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"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

After No: The ASI Brexit Prize Entry

Written by Miles Saltiel | Tuesday 22 April 2014

David Cameron famously said that he didn’t want any more banging on about Europe. The ASI feels the same way and for similar reasons: the topic threatens the unity of the party most likely to introduce policies we would welcome. Even so, after a couple of near-misses in essay competitions, most recently the IEA’s €100,000 Brexit prize, the topic seems to have become my specialised subject. One thing I’ve learnt is that those interested in the subject risk putting everyone else off with Monty Python “Judean Liberation Front”-style vehemence. So in the ASI’s entry, After No, I went for more of a “calm down, dear” approach to the most inflammatory issues. So too the winner, enabling the following compare and contrast as a reasoned contribution to an amicable debate.

1.Why leave the EU in the first place?

Almost everyone ends up talking about “sovereignty”. This mainly means intrusion into domestic law-making, in particular the “harmonisation” to European norms which is so unpopular. Also immigration, which is tricky all round. To take the last first, I argued that the UK needs to balance public hostility to immigration with labour shortages, the welfare of UK expats and the country’s humanitarian commitments. As a complication, the European Court of Human Rights prevents the UK limiting the rights of immigrants as a class but is not an EU body. So I warmed to leaving the ECHR system, replacing it with a British Bill of Rights; and accompanying this with a “public conversation” led by a Royal Commission, so as to reduce the temperature on immigration. The winning essay proposed a parliamentary “cross-party commission”. I looked at harmonisation by asking...

2.What are the UK’s trade interests?

Every sector has its evangelists so policy-makers need cool heads to develop a positive regime. The winner dwelt on trade in goods. I was struck that duties on goods have reached record lows, while the EU has failed to keep its promise on services. I see the latter as the future of trade and crucial for the UK, making me most concerned about the non-tariff measures (NTMs) which hobble them. The EU’s approach has been a wall of NTMs against the rest of the world, plus internal harmonisation with the intrusive baggage which upsets British opinion. This led me to see trade as very much calling for Plan B: and so to…

3.Which grouping suits the UK best?

This conjures up partisans for the Commonwealth, the US, (or both combined as the “Anglosphere”), and our non-EU neighbours. I took the view that all are somewhat restrictive and argued for an association open to every nation willing to abolish what’s left of duties and sign up to work away at NTMs while respecting national sovereignty. The winner also urged an “embrace of openness”, together with renewed links with non-EU neighbours in the European Free Trade Association.

4.Just how difficult will departure be?

I talked to EU insiders, who like to argue that ties are so profound as to be unbreakable. This infuriates many Euro-sceptics, provoking them into one of two diametrically opposed responses: that the UK can readily engineer a “single bill” departure; or that it can only leave after years of gradual disentanglement. My own view is that two or three parliamentary acts, a programme of interdepartmental consultations and vigorous leadership would suffice. My essay presented a timetable of proposals for organisation and legislation. The winner went for consultation and a “Great Repeal Bill”. I also argued that a decent deal with the EU is more likely than not, as its negotiators will be driven by the interests of member states who will be afraid of losing the UK market; the winner focussed on the effects of the re-imposition of EU tariffs. This takes us to the final question…

5.What about the costs and benefits of leaving the EU?

The honest answer is that no-one can know for sure. I crunched numbers for best, middle and worst cases, using the falls in output, sector-by-sector after the subprime crisis, as a template for the worst. This showed that leaving the EU would be nothing like as bad as 2008-12, with sensible policies making the country 6% better off after five years even in the worst case. In the other cases it would flourish, with greater output, stronger trade and lower inflation. The winner also calculated three cases and made policy proposals.

If the topic tickles you, take a look at the ASI’s Brexit entry here and the winner here.

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It's not capitalism that Cuba should be worrying about but markets

Written by Tim Worstall | Wednesday 16 April 2014

Cuba is, however gradually, reforming its economy which is great. However, they do seem to be concentrating on the wrong bits still:

Less well known and less common are the cooperatives but they are part of a political balancing act for the government, which needs to move hundreds of thousands of workers off the state payroll but also wants to slow the rise of capitalism. In many ways it prefers cooperatives, where each worker has a stake in the business, to private businesses where owners make profits based on the work of their employees.

That concentration on who owns what is the wrong thing to be concentrating upon. Sure, capitalism is useful, it's also a great bugbear of those over on the left. But it's also not the important point in an economy. What is important is markets: competitive markets at that, with entry and exit. This is vastly more important than whether those entrants (and those being forced to exit) are cooperatives, owned by the government or top hatted pot bellied capitalists like myself.

