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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

A capitalist crime which should be heavily punished

Written by Tim Worstall | Sunday 26 January 2014

Much of my time is spent in explaining how this capitalist/free market mix leads to the best of all possible outcomes. Except when I'm explaining that in this or that instance it needs a little nudge or limitation. However, there are times when it's necessary to condemn, in no uncertain terms, the purported actions of certain capitalists or capitalist firms. And this alleged price fixing (and do please note that "alleged" there) in the wages of engineers in Silicon Valley is one such instance. The claim is that the big companies agreed not to try and poach staff from each other thereby reducing the wages spiral that might have ensued:

In early 2005, as demand for Silicon Valley engineers began booming, Apple’s Steve Jobs sealed a secret and illegal pact with Google’s Eric Schmidt to artificially push their workers wages lower by agreeing not to recruit each other’s employees, sharing wage scale information, and punishing violators. On February 27, 2005, Bill Campbell, a member of Apple’s board of directors and senior advisor to Google, emailed Jobs to confirm that Eric Schmidt “got directly involved and firmly stopped all efforts to recruit anyone from Apple.”

 

It is said (note, alleged) that this practice them spread across the major firms in the area. And there's two major problems with this sort of cartel behaviour. Obviously, one is that the wages of said engineers were not bid up and they did not gain the full value of their scarcity. Sure, companies reported higher profits as a result, shareholders made more money. But we're not in fact capitalists, trying to make sure that this is what happens. We're actually free marketeers and this is one of those times when the two creeds conflict.

The second is perhaps even more important for us market types. One way of looking at said market is that it is the Great Calculating Engine of our society. Indeed, the only one we have that can have any possibility of correctly allocating resources. And if, through coordinated action such as this, people then damp those prices then our market allocation is going to be wrong. For example, depressing the wages of engineers in California would have led to some (maybe only a few, but this all happens at the margins of course) quants deciding to go off to Wall Street instead. And yet free market pricing would have told them that their skills were more highly valued in the computing rather than finance sectors.

At root of course this is again that conflict between markets and capitalism. We marketeers are very sure indeed that while capitalism is all very well it is competition in markets that harnesses and controls it. And if the capitalists do ever collude, whether it be in the prices for vitamins or the pay of the workers, then we're going to end up with a very much sub-optimal outcome. Which is why if we do find such collusion that we want to punish it very severely indeed.

If this sort of thing had happaned in Europe then the EU could levy fines of up to 10% of global turnover of each company that participated. I don't know what the potential US penalties are but I wouldn't think those numbers would be out of line with a just outcome.

We simply cannot allow such cartels to operate and should punish those who try severely.

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An Indonesian answer to George Monbiot's question

Written by Tim Worstall | Saturday 25 January 2014

George Monbiot got very hot under the collar recently about a provision in hte various trade treaties that are under negotiation at present. Arguing that the ability of an investor to take a matter to arbitration was a vile undermining of democracy:

They have good reason to ask. The commission insists that its Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership should include a toxic mechanism called investor-state dispute settlement. Where this has been forced into other trade agreements, it has allowed big corporations to sue governments before secretive arbitration panels composed of corporate lawyers, which bypass domestic courts and override the will of parliaments. This mechanism could threaten almost any means by which governments might seek to defend their citizens or protect the natural world. Already it is being used by mining companies to sue governments trying to keep them out of protected areas; by banks fighting financial regulation; by a nuclear company contesting Germany's decision to switch off atomic power.

And here's an example of what it is actually all about:

Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. (FCX) and Newmont Mining Corp. (NEM), the largest U.S. miners, said new Indonesian rules on metal export duties infringe on contracts they have with the government. Indonesia issued regulations on metal exports this month that curbed the shipping of unprocessed ore and placed duties on exports of copper concentrate, a semi-processed ore that’s shipped from mines to smelters. The rules have resulted in delays to obtain export permits, and Freeport plans to defer some production, according to the Phoenix-based company, the world’s biggest publicly traded copper producer. The duties on copper, which begin at 25 percent and will rise to 60 percent by mid-2016, took Freeport by surprise, Chief Executive Officer Richard Adkerson said yesterday on a conference call with analysts. Indonesia, where the company operates its biggest mine, the Grasberg copper and gold operation, accounted for 19 percent of its third-quarter revenue, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Newmont’s Batu Hijau mine in the country contributed 6.8 percent of the miner’s total sales, the data show.

