Three steps forward

In today’s City AM I outline a fairly simple growth agenda that would, I think, deliver very strong growth without requiring tax cuts (which are very important, but seem to be politically dead in the water right now). My three items are reform of planning, immigration and money (the ‘PIMs’, as I call them), by rolling back the green belt outside London, allowing high-skilled immigration, and targeting NGDP instead of inflation:

Whisper it, but things finally seem to be looking up. Investment is rising, unemployment is falling, and the deficit seems to be coming under control. But it could be a lot better. Real wages will not recover to their pre-crisis peak until 2020. And expected growth of 2.7 per cent this year is well below what we might expect in a real recovery.

The question is, how can we get the strong growth we all want? Tax cuts are nice, but hard to sell as long as the deficit remains large. And calls for business deregulation are often too vague to be useful. But there are clear areas for reform in planning, immigration, and money, and none would threaten the deficit. Reform these areas – the PIMs, we might call them – and real, booming, sustainable growth will come.

Read the whole thing.

The progressive approach to immigration looks a lot like the conservative one

In a way, it’s refreshing that Yvette Cooper’s speech on immigration today has identified ‘free market liberals’ as the main advocates of freer immigration policies. There aren’t many of us, though, so we usually have to rely on immigration liberals on the left to win the argument over there for decent reforms to take place. Unfortunately, it looks as if they’re losing too.

Cooper’s main claims are that immigration reduces native wages and job opportunities, puts public services under pressure, and low-skilled immigrants are exploited by British firms.

The first two of these claims are basically wrong and the third is a little dubious, as I’ll try to show, but even if they were true they would only justify restricting low-skilled immigration. There is basically no decent economic argument against skilled immigration, and I’m doubtful whether even the most wild-eyed worrier about the cultural ‘Islamicization’ of Britain has Pakistani doctors in mind. But, without any explanation, Cooper says that Labour will keep the cap on skilled immigration (despite her admission that “top businesses are worried they can’t get the high skills they need”). Oh well.

On low-skilled immigration, the main focus of the speech, Cooper suggests that liberals support immigration “as cheap labour to keep wages and inflation low”. Ignoring that this is a straw man worthy of the Wizard of Oz, it’s also untrue. According to the impact assessment published by the Home Office last month, low-skilled immigration has, at most, a minor impact on native wages, which in a flexible labour market like Britain’s is temporary anyway. And on the ludicrous idea that anyone supports immigration to keep inflation low, see Lars Christensen – under inflation targeting, a positive supply shock like immigration will lead to more inflation.

The public services point is old and well-worn, and it hardly needs repeating here that immigrants pay more in tax than they cost in services – a phenomenon which over the next few decades will mean the difference between a national debt of over 180% of GDP (in a zero net migration scenario) and just over 50% (in a >260k/year net migration scenario). Presumably nobody really thinks that more high-skilled immigration would have a negative fiscal effect, but I suppose it’s possible that liberalizing low-skilled immigration a lot could change this. In that case, charge immigrants a fee to reside in the UK or restrict access to public services. There is no problem with immigration to which strict immigration controls are the best solution.

The final point is the one that Cooper focuses on the most, maybe so that the dreary conservative orthodoxy of her policies is less obvious. Undoubtedly, some genuine exploitation does take place – Cooper gives the example of agencies advertising in Poland for jobs that turn out not to exist, virtually forcing the victims into grim jobs that they did not sign up for. It may be that the law needs to be strengthened to punish people who defraud immigrants in this way. But there will be negative consequences too – by raising the risk for legitimate employers of employing immigrants, this kind of law will make it harder for immigrants to get legitimate work. The danger is that, as in the case of the Modern Slavery Bill, laws designed to prevent truly terrible crimes will end up curbing whatever legitimate work the government decides it wants to stop as well.

