Where next for capitalism?

Writing for the BBC today, Madsen outlines his ideas about what capitalism should do to renew itself:

What capitalism should now do is to free itself from these rent-seeking perversions and spread its benefits as widely as possible.

It should act against anti-competitive practices to give people instead the power of free choices between competing goods and services. It should spread ownership of capital and investment as widely as possible through such things as personal pensions and individual savings accounts.

Read the whole thing.

The Negative Income Tax and Basic Income are pretty much the same thing

I’ve been talking about the Negative Income Tax lately, and equating it with the idea of a Basic Income. I think most of the policies’ respective advocates would deny that they’re the same policy. In this post I’m going to outline why that’s incorrect and I’m happy to say that they’re basically the same thing.

For the uninitiated, a Negative Income Tax is a form of welfare that replaces most existing welfare schemes with a single payment that supplements the income of the unemployed and low-paid. The payment is withdrawn as your earnings increase, ideally at a gradual enough rate that increasing your earnings (and hence reducing leisure time) is always worthwhile.

An example: a £5,000 basic payment at a 50% marginal withdrawal rate (this means that for every additional pound earned, the worker will receive 50p less in NIT payments). Someone with an income of zero would receive an NIT payment of £5,000, or just under £100/week. If they took a job that paid £5,000/year, they would receive a top-up of £2,500/year; that paid £7,500, a top-up of £1,250/year. Once they reached £10,000/year, they would receive nothing in NIT.

This idea was supported by Milton Friedman, among others, and has a reasonably strong pedigree on the right. Even libertarians who object to income redistribution in principle usually concede that a Negative Income Tax is the least bad form of welfare, because it is administratively simple and perverts incentives less than most welfare schemes. It is particularly appealing to many liberals and libertarians because it is unpaternalistic.

A Basic Income, on the other hand, is usually conceived as a flat payment to everybody irrespective of circumstance. This leads to a very big problem: assuming it replaces most forms of welfare as an NIT does, a basic income high enough for unemployed workers to subsist on would simply not be affordable to pay to everyone. A policy that ideally would be designed to help the poor ends up being a very expensive subsidy to people who do not need extra money.

Advocates of the Basic Income recognize this, and their solution is typically to use the tax system to ‘claw back’ the payment from relatively high earners. So everyone gets the money, but it is withdrawn according to earnings.

In practice, that’s more or less the same as a Negative Income Tax – the only difference is whether the withdrawal takes place at the ‘front’ of the payment (as with the NIT), or the ‘end’ (as with the Basic Income). Strange as it may seem, the policies advocated by Milton Friedman and the Green Party are the same in all but the technical detail.

But even if there is a surprising amount of agreement in terms of the kind of welfare we’d like to see, the detail may be more difficult to agree on. How much should a ‘basic income’ be? When should it begin to be withdrawn, and at what rate?

Questions like this are, I think, likely to be where what breaks up this (unholy?) alliance. But maybe not. Traditional policies like the minimum wage probably do more harm than good, and, rightfully, the question of how to improve the lives of the low paid does not seem to be going away. It will take compromise, but in the Negative Income Tax / Basic Income, we may have an answer.

Ignore the doomsayers: The recovery is real

Some commentators claim that the UK’s current economic recovery is illusory. They say that the recovery is based on an artificial boom fuelled by loose money and will eventually come crashing down to earth.

I think it is very likely that this view is wrong, for at least two reasons. One, the UK does not have loose money that would fuel a credit boom. Two, the best tool we have for telling if the recovery is ‘real’ or not is the market. And the market is telling us that it sees things as looking good.

The idea that we have loose money is extremely common. It is based on the assumption that a Bank of England base rate of 0.5%, historically very low, must mean that money is loose. This is what Milton Friedman referred to as the ‘interest rate fallacy’. It is a fallacy because it fails to ask the key question: ‘compared to what?’

That ‘what’ is, or ought to be, the ‘neutral rate of interest’ – the interest rate where, in David Beckworth’s words, “monetary policy is neither too simulative nor too contractionary and is pushing the economy toward its full potential.” The tightness of money is determined by the central bank rate relative to the neutral rate. If the neutral rate of interest is lower than the base rate, then money is tight.

Is the neutral rate of interest in the UK currently above or below 0.5%? It’s hard to say. Milton Friedman pointed out that usually low rates were a sign of tight, not easy money. This is because low rates almost always coincide with very low inflation, nominal GDP growth and money growth—which Friedman pointed out were much better ways of assessing the stance of policy.

It’s possible to infer from things like NGDP growth (well-below trend until recently) that money has been unusually tight. NGDP growth seems to be returning to the trend rate, if not the trend level, that it was before the crisis. People calling ‘easy money’ may disagree, but if they are simply pointing to low interest rates without trying to compare them to the neutral rate, they’re not proving anything at all.

