the last valuation. The longer the gap between rates revaluations, the greater the penalty for businesses in poorer areas and the effective subsidy for businesses in richer ones. Ideally the government should move towards a system of constantly rolling rates revaluations. If Zoopla can judge land values accurately on a rolling basis, so can HM Treasury.

Road infrastructure:

Head of Research at the Adam Smith Institute, Ben Southwood, said:

Infrastructure investment, especially into congested roads, is bound to pass a cost-benefit analysis. The problem is that we had to wait this long. If private firms could build roads, funded by tolls, then we’d likely have all of these roads already. As well as providing funds for investment, and making sure the investment goes to the most in-demand areas, pricing roads also means they get used more efficiently.

Pensions: 55% tax, tax-free inherited ISA

Director of the Adam Smith Institute, Dr Eamonn Butler, said:

The Chancellor is right to kill off the iniquitous 55% tax on inherited pensions, as well as the tax on inherited ISAs. If people have saved for their retirement but die before exhausting their nest-egg, it should go straight to their dependents, not to the Chancellor.

NHS Spending:

Communications Manager at the Adam Smith Institute, Kate Andrews, said:

The Conservatives, along with the opposition parties, are playing politics with the NHS budget. Everyone is vying to be seen as the ‘party of the NHS’ but no one is willing to have a serious conversation about the reforms that could make the NHS financially viable for the next ten years, let alone for future generations; like charging small fees for non-emergency visits.

It’s been estimated that the NHS could fall into a budget crisis as early as 2015, which could result in cuts to core staff, longer patient waiting lists, and a deterioration in the quality of health care. While the extra £2 billion per year proposed by Osborne today will offsets short-term worries, it merely kicks the can down the road for a little while longer. Serious proposals to address the spending and demand that comes with free care ‘at the point of use’ could not come soon enough.

Personal Allowance rise:

Deputy Director of the Adam Smith Institute, Sam Bowman, said:

The Adam Smith Institute has called for the personal allowance to be raised to the full-time minimum wage rate for over a decade and it is welcome to see the government move in this direction. But the National Insurance Contributions threshold has been left untouched, which costs full-time minimum wage workers £667.68 a year. To really help low-income workers the Chancellor should make raising the National Insurance threshold one of his top priorities.

Capital gains tax on property for foreigners:

Head of Research at the Adam Smith Institute, Ben Southwood, said:

Capital gains taxes are some of the worst ones on the statute book, making society poorer by reducing the efficiency of investment and its total amount, but if we have to have them then everyone should pay them.

This is not just because of fairness, but because it causes massive distortions when different groups face different tax rates. In this case it’s likely to both lead to excessive foreign ownership of property—both by favouring foreigners over natives in property taxes and by favouring property over other assets for foreigners.

Masters degree loans:

Director of The Entrepreneurs Network, Philip Salter, said:

By extending Entrepreneurs’ Relief and R&D tax credits George Osborne is backing Britain’s entrepreneurs. However, the government’s intervention in the postgraduate student loan market risks crowding out private sector solutions. Banks already provide Professional and Career Development Loans, and entrepreneurial companies like Future Finance, StudentFunder and Prodigy Finance are responding to the demand for loans for postgraduate studies. We are on the verge of the equivalent of the funding revolution we are seeing in SME finance but this intervention risks stymieing it.

The deficit:

Deputy Director of the Adam Smith Institute, Sam Bowman, said:

The deficit is still enormous and much higher than anybody expected at the beginning of this Parliament. We are borrowing £100bn this year, both because planned cuts to the welfare budget have not taken place and because the growth we have had has not translated into much extra tax revenue. But as high as this is, the Chancellor’s plans to reduce the deficit still seem credible – financial markets are lending to the country at unprecedentedly cheap levels and once productivity eventually does start to recover, things should begin to look considerably better.

Notes to editors:

For further comments or to arrange an interview, contact Kate Andrews, Communications Manager, at kate@adamsmith.org / 07584 778207.

The Adam Smith Institute is an independent libertarian think tank based in London. It advocates classically liberal public policies to create a richer, freer world.