Six points about the Trade Union Bill

  1. Making striking more difficult might be a good thing. The most controversial part of the bill is the part requiring at least 50% turnout in strikes overall (so 25% of members must vote in favour), and for public sector strikes the backing of at least 40% of those eligible to vote. This certainly does make striking less easy, but it hardly makes it impossible. If workers really feel that they need to strike, they can still do so, provided they get 25% or 40% of total members (for private and public sector workers respectively) to agree with them. This does make it harder for people like Len McCluskey and Mark Serwotka to call strikes that most union members don’t want, though.
  2. Most workers aren’t in a union. Only 14% of private sector workers and 54% of public sector workers – 25% overall – are in a union. That means that strikes, even if they are good for union workers, only benefit a small number of workers. And everyone else is inconvenienced by them: strikes can be costly and time-consuming for people who use the services that the striking workers provide.
  3. People who are in a union are generally middle-income workers. According to the ONS, “Middle-income earners were more likely to be trade union members than either high or low paid employees. About 38 per cent of employees who earned between £500 and £999 were members of a trade union, compared with 21 per cent of employees earning £1,000 or more. The proportion of employees earning less than £250 who were trade union members was 15 per cent.” Also, “Employees in professional occupations are more likely to be trade union members” (this includes jobs like nurses).
  4. Why shouldn’t firms be allowed to hire agency workers to fill in for striking workers? Workers who take part in official strikes (as defined here) are protected from being fired, except after 12 weeks of striking if the employer has tried to settle the dispute. This privilege is popular but if the only reason to stop firms from hiring replacement workers is that it makes strikes less powerful it’s not clear why this is a bad thing.
  5. Some parts of the bill do seem draconian. Making strikers wear armbands may be justifiable if there is a problem with identifying workers who are actually working and who are taking part in the strike – I don’t know if this is the case. Requiring picketers to give their names to the police seems entirely overboard, though, and David Davis is probably right that it’s unnecessary.
  6. Strikes do cost money, though some might have a surprising upside too. Between 2011 and 2014 (inclusive) about 3 million days worth of labour were lost directly because of strikes. That’s costly and does not include the time lost from people working from home, leaving work early, coming in late, etc. (Giles Wilkes points out that over the same period 520 million days were lost to illness. With that context, 3 million doesn’t sound very high.) But there may be surprising upside too – a Cambridge paper released today says that the February 2014 tube strike was a net positives in efficiency terms, because 1 in 20 people who found a new route to work stuck with it after that, and the long-term savings to them from that outweigh the daily losses to the other 19 in 20 workers. I’m not sure if that scales to other strikes, but it’s quite a nifty finding either way. (NB: I haven’t read the full paper yet, so I can’t vouch for it.)

What have the Syrians ever done for us?

Anton Howes, an economic historian who studies the causes of the Industrial Revolution, writes on refugee inventors:

Another was Johann Jacob Schweppe (1740-1821), whose company lives on of course as a manufacturer of tonic water. Schweppe’s major contribution was to apply Joseph Priestley’s experiments on carbonating water to develop a machine that could mass-produce it, and then to develop it into a marketable product. Schweppe was the son of a peasant from Hesse. Lacking the strength for agricultural labour, he was apprenticed to a travelling tinker, who recommended him to a silversmith. He eventually ended up settling in Geneva.

Soon after taking his business to London in 1792, where he set up an aerated water factory on Drury Lane, the turmoil in France intervened. Fortunately, his daughter managed to join him before France declared war on Britain in 1793. Fearing the government’s reaction, Schweppe successfully appealed for the right to stay. He eventually returned to Geneva in 1802. France having annexed it in 1798, he returned to find himself a French citizen. (By the way, contrary to what it says on Wikipedia, his business did not fail – it was actually extremely successful and he simply sold his majority stake).

But Anton’s list is of Europeans. What about Syrians? I was quite surprised to find out that Steve Jobs is half-Syrian, but the list goes on:

First up, there’s Ayman Abdel Nour, a one-time university friend of Assad’s at the University of Damascus, where he studied engineering. He became increasingly disillusioned with the regime, fleeing to the UAE in 2007, and then the US, where he is editor-in-chief of an online paper focusing on Syria. However, he has since developed and patented a sub-surface irrigation system, dubbed the Hydramiser. I don’t know much about irrigation, but it seems like a pretty helpful innovation for arid countries attempting to overcome their inherent agricultural disadvantages.

Read Anton’s whole piece for more. I don’t know of any inventors who are both Syrian and refugees, but perhaps one day that’ll change.

And yes, I am aware that there are cultural differences between Syrians and Britons. Lots of people said this to me after my own piece that argued that accepting refugees might not be so bad in the long-run, economically speaking. Indeed Sweden, which in Europe takes by far the greatest number of immigrants from the Muslim world per capita, seems to have quite a serious crime problem.

