"Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice" - Adam Smith
Our fourteenth thing is simply that American executives get paid far too much money and that this is wrong. In itself this is proof that a market manner of doing things is ineffective: just the simple fact that the average US CEO gets 300 times the wage of one of his workers proves this.
And we should admit that Chang has some useful points to make here. It's entirely possible that there is rent seeking in the way that CEO pay is determined. Interlocking boards, where you scratch my back with a pay rise and I'll approve your's next month could be partly to blame. The agent/principal problem may well be in play as well. While the shareholders are the legal owners of the company we can all find examples of organisations being run for the benefit of the managers, not the owners. So there is some truth to the processes which Chang points to as raising US CEO incomes.
However, not enough truth for his contention that these pay rates are in some manner wrong or unjustified.
For example, the comparison between the 30 or 40 times average wages that CEOs used to be paid and the 300 they are now. Back when the average US CEO was running a US domestic market company. This simply isn't the case now: the large corporations there (as with the large corporations everywhere in fact) are now global companies. They're massively larger than they used to be so it's not entirely surprising that pay for those running them has gone up.
The two major mistakes made though are not quite so simple.
The first is that Chang wants to claim that people are paid according to their marginal productivity: only if a CEO is worth 300 times the average worker should he be paid that. But that's really not quite how labour markets work. Yes, average wages in a country are going to be determined by average productivity, this is true. But the wages of individuals are going to be determined by supply and demand of those particular skills. Given the mess certain CEOs make of running large corporations we can also see that the supply of the necessary skills is fairly small. We'd thus expect a high price to be paid for them.
But even this is still understating the point. The job of a CEO is not just to make profits for the shareholders: it's to avoid making losses for them. The value therefore of a CEO is not just the profit booked at the end of the year: it's the losses avoided. And those losses can, of course, amount to the entire value of the firm itself as Chrysler and GM shareholders found out.
The second is that Chang hasn't recognised that CEO compensation is like that of traders or footballers. We're in a tournament here. There's no static benchmark by which we measure the performance: that performance is only ever relative to everybody else in the same field. You can be a very fine footballer indeed and never make it to the Premiership simply because there are a couple of huindred players who are better than you are. You could make a perfectly adequate CEO: but you'll not get there if there's a few hundred to a few thousand who are better at it than you are. So CEO pay isn't being based upon some critical appraisal of some abstract standard: it's all about whether you're actually better than the other candidates or not.
And we do very much know one thing about what happens to pay in such tournament markets. It soars: because being 5% better than the other guy means that the employer wants to have you, not the other guy.
And that's really what is behind high executive pay. Yes, there's undoubtedly rent seeking, there's certainly some aspect of larger companies paying larger amounts and so on. But the real point is that it is indeed a tournament and as I say, the one thing we know very well about tournament markets is that they pay massively to those who win the tournaments.
Thing 13 is simply that trickle down economics doesn't work. Making the rich richer doesn't make everyone richer therefore we shouldn't be planning to make the rich richer. The whole thing is based upon the marginal propensity to invest: investment is good for the future of the economy, the rich invest more of their incomes than the poor do thus if the rich get more of the money then there will be more investment and that's good for the future. Chang insists that this idea is wrong, based as it is upon the classical economists. The rich don't necessarily invest more therefore allowing them to have more of the pie won't increase investment and so no glorious future.
There's a very serious problem with this argument of Chang's. For the flip side of this marginal propensity to invest is the marginal propensity to consume. And it's an absolutely standard part of Keynesian economics (most definitely not classical economics then!) that the poor have a greater marginal propensity to consume than the rich do. Indeed, we do get people telling us that in economic hard times we should be taking money of the rich to give to the poor. Precisely because the rich will just save and invest it while the poor will spend it thus boosting aggregate demand.
Here is such an argument in fact:
“For example, in an economic downturn like today's, the best way to boost the economy is to redistribute wealth downward, as poorer people tend to spend a higher proportion of their incomes.”
The greater marginal propensity to consume is exactly the same thing as the lower marginal propensity to save and invest: if the poor are more likely to spend then this is the same statement as the rich are more likely to save. The really unfortunate thing for Chang's rejection of the idea that the rich invest more is that this sentence comes from Chang. In this very same chapter where he urges us a to reject the greater marginal propensity to invest of the rich. Oh dear, eh?
It's also probably true that Chang should be deprived of his economists' secret decoder ring or confusing wealth and income as he does in that sentence. Wealth is a stock, income a flow, and never should the two be confused.