Indonesia has banned, in hte case of nickel, and heavily taxed, in the case of copper, the export of ores and or concentrates. They want the minerals to be processed within the country. Well, OK, I don't think that's sensible, you may or may not, but what is obvious is that this seriously changes the positions of those companies who have already invested billions into mines in the country. And that's what the right to go to arbitration is about.

If a government says, right, here's the terms upon which you can invest in our country then that's just fine. And it's also just fine if the government decides that it wants to change the law. However, if it does change the law it also has to compensate those who the law change affects. For example, Indonesia is entirely at liberty to nationalise those mines if it should wish to. But it does also have to pay market value when doing so. Similarly, the country is entirely within its rights to ban the export of concentrates. But it must compensate those who have invested on the understanding that concentrate exports would be allowed.

And the only purpose of arbitration is to make sure that the people deciding upon what the compensation should be are not controlled by the government that will have to be doing the compensating.

That's why these clauses exist in these treaties. Essentially, to make sure that governments keep their word.

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Err, no, this is a solution to the problem being described, not a problem in itself

Written by Tim Worstall | Friday 24 January 2014

I have promised Madsen that I won't talk about Richard Murphy here too often. And this is one of those "not too" moments for he's provided us with a target rich environment. Murphy is arguing that corporations are piling up cash, cash which they don't know what to do with. Therefore mutter mutter higher taxes!

One problem with this is that Murphy's response to everything is as with the Underpants Gnomes, "this, therefore, mutter mutter, higher taxes!". But in this instance we've a graver logical error to explain:

The first is that the tax system encourages it. In the US in particular, but in other states too, the tax system encourages profits to be recorded and retained in tax havens.

Yes, this is absolutely true. The US has one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world and US corporations do indeed park large portions of their foreign profits offshore in order not to pay it. This also means that they cannot distribute this cash to their shareholders via either dividends or share buybacks. It is indeed an explanation for why there are such large cash balances in corporates (some $1.7 trillion of the 2.8 trillion being complained about in fact).

Third, they do nothing because they have no clue what to do with their cash.

This is ascribed to their not knowing how to innovate: and I'm willing to go along with that. Innovation generally comes from new market entrants, not from established players.

So, that’s why cash is accumulating. What to do about it? The obvious answer is that we need a progressive income tax. As profits increase so should the corporate tax rate. The IMF has warned of growing inequality around the world. This cash fuels it. There is a need to tax it to reduce that inequality. The problem is, of course, that at present the cash is hidden away from tax. The answer is the one that I, the Tax Justice Network and others have promoted, which is unitary taxation. This taxes global corporations as if they are single entities, so wherever their cash is located it will be within the scope of a tax charge. Second, we may need to consider specific taxes on excess cash holdings. One of the reasons for tax is to correct market failings. It is a market failing that a corporation can accumulate too much cash because of monopoly power. An excess tax charge would correct this. The time for it has obviously arrived. Third, tax haven abuse needs to be tackled, of course, but so does the shift in corporate tax systems towards territorial taxation need to be addressed. The UK is positively encouraging this trend towards offshoring cash unproductively under George Osborne. That is absurd.

Therefore, mutter mutter, higher taxes!

Except there's that glaring error there about territorial taxation systems. As above, the majority of this corporate cash is sitting on the offshore balance sheets of US companies. And they won't bring it onshore and won't distribute it to shareholders because they would then have to pay that 35% on it. But in a territorial tax system foreign profits don't pay tax at all when they are repatriated. That's actually rather the point of a territorial system. Apple's profits in Europe simply don't get taxed by the US tax man.

