Economic development can have some old, old, roots

An interesting little piece of research showing just quite how old some of the roots of economic prosperity can be. And shown using the most modern technology as well.

For some years now economists have been measuring economic development by the amount of light that can be seen in satellite photographs of an area. For one of the very first things people seem to do, as soon as they can, is to light up that bulb rather than curse against the darkness. The technique has been used to estimate African GDP growth for example, coming to much more cheering results than the official figures would have us believe. And here it’s used to measure quite how old some of the roots of successful development might be:

In ancient times, the area of contemporary
Germany was divided into a Roman and non-Roman part. The study uses this
division to test whether the formerly Roman part of Germany show a higher nightlight
luminosity than the non-Roman part. This is done by using the Limes wall
as geographical discontinuity in a regression discontinuity design framework. The
results indicate that economic development—as measured by luminosity—is indeed
significantly and robustly larger in the formerly Roman parts of Germany.
The study identifies the persistence of the Roman road network until the present
as an important factor causing this development advantage of the formerly Roman
part of Germany both by fostering city growth and by allowing for a denser road
network.

It’s a very interesting little piece of work.

Why are corporations ‘socially responsible’

In a 1970 piece in the New York Times magazine Milton Friedman argued that ‘the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits’. They should make as much cash as possible for their shareholders, and shareholders should give directly to charity. It is hard enough to be an efficient firm, without needing to be an effective charity at the same time.

But it is popularly believed that corporations’ role in society does include various other responsibilities rather than simply maximising long term shareholder value. And in real life we note that firms often run charity events, match their employees’ charitable donations and so on. Why would firms spend money on charity when they don’t have to?

At first you might expect that managers are exploiting the firm to selfishly gain themselves prestige. There is some evidence, for example, that more narcissistic chief executives do more corporate social responsibility.

But the bulk of evidence suggests that firms do better financially when their ‘corporate social performance’ is higher. A 2003 meta-analysis of 52 papers and  33,878 firms found a positive association—though this was stronger when you measured financial performance by accounting measures rather than investor measures. A 2007 meta-analysis looked at 167 studies and found a similar result: corporate social responsibility is associated with higher financial performance, though quite weakly.

Various different types of study confirm this point from different angles. For example, a 1997 paper looked only at 27 event studies of share prices when firms revealed socially irresponsible behaviour and found the converse of the other results: bad behaviour cut firm value. Event studies on financial markets are quite a good way of isolating causality; with a short enough timescale the change in question is very likely to be the one driving price changes.

But why exactly does CSR help firm performance? Recent work provides some clues. For one, it seems to cut a firm’s financial risk. It seems to raise a firm’s access to capital. This might be why market analysts tend to recommend firms more in their notes after they engage in CSR. And it explains why firms with more shareholder-driven corporate governance give more incentives to CEOs to engage in CSR—not what you’d predict if it was an agency cost.

This probably comes from reputational improvements, and reputational insurance. Customers prefer to buy from firms who do more and better social programmes, and engaging in CSR seems to cushion stock declines after ethics in business become popularly salient (e.g. after the 1999 Seattle protests against the WTO).

Intriguingly, the reputational advantages may also extend to the government. Davis et al. (2015) discovers that firms who do more nice stuff also lobby more and pay less tax; i.e. that corporate social responsibility and tax are substitutes. This suggests that CSR overall is not driven simply by some measure of manager altruism or empathy or quality—the sort of thing we might usually wonder about. (Though some evidence disagrees.)

None of this really answers whether CSR is good for society at large. If it does enhance reputation, leading consumers to like it more, then this is basically a transfer from consumers to charities. Either way we probably shouldn’t lionise firms when they do it—they’re just trying to maximise profits, as usual.

 

Turning points

There have been turning points in the development of humankind.  Some would point to the ability to make fire and the effect it had on people’s diet and survival chances.  Undoubtedly the development of agriculture about 12,000 years ago and the domestication of grains and livestock enabled humans to become a settled species and to store value against adversity.

For most of the time men and women have been on this planet they have lived a meagre existence at subsistence level, vulnerable to storms, drought and crop failure.  Something happened about three centuries ago that changed that for an increasing proportion of Earth’s population.  It was undoubtedly a turning point when people began to use some of their resources as capital to generate wealth. 