There's a common rhetorical flourish throughout the chapter that should have been avoided as well. He veers between talking about a redistribution of income upwards in recent decades and the way in which the growth in incomes has gone disproportionately to the already rich. The two are very much not the same statement: the first is that extant incomes have been snatched, like a humble crust from a Dickensian waif's lips, to be awarded to the rich. The second is that of the new incomes that are being created the upper part of the income distribution is getting most of that new income: the crusts are still safe in the waif's hands. The truth is that there has not been a redistribution of incomes upwards: the last few decades have seen average (both mean and median) incomes rise therefore nothing has been taken away from anyone. It is true that a large portion of the new income created has gone preferentially to those already gaining high incomes.
You may be happy about that or not but that is what has been happening, not the first but the second.
And now we should look at the proof that Chang uses to show that allowing the rich those higher incomes doesn't improve the growth of the economy. It is, fairly simply, that in more equal times like the 50s and 60s then economic growth was higher than it has been since the 80s, when inequality started to rise. What more proof could we require that the rich getting more of the pie doesn't grow said pie?
At which point we'd probably recommend that Chang read his own chapter 9. In which he tells us, entirely correctly, that as economies mature growth will become more difficult and thus, presumably, slower. Chang's (and, interestingly, the correct, which is an amusing coincidence) argument is that in the long term economic growth comes from improvements in total factor productivity (tfp). This tfp is easier to increase in manufacturing than it is in services. Chang uses this to argue that therefore economies should have lots of manufacturing so that tfp can be improved: an argument we rejected as there's only so much manufacturing that we actually want.
But look at what that does to Chang's subsequent argument about economic growth. We know very well that manufacturing has fallen as a portion of western world economies in recent decades. Indeed Chang tells us that manufacturing as a percentage of total production fell, in Britain, from 37% in 1950 to 13% today. That's the manufacturing where tfp growth is easier than in the services which have grown faster (for yes, manufacturing output has still grown, just not as fast as services) which has shrunk as a portion of the economy. And it's Chang himself who tells us that this makes future economic growth more difficult as a result of that difficulty in increasing tfp in services.
Yet when it comes to comparing growth rates in manufacturing heavy and services heavy economies the lack of growth is all about how the rich have all the money. Go figure. Consistency isn't just the hobgoblin of little minds you know.
One final point about why we don't want to be taxing those high incomes too much. It isn't, as Chang purports, because only the rich can make everyone else rich by investing. Rather, it's because the process of people getting rich is what makes us all richer. Assuming no rent seeking (which we free marketeers do indeed abhor) and the lucky sperm club then the only way you can get rich, become rich, is by satisfying the desires of others. You need to be producing something that others are willing to purchase. That they are willing to purchase it shows that they value it more than it costs them: by definition this makes them richer. As the influx of cash makes you richer.
It's not the static state of being rich that makes everyone better off: it's the activity of producing what others value that makes both the producer and consumer richer. And that's why we don't want to take huge bites out of the incomes of people who are doing this: because we'd like them to be seen to be well rewarded so that others are willing to take the risks of similarly producing value that all can enjoy. After all, we know that taxing something produces less of it: thus taxing the creation of wealth will produce less wealth.
This week Royal Mail, the UK's state-owned letters and parcels delivery business, is expected to announce profits of £300m-£400m. A few years back, the Royal Mail looked like a loss-making sunset business. Emails were replacing letters, and delivering bits of paper to 28m homes in every corner of the UK seemed like a good way to go broke.
Now we are sending even more emails – the Royal Mail's staples of greetings cards are being replaced by e-cards too. Bills and statements are going increasingly online, and more of us pay them online rather than putting a cheque in the mail.
But what is saving the Royal Mail is its parcels business. With email we are sending fewer letters, but with the web we are shopping more online. Losses in the letters business are being overtaken by profits in parcels. The UK online retail market was £78bn, up 12.8% on the year before. Department stores' online sales grew by an astonishing 37%. Around one-fifth of our retail purchases are now made online. A business that can deliver to 28m homes now suddenly has a value again.
What Royal Mail needs, though, is new capital to invest in this parcel delivery business. They know they won't get it from the government, which is deep in debt. They need new capital from the market and new strategic partners from business to help them invest it wisely and develop the parcels business. That means privatisation. On this weeks figure, it could be a £3bn business, which means a share offering to the public. On past form, the government will sell 51% and pocket a useful sum. But once the new capital is invested and is making the parcels business even more profitable, it could pick up even more when it sells the other 49%.
