These people are mad

There’s always someone willing to take advantage of a good crisis, isn’t there?

British railway passengers could be subject to airport-style screening at intercity stations, under plans being considered by the European Union in response to the Arras train attack.
Train operators could be obliged to introduce surveillance cameras in every carriage and stations instructed to install scanners for passengers boarding high-speed trains, under options being discussed following the foiled attack.
For the first time, Brussels officials are drawing up plans to create common EU rules on railway security. At the moment it is a national competence.

Before deciding whether to let the bureaucrats in Brussels make the rules it’s necessary to work out whether the rules themselves make sense. That is, let’s test the competence of the proposed rule makers, shall we?

Fortunately we’ve a method that allows us to do this: cost benefit analysis. Predictions are that soon enough we’ll have some 1.4 billion high speed rail passenger movements each year in the EU. So, if we’re to scan passengers, that means 1.4 billion passenger scans. Say, given the inevitable queues, this costs each passenger 10 minutes. And let’s simply ignore the cost of the scanners and the people to man them. 14 billion minutes, 230 million hours, that’s quite a lot of time being spent there. And we should value time at something….the Sarkozy Commission recommended that this sort of time should be valued at “undifferentiated labour rate” or minimum wage for ease of calculation.

230 million hours at, say, 7 euros an hour? That’s €1.6 billion euros a year, just in the time spent being and waiting to be scanned. Hmm…and so what’s the benefit?

Well, in order for this to be of benefit overall we’ve got to look at what will be saved. Lives, presumably. And we do know the statistical value of a life. Around and about €5 million in fact. That means, that to be of benefit, these scanners must save 320 lives a year. Each and every year.

Do we have 320 people a year being killed by terrorist attacks on trains? Are we likely to? Not that we can see it has to be said.

So, rather than imposing all of this cost on the good people of Europe it would seem more sensible to simply stay with the system we have. Punch any bearded nutters who start waving AK 47s around. After all, we do have good evidence that the current system works.

Britain needs more slums

The problems with the UK housing market have been well-documented. There is a ‘housing crisis.’ No-one today can afford to buy the sorts of houses their parents did. Household formation is depressed. Every day, the reports get more lurid. The latest example of this is a survey suggesting that all 43 of the affordable houses in London aren’t actually houses, but rather boats. There has been a proliferation of not-houses in recent years, from houseboats to ‘beds-in-sheds.’ The reason is clear – Britain has a sore lack of proper slums. Government regulations designed to clamp down on ‘cowboy landlords’ restrict people’s ability to choose the kind of accommodation in which they want to live.

Local authorities require exhaustive safety inspections and energy efficiency standards – if they allow construction at all. Each individual requirement sounds fairly reasonable, something that almost everyone would want. But housing should cater to a wide array of preferences. Some people might not feel like they need a bedroom space as large as the state expects, while others might not mind sharing a bathroom with another family if it means lower rents.

The consequences of forcing people outside the law are serious, as with immigration. If the only way you can afford housing is to live illegally, you have no recourse to the law if you do have a dispute with your landlord.

These regulations don’t just affect the type of squalid accommodation that they were designed to outlaw. A recent project to build ‘micro-flats’ worth up to £231,000 required the intervention of the London Mayor to exempt it from certain regulations. Developments like these might be the future for young people like me struggling to get onto the housing market, but this kind of ad-hoc policymaking is no way to run a country. Wholesale change is needed.

The market desperately wants to provide houses people can live in at prices they can afford – but in the eyes of local authorities these houses are too small, or too tall, or the ceilings are too low, or the windows not energy efficient enough. Sweeping deregulation is the only way to provide Britain with the slums it is crying out for.

Theo Clifford is winner of the 18-21 category of the ASI’s ‘Young Writer on Liberty’ competition. You can follow him on @Theo_Clifford, and read his blog at economicsondemand.com.

Devolution and Super-Councils

As Scotland looks set to receive an ‘unprecedented’ collection of powers from Westminster, it is time too for the English regions to benefit from devolution. The lack of what Hayek would call ‘perfect information’ is a weakness intrinsic to a centralised states – surely local councils have a greater understanding of problems that face their local areas than Whitehall? As one of the most centralised states in the world, the UK is ripe for devolution in a variety of policy areas.

One such example is taxation. Rather than simply being bankrolled by central government, local authorities should be able to raise their own revenue. This would encourage greater fiscal responsibility from councils, as they would have to justify spending to their electorate, discouraging the waste that has been all too characteristic of local government.

