National roaming is one of the reasons we want that arbitration clause in trade deals

One of the thi9ngs that gets a certain type of lefty up in arms is the arbitration clauses in the various proposed trade pacts on offer at present. It’s portrayed as a violation of democracy that if politicians are allegedly in breach of the contracts under which people invest in the country then everyone can go off to a neutral (ie, not controlled by the politicians) legal system to sort matters out. We here regard it more as the upholding of the rule of law but there we go, be a dull world if we all thought the same way.

However, we’ve got an interesting little example of what we mean in this latest silly idea:

There are bad ideas that might appear at first blush to have some merit, and then there are just bad ideas. A consultation announced this week by the Government into whether to enforce national “roaming” so as to improve mobile phone coverage very much falls into the latter category.

Were the normally sound Sajid Javid, the responsible minister, to go this route – and the fact that the consultation has been limited to just three weeks powerfully suggests he has already made up his mind – it would potentially amount to a breach of the terms under which mobile phone operators bought their licences.

Quite, it is very much a change in the terms of those licences. Licences which the phone companies paid tens of billions of pounds for. And none of us really think that the changes are going to increase the profits of the mobile phone companies, do we? So, they paid up in the belief that the rules would be one way and now they’ve paid up the rules are (perhaps) to be changed. This is exactly the sort of thing that that arbitration clause in trade deals is all about. Holding government, the politicians, to the terms that they agreed at the point of investment. And if those rules are changed to work out whether it’s a reasonable change and if it isn’t then who should pay whom to sort of the economic effects of the changes.

Our best guess here is that national roaming isn’t going to go anywhere, whether it’s a good idea or not. For we can’t imagine that George Osborne fancies the idea of having to pay back chunks of those licence fees that he’s already banked and spent.

Yes, of course Mariana Mazzucato is wrong, why do you ask?

Mariana Mazzucato is on a mission to persuade us all that as government provides all the lovely new technology and shiny shiny gadgetry we so enjoy then therefore we should all be coughing up a fee to said government for said shiny tech. There’s a number of problems with this idea: one being the boring detail that government hasn’t in fact been the source of all of that lovely research into tech:

I don’t know about the CADC, but Tim Jackson’s excellent book “Inside Intel” is very clear that the 4004 was a joint Intel-Busicom innovation, DARPA wasn’t anywhere to be seen, TI’s TMS 1000 was similarly an internal evolutionary development targeted at a range of industry products.

Looking at a preview of Mazzucato’s book via Amazon, it seems that her claims about state money being behind the microprocessor are because the US government funded the SEMATECH semiconductor technology consortium with $100 million per year. Note that SEMATECH was founded in 1986 by which point we already had the early 68000 microprocessors, and the first ARM designs (from the UK!) appeared in 1985. Both of these were recognisable predecessors of the various CPUs that have appeared in the iPhone – indeed up to the late iPhone 4 models they used an ARM design.

However, there’s two logical errors with her claim which are much more important than the technical details of what she’s claiming.

The first is that she doesn’t seem to understand the economics of government spending on research very well. There’s certain things that the markets, entirely unadorned, don’t do very well. While much too much of this is made in general it’s at least arguable that the provision of the public good of basic research is one of these things. And given that one of the reasons we have government in the first place is to provide those things, like public goods, that markets don’t deal with well then her argument falls into something of a trap. For she’s arguing that government should get a slice of the returns (through ownership of patents, of shares in companies that use government funded research) from the provision of that research.

But why? The very idea of government doing this work is that without government intervention we’ll not get this public good. We pay our taxes, government provides the public good and we’re done. There’s nothing extra that should be done about it: assuming that government has done the research, the research is indeed valuable, we’ve now got here an example of government doing what it has already been paid to do. Hurrah, celebrations and bring out the marching bands etc. There is no logic at all to the idea that government should get two bites of the same cherry.

The second logical problem is that she’s arguing that (and this is the real point of her work) the EU research budgets should end up owning a chunk of whatever it is that turns up of value from EU funded research. There must be commercial arrangements for Brussels to recoup some of the profits from the use of the results. And her clinching argument is that Darpa, the US military research budget, produces huge value from the research that it funds. Therefore we should do as they do.

The problem with this is that Darpa deliberately doesn’t try to retain an ownership interest in technology derived from research that it funds. On the grounds that it just wants to produce the public goods of the results of that research and when it’s done that its job is done. And it’s also a great deal easier and more productive to give scientists grants to do research than it is to have arguments with them over ownership, in advance of any actual findings, of whatever the results might be.

That is, we’re being advised to a) do as Darpa and b) not do as Darpa in the same sentence.

It’s nonsense sadly, but influential nonsense.

Size might not matter but age definitely does

It’s ironic that politicians are so obsessed with creating jobs, given that many interventions – such as employers’ national insurance contributions and a politically determined minimum wage – achieve the diametric opposite. Yet it remains a key metric for determining political success and failure, and it drives much that passes for entrepreneurship and enterprise policy.

When it comes to job creation there is a debate about whether small or large businesses contribute more. Those representing small businesses can claim that micro businesses account for around 95% of all private sector companies, while those representing large businesses can counter that despite making up less than 0.1 per cent of the total private sector stock, large businesses account for more than half of all turnover and more than 40% of UK private sector employment.

