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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

The new economics foundation has been speaking to the newspapers again

Written by Tim Worstall | Friday 11 April 2014

Image from xkcd.

Those masters of economic logic, the new economics foundation, have been talking to the newspapers again. Gothenburg, a city in Sweden, has decided to experiment with shorter working days for the city employees. At which point nef says:

Anna Coote, Head of Social Policy at the New Economics Foundation, a UK-based think tank, welcomed the proposals. “Shorter working hours create a more committed and stable workforce,” Ms Coote told The Telegraph. “There are indications you can make savings by reducing working hours,” she added, citing an experiment in Utah where public sector workers were given a three-day weekend.

According to OECD data, there is a correlation between shorter working hours and greater productivity. The Greeks are the hardest working members of the OECD, putting in more than 2,000 hours a year compared with the Germans’ 1,400, but their workers are 70 per cent less productive than their Teutonic counterparts.

Yes, this is absolutely true, there is a correlation between higher productivity and shorter working hours. However, it is not that working shorter hours makes you more productive, although that could happen, sure. Your last hour of an 18 hour working day is unlikely to be as productive as your first of a one hour working day.

The causation is really working the other way around and for a well understood economic reason too. The average wages in any society will be determined by the average productivity of labour in that society. Thus a higher average productivity means a higher average wage. And we're well aware that most human beings are, most of the time, both greedy and lazy. Meaning that we'd all like to get as much of whatever with as little effort as we can manage. And that laziness also means that as we become increasingly rich we take more of that wealth as increased leisure, that being the point and purpose of going to work in the first place, to be able to afford the things that we want.

Thus more productive labour, in that richer society, works shorter hours. Not at all the other way around, working shorter hours makes you more productive.

There is actually a reason why Giles Wilkes named the nef "not economics frankly".

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

Written by Sam Bowman | Thursday 10 April 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I feel all dirty somehow, seeing who it is that I'm in bed with

Written by Tim Worstall | Thursday 10 April 2014

There are times when who supports an idea that you support means that you've got to reconsider your support for that idea. At the risk of Godwinning, that Adolf liked dogs is not a reason to either like or beat up dogs. But his support for anti-smoking is a reason to look askance at certain of the anti-smoking zealots. For his views on this were that smoking deprived the State of that valuable resource of men fit to fight and there's very definitely more than a whiff among today's zealots of people not being allowed to do things they wish to do because of the cost to the State of their doing so.

Which is what makes me cringe slightly over my support for the idea of a basic citizens' income. It's the sort of thing that The Guardian seems to be supporting:

The society our politicians are shaping is defined by the idea of "something for something". What would happen if, instead, we were given something for nothing? A new campaign for a "citizen's income" asks exactly that. Replacing the costly, complex benefits system, a citizen's income is an unconditional payment granted to every individual as a right of citizenship. It's not a high figure – barely enough to survive on alone, and below the minimum wage – but it is designed to prevent all of us from falling into poverty traps. Compellingly, it removes the stigma from state support. There is no difference between a student, a person managing life with a disability, a pensioner and someone struggling to find stable employment if we all share the same basic starting point.

Further supporters can be found here and here. That I support an idea supported by the Leader of the Green Party, by a professor from SAOS, by the usual list of concerned Europeans, yes, this does give me pause for thought. Given that all are usually staggeringly wrong about everything am I wrong to be supporting this idea?

And, having re-examined the idea I come to the conclusion that I'm not wrong in supporting it after all. For one very simple reason.

Their support is all about justice, equity, redefining the relationship between work and leisure and yadda yadda down the list of progressively desirable goals. My support is grounded in that good old idea of economic efficiency, you know, that thing that progressives never actually bother to consider.

My starting point is that whatever else happens in this world there is going to continue to be some version of the welfare state. People are going to continue to be taxed in order to provide handouts to that mixture of the incompetent, unlucky and lazy that make up the current list of recipients. There simply isn't going to be a Randian revolution where the entire idea gets chucked onto the ideological scrapheap. Given this I'd prefer to have a welfare state that was economically efficient. And the greatest inefficiency (quite apart from the incompetence with which the money is actually doled out) is the way in which benefit withdrawal rates and the taxes charged to the lowly paid lead to vast marginal tax rates on those lowly paid earning a little more money.