Another possible area of devolution is healthcare: councils should be free to innovate in response to local problems. The savings that this would result in would contribute to the £22 billion of efficiencies in the NHS that Simon Stevens, the Chief Executive of NHS England, has highlighted as necessary by 2020-21. Furthermore, patient satisfaction will improve: the Institute of Economic Affairs has pointed to Switzerland’s decentralised healthcare system, which provides a responsive service with high life expectancy and patient approval ratings.

Having greater powers would also give councils more clout when they bid for major infrastructure projects. London has reaped the fruits of much central government support, with the Greater London Authority securing £4.7 billion from the Department of Transport to fund Crossrail. If all councils had the same bidding powers, government spending would more effectively match the infrastructure needs of the local area – instead of grandiose projects such as HS2, more Crossrails could be built, creating the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ that George Osborne strives for.

How will this devolution create a freer UK? Firstly, councils being forced to raise their own money deters excessive spending, lest councillors be punished by the local electorate who are paying for it. Secondly, healthcare efficiencies mean a smaller burden on the taxpayer to pay for the NHS, while the patient will likely be more satisfied with a service suited for local needs. Finally, this devolution will result in more focussed, efficient infrastructure spending. In short, ‘super-councils’ can reduce the burden on the taxpayer, and create the conditions for a flourishing free market.

Alan Petri is runner-up in the Under-18 category of the ASI’s ‘Young Writer on Liberty’ competition 2015.

It’s important to work out what parking meters are for

Before abolishing parking meters and charging for parking it’s important to work out why we did this in the first place. It’s an example of Chesterton’s Fence: before you remove the obstacle you need to work out why it was placed there in the first place. Only then can you work out whether the reason is now obsolete, to that the fence is defunct. And the original point of parking meters wasn’t to charge people for parking, nor to ration spaces by price, not at all:

Shoppers in small-town high streets should be allowed to park free, a minister has indicated, as figures show that councils are raising more money than ever from motorists.
Marcus Jones, who was made high streets minister in David Cameron’s post-election reshuffle, suggested that small town centres could become “parking meter-free zones” in an effort to save shops from closure.
The Government is growing increasingly concerned that punitive parking costs and fines are deterring shoppers from using their local high streets.

The original reason for parking meters was to increase the number of people using the area.

If parking is entirely free then some goodly number of people will use it all day and possibly every day. This takes up those scarce parking spaces. So, if you want to increase the number of people that pass through an area you want people to have free parking but only for some limited period of time. Then they will move on and others will be able to use the space to visit the area.

Thus, if your intention is to increase the human traffic through an area like a local High Street the answer is not to have free parking at all. It’s to have free parking for some limited period of time. On the order of free for an hour, no return within an hour, those sorts of restrictions, rather than “park here all day for free”. All of the parking meters and ticket machines needed are already in place. Just program them to issue the first hour’s ticket for free.

How Jeb Bush could get his 4% growth (for a few years, at least)

US presidential hopeful Jeb Bush says that, with the right policy reforms, the US can achieve 4% annual growth. As economic historian (and Adam Smith Institute Fellow) Anton Howes has pointed out, historically it’s very hard to sustain growth above 2% except when you’re catching up, either after a recession or as a poor country converging on rich ones.

For the US, 4% growth would mean catching up to the pre-2008 trend for a few years, and then reverting to normal. Glenn Hubbard and Kevin Warsh, two economists who are likely to advise Bush on economic issues during the campaign, suggest that investment-focused tax cuts and pro-competition deregulations might help the US to recover back to the pre-2008 trend. Well, maybe.

One thing they did not mention was liberalising planning (or urban zoning, in American English). But that could deliver a big boost to GDP. An NBER working paper by Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti released earlier this year argued that:

…worker productivity is increasingly different across cities. We calculate that this increased wage dispersion lowered aggregate U.S. GDP by 13.5%. Most of the loss was likely caused by increased constraints to housing supply in high productivity cities like New York, San Francisco and San Jose. Lowering regulatory constraints in these cities to the level of the median city would expand their work force and increase U.S. GDP by 9.5%.

Basically, making it easier for people to move around makes it easier to put people into the jobs where they’re most productive, and constraints on housing supplies make it much harder for people to move around.

Deregulating planning, then, could massively boost US GDP – even bringing constraints in the most productive cities down to the average level would increase it by nearly 10 percent. Spread over a few years, and combined with the standard 2% we’d expect from the US economy normally, that’s about one Presidential term’s worth of 4% growth.

This is really just a moot point – the President doesn’t have much say over local zoning laws. But who knows? This might be one time where the Presidential bully pulpit comes in handy.

Mostly, this is instructive for those of us in other cities where supply constraints make it difficult for people to move in. How much richer Britain might be if it was a little easier to build houses in the places people want to live – and work.