To be serious about inequality for a moment

The Office of National Statistics has just released figures on incomes in the UK. Giving us that interesting little chart above. Do note that that is income of those who are in the tax system. And also that it does not include the impact of the benefits system. So this doesn’t include subsidy to housing or anything like that.

And then have a look at the global rich list. Where you can plug in an income and the country to which it refers and see where that income in that country puts you on that global rich list. The reason you must add the source country is because they are calculating using PPP adjusted currency rates. That is, they’re taking account of how much things cost in each country. So this isn’t really a comparison of incomes, it’s a comparison of living standards.

And here’s the astonishing thing. That bottom 1% lifestyle in the UK is still among the top 20% globally. The UK minimum wage puts you well into the top 10% (almost top 5% in fact). And a little over median wage puts you into the global top 1%.

To repeat, this is not assuming that things are cheaper in other countries. This is after we convert to the prices you’re paying at Morrisons.

We’ve nothing at all against those who would campaign about either poverty or inequality. But we would like to take this little opportunity to remind all that by any historical or global standard we here in the UK, yes even the relatively poor by local standards, are living pretty high on that income scale. And that feeds in to what we think is the important point about what we might want to do about inequality or poverty. Let’s concentrate on that global picture, not gaze at our own navels. Encouraging poor country growth wit the aim of abolishing absolute poverty seems to be so much more productive to us than worrying about whatever gap there might be between the top 20%, top 10% and top 1% of the global income distribution.

Reading Owen Jones at the moment is really rather amusing

His basic contention seems to be that Syriza’s election victory in Greece is a rerun of the fight against the Nazis and this time the left must win. Very slightly overblown that comparison.

Syriza’s posters declared: “Hope is coming”. Its election must represent that everywhere, including in Britain, where YouGov polling reveals huge popularity for a stance against austerity and the power of big business. A game of high stakes indeed: one that, if lost, will mean countless more years of economic nightmare.

This rerun of the 1930s can be ended – this time by the democratic left, rather than by the fascist and the genocidal right. The era of Merkel and the machine men can be ended – but it is up to all of us to act, and to act quickly.

Quite what style he would use to discuss anything actually important is difficult to imagine.

He has, of course, also got the economics of this entirely wrong. Greece’s problems do not really stem from “austerity”. They stem from membership of the euro. The harrowing internal deflation the country has been undergoing are the result of their not being able to conduct a devaluation of the currency. And far from it being us “neoliberals” arguing that such deflation is necessary we’ve all been shouting that the devaluation would have been a better idea. Indeed, the absolutely standard IMF (for which read, in Jones’ language, neoliberal, Washington Consensus, right wing etc etc) solution to Greece’s problems would have been a loan package, some modest budget constraints and a devaluation.

It’s not going to work out well, of course it isn’t. Partly because it’s difficult to see who is going to win that argument over the debt and partly because the actual domestic economic policies of Syriza are so barkingly mad. But before Britain’s leftists start cheering this victory over the forces of reaction they’d do well to understand exactly what we all have been saying these years. If the standard, orthodox, economic policies had been followed the Greek situation would never have arisen in the first place. Sure, they borrowed too much, that happens quite a lot. But the deflation would have been replaced by that devaluation and it would all just be a dim memory by now.

Unproductive patents

Patents are a state-granted property rights, designed to promote innovation and the transfer of knowledge. They grant the holder a time-limited, exclusive right to make, use and sell the patented work, in exchange for the public disclosure of the invention. This, so the theory goes, allows creators to utilise and commercially exploit their invention, whilst disclosing its technical details allows for the effective public dissemination of knowledge.

However, complaints that the patent system is broken and fails to deliver are common.

Patent Assertion Entities (or ‘Patent Trolls’) buy up patents simply to threaten accused infringers with (often dubious) lawsuits, and are estimated to cost American consumers alone $29bn annually. Another scourge are the ‘patent thickets’ made up of overlapping intellectual property rights which companies must ‘hack’ through in order to commercialize new technology. These have been found to impede competition and create barriers to entry, particularly in technological sectors.

Even thickets and trolls aside, using the patent system can carry high transaction costs and legal risks. Litan and Singer argue that this prevents many small and medium businesses from utilizing the system, with over 95% of current US patents unlicensed and failing to be put to productive use. This represents a huge amount of potentially useful ‘dead’ capital, which is effectively locked up until a patent’s expiry.

There are plenty of ways we can tinker with the patent system to make it more robust and less expensive. However, they all assume that patents do actually foster innovation, and are societally beneficial tool.

A number argue that even on a theoretical level this is false; the control rights a patent grant actually hamper innovation instead of promoting it. Patents create an artificial monopoly, which results, as with other monopolies, in higher prices, the misallocation of resources, and welfare loss. Economists Boldrin and Levine advocate the abolition of patents entirely on grounds the that there is no empirical evidence that they increase innovation and productivity, and in fact have negative effects on innovation and growth.

A new paper by Laboratoire d’Economie Appliquee de Grenoble, authored by Brueggemann, Crosetto, Meub and Bizer backs this claim, by offering experimental evidence that patents harm follow-on innovation.

Test subjects were given a Scrabble-like word creation task. Players could either make three-letter words from tiles they had purchased, or extend existing words one letter at the time. Those who extended a word were rewarded with the full ‘value’ of that word, creating a higher payoff to sequential innovation. In ‘no-IP’ (Intellectual Property) game groups, words created were available to all at no cost. In the IP game groups, players could charge others a license fee for access to their words.

