The terrors of zero hours contracts

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Forgive us but we do find this shouting about the evils of zero hours contracts to be really terribly amusing in one sense. For it is almost universally true that those writing the articles about the evils of zero hours contracts are themselves employed on zero hours contracts. Or, as it is also known, on a freelance basis and that just is the way that vast swathes of the media work:

What are zero-hours contracts? You asked Google – here’s the answer Dawn Foster

And off we go into a rather predictable Guardian rant about how awful such contracts are. Which then leads to our amusement, for when we examine the working life of the writer:

Dawn Foster is a writer on politics, social affairs and economics for The Guardian, London Review of Books, Independent and Times Literary Supplement, and is a regular political commentator for Sky News, Channel 4 News, and BBC Newsnight. Her first book, Lean Out, is on feminism, austerity and corporate culture.

Among us here at the ASI we have written for or appeared on near all of those outlets and the absolutely standard contract for all of them is a zero hours contract. It could be that this outpouring of protest is really a deeply buried attack on the media's own hiring practices, by those doing that very media reporting but we're really unsure as to whether people are being that Machiavellian. And observing the sharp elbowed jostle to gain absolutely any such work from any of those media outlets we really don't think people are protesting about their own employment.

Thus we're just left with the rather puzzling observation that zero hours contracts seem to be just fine for the middle class literati but obviously no one else should be allowed to enjoy the same employment structure. Which is, when you think about it, rather odd really.

Ten steps towards changing entrepreneurship policy

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In Kathmandu this week, I have just done a series of meetings for the excellent think-tank Samriddhi – The Prosperity Foundation.  Rather like the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute in the pre-Thatcher era, Samriddhi rather have their work cut out in Nepal. It is largely socialist and poor (as if I needed to say that – the two go together so regularly), and any capitalism there is mostly regulated beyond endurance, or survives through crony deals with the overblown government and bureaucracy. Ho hum. Anyway, they asked me to talk about how to engage the private sector – the bit that isn't yet wholly corrupted by this statist system – in policy reform. Luckily I have the experience of Philip Salter to draw on. He is running The Entrepreneurs Network (TEN), a think-tank within the ASI think-tank. An here is his formula for engagement, which I cribbed mercilessly.

1. Most entrepreneurs are far too busy to engage in policy development. And the ones that aren't are usually pushing some agenda of their own. So don't expect to engage business people easily in policy work.

2. But you can form coalitions around particular issues. For instance, the UK's clampdown on immigration makes it hard for entrepreneurs to come to the UK, and for UK entrepreneurs to hire talent. We're working on that.

3. Policy folks need to be honest brokers between government and entrepreneurs. Most business people have no party allegiances: but they share a language of innovation, competition, disruption and progress. And that's free markets, isn't it? 4. TEN offers something practical to entrepreneurs: such as meetings where a really successful entrepreneur will talk about their successes - and importantly, their mistakes. That helps to build a really effective group of like-minded entrepreneurs.

5. Philip writes for Forbes and Annabel for HuffPuff, using the ideas and experience of their network of entrepreneurs. That helps bring their ideas to the attention of policy makers.

6. Having built these networks, we can and do hold workshops between government and entrepreneurs, so there is direct communication.

7. Entrepreneurs do things. Government talks about things. So there is a cultural difference to overcome. With 40 years of experience, though, we can do that!

8. And having built this large network, we can now meaningfully survey entrepreneurs, providing governments with real evidence of policy obstacles that hold them back.

9. We also work closely with groups of MPs, like the All Party Parliamentary Group on Entrepreneurship, helping both sides to understand each other and plan future reform initiatives.

10. We succeed in all this because we have a long-term vision of what we want to achieve – basically, we want to make the UK the best place in the world to start and grow an enterprise. Now that's a vision – not just for us, but for countries like Nepal, where so many folk, especially governments and bureaucrats, simply do not understand the creative genius of a free people.

GDP really only is a proxy, not actually how well we're doing

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There are those who criticise the concentration on GDP as a measure of how well we're doing. And they're right: although not quite for the reason that they think they are. To say that it doesn't matter that we're all getting richer, that we should just be content, is nonsense of the most arrant sort. Any casual glance around the world will show that there are still outrages such as absolute poverty which greater wealth could solve: thus we do indeed want to get richer. However, the argument that GDP isn't a very good measurement of how much richer we're getting is entirely true. As this little story tells us:

While global economic problems have taken much of the blame for tightened tech spending lately, another culprit may be afoot: computing on demand delivered over the Internet.