So, therefore Apple can pass those profits through to investors. Who might spend it (Keynesian stimulus!) or pay taxes on their income or possibly even invest it in new firms capable of innovation.

That is, a move to territorial tax systems solves, entirely, the very problem that Murphy is complaining about. It shifts those cash reserves from the corporations who don't know what to do with it to the investors who quite probably do have an idea of what to do with it.

And yet, note, he's claiming that the solution to his problem is exactly the thing that should not be done.

Now, I've had fun over the years with various of Murphy's ideas but we must remember that he's not entirely a figure of fun. He really is trying, with his friends at the Tax Justice Network and the like, to determine how the entire international tax system should be changed. And yet he's using this sort of logic I've described above to do so.

Remember, a territorial tax system stops companies piling up profits offshore, for a territorial tax system means that they can distribute those offshore profits to investors. Therefore Murphy is claiming that we must not have a territorial tax system in order to stop companies piling up profits offshore.

Eh?

Reform of the international tax system is one thing but might we ask for at least a modicum of logic in the proposals being put forward?

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Explaining the boom in the profit share in the US economy

Written by Tim Worstall | Thursday 23 January 2014

That chart is of corporate profits in the US economy as a percentage of GDP. And it's the cause of much muttering: see how the little guy is getting screwed over by the corporate giants etc.

But we also need to add this little observation to it:

it is important to realize that around 50 percent of the SP500′s earnings are generated overseas

Total profits for the constituents of the S&P 500 index are of the order of $1.1 to $1.12 trillion in this past year (not all have reported yet so difficult to be exact). And if 50% of them are overseas profits then that's $600 billion or so.

Or, when we put it into the context of US GDP, that's about four percentage points of GDP.

Taking that off the 11% of GDP that is US corporate profits leaves us with 7%, or much more like the long run average.

The rise in GDP of corporate profits has at least something to do with the increased globalisation of the economy rather more than it does with the oppression of the workers by capital. As so often, the devil is in the details of the measurement.

One such detailed point: we could assume that foreigners must also be making profits in the US and therefore there's 3 or 4% of GDP being paid out again to foreigners. But that's not actually quite how they measure it, there's an asymmetry here. Corporate profits are measured from Federal income tax returns: companies who have invested in the US will be reporting their US profits on such forms. As will US corporations who have made foreign profits. Thus this measure includes the corporate profits made in the US by foreigners as well as the foreign profits made by US companies.

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The machines are going to steal all our jobs!

Written by Tim Worstall | Wednesday 22 January 2014

The Economist has another of those breathless pieces worrying about what's going to happen when the robots come for all our jobs. There's one basic error in the piece and one slightly more technical.

The basic error is that they fail to note that when the robots have taken all our jobs then we'll all be incredibly rich. One of the comparisons they make is to the first industrial revolution and that's appropriate. So, let us think about what happened when the mechanisation of cotton production killed off the hand weaving (and linen although more slowly) industries. Yes, certainly, some people lost their jobs: but the entire population now became rich enough to be able to wear cotton underwear simply because the production costs of cotton fell so far. And only those who have suffered through the woollen kind will know how rich that makes us all.

It's a very, very, basic observation: if the machines are making everything then everything becomes extraordinarily cheap. This is the same statement as the one that the machines taking all our jobs makes us all very rich indeed.

The more detailed mistake is here:

But though growth in areas of the economy that are not easily automated provides jobs, it does not necessarily help real wages. Mr Summers points out that prices of things-made-of-widgets have fallen remarkably in past decades; America’s Bureau of Labour Statistics reckons that today you could get the equivalent of an early 1980s television for a twentieth of its then price, were it not that no televisions that poor are still made. However, prices of things not made of widgets, most notably college education and health care, have shot up. If people lived on widgets alone— goods whose costs have fallen because of both globalisation and technology—there would have been no pause in the increase of real wages. It is the increase in the prices of stuff that isn’t mechanised (whose supply is often under the control of the state and perhaps subject to fundamental scarcity) that means a pay packet goes no further than it used to.