There are millions who face marginal rates of 60% and up, still hundreds of thousands looking at 80% and even some unfortunates with marginal rates over 100%. And yes, I do indeed believe in the Laffer Curve argument, it's just that I believe that it applies to all of us, not just the highly paid. Who in heck would bother to work another 10 hours a week if their disposable income would fall (something seriously possible in our current system)?

So, it's for this reason that I support the cbi. Simply because it would be staggeringly better than the current monstrosity of a welfare state that we have.

Which means that I'll just have to hold my nose and put up with those who also support the idea I suppose. I mean, seriously, me agreeing with a prof from SAOS? Did anyone think that a universe with such a distortion in it could continue to exist?

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CEOs make less than doctors you know

Written by Tim Worstall | Wednesday 09 April 2014

This is a rather amusing point being made by Mark Perry over the Pond. CEOs actually make, on average, rather less than doctors do. This is, as you will clearly note, not the usual story we get told about our times:

It should be noted that USAToday’s analysis includes the CEOs of only 200 of America’s largest multinational companies in the S&P500. According to the US Census, there are more than 27 million private firms in the US, so the 200 firms reported by USAToday represent only one of every 135,000 private firms in the US, or 0.00074% (less than 1/1000 of 1%). Note also that USAToday compares the annual wages of ALL full-time employees working at more than 27 million companies to the CEO pay of executives at only 200 companies.

We can get a more accurate and complete picture of CEO compensation by looking at wage data just released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in its annual report on Occupational Employment and Wages for 2013. The BLS report provides “employment and wage estimates by area and by industry for wage and salary workers in 22 major occupational groups,” including the category “chief executives.” In 2013, the BLS reports that the average pay for America’s 248,760 chief executives was only $178,400. The 200 S&P500 firms reported by USAToday represent only one out of every 1,243 firms in the country that have a CEO at the head, and that small sample of 200 would represent only 0.08% of American CEOs, or less than one-tenth of one percent of all CEOs. The larger sample of CEOs reported by the BLS gives us a much better understanding of “average CEO compensation.”

That some CEOs make those very large multiples of the average wage is entirely true. But in the US economy it's a vanishingly small percentage of those who do that job. And it is worth noting that that average CEO pay is, in hte US context, about that of a dentist and rather lower than the average doctor.

It wouldn't surprise me at all if this were true here in the UK as well. GPs are, as we know, on a pretty good deal these days. £110,000 a year is commonplace, earned without really breaking into a sweat in that job. And it wouldn't surprise me, as I say, if the average CEO (or perhaps Managing Director we might say here) pay in the UK was below that.

Which leads to an interesting question. Do we actually collect the statistics that would allow us to prove this?

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Apparently Nigeria now has a larger economy than South Africa

Written by Tim Worstall | Tuesday 08 April 2014

The government of Nigeria has had a quick look down hte back of the couch and appears to have found and extra three quarters of the economy just lying there. Well over $200 billion's worth in fact:

Nigeria’s economy surpassed South Africa’s as the largest on the continent after the West African nation overhauled its gross domestic product data for the first time in two decades. On paper, the size of the economy expanded by more than three-quarters to an estimated 80 trillion naira ($488 billion) for 2013, Yemi Kale, head of the National Bureau of Statistics, said at a news conference yesterday to release the data in the capital, Abuja. That compares with the World Bank’s 2012 GDP figures of $262.6 billion for Nigeria and $384.3 billion for South Africa.

That's how shall we put this, a fair old difference, isn't it?

Much of the chuntering on about this is over how it makes the debt and taxation loads look much smaller, they being numbers that haven't changed. But the much more important one is to grasp the point this makes about economic planning.

We do actually know that this sort of mismeasurement is commonplace right across economies. It's not just the way that it's very difficult to measure the size of black (ie, innately illegal) economies, or grey (legal, but hiding from taxation), it's that we're only ever doing statistical sampling of an economy when we try to measure how large it is. And over time our statistical methods, if we don't change them, are going to get further and further out of whack as the structure of the economy changes. To take an absurd illustration, we we tried to measure transport in the UK using the methods of 1880 we'd note more rail and very fewer horse drawn journies but entirely miss the rise of the motor car.