The idea is that instead of capital spending on equipment people now rent it by the month. This plays merry hell with our GDP statistics. For people do indeed look at something like business investment in computing as a measure of how much, well, how much is being invested and thus likely how rich the future will be. But investment is defined as what gets written off over longer than one year. And renting the cloud kit is current expenditure. That's not investment: and thus those reading the runes on business computing investment are going to be fooled by this. For we've still the same amount of computing, still, at least possibly, the same amount spent upon it too. We've just changed the classification of that spending.

But that's not all:

Take Ted Ross, CIO of the city of Los Angeles. He needed to upgrade the technology that powers the city’s Business Assistance Virtual Network, the site where vendors bid for projects from various city agencies. Mr. Ross considered buying new blade servers to host the site. Instead, he decided to run the site on Microsoft’s Azure technology. He’ll halve his costs, and the migration should take four to six weeks, he said.

Actually spending less while still getting the same amount of computing done? That's something that makes us all richer. And yet one of the things we also know about GDP accounting is that it doesn't deal well with these "hedonic" improvements. Either the improvement in performance at the same price, or the availability of that same performance for a lower price.

We do want the world to be becoming generally richer, yes we do. And that means we do want GDP to rise: it's a measure of the resources we have available to solve problems and while the world still contains problems we'd like our ability to solve them to rise too. However, we must always remember that GDP is a proxy for that increasing wealth and that we shouldn't set it up upon a pedestal as being the only goal.

Small businesses needn't fret about relaxed Sunday trading laws

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In a column for the Huffington Post, I’ve asked whether small business outcry over changes to Sunday Trading Laws is justified. From Autumn 2016, prohibitions limiting large stores (with a floor space of over 3,000 sq ft) from opening on Sundays for more than six hours will be lifted – an announcement which has led to claims that this will only see more trade moving to larger stores at the expense of smaller shops. Yet the evidence (research, polls and local borough reports), does not suggest that small businesses will suffer from their larger rivals opening for longer. One Australian study, for example, “found no relationship between the proportion of small retail businesses and the stringency of trading hours regulation in each state”. A fifth of consumers have said they would do more shopping on a Sunday were the changes implemented, meaning more customers for everyone – and another way for bricks-and-mortar stores to compete with online retailers.

And rather than wishing the competition be banned from trading, small business owners – many of whom are disruptive by nature – should view this proposal as an opportunity to find new ways to innovate and outsmart their larger rivals.

Read the whole thing here.

Safe standing vs unsafe standing

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In a video interview in 2014, West Ham chairman David Gold said:

I am a great supporter of safe standing, it is interesting that for many years we have had unsafe standing, we do have that, I don’t think there is a ground in the country that are all seater stadium that don’t have their fans in some area of the ground standing.

Right now in most football grounds, many of the most enthusiastic fans will stand throughout the match, notwithstanding the all-seater nature of Premier League and Championship stadia. There are regular squabbles with security stewards but staff mostly turn a blind eye. As Gold points out, this is dangerous, as supporters will regularly fall over the seats in front of them into the next row.

It also causes steady, attritional damage, especially when particularly exuberant away supporters visit—as with a recent cup tie that brought Manchester United to Derby:

United will be asked to compensate Derby County after a significant number of seats were damaged in the away end when the teams met in the FA Cup fourth-round at the end of last month, resulting in a 3-1 win for Louis van Gaal’s team.

Derby have already informed United about what their groundstaff found on the morning after the match and intend to charge them for the relevant repairs, claiming that more than 300 seats were broken or pulled off whole.

Each match can cost thousands—peanuts in Premier League money but still a cost worth considering, especially when there's an alternative. Safe standing alternatives such as rail seats do not have breakages that require replacements every week; the seat is tucked away, clipped off or much harder to break.

Of course this isn't the main reason to favour a relaxation of the rules, allowing clubs in the top two tiers to emulate Germany, Sweden, Austria and the lower tiers, where standing has been safely allowed. Fans cite the more intense atmosphere that standing allows for (just look at the Yellow Wall above).

But perhaps more important is simply allowing for higher attendances. The recent Kop walkout over ticket prices was just the latest example of the rising fervour against the ticket prices Premier League clubs charge. Terraces can fit in as many as 1.8x times as many spectators—safely. Not only could greater total supply bring down ticket prices overall, but more variation in the 'products' that clubs can offer fans means they can price discriminate. Well-heeled neutrals and tourists can pay hundreds to sit; core fans can be offered cheaper season tickets.

But either way, after a long hiatus, it may be that safe standing in stadia is an idea whose time has come again.

Of course being good at business doesn't make you good at economics

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Don Boudreaux makes an important and underappreciated point here:

Here’s a refrain that I’m being bombarded with by e-mail and on Facebook; this particular version is a Facebook comment by someone named Thomas Marise (whom I don’t know):

Trump has proven time and again he knows his stuff when it comes to economics. He has a personal wealth of $10Billion proving his understanding. Hard to argue with results.