So technological progress squeezes some incomes in the short term before making everyone richer in the long term, and can drive up the costs of some things even more than it eventually increases earnings. As innovation continues, automation may bring down costs in some of those stubborn areas as well, though those dominated by scarcity—such as houses in desirable places—are likely to resist the trend, as may those where the state keeps market forces at bay. But if innovation does make health care or higher education cheaper, it will probably be at the cost of more jobs, and give rise to yet more concentration of income.

This is Baumol's Cost Disease of course. Those things where it is more difficult to increase the productivity of labour in their production will rise in price in comparison to those things where raising that productivity is easier. Exactly those services like college education and health care complained about.

But...but...if we're now stating that we're worried about automation attacking the jobs in those areas we're in fact making exactly the same statement as that they're about to become 20 times cheaper. Just as happened with the widgets. You can't both complain about the price reductions that come from the robots stealing our jobs and also about increasing inequality. For if everything falls, over only 30 years, to one twentieth of the starting price then what the hell is there left to have any consequential inequality about?

Positional goods? Sure, the Louvre will still have the world's only Mona Lisa, there will still only be a handful of houses in Eaton Square but beyond that, seriously who cares? The end state, if the robots to start doing all the work, is that we get all the food, healthcare, clothing, housing (but perhaps not exactly where we might want it), education and all the rest that our greedy little hearts could desire.

And this is something that people think governments have to start having policies about?

Heavens preserve us. 

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What's the true free market monetary policy?

Written by Ben Southwood | Tuesday 21 January 2014

Let's imagine we are in a world where central banks are given key roles in the macroeconomy, and have been for decades or even centuries in almost every country. In this imaginary world, studies into the relative efficacy of free banking regimes have been undeservedly overlooked, and the orthodoxy among major economists, even ones otherwise sympathetic to free markets is that they are a bad idea. Major policymakers, let's imagine, are completely unaware of the free banking alternative, and most even use the term to mean something completely different. Proposals to enact free banking have not been mentioned in law making chambers for decades or centuries, if at all. It has not been in any party's policy platform for a similar period of time, in this imaginary world.

What's interesting about this imaginary world is that it is in fact our world. Economists like George Selgin, Larry White, Kevin Dowd (among many others) have done very convincing research about the benefits of free banking. And free banking may one day become a real prospect, perhaps in a new state or a charter city. But free banking has lost the battle for the time being, and abolishing the central bank and government intervention in money is as unlikely as abolishing the welfare state. Now one might say that if free banking is a desirable policy, it is worth continuing to wage the intellectual war for the benefit of future generations, who could benefit from the scholarship. Work done now could end up influencing and improving future monetary policy.

I do not discount the possibility this is true. At the same time, free banking is a meta-policy, not a policy—a way of choosing what monetary regime to enact, rather than a specific monetary regime. After all, it is at least possible that free banks could together target consumer prices, the GDP deflator, the money base, the money supply measured by M2, nominal income/NGDP. And for each of these different measures there are an infinite number of theoretical growth paths, and a large number of realistically plausible growth paths they could aim for. Now, free bankers say that the market will make a good decision, and I can buy that. But let's say we're constrained to choose a policy without the aid of the market mechanism: can we say there are better or worse central plans?

The answer is: of course we can! Old-school monetarism, targeting money supply aggregates, was a failure even according to Milton Friedman, whereas CPI targeting, for all its flaws, delivered 66 quarters of unbroken growth and a period so decent they named it the Great Moderation. The interwar gold standard brought us the stagnation of the 1920s (in the UK) and coming off us brought us our relatively pleasant experience of the Great Depression. Literally the order in which countries came off the gold standard is the order they got out of the Great Depression. And even though the classical gold standard worked pretty well, few of its benefits would obtain if we went back. Some central plans (the interwar gold standard, M2 targeting) don't work, some work a bit (the classical gold standard, CPI) and arguably some work pretty well (NGDP targeting is one in this category, according to Friedman, Hayek and I). If we are stuck with central planning, then why not have a good central plan?