But on the other hand London has done rather well out of immigration. The Asians who fled Uganda have been a success story in Britain, and the Arab migrants to the United States have integrated very well too. We should bear the potential problems with immigration in mind, but the fact that there are costs does not mean we should ignore the benefits too.

Let them in

In City AM today I have a piece on the refugee crisis, arguing that the costs that many are (understandably) worried about may not actually be a problem:

A recent study looked at the impact of Yugoslav refugees on Danish workers in the 1990s and 2000s. Because Denmark’s resettlement policy distributed these refugees across the country without respect to local labour market conditions, this is a case study in how “exogenous” immigration affects natives. . .

Instead of starting a race to the bottom, as some feared, this influx of workers allowed the Danish economy to become more complex. Adam Smith’s “division of labour” increased, as jobs became more specialised and hence more productive. . .

Crime is on people’s minds too. And it’s true that asylum seekers do seem to increase property crime rates in the places in Britain they go to, though interestingly they seem to reduce violent crime rates.

But this seems to be a consequence of the tight restrictions that effectively prohibit asylum seekers from working for at least the first 12 months that they spend in Britain. If we liberalised those rules, we could solve that problem.

It’s important to get the numbers right. The UK has accepted around 5,000 asylum applications from Syrians, not 216 as many people are claiming – that 216 is the number of Syrians we’ve actually evacuated from Syria directly. But I think there’s a strong case for letting in many more than that.

A brief endorsement of ‘Markets for Managers’

I’m often asked by people who are just getting interested in economics what they should read. There is no shortage of good ‘pop economics’ books to recommend to them: Freakonomics is the most famous and The Armchair Economist is enjoyably contrarian, but for my money The Undercover Economist is the most interesting.

But none of these teach you the sort of economics you’d learn if you studied economics at a university. And that’s where Anthony J Evans’s Markets for Managers comes in. It’s aimed at ‘managers’, by which Evans means people who make strategic decisions for their firm, and makes the case that managers who understand the principles of economics will have an advantage over their rivals. But in explaining those principles Evans inadvertently gives an introduction to anyone who wants to learn about them.

The ‘applied economics’ method that Evans uses is extremely readable. If, like me, you prefer to learn by applying abstract ideas to reality, Evans’s approach is ideal. And for British audiences there is something quite nice about reading examples applied to Fernando Torres rather than basketball players I’ve never heard of. What’s most impressive about the book is that Evans even covers the drier parts of economics, like international trade and macroeconomic policy, that the ‘pop economics’ books don’t bother with.

Evans is a Senior Fellow of the ASI and can claim to be one of the UK’s only “Austrian school” economists, and these perspectives do shine through, though not to the detriment of the economics being discussed. What he’s done with Markets for Managers is to give a clear, interesting and comprehensive primer in economics as it’s taught in the classroom. No doubt many managers would benefit from reading it but even more so I find myself recommending it to university students who are not studying economics. For historians and political science students especially, the boot-camp in economics it gives might well give a surprising new way of understanding their own fields.

Markets for Managers at

Markets for Managers at

Owen Jones is entirely right here: refugees’ lives matter too

It’s not often that we write with unreserved praise for Owen Jones but his piece today deserves it:

As the news of up to 200 dead refugees, drowned off the coast of Libya, filters fleetingly into news coverage, the only guarantee is that more will drown. And with news of more than 70 refugees found dead in a truck in Austria – to try to imagine their last living moments triggers a horrible feeling in the pit of the stomach – we know that more bodies will be found in more trucks. Those of us who want more sympathetic treatment of people fleeing desperate situations have failed to win over public opinion, and the cost of that is death.

For those who believe that hostility to human beings from other countries who lost the lottery of life is somehow hardwired into us, there is evidence to the contrary. Germany takes in around four times as many refugees as Britain does; and for every Syrian asylum seeker received by Britain, Germany gets 27. And despite German generosity comparing starkly with our own, half of Germans polled support letting in even more refugees.

Like Alex Tabarrok, I am not aware of any mainstream moral theory that does not tell us that all humans matter, not just the ones who look like us or were born near us. I often wonder how different our approach to trade and immigration policies would be if we took it as axiomatic we don’t just care about people lucky enough to be born in Britain. This is the ‘big assumption’ I ask people to make when I talk to them about liberalising immigration – and if we made it, the debate about immigration’s impact on natives’ incomes would be a mere sideshow.

There are valid questions about the most humane policy towards the asylum seekers trying to cross the Mediterranean or English Channel. And I am much more optimistic than Owen about the potential for migration to reduce global poverty. But, as he rightly says, the baseline for all of these debates must change. When people are dying from drowning and suffocation, we have to accept that we are not the only ones who matter.