But *which* right on and trendy thing should I be doing?

One of those lovely little conundrums is raising its head over in the right on and trendy food movement at present. The problem being, well, which part of being right on and trendy should people sign up to? This has actually got to the point that there’s a New York Times opinion piece imploring people to, umm, well, ditch one principle in favour of another:

And yet, if you look closer, there’s a host of reasons sustainable food has taken root here in central Montana. Many farmers are the third or fourth generation on their land, and they’d like to leave it in good shape for their kids. Having grappled with the industrial agriculture model for decades, they understand its problems better than most of us. Indeed, their communities have been fighting corporate power since their grandparents formed cooperative wheat pools back in the 1920s.

For the food movement to have a serious impact on the issues that matter — climate change, the average American diet, rural development — these heartland communities need to be involved. The good news is, in several pockets of farm country, they already are.

“Sustainable” food here means organic. Oh, and small producer: you know, one who cannot get economies of scale because they’re running too few acres. but, you know, if people want to produce this way, live on the pittance they can earn in this manner, good luck to them and all who sail with them. and if people want to buy their produce similarly good luck. However, there’s something of a problem:

But just as these rural efforts started gaining steam, an unfortunate thing happened to the urban food movement: It went local. Hyperlocal. Ironically, conscientious consumers who ought to be the staunchest allies of these farmers are taking pledges not to buy from them, and to eat only food produced within 100 miles of home.

Montana has perhaps three people in addition to all those cows. And it’s a lot more than 100 miles away from any of the hipsters who are interested in small scale organic farming. And those hipsters are all eating local. Which is, don’t you think, just so lovely a problem?

Those urban aesthestes are simply missing the point of farming altogether. Which is that it’s a land hungry occupation (organic even more so than conventional) so it makes great sense to do that work where there’s no people. Farming right by the big cities of the coasts, where land is hugely expensive (because there’s lots of people in those big cities) is simply not a sensible manner of using the resources available.

Just so much fun to see the fashionable being hoist on their own petard really.

Another reason why Keynesian economics doesn’t work

Let us imagine that this Keynesian idea that government should spend more money in a recession stands. Not that we’d want to give in to the case in general, but let us assume it for the moment. Why might it still not be a good idea to depend upon this tactic? As Larry Elliot explains:

The second drawback is that the investment – even assuming it happens – will take time to arrive. Every EU country has sent in a list of pet projects and these will have to be assessed by a panel of experts before a final list can be drawn up. This is a recipe for bureaucratic delay and the customary horse-trading as each country demands its share of the action. It is unlikely work will begin on a single project until 2016, when what Europe needs is an immediate boost to demand.

That could come in three ways. It could come from a more meaningful push from the centre, perhaps through the European Investment Bank. It could come from nation states if they were given more budgetary leeway by Brussels to run bigger deficits until growth has returned. And it could come from the European Central Bank through a quantitative easing process. The latter is by far the most likely and will dwarf in size what the commission has just announced.

Government, most especially at the EU level, is simply such a lumbering and inefficient giant that it’s not possible for it to get such fiscal stimulus moving in the required timescale. Very much like the American experience of insisting that there were all sorts of “shovel ready” projects out there, then finding that government rules mean that nothing is ever shovel ready. There’s always a year or more of paperwork to fill out before anything can be done.

With us still accepting the basic premise, that the deficit should widen, that there should be a greater gap between tax revenues and government expenditure in a recession, perhaps we should be looking for something that acts near immediately instead of increased spending? Like, say, an automatic reduction in national insurance payments in a recession? Like, umm, Keynes himself said would be a good idea?

Pay is determined by your best alternative job

Economic theory tells us that we really ought to be paid our marginal productivity. And no one at all believes that that actually happens in detail. However, we can take a step back to a point which even Karl Marx got, which is that your pay will reflect the demand for labour. More specifically, the better the alternatives you have the more your pay is going to go up. And here’s a nice little story from the Frozen North to illustrate that:

There’s been a lot of attention paid to how Canada’s oil boom has helped make gasoline cheaper. What many people may not realize is that the boom is also driving up the prices they pay for burgers and steaks.

Surging energy investment in Prairie Provinces, home to most of the nation’s farms and cattle ranches, has boosted domestic crude output to a record and sent pump prices to a three-year low. That’s led to jobs on drilling rigs or pipe crews paying two-thirds more than those in livestock, luring cowboys and beef-plant workers to the oil patch.

By cowboy there they really mean more what we English might call a cowman, rather than some Bill Cody type. But it’s obvious what is happening. There’s no more to do out on the prairie than just oversee the creation of cowpats and that’s driving up the wages of those who are there. It’s the very same process that leads to a hairdresser making very much more money in the UK than one in China does: the pay of hairdressers is not determined directly by the productivity with comb and scissors, rather by the pay on offer in the next alternative job.