And just because I'm allowing the term "central planning" to describe NGDP targeting, we needn't describe it as "government intervention in money". I don't think they are really the same thing. "Government intervention in money" brings to mind rapid inflation, wild swings in the macroeconomic environment; in short the exact circumstances that NGDP-targeting aims to avoid. Targeting aggregate demand keeps the overall macro environment stable—a truly neutral monetary policy—allowing firms and households to make long-term plans, and preventing recessions like the last one, caused as it almost certainly was by drastic monetary tightening. Indeed, as monetary policy determines the overall path of aggregate demand, we might easily call "sound money" policies aiming for zero inflation or a frozen base as dangerous government meddling—they allow the actually important measures like nominal income to fluctuate drastically.

Consider an analogy: school vouchers. Many libertarians may favour a system where parents can spend as little or as much as they want on schooling (considering distributional concerns separately), rather than having central planners decide on the voucher-set minimum. But we usually see a voucher system as an improvement on the status quo—parents may not be able to fully control how much is spent on their children's education but at least they can pick their school. Popular and successful schools grow to accommodate demand, while unpopular and unsuccessful schools can be wound down more quickly. Libertarians may see this as a way from the ideal situation, but none would therefore denounce the policy. The analogy isn't perfect, but I like to see NGDP targeting as similar to school vouchers, versus status quo schooling as the CPI target. Libertarians shouldn't make the perfect the enemy of the good.

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Motorways, pubs and nannies

Written by Dr. Eamonn Butler | Tuesday 21 January 2014

A new pub has opened in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. That's news in itself, given that around 1200 pubs closed down last year, thanks (or no thanks) to the weight of retail and employment regulation that makes pubs so darn expensive to run.

But the Hope & Champion is of doubt interest, because it is in the Extra Motorway Service Area at Junction 2 of the M40. So the people who go there are almost certain to get there by car. So naturally there have been plenty of critics complaining that this initiative sends out all the wrong signals about drinking and driving.

Well, pubs in the UK are licensed, precisely because we know the potential problems that can go with alcohol consumption. But the fact is that the local police did not object to the licence, nor did the local authority. And the local paper is giving the new pub splash coverage. So local people don't think there's a problem here.

The real problem is the message that the critics send out, yet again – that the political class in Britain thinks the adult population of their country are completely incapable of making their own choices, and that their lives have to be micro-managed for them. This pub, like most others these days, is basically a restaurant that also serves alcohol. It opens at four in the morning and starts selling alcohol at nine - though apart from one stalwart getting stuck into a pint for the cameras, most people there this morning were getting stuck into nothing more life-threatening than a Full English Breakfast. And if a group of people want to stop off the M40 for lunch or dinner, why should the passengers be denied the pleasure of a small sherry just so that drivers are 'kept away from temptation'?

Weatherspoons, the pub owners, are a responsible chain. Their menus carry Drink Aware slogans and information. Their staff do not serve people who have already had enough. People know that there are legal limits on drinking and driving - and they know that even drinking below the legal limit can slow down your reactions. So most drivers who visit the pub, alone or with a group, would probably not have alcohol anyway, and their passengers would probably not want them to.

So as the police and local authority figure, there's no problem. The only problem is all those people who deem it their business to treat us like children.

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On why I just love the latest Oxfam report

Written by Tim Worstall | Tuesday 21 January 2014

You'll have seen the stories about this latest Oxfam report all over the place. The bottom 50% of the world has the same wealth as the top 85 people etc. This is presented as if it's an obviously bad thing and yet I cannot quite bring myself to agree with that conclusion. Here's the list of evidence they compile:

Almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population.

• The wealth of the one percent richest people in the world amounts to $110 trillion. That’s 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population.

• The bottom half of the world’s population owns the same as the richest 85 people in the world.

• Seven out of ten people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last 30 years. •

The richest one percent increased their share of income in 24 out of 26 countries for which we have data between 1980 and 2012.

• In the US, the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer.

OK, let us just, for the sake or argument, accept all of that as being true.