To be fair, there are two positives in Cooper’s speech: taking students out of the net migration figures would be good for the education sector, and taking refugees out is humane. But the fact is that Labour has accepted the “logic” of the net migration cap, is making no reforms to high-skilled immigration, and is basing low-skilled immigration policy on anecdotes instead of evidence. Liberals beware: the ‘progressive’ approach to immigration is starting to look an awful lot like the conservative one.

An alternative ‘Agenda for Hope’

Owen Jones has written a nine-point ‘Agenda for Hope’ that he argues would create a fairer society. Well, maybe. I’m not convinced by many of them. Then again, it would be quite surprising if I was.

But it got me thinking about what my nine-point agenda would be — not quite my ‘perfect world’ policies, but some fairly bold steps that I could just about imagine happening in the next couple of decades. Unlike Owen’s policies, few of these are likely to win much public support. On the other hand, most of the political elite would think these are just as wacky as Owen’s too.

Nine policies to make people richer and freer (and hopefully happier):

1) The removal of political barriers to who can work and reside in the UK. Removing all barriers to trade would increase global GDP by between 0.3% and 4.1%. Completely removing barriers to migration, though, could increase global GDP by between 67% and 147.3%. Those GDP benefits would mostly accrue to the poorest people in the world. We can’t remove these barriers everywhere but we can show the rest of the world how it’s done. Any step towards this would be good – I suggest we start by dropping the net migration cap and allowing any accredited educational institution to award an unlimited number of student visas.

2) A strict rule for the Bank of England to target nominal GDP instead of inflation, replacing the discretion of the Monetary Policy Committee. Even more harmful than the primary bust in recessions is what Hayek called the ‘secondary deflation’ that comes about as people, fearing a drop in their future nominal earnings, hold on to more of their money. That reduces the total level of nominal spending in the economy which, since prices and wages are sticky in the short run, leads to unemployment and a fall in economic output. NGDP targeting prevents those ‘secondary deflations’ and would make economic busts much less common and harmful. In the long run, we should scrap the central bank altogether and replace it with competition in currencies (see point 9, below).

3) Significant planning reform that abolished the Town and Country Planning Act (which includes the legislation ‘protecting’ the Green Belt from most development) and decentralised planning decisions to individuals through tradable development rights (TDRs). This would give locals an incentive to allow new developments because they would be compensated by the developers directly, allowing for a reasonably efficient price system to emerge and making new development much, much easier. The extra economic activity from the new home building alone would probably add a couple of points to GDP growth.

4) Legalisation of most recreational drugs and the medicalisation of the most harmful ones. I think Transform’s outline is pretty good: let cannabis be sold like alcohol and tobacco to adults by licensed commercial retailers; MDMA, cocaine and amphetamines sold by pharmacies in limited quantities; and extremely dangerous drugs like heroin sold with prescriptions for use in supervised consumption areas. The sooner this happens, the sooner producers will be answerable to the law and deaths from ‘bad batches’ of drugs like ecstasy will be a thing of the past. Better yet, this would bring an end to drug wars like Mexico’s, which has killed around 100,000 people in the past ten years.

5) Reform of the welfare system along the lines of a Negative Income Tax or Basic Income Guarantee. As it is, the welfare system disincentivises work and creates dependency without doing much for the working poor. A Negative Income Tax would only look at people’s incomes (not whether they were in work or not in work), reducing perverse incentives and topping up the wages of the poorest earners. This would strengthen the bargaining position of low-skilled workers and would remove much of the risks to workers associated with employment deregulation. Of course, the first thing we should do is raise the personal allowance and National Insurance threshold to the minimum wage rate to give poor workers a de facto ‘Living Wage’.

6) A Singaporean-style healthcare system to replace the NHS. In Singapore, people have both a health savings account and optional catastrophic health insurance. They pay a portion of their earnings into the savings account (poor people receive money from the state for this), which pays for day-to-day trips to the doctor, prescriptions, and so on. The government co-pays for many expenses but the personal cost disincentivises frivolous visits to the doctor. For very expensive treatments, optional catastrophic health insurance kicks in. This is far from being a pure free market system but it is miles better (cheaper and with better health outcomes) than the NHS. (By the way, if you really like the NHS we could still call this an ‘NHS’ and still get the superior system.)

