It’s not entirely obvious that inequality is increasing

It’s a standard trope of our times that inequality is increasing beyond all reasonable levels. And it’s also true that this isn’t really quite true. Inequality within the rich countries has been increasing in recent decades, this is true. But global inequality has been falling. And now from Branko Milanovic (one of the major scholars on this subject) we get that chart above, and this:

…the noted convergence of countries’ inequality levels (see the graph, indicating that countries with higher inequality before 1980 had smaller increases or even declines in inequality since)?

He’s actually arguing about something else which is why the quote is so truncated. But this is interesting, don’t you think? While there has been rising inequality in some to many countries in recent decades those with the highest original inequality have seen, in some cases at least, falls. And that convergence does mean that the world is, at the country level, becoming equally unequal.

The standard trope of that increasing inequality has more than a few problems with it therefore: not just that decreasing global inequality but also this convergence of inequality. and that’s before we even get into things like trying to measure inequality of consumption, adjusted for price levels, at which point we’d be very hard pressed indeed to claim that there’s been any rise in inequality in the UK at all.

We’re rather confused about these anti-discrimination laws

No, not about the idea that people shouldn’t discriminate except where it is rational to do so. If that’s the way that people want to be then so be it. Rather, we’re confused about the fact that people keep calling for laws on this basis.

Note that this nothing at all to do with things like Jim Crow: that was a series of laws to force people to discriminate. Or, if you prefer, it’s everything to do with Jim Crow: for as Gary Becker pointed out the reason for those laws was the thought that in the absence of them then people would not discriminate in the manner that the racists thought everyone should. Showing that left alone people might well be able to rub along quite happily, even if not perfectly.

But we go a bit further than that in these cases of gay wedding cake refuseniks and the like. There’s at least two possible reactions to that sort of discrimination. The first is obviously the law. But we’re rather large believers in the idea that markets (and yes, social pressure and reaction is a market in this sense) are rather more powerful. To refuse to serve a potential customer because of race, gender, sexuality or any other such irrelevance is of course to be displaying a socially (in this society, the one we’re in, in general) undesirable prejudice. And the question then becomes, well, what should be done about it?

Well, if it actually is a socially not desired prejudice being declared then we’d expect there to be some social and or economic consequences of it being expressed. People not using that supplier for example even if without any direct boycott being organised. That supplier going bankrupt as a result of not gaining custom perhaps.

Let us be serious for a moment: any pub which displayed the notorious no dogs…(insert prejudices of choice here) sign would be out of business within weeks. It’s therefore not obvious that we actually need a law stopping people from posting such signs.

Another way of looking at the same point is that a society where it’s possible to gain majority support for laws banning such signs is fairly obviously a society in which social and business pressures would stop people from displaying that sort of prejudice anyway. So we’re left really rather wondering what is the point of the laws in the first place.

The Observer seems remarkably confused about Chinatown this morning

Apparently rents are going up in Soho’s Chinatown enclave. The Observer seems very confused indeed about this:

The doubling and more of rents and the pressure to convert restaurant space into residential property are causing long-established family businesses to close, social networks to break up and generic catering businesses with more financial muscle to move in. A famous and attractive manifestation of London’s celebrated diversity will dilute and fade.
Big trouble in little Chinatown as rent rises force restaurant owners out
Read more

Other examples include threats to markets and industrial space in other parts of the city, to the music shops of Tin Pan Alley, much-loved clubs or independent-spirited restaurants. There are the squeezing out of small but useful shops and other businesses, the city’s inability to house its poor, the exclusion by house price of the people who provide its services, from cleaners and carers to the designers and creatives who are said to add so much to London’s international lustre.

It is confused to both complain about the shortage of residential space and also about the conversion of commercial space to residential space in the same city, isn’t it? But the real problem of course is the headline:

The Observer view on the threat to London’s Chinatown: its loss will be no one’s gain

Well, let’s see. The landlords will gain, they will be getting more money for their property. But that’s not all: all of the users of the properties will gain as well. If the value in use of some part of Soho was greater as a chop suey house than as a house then the chop suey place would produce a higher valuation for the property. We thus don’t need an agonised “conversation” about what provides the greater value. We only have to go and look at the prices. If the price is higher as a not chop suey house, which is what The Observer is complaining about, then quite obviously all of the users of that joint value the joint at a lower value than the alternative use.

After all, this is the very definition of societal wealth creation: moving an asset from a lower to a higher valued use.

It may well be that some looking for a cheap chow mein will be disappointed at not being able to get one from that now residential building. But if the customers in aggregate were in fact willing to pay the amount needed to keep the restaurant in place then it would still be in place, wouldn’t it?

This is just sooo embarrassing

There’s many things that we don’t know much about and they tend to be the things that we don’t opine upon. There’s a (rather smaller) set of things we do know something about and we do tend to opine upon them. We would put this forward as useful general advice in fact. So it’s just too, too, embarrassing to see one of our national legislators revealing that he’s got an opinion on a subject where he is obviously entirely clueless:

USC collapsed into administration in January but was rescued days later by another Sports Direct subsidiary, Republic, as part of a controversial pre-pack deal that saw staff given just 15 minutes notice of their redundancy.