Such a claim is illogical, even if we assume – falsely – that Trump earned every cent of his monetary fortune honestly rather that at least some of it through government-orchestrated theft.

Knowing how to run a business is not the same thing as knowing economics.

It's worse than just that they're not things being measured along the same axis of human endeavour. It's actually that rather a large amount of knowing how to run a business is in managing to avoid the things that economics, and economic policy, would like to do to that business.

Think it through for a moment: every business would love to make excess profits, profits above the average cost of capital. And much of business itself is trying to work out how to do so. but at the level of the economy we don't want anyone to be making excess profits: we don't want anyone to be making more than the average return to capital. And that's rather the difference between markets and capitalism as well as between business success and economics.

Sure, business is capitalism, let's make the profits where and when we can for private benefit. But it's markets that curb this tendency, markets which force only those pushing the technological boundaries capable of making those super-profits. It's also markets which compete away those excess profits as other producers catch up with that boundary pushing. Finally, it's economics which explains both why the markets are desirable and why they work.

Much of business is trying to avoid market forces, much of economics is discussing how much we've got to insist that market forces be allowed to work. They really are two very different subjects and success at one, knowledge of one, by no means even implies success at the other.

We regard this as something of a victory actually

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People are throwing around the latest global mortality statistics to show that we've got some grand problem that we've got to deal with. And we're certainly amenable to the argument that things could be better. However, we would also still insist that this is a victory, not a defeat:

Now new research has found that air pollution is the leading environmental risk factor for disease, and the fourth highest risk factor for death. The data is the newest addition to the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study, the most comprehensive international effort to measure epidemiological trends worldwide.

Yes, a victory:

According to the Global Burden of Disease Study, air pollution causes more deaths than malnutrition, obesity, alcohol and drug abuse, and unsafe sex. Cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases, as wells as respiratory infections, account for the majority of deaths from air pollution.

Historically human beings have died either from infectious disease or malnutrition. They're the two that have carved great swathes through the population repeatedly. Both are, while not entirely solved, at least under control to a great extent.

Which leads to two further things: the first being that if we don't die of one of those two then we're obviously going to die of something else. And given that life expectancies do keep on growing we are indeed living long enough to die of those other things. But much more specifically to this point, the pollution that is being complained about here is that air pollution. That air pollution which is the result of having a modern economy that is able to be clean enough not to be rife with infectious disease and which also produces enough food that we don't all starve. The poor world has a slightly different problem, in that it's indoor air pollution killing them, from wood cooking fires mostly, something we stopped doing many generations ago.

So, yes, we do regard this as a victory, even if not a complete one. Sure, we could and we will make things rather better as technology improves but that we are all living long enough to die of the side effects of the system that allows us all not to starve to death earlier is indeed a victory.

We rather like this from Antonin Scalia

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June 1996, United States v. Virginia:

"If it were impossible for individual human beings (or groups of human beings) to act autonomously in effective pursuit of a common goal, the game of soccer would not exist."

There will of course be those who insist that this point only details the need for the state to be the neutral arbiter, the referee. And yet that's not actually true. For the vast majority of the world's soccer is played without a referee. Without in fact there even being lines for a pitch let alone linesmen, piles of jumpers for the goal posts and so on. Although, obviously, there is always the kid who insists that it's his ball and he's taking it home with him unless...

Most certainly, there are arguments, there are even unfairnesses, in such autonomous pursuits but they do by and large get sorted out by the participants in the pursuit. Soccer games being, as so much of life is, an iteration of repeated games among much the same players. Meaning that those who do cheat rapidly become excluded from the game being played. Whether this be the soccer game on the wasteland or the bankrupt company in the marketplace.

And we're quite happy with the idea that at times this self organisation isn't quite enough, that there does indeed need to be that neutral arbiter, that referee. We're even happy with the thought that at times that's going to be the State. We would just emphasise that that's the exception, the vast majority of the time self-organisation does just fine, if not better.

New report: The UK and the World in 2050

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Britain will use fast-growing trees to capture and store atmospheric carbon dioxide by 2050 and most of Britain’s energy needs will come from gas, solar and nuclear power, not wind, according to a new monograph released today (Monday) by the Adam Smith Institute. The paper, Britain and the World in 2050, by Adam Smith Institute President Dr Madsen Pirie, looks at trends in scientific research and makes predictions about how new technology will change how ordinary Britons live their lives and solve the energy, environmental and health problems currently facing Britons.