Social and intellectual changes played their part in fostering a culture of experiment, innovation and investment.  Led by Britain, the Industrial Revolution set humankind on an upward course of wealth creation that has lifted large and increasing portions of humankind out of starvation and misery.  The wealth generated by the use of capital has made possible a secure and adequate diet as well as modern medicine and sanitation.  It has enabled widespread access to education and healthcare.  It has profoundly altered the conditions of life along with the other major turning points.

Capitalism has spread and is spreading its benefits across the world.  It is not to Socialism that we owe lifestyles replete with opportunities as well as comforts.  By concentrating on the creation of new wealth instead of the mere redistribution of existing wealth, capitalism has set humankind on an upward path of limitless development.  In place of envy of those who have more, it provides space or what Adam Smith called “the uniform, constant and uninterrupted effort of every man to better his condition,” and of course it applies equally to women.

It seeks not a fairer world but a better one, not equality but opportunity.  It works with the grain of the real world rather than attempting to impose a preconceived mental pattern upon it.  It works by improvement and evolution, not by revolution.  Even though this seems obvious, it is worth repeating from time to time to people for whom this is not so.  When people are tempted by the fantasy world of Socialism, it is worth reminding them of the real-world achievements that Capitalism has brought about and Socialism never has and never can.

Out today: The Oxford Handbook of Austrian Economics

Released today, The Oxford Handbook of Austrian Economics (edited by Peter J. Boettke and Christopher J. Coyne) contains contributions from two of our Senior Fellows: Kevin Dowd and Anthony J. Evans. In his chapter, Evans takes an Austrian look back at the causes of – and the lessons we can draw from – the UK’s 2007 Financial Crisis. Focusing on regime uncertainty, he rejects both the idea that the crisis was “caused by greedy bankers, complicit politicians, or capitalism itself” and the prominence of analysis that overstates the role of incentives in the run-up to the crisis. Instead, he takes the view (with reference to the work of Jeffrey Friedman, among others) that

There is far more evidence to suggest that it was ignorance and error that caused the crisis and that theoretical issues such as regime uncertainty, big players, recalculation, price naiveté, trading strategies, and corporate governance deserve closer attention.

And that

Allowing insider trading (to improve market efficiency) and reducing barriers to entry and exit (so that foreign banks can provide additional competition) help to thaw the economy and to solve the knowledge problem.

That “ignorance, not omniscience, is the norm” (and a well-functioning price mechanism is the only feasible method by which to ameliorate that problem) is a point too rarely made in reference to the crisis, which is most often blamed on the greed of bankers or the laxity of financial regulations.

As well as being a Senior Fellow of the ASI, Anthony J. Evans is Associate Professor of Economics at ESCP Europe Business School in London and a member of the IEA’s Shadow Monetary Policy Committee.

You can buy The Oxford Handbook of Austrian Economics here, visit Anthony J. Evans website here, and download Dr. Eamonn Butler’s (excellent) ASI primer on Austrian Economics here.

Taking Corbynomics seriously…and stop giggling at the back there

One of the joys of Corbynomics is that it’s all largely the invention of Richard Murphy. We therefore know that it is wrong on any specific subject, we’ve just got to work out how it is wrong on any specific subject. Which leads us to the idea that this peoples’ quantitative easing will be able to replace the private finance initiative. The idea being that if the Bank of England just prints money with which we can do nice things then we won’t have to go off and borrow expensively from the hated bankers and kittens will ride sunbeams once again.

The problem with this being that PFI really has very little to do with the price of the finance used to build these lovely things. Sure, bankers get their cut of the interest, as do investors, but that’s really just not the point of it all. Instead, the point of PFI is to get some people into state run projects who are worried about losing all of their money. That is, it’s really about getting equity partners in.

The point of that being that we all know how projects work out if they are funded by the magic money tree. They come in late, vastly over budget and thus waste vast amounts of real resources. And the only way we’ve ever figured out how to introduce some rigour into the management of these sorts of projects is to make sure that someone is indeed sweating over the idea that they could lose all their money. PFI is thus far more about bringing the strictures of value for money, completion on time and to budget, into public procurement than it is about either gaining the finance to build something or the price that is paid for that finance.

Thus, changing the price paid for the finance doesn’t change the argument in favour of PFI at all. Yes, it’s superficially appealing to pay nothing to the Bank of England for the finance rather than 5% to hte City, but compared with things like the 276% cost over run of the Humber Bridge it’s not the point at all.