Aren’t these free market things just great?

Two little stories that caught our eye:

Morrisons is trialling a halal pick and mix counter at 10 stores, offering gelatine-free sweets to Muslim customers.

The selection of 36 sweets includes liquorice sticks, cola bottles, jelly beans, gummy bears and sugared lips – all guaranteed to be free of non-halal animal products or alcohol-based colourings and flavourings.

The lust for profits to be made by satisfying consumer desires leads to ever more product differentiation, even to sweeties that those who take their religion seriously can have.

And:

On May 12 it will be 10 years since Malcolm Glazer completed his hostile takeover of Manchester United, loading the business as he did so with the biggest debt in football history. At that moment, a group of United supporters turned their backs on the club they had long followed and decided to establish one of their own. FC United of Manchester they called it, a name now written large across the front of the main stand at Broadhurst Park, the club’s new home. As gestures go, this could not be more substantive.

When the new stadium opens officially on May 29 with a friendly game against Benfica, the 5,000‑capacity stadium, with its enormous terrace, its myriad community spaces and the area earmarked for a microbrewery to produce the club’s own ale, will surely be directing a belligerent architectural two fingers at the Glazer regime.

Don’t like the capitalist plutocrats taking over “your” club? Great, start a new one, why not?

All without the intervention of a single bureaucrat.

We do not, by the way, insist that free markets solve each and every problem to perfection. Only that they work remarkably well across wide swathes of life. Which is why were so attached to them really, just because they do produce what people seem to want for the least effort.

Economic Nonsense: 50. Capitalism is unstable, subject to periodic crises, and should be replaced

Capitalism is not a fixed thing, but rather a process which develops and changes in response to changing conditions, and especially changing technology.  To say it is unstable is basically to say that it changes.  It is not by its nature stable.  The capitalism of the 21st century is very different from that which prevailed at the beginning of the 19th century.  It evolves as circumstances change, adapting itself to cope with the new realities that present themselves.

It is certainly subject to periodic crises.  The business cycle has long characterized it, with economists divided as to its ultimate causes.  Periods of growth are followed by periods of a sluggish or even contracting economy, with some observers suggesting that this is a good thing, helping to weed out underperforming businesses and redirect their capital to newer and more successful ones.

Over and above this cyclical behaviour, there are occasional crises that seem to threaten the whole basis of the capitalist economy.  The Great Depression was one such period, and the 2008 recession was another.  Critics look for some alternative that lacks these wild and damaging fluctuations.  No-one has yet produced a better system.  For all its flaws, capitalism is the best way humans have found to generate wealth and to allocate resources.  Even including its great crises, it has still produced steady average growth in developed economies for the best part of two centuries.  In less developed economies it has recently produced growth and wealth on an unprecedented scale.

Capitalism learns from these crises.  It adjusts itself.  Governments learn from the mistakes that led to them, and devise new rules to prevent the same happening again.  Capitalism develops and adjusts, renewing itself each time.

When the 2008 crisis came, critics prematurely celebrated capitalism’s decline and wondered what might follow it.  The answer was capitalism, modified to prevent countries repeating the mistakes of the past.  It is certainly imperfect.  Most institutions made by humans are subject to the frailty and imperfection of humanity.  But they can improve by learning from their mistakes and adapting, and this is what capitalism does and why it endures.

Economic Nonsense: 49. Government was wrong to use austerity to deal with the 2008 financial crisis

Gordon Brown as Chancellor and Prime Minister spent money profusely, believing that he could spend the British people’s money more appropriately than they could spend it themselves, and by a political desire to have a large section of the populace on state largesse and thus supportive of a party that promised big spending.  The result was to make the UK hugely indebted, with an annual deficit that required borrowing to sustain that spending and increase the debt year by year.

The coalition government that followed him took action to reduce the deficit by a reduction in government spending.  This was the so-called ‘austerity’ package, although some critics claimed it was more talk than substance, with reductions in the increase in the deficit, rather than in the deficit itself.

Crucially, though, the policy was not only one of austerity.  It was accompanied by quantitative easing (QE), or increasing the money supply to reduce the more baneful effects of austerity.  Latterday Keynesians claim that government should have increased its spending to stimulate demand instead of decreasing it to tackle the deficit.  Their critics in turn suggest that it is not demand by government that sustains real economic growth, but investment by businesses in anticipation of future private demand.

The United States followed a similar policy of reduced spending combined with QE, whereas the eurozone countries led by a cautious Germany did not.  They imposed austerity on the over-extended countries of Southern Europe, but without the QE used in the UK and the US.

