Economic Nonsense: 38. The market cannot produce art, music, literature & museums

The market actually does produce such things in some other countries.  What the market does best is to allow people to create the wealth that will fund cultural activities.  The United States has a strong tradition in which people who have done well in business support the arts.  Names such as the Guggenheim Museum or the Getty Centre remind us of the generosity of rich patrons.  Andrew Carnegie, who found fame and fortune in the United States, funded the provision of organs in many churches in his native Scotland, as well as numerous libraries.

In fact the arts have been funded by rich patrons through the ages.  It was often regarded as a sign of good character and culture that a wealthy person would support art, architecture and sculpture.  The emergence of modern economies since the Industrial Revolution has enabled wealth to be created on an unprecedented scale.  This, in turn, has allowed some people to become rich through business and become patrons, where previously it was mostly aristocrats and rich merchants who could afford to do so.

When Kingsley Amis wrote for the Adam Smith Institute opposing arts subsidies, his central case was that if government through its arts committees funded the arts, their output would be skewed towards the desires and tastes of the paymasters, rather than from the passion and inspiration of the artist.

It must remain a suspicion that the committees responsible for handing out public funds as grants to the arts will give effect to their own tastes, rather than those which the public might freely choose to support otherwise.

Some arts can be self-supporting through ticket or admission prices, but government can help through its tax laws, remitting all or part of the tax that would have been due on money donated to artistic institutions.  It does not itself need to dole out taxpayer-funded largesse,  The UK’s National Lottery has multiplied financial support for the arts without needing taxpayer funds.  The view that the market cannot finance the arts and that government grants are needed to sustain them is simply not correct.

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.

Economic Nonsense: 37. Government must act to redress trade deficits

No, not really.  People used to think so.  To some extent this is a hangover from mercantilist attitudes when people thought you needed a surplus of exports over imports so you could accumulate wealth.  In its primitive form of bullionism, people thought you had to sell more than you bought in order to build up piles of precious metals.  

When the UK had fixed exchange rates the balance of trade was regarded as vitally important.  Each month when the Department of Trade (as was) published the figures, people would fret about rising imports or reduced exports.  The “trade gap” would sometimes feature as the lead item on the evening news bulletins.  The significance was that if the imbalance were sustained over a period of time, the pressures on the currency would rise to the point where the pound might have to be devalued to a new fixed rate.  This was regarded as a humiliation, and made imports more expensive, increasing the cost of living.

Once the pound was allowed to float against other currencies, however, the issue lost significance.  If imports exceed exports over a period, the pound drifts down in value, making exports cheaper to sell and imports cheaper to buy, thus closing the gap.  Trade deficits are only a problem for countries with fixed rates of exchange.  And even here, while devaluation can redress them, other countries might also devalue, leading to “currency wars” as each tries to give itself a trade advantage.

Floating currencies solve the problem.  If a country is uncompetitive, buying more than it sells, its currency will go down, enabling it to sell more and buy less.  One of the problems with countries such as Greece has been that within the eurozone, they were not able to devalue or to drift down.  The value of the euro was not within Greece’s control.  Had they left the single currency and restored the drachma, a steep devaluation would have addressed their debts and their competitiveness.  

Economic Nonsense: 36. It is important to ensure that the finest minds are directing the economy

This commits the Platonist fallacy of supposing that the problem is to find the wisest, noblest rulers.  The assumption behind it is that we will come out best if only the right people end up in charge.  In “The Open Society and its Enemies,” Karl Popper exposes the fallacy.  The problem is that that whatever method we choose to select our rulers, those rulers can easily be corrupted in office.  The temptations of power are all too obvious.

If we did manage to have the finest minds in charge of the economy, the odds are high that they would direct it to serve ends they approved of, rather than the ends that ordinary people would freely choose if they had the opportunity.  

But there is a deeper fallacy.  It is that any minds, no matter how fine, can have sufficient information and act quickly enough to direct the economy.  The economy is changing from micro-second to micro-second as choices are made, decisions reached and actions taken.  These all input into the flow of information conveyed by prices and deals.  The economy is not like a vehicle that can be controlled by accelerators, brakes and steering wheel.  It is more like a living organism in its complexity and its ability to adapt to changing circumstances.  The odds are that if the finest minds were to direct the economy, they would direct it badly. 

Popper’s answer was not to ask, “How can we choose or train the best rulers,” but to ask instead, “How can we so organize political institutions that bad or incompetent rulers can be prevented from doing too much damage?”  His answer was that you need a means of rejecting the bad, rather than selecting the good.  In the economic sphere this happens without the direction of the finest minds.  Products that do not cut it with consumers are counted out, along with the firms that market them.  Capital is redeployed to the newer, smarter people who can satisfy customers.  It is a continuous process by which the less competent is weeded out in favour of the more competent.

If we did have the finest minds trying to direct the economy, the chances are that they would contrive to stop this happening, or at the very least, interfere with it in ways that made it less effective.

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
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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?