People in the UK will be earn twice as much in real terms by 2050 as they do today.  An average 2% annual growth rate will achieve this.  The people of 2050 will live at the standard of today's millionaires.

Agriculture will have experienced a green revolution, with genetically modified crops that are self-fertilizing, pest-resistant, saline tolerant, drought resistant, altitude capable, heat tolerant and cold tolerant, and ones that can grow on land previous thought insufficiently fertile.  Many of these will be developed in UK laboratories and universities, as will trees that can mature in 6 years instead of 50. Tree cover will be many times what it is today.

New genetically hybridized vegetables will be available to eat, the paper says, as will inexpensive lab-grown meats, bringing an end to factory farming as we know it and delivering substantial environmental gains, as well as freeing up large amounts of land for recreational use. Micro-organisms will be developed to produce nourishing food very cheaply and in abundance.

Looking at healthcare, the paper suggests that the NHS will have been radically reformed by 2050. The state will own no hospitals outright, nor employ any doctors or nurses.  People will choose state-funded healthcare from a variety of private institutions, many non-profit and some for profit.

Driverless electric vehicles will be the norm, with petrol and diesel engines banned from cities.  They will be free to re-charge.  Inside they will not have two rows of forward-facing seats, but some will be customized as extensions of the home or office, some even with folding beds.  People will be prepared to commute longer, given such comforts, and this might make city housing less attractive and therefore less expensive.

The paper argues that behavioural change is secondary in solving social problems after technological adaptation. Environmental challenges are better overcome by investing in new technologies than in trying to make people consume less, the paper says.

Commenting on the paper, the Executive Director of the Adam Smith Institute Sam Bowman said:

“Futurology can often tell us as much about the present as it does about the future. In this paper we have shown just how many of our current problems are on their way to being solved, not by changing people, but by changing the world around us. Dr Pirie’s vision for the future is an optimistic one that sees human ingenuity as the key to improving people’s lives around the world. The future often looks bleak because we focus on the negatives – but the reality is that things are getting better, much better, all the time.”

Read the paper here.

It's not that you shouldn't ban cash it's that you can not ban cash

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Allister Heath is quite right here, there's those who would ban cash and we shouldn't allow them to get away with it:

The problem is that this will embolden those officials who wish to abolish cash altogether, and switch entirely to electronic and digital money. If savers were forced to keep their money in the bank, the argument goes, then they would be forced to put up with even huge negative rates. They would have no choice - and central banks would be able to engage in monetary easing even in a world of zero or negative inflation. They would not be forced to resort to quantitative easing or “helicopter money”.

The various bansturbators are already greeting the idea with glee: how can people tax evade, save without being seen, conduct themselves as they wish if all money is electronic and recorded? And for the very obvious reasons of liberty and choice we should not allow them to get away with it.

However, that's not the half of it. It's not just that you shouldn't ban cash, it's that you cannot. And people today are making a mistake when they think that they can.

For yes, it is true that money today is fiat money, it's just something that government says is worth x and so we use it as if it is worth x. The assumption is that if the pieces of paper are taken away then we'll be without something worth x to exchange. But that is to believe that governments created money, rather than that we've found that government created money is convenient to us. And historically this simply has not been true, there have been all sorts of variations upon money. Private bank notes were privately created money, the stones of Yap were culturally created money and so on and so on. And if the government declines to issue tokens that can be used in exchange then we'll all come up with something else that we can use. We've even heard that expensive paintings are used in this manner in the illegal drugs trade these days. No one ever intends converting them into cash, they're simply a conveniently high value piece of collateral.

Yes, it's entirely true that fiat money is created by governments, they produce a certain value to it by insisting that we can pay taxes with it. But that's not the definition of money at all.

To approach the point using a subject we care deeply about: beer and pubs. In the US, generally, you go down to the corner bar to meet the guys and you buy your own beer. In Britain you toddle off to meet the chaps and you buy in rounds. In the Czech Republic you buy your own beer but order the shots in rounds. And there's no law, no tax collecting authority, insisting upon the tit for tat of rounds but there's a heck of an amount of social pressure keeping everyone in line. And that buying of the round for round is a financial transaction, it's just one that is not mediated by cash at all, it's mediated by that social pressure.

And we all take part in exactly those sorts of transactions all the time: a promise to do something is a transaction, we make those all the time. The absence of cash as paper would simply expand the areas of life where we use reputation as the currency.

Yes, government created fiat cash money is very useful: and we don't want them to try and ban it for that reason alone. But a ban wouldn't work anyway, as we humans have found the basic idea too useful and every society has come up with some method of keeping tabs on who owes what to whom. That's not going to go away whether we've got notes with a piccie of the Monarch on them or not.