It’s a complicated debate. Nesta research suggests a small proportion of businesses are responsible for the majority of job growth, with the data showing that “just 7% of businesses are responsible for half of the jobs created between 2007 and 2010.”

Elsewhere, Nesta suggests focussing government resources on supporting what was then “the vital 6%” . But it isn’t obvious that this is the right conclusion from the data. It’s entirely possible that current polices are limiting the size of this so-called vital 6% job-creating companies. If this were the case, instead of focussing on those businesses and sectors already succeeding, the right policy would be the exact opposite: focusing on increasing that 6% figure by targeting companies not in the 6%.

Although the ideal ratio of small to large businesses might be indeterminable, we do know one thing. Size might not matter but age definitely does: we want new businesses. As the Kaufman Foundation explains: “Policymakers often think of small business as the employment engine of the economy. But when it comes to job-creating power, it is not the size of the business that matters as much as it is the age.”

Therefore, politicians and policymakers should want the entrepreneurial process to happen quickly; they should want to make sure regulations don’t inhibit the process of business creation and destruction; they should, to paraphrase the lean startup, want entrepreneurs to start fast, grow fast and fail fast.

Philip Salter is director of The Entrepreneurs Network.

UK politicians’ ignorance towards immigration gives Juncker credit he probably doesn’t deserve

It’s a tough day when you have to agree with Jean-Claude Juncker. After all, I tend not to see eye-to-eye with those who think the European Commission needs “to be an even more political body.”

But today, Juncker came out strong against Cameron’s proposed cap on EU migration to the UK; which is good, important even:

From The Telegraph:

Mr Juncker said: “I am not prepared to change [freedom of movement]. If we are destroying the freedom of movement other freedoms will fall. I am not willing to compromise.”

He said that any attempts to address the issue of the amount of benefits being claimed by foreigners would have to be in line with current EU treaties.

“Member states are free to take the initiatives they want as long as these initiatives are line with the treaties,” Mr Juncker said.

Here’s the problem – I don’t think I do agree with Juncker; in fact, I have a sneaking suspicion he and I hold the opinion that free movement in the EU should remain uncapped for fundamentally different reasons. I, for one, don’t think migration is complimented by mandates to ensure a universal ‘minimum social wage’ throughout the EU.

Rather, I see free movement as an integral and necessary component of UK economic prosperity, not to mention a huge benefit for communities that both migrants and natives come in inhabit.

Yet on this particular topic, Mr Juncker and I have the same end goal. And his commitment to protecting free movement—rejecting Cameron’s migration negotiations—has taken us another step towards a full-blown referendum in 2017. Such a referendum, described in the most positive light, would be an opportunity for Britons to discuss and debate the implications EU regulations have on the UK (the specifics of trade agreements and vacuum cleaner bans are two topics that immediately spring to mind…). But there is a deep worry on the part of pro-immigration advocates such as myself that many will use the referendum to lock migrants out of the UK as best they can.

The majority of Juncker’s policies fall short of promoting freedom and prosperity—but on migration, at least his end goals are right. And until UK politicians (all of them really, Conservatives and Labour across the board) stop trying to halt the overwhelming benefits migrants bring to the UK, I find myself in unfamiliar waters, with Mr Juncker as my ally.

The tax system is the biggest barrier to growth

Outside of academic papers that too rarely see the light of day, most “research” is unremarkable in its optimism about the state of entrepreneurship in the UK. That’s why the RSA’s Growing Pains: How the UK became a nation of “micropreneurs” caught my eye. It paints a stark picture.

The UK, according to the report, has become a nation of micro businesses, while the proportion of high-growth businesses has plummeted: “UK businesses are becoming increasingly micro in size – reducing the overall potential for economic output and future growth, and increasing the economy’s reliance on a relatively small number of larger businesses.”

Since 2000, the proportion of businesses classified as micro (0-9 employees), as a share of all UK businesses has grown from 94.3 per cent of all private sector companies to 95.4%. This represents an additional 1.4 million micro firms and an increase over the same period of 43%.

“At the same time, the proportion of high-growth enterprises has declined sharply, falling by more than a fifth in the majority of regions since 2005.”

Although the number of high-growth firms is expected to rise over the coming years, the report cautions optimism: “performance is expected to remain below 2005 levels in all regions except London”.

So how can we solve the problem? According the entrepreneurs, the tax system (44%) is the biggest barrier to growth – ahead of a lack of bank lending (38%) and the cost of running a business (36%).

Another problem highlighted by the report is that entrepreneurs don’t know what the government is up to:

“Around three-quarters (73%) of small business leaders also say the Government must make it easier for SMEs to access the right information and support for growth. While several of the Government’s recent incentives to support SMEs are designed to address the top-cited barriers, perhaps this information is not reaching the people who need it the most.”

Two polices are put forward in the conclusion to help entrepreneurs. First, “continued reform of the apprenticeship scheme could help micro firms to grow out of this business size category”. Second, “more tax relief like the National Insurance holiday could also pay real dividends.” It would be worth exploring the former in detail (something I plan to work on), but I don’t think another NI holiday goes nearly far enough: Employers’ National Insurance should be scrapped entirely. And no just for small businesses.

Being an entrepreneur is tough. As the report points out, “the majority (55%) of new businesses don’t survive beyond five years.” Scrapping Employers’ NI is the logical place to start.

Philip Salter is director of The Entrepreneurs Network.