So, what else has been going on in the world over this same 30 odd years of excessive neoliberalism? Actually, no, let's just look at one other thing the Oxfam reports tates first:

Some economic inequality is essential to drive growth and progress, rewarding those with talent, hard earned skills, and the ambition to innovate and take entrepreneurial risks.

OK, so let's also take that as being true, just for the sake of argument. So, what has been the effect of the world moving in the direction Oxfam describes it as having done?

Well, we've had the greatest reduction in absolute poverty in hte history of our entire species, as I've noted here passim ad nauseam. We've also had global inequality falling even while in country inequality rises. So we could certainly make a case that we've got the right amount of inequality to drive that growth and progress that we actually desire.

For we do want the poor to become richer, don't we? We want hundreds of millions, nay billions, to climb up out of historical peasant destitution and into the bourgeois pleasures of three squares a day and a change of clothes? And if inequality is, per se, a problem then we'd like it to be reduced globally and not just within some arbitrary lines on the map that make up nations?

So, erm, it would appear that the very things that Oxfam are complaining about are producing exactly the goal that we at least desire and Oxfam should at least be considering desirable.

Which leaves us with only one question left. Just why are they complaining about this?

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Hannan, Law and Innovation

Written by Dr. Eamonn Butler | Monday 20 January 2014

I was struck by a passage in Daniel Hannan's new book How We Invented Freedom And Why It Matters. As a UK Member of the European Parliament, he is always asking other MEPs why they think new rules are needed, in banking, working hours, herbal remedies and much else. As he says:

"The response is always the same: 'But the old system was unregulated!' The idea that absence of regulation might be a natural state of affairs is seen as preposterous. In Continental usage, 'unregulated' and 'illegal' are much closer concepts than in places where lawmaking happens in English."

This is a profound point. We've all heard about the differences between British (specifically, English) and Continental Law. In English, Common Law, rules are decided by courts in response to some 'specific problem' arising. In Continental, Roman Law, rules are laid down by the authorities. So in Britain, things are presumed to be permitted unless there is a law to stop them. On the Continent, things are presumed to be prohibited unless there is a law to allow them.

I always figured that such traditions explain why the British are more enterprising, and why they have a much lower opinion of their authorities: to them, politicians and officials just get in the way of what you want to do. To a continental, though, they are people you need to coddle and get onside in order to do what you want to do.

But Hannan's illustrative conversation explains much more: specifically, why the European Union generates so much regulation. To the Continental mind, for something to be permitted, there must be a law – or a set of regulations – permitting it. If you are doing something that is not regulated, you must be up to no good. Indeed, it is cheeky of you not to have asked permission in the first place.

In slow-moving societies, this might work tolerably well. But when you are facing rapid social and economic change, as we are today, the Continental presumption of required consent cannot possible respond fast enough, because every innovation has to be considered and ruled on. In the English tradition, by contrast, you can innovate as much as you want unless or until it infringes other people's rights. Facing the international competition that we do, that seems a much more promising system.

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Young Writer on Liberty Competition 2014

Written by Blog Editor | Monday 20 January 2014

The Adam Smith Institute invites you to enter our annual student competition, Young Writer on Liberty. This year's theme is:

Three policy choices to make the UK a freer country

Each entrant must write three essays in the style of the ASI blog, each no longer than 400 words, and each explaining a different policy choice that could make the UK freer, richer and happier. No policy choice is out of the question—indeed counterintuitive policy choices may be particularly interesting if backed up by strong arguments.

The winner will receive £250 and have their three posts published on our blog. They will also get a box of liberty-themed books and the opportunity to do two weeks of work experience here at the ASI.

Twos runner-up will also have their posts published on the blog, as well as receiving a package full of interesting books.

Last year's winner was George Kirby, who argued that we should legalise markets in organs, that there should be greater roaming rights in the UK, like those enjoyed in some Nordic countries, and that the UK would benefit from US-style federalism.

Entrants must be 20 or under on the closing date, 21st March 2014. Please submit all entries to schools@adamsmith.org. Good luck, and I look forward to reading all of your pieces!

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