7) A school voucher system and significant reform of the state education and free schools sectors. This would include the abolition of catchement areas and proximity-based admission, simplification of the free schools application process, and expansion of the free schools programme to allow profit making firms to operate free schools. These reforms, outlined in more detail in two ASI reports, would increase the number of places available to children and increase competition among schools to drive up standards.

8) Intellectual property reform. As both Alex Tabarrok and Matt Ridley have pointed out, our IP (patent and copyright) law is too restrictive and seems to be stifling new innovation. Firms use patents as barriers to entry, suing new rivals whose products are too similar to their own. In industries where development costs are high but imitation costs are low, like pharmaceuticals, patents may be necessary to incentivise innovation, but in industries like software development where development can be cheaper than imitation, patents can be a terrible drag on progress. Tabarrok recommends that we try to tailor patent length in accordance with these differences; as a sceptic about our ability to know, well, anything, I’d prefer to leave it to private contracts and common law courts to discover.

9) Last but not least, the removal of the thicket of financial regulation and the promise of bailouts for insolvent banks. Known as ‘free banking’, this system of laissez-faire finance has an extremely strong record of stability – though bank panics still occurred in free banking systems, they were much less severe and rarely systemic. Only once the government started to intervene in the financial system to provide complete stability did things really begin to go wrong: deposit insurance, branch-banking restrictions, and other prudent-seeming regulations led to extremely bad unforeseen consequences. The financial crisis of 2008 probably owes more to asset requirements like the Basel accords, which heavily incentivised banks to hold ‘safe’ mortgage debt over ‘risky’ business debt, than anything else. Incidentally, the idea that having a large number of local banks is somehow better than having a few large banks is totally wrong: during the Great Depression, 9,000 of America’s small, local banks failed; at the same time not one of Canada’s large banks failed. The small banks were more vulnerable because, unlike the big banks, they were undiversified.

Now, if only there was a think tank to try and make these dreams a reality.

The net migration cap is hurting Britain

This morning’s Guardian carries a letter by the ASI, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Institute of Directors, the Centre for Policy Studies, the Entrepreneurs Network and Conservatives for Liberty, on why we oppose the government’s migration cap. I wrote about why more free marketeers should care about immigration recently — we’re lucky that the UK’s foremost free market think tanks do.

The government’s net migration cap is hurting Britain’s economic recovery and long-term fiscal health. It can take around three months for a business to apply for a visa for a prospective employee, a significant unseen cost of the cap, and international firms may prefer to base themselves in countries where they can bring in staff from abroad more easily than they can in the UK.

Entrepreneurship is being affected, too: more than a quarter of Silicon Roundabout startup founders are foreign-born, and more than half of tech startups in California’s Silicon Valley are founded by immigrants. The cap on immigration is a cap on the innovative industries Britain needs to thrive.

According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, without net immigration of at least 260,000 people per annum, public debt will approach 100% of GDP by 2060 as we struggle to pay for a ballooning pensions and healthcare bill. Countless studies have shown immigrants create jobs, raise natives’ real wages and even boost productivity.

Public concerns about benefits tourism are legitimate but are better addressed by reforms that restrict access to the welfare state. The migration cap does not discriminate between the small number of would-be welfare tourists and the many people who would like to work productively to create a better life for themselves and their families. The cap is hurting Britain and should be scrapped.

Sam Bowman, Research director, Adam Smith Institute,

Mark Littlewood, Director general, Institute of Economic Affairs,

Simon Walker, Director general, Institute of Directors,

Ryan Bourne, Head of economic research, Centre for Policy Studies,

Philip Salter, Director, The Entrepreneurs Network,

Thomas Stringer, Director, Conservatives for Liberty.

Immigration controls are the new Corn Laws. Why don’t more free marketeers care?