Britain and America experienced significant economic growth after a few flat years, whereas the eurozone countries did not.  Anti-austerity campaigners have suggested that the recovery is weak, perhaps “not even real,” but the evidence does not support this.  The empirical result suggests that the combination of austerity and quantitative easing has worked, but that the eurozone policy did not.  Significantly, the QE countries did not suffer the big rise in inflation which some critics predicted.  In 2015, the eurozone countries announced their own quantitative easing, some 7 years after the UK and US did so.

The conclusion has to be that government was right to use austerity and quantitative easing to deal with the crisis.  They did not repeat the mistakes that turned a recession into the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Economic Nonsense: 48. Labour Unions are essential to improve wages and conditions for workers

It is actually improved productivity, not labour unions, that has improved the rewards of labour.  People earned less money in former times because productivity was low.  People were paid according to the worth of their input into the production process.  When each worker contributed little, they were low paid.  As technology and production methods improved, so did the worth of each worker’s input, and wages increased accordingly.

Employers compete for labour to produce goods and services and to make profits.  They have to pay wages that attract enough workers, and compete with other employers to do so.  It is true that unions can use coercive methods to impose higher costs on employers, but this limits total employment in those sectors, and thus opportunities for employment to non-unionized labour.  The US auto industry features somewhat higher wages in unionized car plants, but there are far fewer of them than there are non-union plants.

Although it is improved productivity that brings higher wages, the effect of unions is often to lower productivity through restrictive work agreements that spread work out among more employees.  More employees equals more members paying union dues.

In post war Britain, one group that received among the highest reward increases was the completely non-unionized sector of people who clean homes – the ones who used to be called char-ladies.  The demand for their services from businessmen and women who did not have the time to do it themselves, coupled with declining numbers available to do it, led to huge pay increases.

The fundamental truth is that unions do not increase pay for workers generally.  They can increase pay for their own members, but at the expense of non-members rather than at the expense of employers.  Declining union membership in both the UK and the US has been the result in changes in the type of work being done.  Mass manufacturing has become more automated, meaning higher wages for fewer workers, leaving others to seek non-unionized work elsewhere.  Some goods once produced domestically are now bought more cheaply from countries with non-unionized workforces.  The result is fewer union jobs.  In the UK unionization has increasingly become a feature of public sector workers rather than private industry.

Lies, damned lies, and electioneering statistics: wealth is just accumulating at the top

In my last blog, I lamented the rise of questionable facts in the election campaign, as politicians bid for votes. I used the claim that there is a “tide of privatisation in our NHS” as case study. I now examine the claim that “The last four decades have seen wealth accumulate at the top of society while those at the bottom struggle to get by.”

The rich are getting richer, but so are the poor

The world is getting better. Just look at three of the key UN measures of poverty and living standards.

  • Since 1990 extreme poverty (measured as living on less than $1.25) has more than halved.
  • Since 1990 the proportion of people without drinking water has also more than halved.
  • Since 1990 child mortality (deaths under the age of 5 per 1000 live births) has – you guessed it – more than halved.

For more on our better world, read Matt Ridley’s classic The Rational Optimist.

What about poverty in Britain? It’s getting better too.

Since 1977 disposable income for the poorest fifth of households in Britain has nearly doubled (even after taking account of inflation and changes in household structures). With the recent turnaround in the economy, and greater incentives to work from welfare reform, the employment rate and average income of the bottom fifth should continue to rise.

JL1

Even measures of inequality have been relatively stable since the late 80s.

JL2

Income stats hide services the poor can consume from the state

Income statistics only tell some of the story though. The poor are better off than is initially claimed. Firstly, these income statistics and most others, focus on disposable income. They don’t take into account the wide range of services that the poor consume from the state, free at the point of use.

Income statistics are a static snapshot, they don’t capture generational gains

Secondly, income statistics don’t capture individual progress across generations. The young are poor, indebted and have no assets. The middle aged at the peak of their careers are richer, have paid debts off, own property and have made some savings towards retirement. The young will all one day become old and with time, have opportunities to better their lot.

Income statistics don’t reflect the benefits of innovation

Finally, income and wealth don’t reflect the great technological advances of the last four decades. People in Britain are vastly better off today thanks to innovation, particularly driven by the private sector. The poor consume more services as the costs of the basics has fallen as a proportion of income, and have access to new services altogether.

Take computing, which has gone from a luxury good restricted to the super rich and big companies, to being accessible to all. A gigabyte of data storage cost around £200,000 in 1980. Today I was able to find storage on amazon at just 3 pence per gigabyte – cloud services will even give you a load for free. In 1980 we didn’t have mobile phones, today there are 1.3 per person in the UK and 86% of people use the internet. The pace of technology adoption is speeding up too.

An honest debate would reflect on our success and focus on creating more opportunities