Our twelfth thing about capitalism that we're not told is a masterpiece of straw manning. We're told that the free marketeers insist that government can never pick winners and are then presented with a couple of examples of supposed winners that have been picked by government. QED, the free marketeers are wrong.
But that isn't actually our argument: we don't insist that government, or planning, can never produce a winner. Only that it's less likely to do so than a free market approach to such decisions. At which point the proof falls apart.
Chang does tell us of the foolishness that accompanied the 60s and 70s approach to the planning of economies. The famous line from Eugene Black, the World Bank President, that developing countries were fixated on the three totems - the highway, the integrated steel mill and the monument to the head of state. The monuments got overturned along with the head of state, the roads were unused and the steel mills, as I've already mentioned, were built with gay abandon and then left to rot.
Chang's response to this is that South Korea managed it though! POSCO was set up as a state planned and run, financed, company and it has ended up as a thriving steel company. Even though S. Korea didn't have either the iron ore or the coking coal that would normally be domestically produced to feed such a series of plants. Thus planning can indeed work.
To which there are three responses: the first being that an example of not-A is not a refutation of generally-A. For example, we cannot refute the statement that ugly blokes generally don't end up with good looking women by observing the beauty of Simon Cowell's latest squeeze. We could refute ugly men never by such an observation, but not generally. So it is with our observation that governments are generally bad at picking winners, generally make bad investment decisions, is not refuted by the observation that one government, once, managed to invest in a decent enough steel company.
Which is where Chang's straw man argument comes in: he has claimed that the free market argument is that governments can never, while the actual argument is simply less often than alternative methods.
The second is that the power to direct the economy as S. Korea did in the time Chang is talking about isn't something that's available in a free society. You'll note that I've mentioned this before but it's worth using some of the examples that Chang himself gives us:
“However, even when all those carrots were not enough to convince the businessmen concerned, sticks – big sticks – were pulled out, such as threats to cut off loans from the then wholly state – owned banks or even a “quiet chat” with the secret police......(...)....In the 1960s, the LG Group, the electronics giant, was banned by the government from entering its desired textile industry and was forced to enter the electric cable industry.....(...)...In the 1970s, the Korean government put enormous pressure on Mr. Chung Ju-Yung, the legendary founder of the Hyundai Group, famous for his risk appetite, to start a shipbuilding company. Even Chung is said to have initially baulked at the idea but relented when General Park Chung-Hee, the country's then dictator and the architect of Korea's economic miracle, personally threatened the business group with bankruptcy.”
One can hear, all the way from Cambridge, the lascivious licking of the lips at this display of firm authoritarian government in true Confucian style. But I do rather think we'd all agree, being the good little liberals that we are, that whatever the economic results of such plans we'd rather not have a General as dictator with the power to insist upon such things. As indeed we don't and as I've been pointing out, as a result we would get planning driven by democratic concerns, something very different.
The third argument is that Chang is entirely ignoring opportunity costs here. Which is astounding in self-professed economist. For opportunity cost is the first and most important thing that one has to grasp about the subject (the only other is that there's no free lunch). The actual argument is not whether government can decree that a steel mill, or a shipyard, gets built. Nor even whether such projects will make a return on their investment, survive into the future. It is rather whether that money and investment would have produced better returns if employed in another manner? What could S. Korea have built instead of a steel mill or shipyard? Perhaps the profits would have been larger in building a world beating textiles industry?
By resolutely ignoring this point Chang is here showing that whatever it is that he's talking about it's not really economics. For as I say, opportunity cost is the heart of the subject.
The final argument against government picking investments is best described as momentum. The most important part of an economic system is not actually the decision about what to do. It's about what to stop doing. More specifically, how do we decide that a project, an investment idea, as gone wrong and needs to be killed off? It is in this that governments are appallingly bad, horribly, hugely, worse than the private or free market sector.
To take once recent example: the London Olympics. Before the selection of which city would hold it we were told that it would cost some £2.5 billion or so to stage. Once the decision had been made the budget started to balloon. One of the things that drove it through the £10 billion barrier was the realisation that the government plans hadn't included the VAT that the government would be charging itself. A reasonable estimate of the final cost is £20 billion and change. A private sector adventure that was going ten times over budget would have led to a phone call to Paris asking if, despite having lost the selection competition, they'd still like to have the Games. Or even to stick them in Athens, which already had all the stadia from a previous one.