If you had to name a single government policy that ruins the greatest number of lives, what would you pick? The 45p tax rate? Saver-hurting inflation? Green energy subsidies?

I’d say that the biggest one is the one that free marketeers are largely silent about: migration controls.

In 2011 Michael Clemens looked at the economic estimates of the global GDP growth that would come if every country in the world abolished restrictions on the movement of goods, capital and labour across national borders. According to the papers Clemens looked at, removing all barriers to trade would increase global GDP by between 0.3% and 4.1%; removing all barriers to capital flows by between 0.1% and 1.7%. Those are big gains that would make the world a substantially richer place.

Completely removing barriers to migration, though, could increase global GDP by between 67% and 147.3%. Think about that: simply letting anyone work anywhere could more than double global GDP. And that would be a long-term boost to economic growth, not a one-off. Even the bottom end of that, 67%, is an astonishingly huge figure.

It’s not as far-fetched as it might sound. As Clemens points out, workers can often create wildly different amounts of value by doing the same thing in different places (or doing them with different people). A taxi driver who might expect to make $1,500/year in a city in (say) Benin might be able to make $31,000/year in New York City by doing exactly the same thing. That shouldn’t be a surprise: bringing someone like Sergey Brin to work quickly, saving him an hour, is much more valuable in terms of his opportunity cost than, say, saving me an hour.

The institutions that most successful countries have are extremely valuable too. Corruption, instability and political uncertainty all have the potential to be extremely costly for firms, and they often prefer to pay a higher up-front cost in labour terms to locate their production in stable countries with good institutions. That’s one reason why Nissan still prefers to build some cars in Sunderland than Haiti: the institutions effectively boost Sunderlanders’ productivity enough to make their higher wages worth paying. If we let Haitians move to Sunderland, they could take advantage of those institutions and make a living for themselves too.

The counterargument will be that a Sunderland filled with Haitians will quickly stop being like Sunderland: Haitians might vote badly, or might be so culturally incompatible that the social institutions that are so important to Sunderland’s success, like trust, would break down and ruin things for everyone. That’s a valid argument and probably the main thing we should be talking about when we talk about immigration. But it’s also ambiguous: immigrants tend to have lower rates of crime than natives, and increased contact between immigrants and their neighbours can mostly overcome the cohesion problem.

But even if these arguments did prove to be true, they would be a case for country-specific immigration controls: even if Haitians proved to be too culturally incompatible to come to Britain en masse without undermining what’s valuable about Britain, that would not necessarily be the case for Chinese or Sri Lankans. If this seems ugly it is much, much less ugly than our existing blanket controls on immigration. Letting more people come to Britain should be the priority, not preserving the appearance of cultural neutrality.

What puzzles me is that my fellow free marketeers are often very indifferent (if not openly hostile) to policies that make it easier for foreign people to work in Britain. They cannot believe the economic claims that immigrants ‘steal jobs’ in an overall harmful way unless they also think that free trade does. There are many keyhole solutions to prevent immigrants from sponging off the welfare state. The cultural arguments, if they can be classed as such, are worth considering but certainly not so powerful that they invalidate the economic arguments. And free marketeers are usually pretty happy to let society adjust itself rather than try to engineer it to become or remain the way they like it.

Fundamentally, migration controls are not just laws about what foreign people can do, they’re laws prohibiting businesses from hiring people and property owners renting or selling to people who were unlucky enough to have been born in the wrong place. On the fact of it, these laws are so staggeringly invasive that no free marketeer could be comfortable with them; when you realise the economic costs it is amazing that anyone can tolerate them at all.

There are lots and lots of bad things governments do that ruin people’s lives. But few cause as much harm to the poorest people as the state controls of where people can work and live that we call ‘migration policy’. Even a marginal step towards a more liberal immigration policy would allow people to create an enormous amount of wealth, and probably do more good than almost any other possible policy. So why don’t more free marketeers start talking about it?