So, given these problems a rebasing every now and again isn't that bad an idea. We in hte UK end up chaging some part of our statistical methods with just about every release of the statistic (hyperbole alert!) and other places devoting less attention to the problem might, as here, do it only once in decades. All of which is just fine but let us now add this to another current preoccupation.

We've managed to hunt down and shame into silence most of those who argue that planning an economy is either desirable or even possible when we're operating at the technological frontier. But there's plenty about who insist that poor countries must plan, must have the joys of the central plan as we did not so that they can become rich by the method that we did not. Even on the face of it that looks like a pretty silly argument they're using but add to it the news from today.

Nigeria's just found that extra $200 billion down hte back of the couch. How in heck can you plan and economy when your estimate of what's actually in that economy is out by 40% or so?

Quite: exactly the places that leftoids tell us must be using planning are exactly the places where the Socialist Calculation problems hits hardest. No one's got a clue what is currently actually happening: so how in heck can anyone plan what should be done next?

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The Plan; it's working, it's working!

Written by Tim Worstall | Monday 07 April 2014

Madsen has long pointed out that we here at the ASI have a slightly strange job. We think up odd ideas which are regarded as those of idiots howling in the wilderness. Some years later they're mainstream and everyone is wondering why they weren't brought in earlier. What intrigues me is that one of those very strange ideas which I am (at least partially) responsible for is becoming mainstream, indeed is being enacted.

Back when the Living Wage was first proposed I did the calculations that showed that that Living Wage, post tax, was actually what the minimum wage would be if not tax were paid on the minimum wage. While the numbers have all moved around a little this is still true: a no income tax and no NI minimum wage would be higher than the post tax Living Wage.

I also said that this was mad and have been stamping around shouting that it's insane that people working part time on said minimum wage are part of the taxation of income system ever since. With repeats ever time the Living Wage or minimum wage calculations are done again.

That the idea of equating the tax allowance with the full year minimum wage got into the UKIP manifesto, given my background, is really not a surprise. But that it's now entirely mainstream is most pleasing:

The Treasury released research showing that Britain now outstrips Germany, which had the most generous personal allowance system in 2010, after a series of increases in the personal allowance which stood at £6,475 in 2010. It will increase to £10,000 from Sunday, the start of the new tax year, and will increase to £10,500 next year – a month before the general election. The higher allowance on Sunday will represent a tax cut of £700 a year for more than 26 million people and will mean that three million slip out of paying tax altogether. The Lib Dems, whose first pledge in their manifesto for the 2010 general election was to increase the tax free personal allowance to £10,000, have pledged to increase it to £12,500 in the next parliament if they return to government. This would raise the prospect of exempting workers on the minimum wage from paying income tax.

Calling it "generous" that the State does not reach so harshly into the pocketbopoks of the working poor revolts me. But the direction of travel is to be applauded. And it won't matter a damn that it will be some votestealer that gets the plaudits for such an obviously sensible move. The world will still be a better place for it.

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Yes, of course we should abolish inheritance tax

Written by Tim Worstall | Sunday 06 April 2014

This really isn't one of those difficult questions: yes, of course we shoud abolish inheritance tax. Or at the very least this is an easy one: we should abolish the inheritance tax that we actually have.

The Conservative party would be better off scrapping inheritance tax altogether rather than increasing the threshold to £1m, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has suggested.

Yes, quite. It's doesn't raise very much, it's wildly unpopular and distinctly distorting (as people pile into those assets that are not subject to it like farmland).

Let's think back to what the original point of this tax was (and this pops up in that new book of Piketty's as well). It was to prevent the great dynastic fortunes from being perpetuated on down through the centuries. There is, after all, something that might be considered not entirely fair if one person today is born with the whole silver cutlery cupboard in their mouths just because ggg to the nth power grandad was a murderous Norman bastard. Or perhaps we should revise that to a successfully murderous Norman etc.

But our current inheirtance tax doesn't actually do that: the great landholdings aren't actually subject to it and anyone with that sort of money can get around it entirely with trusts and so on. It doesn't actually do what it was set up to do.