The impetus in politics, the incentive, is never to admit to having made a mistake. Thus government designed projects, even if they turn out to be disasters, tend not to get cancelled. Doubling down, good money after bad, this is how it works. Whereas the free market sector does indeed look at error, agree that it's an error, and closes it down.
Which is as I say the clinching argument against that state planning of investment and industry. It's not that governments can never pick a winner: even the blind monkey finds a banana occasionally. It's not just that governments are less likely to pick a winner either. Nor that private industry hasn't decided upon some stinkers along the way. Even if government and the market were equally capable of picking winners, government's a lot worse at closing down, bankrupting, the losers. And so are resources wasted by government in a manner that the private sector does not.
Summary: UK trimmed mean inflation is 2% - exactly
What the chart shows: The chart shows UK headline consumer price inflation, the old RPI-X measure and trimmed mean inflation, all as 12-month % changes
Why is the chart important: The Bank of England has forecast that inflation, while coming down, will remain above target for the foreseeable future. But the headline or overall rate of inflation is subject to a number of volatile influences. In some countries, eg, the United States, underlying inflation is measured by stripping out food and energy changes. By contrast, a so-called ‘trimmed mean’ measure strips out the fastest and slowest changing components every month, regardless of which they are, in order to achieve a better picture of underlying trends. April data show that the trimmed mean rate is bang on target at 2%, implying that the headline rate could come down more rapidly than expected – as in fact it already did in April
Stephen Littlechild, Professor emeritus at the University of Birmingham, fellow of Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge and a top regulator from 1983 to 1998, explains how politicians and regulators have, by misunderstanding how markets work, regulated to boost energy firms' profits at the expense of higher bills for consumers.
Britain’s competitive retail energy market was the first in the world, and for many years the most competitive. It had the most active suppliers, and the most active customer switching. This competition and choice brought better offers for customers. It may not seem like it because of recent energy price increases. But these reflect increases in fuel costs like gas, higher costs of renewable energy and other obligations on suppliers, not a lack of retail competition.
In fact, retail competition was sometimes too fierce, witness the problem with doorstep mis-selling. But Ofgem took action to fix that problem.
Retail profits in the domestic sector used to be minimal; Ofgem calculated that many were negative. New entrants came into the market, but until recently most found it tough to survive.
Retail competition has been enhanced by a dozen switching sites. Each seeks the best way to attract users, to offer the simplest calculations, to include the most relevant information and the clearest comparisons, to facilitate subsequent switching. No other country can boast as lively, innovative and effective market for information and assistance to energy customers as Britain.
The Adam Smith Institute is looking for a bright, enthusiastic student on their gap year between school and university to come and work for us. The role would be a mixture of administrative work around the office and helping the ASI team with their research and policy work on an ad hoc basis.
It’s a great opportunity if you want to gain some experience in an exciting think tank. We are nice, fun people to work with, so candidates should enjoy working with others as part of a team. You should be interested in our work and willing to roll up your sleeves to do some of the less glamorous work around the office too.
This position pays £5/hour, and depending on the candidate is either a six-month or year-long position.
If you’d like to apply, send the following to email@example.com:
Applications close on June 10th.
The eleventh thing we've not been told about capitalism is so bizarre as to make me wonder whether Chang was proofread before publication. The layout of the free market position is that Africa is irredeemably doomed to low or no economic growth because of structural factors: ethnic diversity, disease, geography and so on. And the reason that we free marketeers say this is because we're embarrassed about the fact that Africa instituted free market reforms in the 80s and hasn't grown since then. Thus we've invented reasons as to why it hasn't rather than rethinking our committment to free market development.
Chang also tells us that post colonial Africa grew rather well (hmm, well, even he admits not well but better than nothing) in the 60s and 70s. So therefore we free marketeers are doubly wrong. We not only killed off what was working we also prescribed what does not and are now lying about it.
There is one teeny little problem with this. Chang has shifted his decades a bit. There was indeed a change in the 80s but this wasn't the widespread adoption of free market policies. That was the debt fuelled autarkic development that was abandoned. Actual free market policies didn't take root until the 1990s in sub-Saharan Africa (the place Chang and we are talking about) and since the mid-1990s there has indeed been a take off in growth in those countries.
In fact, if we look at the work of people like Xavier Sala-i-Martin (do look him up, his web page is a hoot but he's also one of the most cited economists around) we find that Africa is growing so well that they've actually got rising Sen Welfare. That is, not only are incomes going up but inequality is falling at the same time.