The reason for this is that there is no possible method of planning a modern national economy. We could use Alchian's (and Hayek's) point that only a market economy produces enough experimentation for us to be able to work out what to do, or that Socialist Calculation problem that means we've still got another century of Moore's Law to go before we could possibly calculate what to do. There is simply no alternative to using the prices and incentives that a market provides for us and so therefore that's where Cuba should be concentrating their efforts. Simply scrap the rules about who may do what, those licencing regimes. Worrying about who owns it is trivial by contrast.

As an aside, to those who will insist that Cuba provides wonderful free health care and so the system mustn't change. Amazingly, I think you'll note that this country, the UK, also manages to provide free health care to all citizens. And we manage to do this without being a communist dictatorship, without being in Stone Age poverty and without shooting anyone who wants to leave. So quite why those three things are considered necessary to provide tax paid for healthcare I'm really not quite sure.

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Is government helping exports?

Written by Tim Ambler | Friday 11 April 2014

Is the UK Trade and Investment (UKTI), is a net hindrance or help to exporters?  UKTI can surely point to successes but could its expenditure of over £400M p.a. (up 70% since this government took office) be better spent? 

The 2013 research into UKTI commissioned by Daniel Kawczynski MP is important, valuable and deserves more attention. It provides insights into the strengths and weaknesses of UKTI as it now is. UKTI can point to successes but overall the emerging picture is one of excessive bureaucracy and ineffective communications. The reports recommendations are sensible but they are not radical enough. 

UKTI should become a separate stand-alone agency, integrated with Chambers of Commerce, and its HQ should be cut from 500 to 50.

The UK [potential] exporters and receivers of inward investment should be put in charge.  They should be asked what help, and especially contacts, they want, as distinct from being told how to do their business.  These should be communicated directly to overseas posts.

Overseas UKTI staff are bogged down in paperwork. OMIS and other statistical reports and surveys should be scrapped. Successful exporting and inward investment are a matter of personal contacts, not sitting at computers especially as, in this www age, [potential] exporters have access to the same on-line data.

Measuring UKTI performance by the number of contacts allegedly made, and/or number of exporters, should also be scrapped. The quality of the contacts, i.e. the additional exports arising, matters; the quantity of contacts, which may be no more than unreturned phone calls, does not.  The ineffectiveness of communications within UKTI and with [potential] exporters and overseas FCO posts is probably the biggest complaint by the private sector and within the lowere echelons of UKTI.  The only metric that matters is how much trade has been added, whether directly or indirectly.

UKTI is not delivering the exports we need.  The UK’s share of exports is declining whilst the cost of UKTI soars. It requires drastic overhaul.  The Kawczynski report is important and valuable. It provides insights into the strengths and weaknesses of UKTI as it now is and suggests useful improvements but more drastic change is needed.

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A small linguistic note

Written by Tim Worstall | Thursday 27 March 2014

One of the worrywart tribe has taken to the pages of The Guardian to tell us all that we have to talk about indeterminate masculine pronouns.

When I set about revising Plain Words, the guide to English usage by my great-grandfather, Ernest Gowers, I soon realised that applying the book's own principles to the job would require me to eliminate from its pages all uses of the indeterminate masculine pronoun. I was under orders to preserve the vintage charm of the original; but a writing guide must demonstrate what it is attempting to explain, and the most famous maxim in Plain Words is "be short, be simple, be human". In the 21st century, "he" used to mean "he or she" is annoying to so many people that it no longer qualifies as "human"– or charming.

I can't say that the use of "he" to mean "he or she" causes me any great anguish. But then as an ageing and privileged white guy I would say that, wouldn't I? However, I would point out that while people are whining about this the very same people are whining that we must move from gender speific job descriptions to indeterminate mascluine job descriptions. I have, for example, been seeing Scarlett Johansson being described as an actor. Which, to an ageing white guy like me seems a little unlikely given the curves she possesses. Similarly, we are urged to use police officer, or police something or other, rather than policeman or woman. The old distinction between chef and cook has gone, to be replaced with the indeterminately masculine chef as the description of one who knows how to season and cook remains as the verb.

Which leads me to my first observation, that some parts of society are schizophrenic (apologies, challenged in their mental stability) on certain matters. How can the same people be arguing that we must not use the indeterminate masculine at the same time as all job descriptions must become said indeterminate masculine?