In a testy three hour exchange, Ian Davidson, the Labour MP who chairs the committee, said that while Sports Direct was legally shielded from the losses incurred by USC’s collapse, it had a “moral” duty to foot the bill for USC’s oustanding debts and redundancy payments.

“You have managed to retain all the good bits remove bad bits. You’ve done over the taxpayer as well. We have ended up carrying the debt and you’ve strolled off into sunset with the money. It’s good business if you can get away with it. It may be legal but it’s not moral,” he said.

A market economy is, in one sense, an experimental economy. People continually try new combinations of whatevers, within the technological envelope of what is possible, and see what happens. Most of these experiments fail but enough succeed that the general living standard rises over the years and decades. We like this. An extremely important part of such an experimental economy being, well, what do we do with the failed experiments?

The complaint here is that the debts have been put over into one pot while the potentially productive assets have been detached from the debts and sold on (for whatever sum) to someone who might be able to make better use of them. This is the complaint note: but this is not a bug in bankruptcy, it’s actually the entire damn point.

If we leave those potentially profitable assets attached to that debt then the value of the combination is less than zero. That’s actually what “being bankrupt” means. Those assets cannot therefore be used to do something more useful as no one will take them on. Who would take on something with a negative value, if you lose money just by walking in the door? Thus what the process of bankruptcy actually is. Separating the debts, into one pot, from the assets into another. So that those assets might, at least potentially, be used in a manner that adds value rather than decreases it. If we don’t do this then every experimental failure leaves assets that cannot be used by anyone: and the entire society will thus become poorer over time.

“You have managed to retain all the good bits remove bad bits.”

Yes, that’s the point of having a bankruptcy process.

It might be a bit much to hope for our being ruled by wise Solons but might we at least expect that our Solons do in fact have a clue?

 

To describe drug pricing as free market is simply ignorance

Suzanne Moore has a very powerful piece about the meningitis B vaccine and its pricing. Sadly, the core of her argument is also entirely wrong:

Second, and maybe not so emotional, is that this is actually the market in all its gloriously free form. It is a choice. The market can charge what it likes for vaccinations against meningitis, as it will do for Ebola or malaria if these are developed. Cancer drugs, retrovirals, the new anti-rheumotoids: they are all expensive. There is something utterly immoral about the market holding not just the NHS to ransom, but the sick and the suffering around the globe. These untramelled market forces must be challenged.

There is nothing remotely free market about the pricing of drugs. For those who develop such drugs are granted a legal monopoly upon them for 20 years. We call this monopoly a “patent” and legal monopolies are not part of that “free market”. Indeed, the existence of such legal monopolies such as patents and copyrights is a flat out admission that the free market, the market unadorned, does not deal well or cope with every problem. The art is in working out when this is so and what should be done at that point.

The most obvious two examples of when the unadorned market does not cope well are pollution and public goods. Yes, Coase pointed out when there are indeed private solutions to pollution: but equally his analysis pointed out when they will not work. Public goods are, by definition, non-rivalrous and non-excludable. Knowledge is an obvious example. That once knowledge has been attained we cannot stop someone from using it, nor does their use diminish the amount other can use, poses an economic problem. It means that it’s terribly difficult to make a profit from having uncovered that knowledge.

We’re also pretty sure that people respond to incentives: thus, less profit from uncovering knowledge will lead to less knowledge being uncovered. And we like knowledge being uncovered, it’s one of the things that makes us all generally richer over time. So, we deliberately construct these time limited monopolies in order that people who uncover knowledge can profit and thus have the incentive to do that grunt work to uncover it.

This is not, by any means at all, a free market. It’s that flat out admission that the free market does not work in all circumstances.

And this is, of course, what happens in drug development. Getting a new vaccine through testing (please note, this is not an argument about the original research, whether that was government funded or not) costs in the $300 million to $500 million range. Someone, somewhere, has to spend that much. We can indeed do this in different ways, none of them will be free market ways because of that simple public goods problem. Once we know how to make the vaccine it is terribly cheap to reproduce. Almost all of the cost is in working out how to make it.

And thus we come to the argument about how much should that monopoly holder be able to charge for access to that new drug. We can’t just say “a reasonable return on manufacturing costs” because that is ignoring the very problem that led to the construction of the legal monopoly of the patent in the first place. We also can’t say that they “deserve” some amount of money, possibly equal to the human misery and suffering that won’t happen as a result of the roll out of the vaccine. There is no “deserve” here. Nor can we say that bugger them, that suffering is so great that we’ll just nick their $500 million. For what we’re actually trying to achieve is to leave people with the incentives to go and spend the next $500 million on developing the next vaccine.

We are not weighing in the balance the amount the capitalist b’stards are trying to charge against the joys of wiping out meningitis B. We are, in these price negotiations, trying to work out how much profit we let them make on this vaccine so as to incentivise the development of all the future vaccines that might ever be developed. This is a rather difficult question.

And it really is a difficult question. Which is, of course, why we really do try to use markets where they work even acceptably if not perfectly. Simply because using non-market methods is so damn difficult.