What drove the much slower growth of the 60s and 70s was exactly the set of policies that Chang usually proposes. Infant industry protection, government direction of the economy, planning. And most crucially, borrowing to fund that economic development. And, as is usually the problem when people play socialism at some point you run out of other peoples' money. The actual investments that were made (just about every country decided they needed an integrated steel mill for example. Almost none of which ever worked at anything like capacity as the continent could really support perhaps two, not the dozens planned) simply never did pay back the borrowings made to construct them. So the policy of state directed development not only didn't work it came crashing down in a ghastly and impoverishing heap.
What happened to African development is an argument against Chang's policies, not one in favour of them. And I've already mentioned that I'm not sure that you can do Chang's form of directed development in a democracy. Even if (which I'll not admit anyway, but just for the sake of argument) you can do it in an authoritarian or repressive society, the political dynamic is such that you can't wher the people get to vote.
Take, as an example, Ghana. Nkrumah very definitely believed in the socialist and state directed development model. Vast sums were borrowed in order to construct the industry it was thought the place needed (and there were many a western socialist writing these plans in Accra at the time). But while Nkrumah did become increasingly repressive himself he did still face democratic pressures. So the economic policies favoured the urban population, those who tended to vote (or even riot where they could be seen) rather than the larger rural one. The exchange rate was fixed high for example: to the great detriment of the cocoa farmers trying to export, to the great benefit of the urbanites who wished to import goods. There was indeed an attempt to have that planned economy, to build and protect those infant industries. It's just that they were all bad plans: and as I say, I'm convinced that at least part of the reason the bad ones were followed was precisely because it was a democracy.
No, this does not mean that I think that we should have authoritarian government in order to attain economic development through planning. Quite the opposite: that given that we've got democracy we cannot have that planning because the democratic pressures will lead to bad planning.
So, Ghana, and everyone else who tried to follow the same development path (pretty much everyone) ended up going bust. Which is what gives us the slump of the 80s. Finally the recommendations of the Washington Consensus manage to trickle through the intellectual barriers (and let us recall that the Consensus is really just a list of stupid thing you shouldn't do) and to be applied in the 90s. Since then we've had good and decent growth in sub-Saharan Africa. Hurrah etc: but that is a very different story indeed than the one Chang is telling. Which is what rather makes me wonder whether the book was proofed before publication.
There is one little aside as well. Chang does correctly point out that many to most African countries have bad external transport links. For reasons both historic and geographic. What puzzles me is this. Given that Chang says that a country should not leap into the global marketplace, but should develop at least to begin with behind its own borders, well, given that Africa's had no choice in this, why isn't it developed? If few imports lead to economic development as this encourages domestic production then why haven't African countries developed as they've had few imports?
That is just an aside though. The real problem with our eleventh thing is that Chang just isn't describing things as they really did happen. Sub-Saharan Africa did do the planned and tariff bound infant industry protection thing in the 60s and 70s. And growth was there but feeble: and then the entire system went bust. Once the mess was cleared up and free market policies adopted in the 90s we've seen good and decent growth across the region. And no, it's not the free marketeers who have been ascribing Africa's problems to anything other than economic policy. Quite the contrary: we've been using the benighted continent as absolute proof of our contentions. Managed development was tried and failed: free market development is working.
Do you realise how much we pay for the thrill of watching dancing meatballs?
A couple of years back, Ewan Spence had the same question, and put in a Freedom of Information request to the BBC, Eurovision's sponsoring partner in the UK. They refused to disclose all their production costs for broadcasting the competition on BB1, BB3 and Radio 2. But they revealed that the payment the BBC makes to the European Broadcasting Union was £279,805 in 2009, and £283,190 in 2010.
Since then, journalists have been watching the Eurovision bill grow. Last year, the BBC spent £310,000 – the eqivalent of 2,130 licence fees – on broadcasting Britain's disastrous entry by 76-year-old singer Engelbert Humperdinck (which only four countries gave any points at all—not that we have had many points since the Eastern Europeans turned up and formed a pact to vote for each up).
BBC officials say that their EBU membership also buys it other things, like membership of a news exchange, rights to concert broadcasts and activities around the Olympics. But broadcasting the Song Contest also imposes other costs on the BBC, including travel, hotels and incidentals for its broadcast staff.
Last year, the contest cost €48m to stage in Baku, Azerbaijan. This year's, in Malmö, Sweden, the aim was to do it for much less. Anyone with a television (i.e. virtually everyone) is forced to pay for this embarrassing, political show, whether they watch it (and the BBC) or not. Can that be right?