But even if it’s not down to easy money, maybe the recovery really does sit upon a throne of lies that will inevitably collapse. How could we tell?

Since the world is very, very complex, it is unlikely that one individual expert or panel of experts will be able to possess all the information they would need to make reliable predictions about the future.

Where possible, we should prefer the ‘wisdom of crowds’. And we have something that can do so very effectively: the market. And the market seems pretty optimistic: the FTSE 100 is growing strongly; firms are taking on new staff; gilt yields are extremely low.

Second-guessing the market is particularly unusual for people on the right of the political spectrum. As Josh Barro put it recently, “A conservative is somebody who thinks every market is efficient — except the Treasury bond market.” (A point worth remembering next time you read about the UK’s “looming debt crisis”.)

Of course markets can get things wrong. There is a high degree of uncertainty involved in all predictions like this. But, given a choice between the aggregated judgement of millions of market participants, all bringing their local knowledge to bear, and the judgment of a few experts, I’ll go with the market.

In summary, there’s no reason to think that either we have excessively loose money or that the recovery is illusory. Note that mine is an entirely negative argument – I am not claiming that money is too tight, or just right, nor am I claiming that markets are correct. I’m saying that, given the information we have available to us, we should resist the urge to doomsay. In short: don’t worry, be happy.

Why Labour’s rent controls will do more harm than good

Now that we have more detail, Labour’s new ‘rent control’ policy is not quite as bad as I’d initially feared. Instead of the old school price ceilings that destroyed parts of New York City, Labour are proposing ‘second-generation rent controls’, which limit the ability of landlords to renegotiate rents during tenancies, and ‘make three-year tenancies the norm’.

The real-world effects of this are likely to be that expected rent increases over the three-year lease will be priced in to the starting rent, so it’s unlikely to actually make anyone better off unless there’s an unexpected increase in rents. If rents fall below expectations, this would hurt tenants.

Since landlords are bound within tenancy agreements, rises in rents are likely to be sharper than they currently are for new tenants. This means that housing mobility is likely to be reduced – tenants locked in to a relatively low rent will find it more costly than they otherwise would to move. This is very important: it looks as if lowered housing mobility causes higher unemployment, because people are less able to move to find new jobs.

Rent controls of any kind are likely to decrease the supply and quality of available housing. ‘Second-generation’ controls are less tight and so less harmful than classical rent controls, but as Hopi Sen has pointed out, the German experience does not seem encouraging. There, rents have risen far more quickly over the past decade than they have in Britain, as new construction has slowed.

There is also evidence to suggest that second-generation rent controls have a similarly negative impact on housing quality as classical rent controls. A 1985 study by the Richmond Fed found that controlled housing units were 7.1% lower in quality in 1974, and 13.5% lower in 1977, pointing to a cumulative negative effect. If classical rent controls are only worse than bombing, second-generation controls may be close to petty vandalism.

One interesting aspect of this announcement is that it may affect supply now, as would-be investors in new housing are discouraged by the prospect of stricter controls on their investment. If the measures are actually brought in – crossing the rent control Rubicon – an expectation of tighter controls may reduce supply even more.

It’s not clear what mechanism Labour is proposing to make three-year tenancies ‘the norm’, but it’s hard to imagine any effective measure that would not end up hurting tenants who want shorter leases. This probably means young people.

As we say virtually every day, the best way to reduce the cost of housing is to build more. Labour’s proposals seem counter-productive, but they’re nothing compared to the harm caused by the planning system.

We recently learned that more of Surrey is covered by golf courses than by houses. Rolling the green belt out even a bit – by, say, a mile outside London – would create space for hundreds of thousands of new homes, relieving pressure on existing housing stock, reducing rents and – a nice bonus – creating lots of jobs and adding a few percentage points on to GDP growth. We can dream.

Three steps forward

In today’s City AM I outline a fairly simple growth agenda that would, I think, deliver very strong growth without requiring tax cuts (which are very important, but seem to be politically dead in the water right now). My three items are reform of planning, immigration and money (the ‘PIMs’, as I call them), by rolling back the green belt outside London, allowing high-skilled immigration, and targeting NGDP instead of inflation:

Whisper it, but things finally seem to be looking up. Investment is rising, unemployment is falling, and the deficit seems to be coming under control. But it could be a lot better. Real wages will not recover to their pre-crisis peak until 2020. And expected growth of 2.7 per cent this year is well below what we might expect in a real recovery.

The question is, how can we get the strong growth we all want? Tax cuts are nice, but hard to sell as long as the deficit remains large. And calls for business deregulation are often too vague to be useful. But there are clear areas for reform in planning, immigration, and money, and none would threaten the deficit. Reform these areas – the PIMs, we might call them – and real, booming, sustainable growth will come.

Read the whole thing.