What it does do is hit the bourgeois. Yes, I know, half a million, a million, that doesn't sound all that bourgeois but these days it is. 30 years of socking money away into ISAs will get you there (plus some compounding), not even including what has been happening to house prices. The tax hits those estates of those who have worked, saved and been successful, and doesn't hit the estates of those dynastically rich. It simply doesn't do what it says on the tin.

Now some might argue that we should be taxing those bourgeois pots: for there are those who don't have one for micturation let alone a pot to spend. But that's rather to miss what a nest egg does for people: it provides freedom in this life. Not total and absolute of course, not while we are still in this vale of tears that humanity is condemned to. But a bit of capital does indeed provide freedom. And the sort of amounts that those bourgeois inheritances provide seem to be just about the right amount too. Enough to aid, enough perhaps to be able to do anything, but not enough to do nothing with one's life.

And the concept that we should tax away such freedom just seems most terribly odd. We should rather be hoping that all can gain such freedom from the immediate trials of having no assets.

Personally I'm not actually worried about inequalities of wealth. But I can see that some might worry about the position of the Duke of Westminster while there are those without a £10 note to their name at the age of 21. But the current system takes from those bourgeois, leaving the Duke alone, and still does nothing for those without the tenner.

The inheritance tax system as it is just doesn't do anything of any value for us as a society. We should therefore abolish it. You know, like Sweden has just in case Polly wants to scream at us about the Nordics.

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The latest bright idea about the housing shortage

Written by Tim Worstall | Saturday 05 April 2014

The latest bright idea from those who would solve the housing crisis seems very much less than bright to me. Here's Polly detailing it:

But land prices are the key. Oxford economist and housing expert Professor John Muellbauer calls for a national land bank, the state acquiring land for garden cities or any building at current land use value and, once given planning permission, selling on to builders, keeping the windfall added value.

Err, yes. The current high price of housing is a result of not much housing being built. OK, so we're OK with that analysis. Polly then tells us that simply building more won't help: in direct violation of this supply and demand thing that we know abouit economics. And then the solution is that the State should be the person buying the land for development. But our problem is that it is already the State that decides what can be built and where.

For that is indeed our problem. The majority of the price of a house, anywhere anyone actually wants to live that is, is in the value of the chitty that allows you to build a house on that particular plot. These chitties are, we might note, State issued. So our problem is simply that said State won't issue enough chitties so as to bring the scarcity value of the chitties down. And our solution to this is to allow the State to collect the value of said chitties?

What?

The solution is, of course, as we here have been saying for some years now, simply to keep issuing those chitties until the scarcity value is exhausted.  It's absolutely true that certain locations will still have scaricity value but housing as a whole won't. Or, if you prefer, the solution is not that the State should be more deeply involved in the planning of housing but that it should laregly withdraw from such planning of housing.

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Should libertarians care about Brendan Eich's resignation?

Written by Ben Southwood | Friday 04 April 2014

Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich has resigned his job after just 10 days in the role. This came after it was rediscovered that he gave $1,000 to Proposition 8, a direct democratic move to ban gay marriage in California, that narrowly passed. Upon discovering this, twitter and other areas of the internet mobilised, with 72,000 supporting a petition to the board to sack him.

One libertarian perspective might be that, since no negative rights were infringed, this was an entirely defensible use of social pressure to enforce social norms—Eich contributed to a proposal that many libertarians believe would restrict the rights of gays. For this perspective, the Eich situation is proof that state intervention is not needed to achieve socio-political equality for groups considered oppressed. It's very very interesting that many progressives are actually using the rhetoric of thin libertarianism, which they would usually abhor, to defend their position on the issue.

Contrariwise, an alternative "thick" libertarian perspective would hold that people have the right not to be hounded out of their job for opinions they hold and do not enforce on others—by all accounts Mozilla is a highly equal-opportunities place for LGBT people. For this perspective, Eich's resignation is a worrying indication that First Amendment—freedom of expression—rights are disappearing.

A third perspective might say that although this resignation, considered alone, might not be regrettable, because it advances gays' freedoms, as a rule people should not lose their job for holding certain political perspectives and even actively supporting them. This would hold especially strongly if we agreed that the small donations Eich made were unlikely to actually change anything.