This doesn’t mean that the economic theory is wrong though: only that it operates in a rather clunky manner and so is something that gets tended towards rather than an equilibrium state at which we all always exist. As higher productivity jobs appear then they will tempt away some of the labour force. And so all wages tend towards the productivity of the work being done.

At which point we might have a little snark about the UK. There’s a lot of complaining going on that the jobs being created these days aren’t very well paid, something which is true. But it’s also true that the highest productivity jobs in the UK have for some decades been those in wholesale finance in The City. Which is exactly the sector that those same complainants are determined should shrink.

Just like oil wells push up wages for cowboys, so does shutting down highly paid jobs in banking reduce other wages in the same economy.

The problem with Pigou Taxes

As regular readers will know (often to their great annoyance) I am a great supporter of Pigou Taxes to deal with externalities: most especially a carbon tax to deal with climate change. More generally around here at the ASI we’re all agreed that they’re a very useful tool if not quite the perfect one stop solution economists sometimes portray them as. the problem being, well, it’s the problem with so many things actually: politics.

As an example, here’s the latest little populist campaign being floated:

More than 30 MPs of all parties are backing a motion to stop charging Air Passenger Duty on flights for children who are between the ages of two and 11.

They say that families with school-age children already pay a premium for having to travel in the school holidays, and should not have to pay extra punitive taxes.

It’s true that APD is set at too high a level which is one problem. The existence of an externality (in this case, emissions from flying) does not mean that that activity should be taxed at some punitive rate. It means that there is a correct level of taxation to apply to it. And it was several rises in APD ago that it was at that correct (Stern Review derived, $80 per tonne CO2-e) level.

So that’s the first problem with a Pigou Tax. Give a politician an excuse to tax and he’ll over-tax.

But the second problem is illustrated neatly by this current campaign. Assuming that emissions are a problem are those made by children flying any less damaging than those made by adults doing so? Not for any reason that we can see, no. Therefore there shouldn’t be an exemption. But it’s all too easy for a politician in the run up to an election to miss the point and purpose of such taxation and promise sweeties to the electors.

Politics really is a problem with Pigou Taxes.

However, this doesn’t mean that they’re contra-indicated, only that we’ve got to be both careful and precise with them. After all, all other taxes are subject to exactly the same political interference. But providing that we’ve identified an externality accurately we’re at least doing some good with a Pigou Tax: which is more than can be said about taxes upon capital, corporations, incomes or general consumption. And yes, we do need to get the revenue from somewhere.

Err, yes Mr. Naughton, this is entirely the point

John Naughton, over in The Observer, is very worried about, err, capitalists being capitalists. Something of a pity really for someone, let alone a journalist, of his richness in maturity should by now have realised that this is the damn point of it all:

The real lesson of the Uber exposé, though, is that it’s time to discard the rose-tinted spectacles with which we have hitherto viewed these Silicon Valley outfits. For too long, they have been allowed to trade fraudulently on the afterglow of the hippie libertarianism that supposedly infected the early days of the personal computer industry. The billionaire geeks who currently run the giant internet companies may look and talk like a new species of entrepreneur but it would be more prudent to view them as John D Rockefellers in hoodies.

And the economic philosophy that’s embedded in this new digital capitalism is neoliberalism red in tooth and claw, which is why they minimise the number of “ordinary” (ie non-geek) workers on their payrolls, outsource everything they can, despise trade unions, view regulators as barriers to “innovation” and are outraged by the temerity of European institutions that seek to curb their freedoms of action.

Yes, exactly. Companies operate to the benefit of their shareholders. They’re also pretty red in tooth and claw when they do so. And if that were all the economy were about then agreed, we consumers might not enjoy the experience all that much. Which is why we do our darndest to make sure that that’s not all there is in the economy. The other magic ingredient we look for is competition. This means that we’ve any number of red in tooth and claw capitalist institutions trying to do the best for their owners and for their owners only. But they can only do this by offering us something that we think is worth it. Their proposition must offer us value: both in the simple sense that no one buys anything at all that they don’t think is worth more than they are paying for it and also in the more detailed sense that competition means that the offering must be better than that of those others.

It’s competition in the market that tempers that profit lust. Just as it’s competition that tempers the inherent inefficiencies and producer capture of formerly monopolistic and non-profit making state services.

On that capitalist side of it this is the very point of the entire system. We want them to be sharp elbowed, nothing but profit seeking, neoliberals. Because only by producing something that we both desire and are willing to pay for can they become those billionaires (geeks or not).