The results are striking:

We find intellectual property to have an adverse effect on welfare as innovations become less frequent and less sophisticated…Introducing intellectual property results in more basic innovations and subjects fail to exploit the most valuable sequential innovation paths. Subjects act more self-reliant and non-optimally in order to avoid paying license fees. Our results suggest that granting intellectual property rights hinders innovations, especially for sectors characterized by a strong sequentiality in innovation processes.

In fact, the presence of a license fee within the game reduced total welfare by 20-30%, as a result of less sophisticated innovation. Players in these games used shorter, less valuable words, and in order to avoid paying license fees would miss innovation opportunities which were seized upon in no-IP games.

The authors suggest that patents could be harmful in all highly sequential industries. These range from bioengineering to software, where the use of patents has been strongly criticized, through to pharmaceuticals, where the use of patents is much more widely accepted. If patents really do restrict follow-on innovation even remotely near as much as suggested, the implications could be huge.

Of course, the study is only experimental and far less complex than real life, but it’s a useful contribution to the claim that patents do more to hinder than to help.

NGDP targeting: Hayek’s Rule

One thing I go on about on this blog is how nominal GDP targeting—a market monetarist policy proposal that has even won over a small group of New Keynesians—is also the kind of policy an Austrian should want in the medium term. Of course, in the long term we’d like to abolish the Bank of England altogether, but even then we’d get, with free banking, something like a stable level of nominal GDP, so it’s a pretty good target to work towards.

The economist Nicholas Cachanosky wrote a paper in the Journal of Stock & Forex Trading about a year ago, which I missed, called “Hayek’s Rule, NGDP Targeting, and the Productivity Norm: Theory and Application” which lays a lot of the Austrian arguments for targeting the level of nominal income in a very clear and cogent fashion. I include some key extracts below:

The term productivity norm is associated with the idea that the price level should be allowed to adjust inversely to changes in productivity. If total factor productivity increases, the price level (P) should be allowed to fall, and if total factor productivity falls, the price level should be allowed to increase. A general increase in productivity affecting the economy at large changes the relative supply of goods and services with respect to money supply. Therefore, the relative price of money (1/P) should be allowed to adjust accordingly. In other words, money supply should react to changes in money demand, not to changes in production efficiency.

The productivity norm was a common stance between monetary economists before the Keynesian revolution. Selgin [14, Ch 7,8] recalls that Edgeworth, Giffen, Haberler, Hawtrey, Koopmans, Laughlin, Lindahl, Marshall, Mises, Myrdal, Newcome, Pierson, Pigou, Robertson, Tausig, Roepke and Wicksell are a few of the economists from different geographical locations and schools of thought who, at some point, viewed the productivity norm positively.

One of the attractive features of productivity norm-inspired monetary policy rules is the tendency of the results to mimic the potential outcome of a free banking system, one defined as a market in money and banking with no central bank and no regulations. Among the conclusions of the free banking literature is that monetary equilibrium yields a stable nominal income.

Throughout Cachanosky distinguishes carefully between an NGDP target and a productivity norm, though I think these are overstated; and between ‘emergent’ stability in NGDP and ‘designed’ stability, which he (like Alex Salter) thinks are importantly different (I am not convinced).

Cachanosky believes that the 2008 crisis implies that NGDP growth beforehand was too fast, and led to capital being misallocated, but I still doubt the Austrian theory of the business cycle makes any sense when you have approximately efficient capital markets.

Despite our differences, I think that Cachanosky’s papers are very valuable contributions to the debate, and hopefully they can go some of the way to convincing Austrian economists that the market monetarist approach is not Keynesian.

It’s the absence of markets that causes poverty

There’s an excellent discussion of a recent finding in development economics over here.

If markets are missing completely, or so unreliable as to effectively be missing, then household separation fails. The extreme case is easiest to think of. If a household is completely autarkic, and can trade with no one else, then it can only consume what it produces. The two decisions are inseparable. If they want a new TV, then they’d better have a source of rare earth elements in their back yard and a passion for soldering.

The importance of knowing if household separation holds or not is that it tells us something fundamentally important about why a developing area is poor.

What’s being looked at is that horrible, $1 a day, poverty that far too many of our fellow humans are stuck in. The big question being, well, are they stuck there because of the way that markets operate? Perhaps “the market” means they can’t get enough fertiliser for example. Or is it that markets simply do not exist and thus they cannot reap the benefits of the division and specialisation of labour and the subsequent trade in the increased production?

The answer appears to be the absence of markets rather than any failure in them. Which leads to an interesting thought about what should be the right way to aid them.

Instead of sending money with which to buy them stuff we should be trying to work out how to create markets. And the most important part of that is in fact information. Not from us to them, but within such communities. And that ties in neatly with something that is becoming apparent from another part of the literature. It may well be that the mobile telephone is the greatest poverty reducing technology of our times. Simply because it does do exactly that, allow the spread of the information that enables markets to do their wealth creation thing. As this excellent paper makes clear.

It’s not quite as simple as “make sure there’s a phone network everywhere and the poor will get rich” but we’re increasingly coming to the view that that’s a damn good start to solving the problem.