I think all of these perspectives have merit as libertarian responses to what's happened. But whatever the normative issues here, I think the whole situation is much more interesting as an illustration of a positive (i.e. descriptive, not morally loaded) historical trend and tendency that is becoming, in my opinion, more and more obvious. Gay marriage was on almost no one's radar in 1990. In 2000 it was still only an utterly minority idea even among gays.

In 2008 (the same year as Prop 8, and the end of the google ngrams data range in the previous link), US President Barack Obama was elected and specifically opposed gay marriage. Between 2008 and 2014 gay marriage has gone from something a liberal Democrat felt he could not guarantee election without opposing to something that a chief executive (admittedly a Silicon Valley chief executive, of a particularly "socially aware" firm) has to favour, or at least not oppose, to keep their job. This is astonishingly rapid.

And various issues suggest that maybe this ousting had little to do with a cost-benefit analysis. Let's assume the best argument in favour of ousting him is that (a) he tipped the balance in favour of anti-gay marriage in the past, and this delayed gay people gaining their deserved marriage rights, and (b) his position at the top of Mozilla will stop it being truly equal to gay employees and consumers. That is, let's assume that the left-leaning people who got Eich overthrown do in fact wish Eich to have meaningful freedom of conscience and speech, but they also think it's fair to censor him if he acts based on those in ways which increase oppression or reduce social welfare.

(This isn't entirely accurate: some do think that people shouldn't be able to be both employed and hold personal anti-gay marriage perspectives. But I see personal opinions (which are very likely genetically heritable and uncontrollable) as a much weaker justification for the hounding and the principle of charity dictates I tackle the strongest possible opposing argument here.)

The fact that showing neither (a) nor (b) has even been attempted in any of the myriad of news and commentary I've seen on the issue is telling (I'm open to being refuted here). But more telling is the fact that none of the commentary I've seen has even mentioned these issues. And what's more I bet Eich-resignation-advocates wouldn't change their minds if we discovered that Mozilla's currently pro-LGBT policies were impervious to CEO influence, and that his $1,000 did pitifully little to change the outcome of Prop 8, never mind the overall progress of gays' marriage rights.

This suggests to me that this is about policing heresies. This is a doctrinal dispute. I wonder if Eich would still be in his job had he publicly stated regret at his old anti-gay marriage perspective and repudiated it forcefully. I bet he would. And this brings me to the final point: libertarians should care, but not because the instance itself is necessarily a bad thing—an ugly, base, low, cowardly, mean thing certainly, but it might pass a cost-benefit analysis if we really did one—but because of this trend. Progress appears to be an unstoppable juggernaught, and it might be speeding up.

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No wonder activists hate the Koch brothers so much

Written by Tim Worstall | Friday 04 April 2014

This ia a rather alarming thing for any activist to read in the daily newspaper. From Charles Koch in the WSJ:

Far from trying to rig the system, I have spent decades opposing cronyism and all political favors, including mandates, subsidies and protective tariffs—even when we benefit from them. I believe that cronyism is nothing more than welfare for the rich and powerful, and should be abolished. Koch Industries was the only major producer in the ethanol industry to argue for the demise of the ethanol tax credit in 2011. That government handout (which cost taxpayers billions) needlessly drove up food and fuel prices as well as other costs for consumers—many of whom were poor or otherwise disadvantaged. Now the mandate needs to go, so that consumers and the marketplace are the ones who decide the future of ethanol.

But, but, if a rich guy is fighting for there not to be privileges granted by govenment then what are we all gonna do? Hundreds of thousands of jobs as well paid activists, demonstrators, organisers of petitions, demanders of special privileges, all will disappear! For the entire foundation of all of this social justice stuff is that the rich are using government to screw the working stiff. If anyone actually catches on to the idea that  it's people buying privilege from said government that is the problem then where go our careers in campaigning for privilege for our guys from government?

No wonder the activists actually hate the Koch brothers. They're not playing that part assigned to them in the great political kabuki play and by refusing to do so they're putting those lovely careers "influencing " DC at risk.

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