As it happens I found out something about the Czech language last night (in the pub of course, one of the similarities with the English, and joys, of the Czech culture is that all of the interesting things happen in pubs). Which is that they have the same group of worrywarts over the use of the indeterminate masculine as we do. Except that their answer is entirely the other way around. In order to reduce, fight against, gender discrimination in language it is necessary to use fully masculine or fully feminine job descriptions. Thus Doktor and Doktorka, (leaving aside diacriticals etc), Ingenier and Igenierka, Economist and Economistka*, all the way through all job descriptions. Many of these distinctions are not in common use but the argument is that they ought to be. On the grounds that we can only fight gender discrimination by pointing out that women can indeed do any job in the economy and we should deliberately identify those who do so.

Which leads me to my second observation. This political correctness over gender in language is as with the methods of eating asparagus. It doesn't matter, in any real sense, how one eats asparagus, with knife and fork, with fingers, with catapults vaulting them into open mouths, it matters only that you understand the social class denoted by each method and approvingly sneer at all who do not use the method appropriate to your own. So it is with these worrywarts over the indeterminate masculine. Not only are they schizophrenic in our own language but that the same groups doing the worrying in other languages come to the diametrically opposed solution means that it's all just a method of identifying your tribe and doing so by what you express concern over.

In short we can continue to pay them no mind as I've been doing these past 50 years (umm, 51 by the time you read this).


*I don't claim that my Czech is good enough to have got those job descriptions correct, only that the "ka" denotes a women doing that job.

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Hurrah! There are fewer poor people than we thought

Written by Tim Worstall | Friday 28 February 2014

Not all that many people are aware of quite how appallingly bad most economics statistics are. Not in the sense of it's terrible that the numbers are as they are, but that the numbers are generally so shoddily lashed together. And this is obviously going to be even more true in hte poorer parts of the world. A government that hasn't quite worked out how to collect the rubbish isn't going to be all that good at counting the people nor what they do or earn.

The upshot of this is that we really don't know how many poor people there are out there. We know there are fewer than there used to be, and the poor are a very much smaller portion of the growing population than used to be true, but we really only know trends rather than actual numbers. Basically because the numbers we've got for things like GDP and inequality are so sketchy themselves.

So, enter another method of trying to measure things. What's one of the first things someone will do when they've finally got a couple of annas to rub together? Get in an electric light bulb, So, let us measure the amount of light that we can see from space and we can have a good stab at working out whither poverty. Which is exactly what this paper does:

Finally, we use the new optimal measure of true income to calculate the evolution of poverty at the worldwide level as well as at the regional level. Given that our optimal measure gives a small weight to survey means, our optimal estimates of poverty rates tend to be closer to those reported in the research that uses GDP as the anchor. Under our procedure, developing world poverty declines from 11.8% in 1992 to 6.1% in 2005 and 4.5% in 2010, much lower than the path constructed by giving a weight of 1 to the surveys, which entails poverty falling from 42% to 20.5% between 1992 and 2010. We run a battery of robustness checks on our findings; under the ones most favourable to replicating the survey-based results, the largest that we find developing world poverty to be in 2010 is 12%.

Excellent, things are better than we thought they were.

It's worth making on other point about the differences in these methods of measurement. There are those who insist that those developing economies need to be planned. The smack of firm government must guide their economy. But as we can see, the governments don't actually have the information they would need to be able to plan, even if this were desirable. So it's a doubly bad idea.

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Ukraine and the all-or-nothing EU

Written by Dr. Eamonn Butler | Thursday 27 February 2014

The trouble with EU membership is that it is such a big deal. A country that wants to be part of the club, and enjoy its free trade benefits also has to accept a mountain of regulation and to sign up for the common currency. It is all or nothing.

That puts countries like Ukraine in a fix, just as it put the UK in a bit of a fix in the early 1970s. The UK did not want to raise tariff barriers and lose its trading relationships with its historic trading partners such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, from which it imported a great many agricultural products – butter, lamb, fruit, bacon and much else. But thanks to the Common Agricultural Policy, it did not have much choice. Today, the UK is inside the EU's tariff wall, which makes trade with the rest of the world more expensive, and naturally focuses UK trade on Europe.

Ukraine would undoubtedly gain from closer trading links with the EU, but the all-or-nothing nature of the deal would mean that the country's links to Russia and other non-EU countries would suffer, just as the UK's Commonwealth links did. And that, of course, is seen as a threat by Ukraine's large Russian-speaking population. And – never mind the political and defence implications, given the EU's close links with NATO – Russia does not want to see its trade with Ukraine cut back, any more than New Zealand did ours. So they see the future direction of Ukraine as a high-stakes game.

As a logical matter, that does not have to be. If the EU allowed Ukraine the same sort of status enjoyed by (neutral) Switzerland, the country would be free to trade with the EU as part of its customs-union club – but would remain free to preserve trading links to other countries as well. It would also be free to retain its currency and its legal and regulatory structure. A free trade pact with the EU that would help grow the Ukrainian economy, without threatening Russia or the Russian-speaking Ukrainians that the country would be wholly swallowed up into a Western political alliance.

Sadly, though it might talk about creating 'closer trading links' with Ukraine, the EU will never offer the country such a free-trade-but-no-politics status. If they did, every EU applicant would be demanding it right away – along with quite the UK and a few other EU Member States who hate all the regulation, currency union and horse-trading.

Which means that as a practical matter, the stakes will remain dangerously high in Ukraine, whatever happens. What a pity we cannot just have free trade without the politics.

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Let me Google that for you

Written by Sam Bowman | Wednesday 05 February 2014

Google is being targeted by protesters angry about the rapid increase in the cost of living in San Francisco. Their complaint focuses on Google's employee shuttle buses using municipal bus stops, but the real problem seems to be that well-paid Silicon Valley workers have driven rents up in the city. In City AM I argue that this is much more likely to be to do with planning controls restricting the supply of housing, and that government is to blame:

It comes down to supply and demand. As the Cato Institute’s David Boaz has noted, San Francisco’s strict planning laws have made it much more costly to build new housing to meet rising demand. Zoning laws restrict the construction of higher density buildings on the city’s limited land mass. Median rents are now the highest in the US. Over the past ten years, the city’s population has risen by 75,000, yet the number of housing units has increased by just 17,000. Paradoxically, rent controls that apply to some parts of the city are probably making things worse – those who live in rent-controlled housing may be OK, but there is no incentive to build more.

The parallels with London are obvious. Read the whole thing.

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Bill Easterly on Bill Gates and aid and development

Written by Tim Worstall | Tuesday 28 January 2014

Bill and Melinda Gates have released their annual letter on what's going on with their Foundation, global poverty and aid. And they quite rightly point out that things are indeed getting better.

However, this is not the same thing as stating that it is aid that is making things better. As Bill Easterly points out:

The obsession with international aid is a rich-world vanity that exaggerates the importance of western elites. It is comforting to imagine that benevolent leaders advised by wise experts could make the poor world rich. But this is a condescending fantasy. The progress that Mr Gates celebrates is the work of entrepreneurs, inventors, traders, investors, activists – not to mention ordinary people of commitment and ingenuity striving for a better life. Davos Man may not be ready to acknowledge that he does not hold the fate of humanity in his gilded hands. But that need not stop the rest of us.

There are undoubted successes stemming from aid budgets: vaccination programs or the spread of oral rehydration therapy for example. These have certainly been funded by aid: but we should also note that our own societies managed very much the same things without aid from abroad to pay for them. So while aid may indeed have paid for them that's not the same as stating that aid is necessary for them to have happened.

But Easterly's larger point is that aid flows are of such tiny amounts in comparison with the global economy that they cannot in fact explain that marvellous reduction in poverty. Over the decades there's been very little aid to places such as China, Taiwan, S. Korea, the places where the battle against poverty is being so conclusively won for example. What has actually worked is that these places have become part of the global economy rather than languishing in purist localism.

Or, as we like to say here at the ASI, I contribute to making poor people richer by buying things made by poor people in poor countries.

Aid's all very well but trade is the name of the game.

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

Written by Sam Bowman | Tuesday 17 December 2013

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?

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So who really benefits from this neoliberal globalism stuff anyway?

Written by Tim Worstall | Monday 16 December 2013

This chart comes from this excellent paper by Cristoph Lakner and Branko Milanovic. It shows whose incomes have risen the most (and fallen the most) as a result of this neoliberal globalisation thing we've been having for the past 30 years. The results from the ex-Soviet bloc need to be taken with a real pinch of salt unfortunately, for they use starting figures that most observers consider to be far too high. It's really a stretch to say that Romania today is a poorer place than it was in the dying days of the Ceascescu regime.

However, look over to those who have benefitted.  We'd not be all that surprised to see that many of the Chinese deciles have seen their incomes rise. The growth of China is after all the major economic story of these past decades. But look at that UK bottom decile: 5.5% per annum growth in incomes! That rather gives the lie to the idea that the poor are getting poorer, doesn't it? Ireland's Celtic Tiger growth (note that these figures are up until 2008) similarly seems to have beneftted the two bottom deciles in that country.

The net effect of this neoliberal globalisation thing seems to be that the poor are getting rich. And given that that's what we all want to happen then why is it that so many people complain about it all?

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