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


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


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


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


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


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.

We are all in favour of clothes banks to follow food banks


It's not just that we're in favour in fact, it's that we cannot find anything wrong with the idea at all:

Louise Cooke, a 46-year-old ex-teacher and community worker in Nottingham, has never been elected nor is her work funded by the taxpayer – but she is filling in the gaps left by the government.

For the past two years, volunteering out the back of her local church, Cooke has been running Sharewear – what, in austerity’s language, we could dub a “clothes bank”. This isn’t packets of pasta or boxes of veg but winter coats and children’s shoes. Cooke describes the people who come through the doors as in “crisis”: anyone from job seekers to Syrian refugees, from low-paid workers to people on benefits (“We have people coming in on disabled people’s behalf because they’re housebound,” she adds).

As Cooke says: “No one should have to walk around in smelly clothes just because they haven’t got enough money. No child should have to go to school in ripped clothes.”

We entirely agree with the sentiment: Britain is a rich country and those are things that can be solved in a rich country. However, it is important to note what the problem is: incompetent government. And this is not a new incompetence: government has not become more incompetent as the result of the election of the Conservatives, or the Coalition, or the defeat of New Labour. Government has always been this incompetent if not worse. As is the case with food banks: no one with a couple of decades of adult life under their belt is unaware of the manner in which the benefits payment system has always had great gaping holes in it.

That is, there is no new and sudden need for these charitable activities. Rather, it's that we've now this new technology (and yes, a method of organisation like a food bank is indeed a technology) enabling us to solve these problems. For which, of course, a rousing Hurrah!

But we need to note the important point about these solutions. It is the little platoons sorting out the incompetence of government that is working here. Given that this is so yes, most certainly, why not have more of such little platoons working to solve this problem but don't, whatever we do, try to hand over the solution to that government which is the original cause of the problem.

Nicky Morgan has proposed the worst possible way to calculate a gender pay gap


Back in July 2015, David Cameron announced he'd close the gender pay gap in the next decade. Proposing to take the first step by making larger firms publish their pay gap figures, I wrote up a response for the Spectator's Coffee House, arguing that this was an ill-conceived idea:

His plan to force businesses with 250+ employees to publish their ‘wage gap’ figures will create more bogus numbers and further perpetuate the myth. It is impossible to know simply by looking at the numbers on the spreadsheet why someone’s salary is a certain figure. One’s education or training, previous work experience, negotiation manoeuvres, and unique character traits will all contribute to their salary; Jack and Jill may be headed-on-up the career hill together, but they will be coming from two completely different paths.

The government launched an official consultation to determine how, exactly, they would make companies publish their 'pay gaps'. The ASI responded to the consultation, recommending that if the government were to go through with this policy, it absolutely must get companies to compare jobs like-for-like. Without a direct comparison of men and women doing the same job (and ideally for the same amount of time, with the same educational background, etc), it would be impossible to know if any income disparity was a result of employer-based sexism, or the many other factors that can contribute to one's overall salary.

Today we discovered that Woman's Minister Nicky Morgan did not take Ben's advice. Instead, she has implemented what is probably the worst way to calculate a gender pay gap.

In 2018, businesses with 250+ employees will be forced to publish on their websites the mean and median calculations of their male and female salaries, as well as the 'pay ranges' of men and women (i.e. who's at the top and who's at the bottom).

The problem? Simply calculating the mean and median of male and female salaries controls for absolutely nothing. Without calculating in hours worked, job, department, previous experience, flexibility of hours, and time taken off work, these figures tell us nothing about whether employers are actually paying female workers less than men for the same roles.

Evidence suggests employers are big advocates of women. Indeed, when you do control for factors like background, hours and job, women are often more likely to earn more than men, and are more likely to be promoted as well.

But now, thanks to the government, in a few years time we're going to have a bunch of false stats that help perpetuate the myth that women are victims of sexist employers, and will never be able to access the same opportunities as men. A great day for professional feminists, who have been running out of talking points as women shatter those alleged glass ceilings left, right and center. An unfortunate day for the rest of us, who will have to continue to explain why comparing the CEO's salary to a first-year employee doesn't do much to prove 'sexism'.

Rupert Myers is rather missing the point about market exchanges


As Voltaire didn't say*, we don't believe that creationism has any truth to it at all but we'll defend to the death your right to believe in any damn fool thing you want to. The limitation is only that whatever you do believe not cause direct harm to others. Thus nonsense about how we all got to be here is just fine, nonsense about how we treat the others with whom we share here is not, just as one example. All of which makes this complaint by Rupert Myers something we don't agree with:

Someone who is on the record as believing that the earth is flat would be an unlikely anchor of the BBC’s flagship breakfast news show. A news reporter who denied basic facts from the past such as the French revolution, the explosion of Mount Vesuvius, or the Holocaust would surely raise eyebrows at interview. Climate change denial, or a denial of heliocentrism, would be unlikely to find favour at the BBC. And yet they have just selected a creationist to front their Breakfast show.

BBC hires someone with odd views is not exactly a surprise.

A belief in creationism may be a religious belief, and we must allow generous margins to the holding of such beliefs, but creationism falls beyond the spectrum. It should be consigned to the bin of unreasonable, untenable fact-allergic nonsense. Creationists cannot be trusted to report objectively, or to interact reasonably with their interviewees and with the public.

Not so and sadly it betrays a misapprehension about how market exchanges work. It is only in a society that does not operate markets that we have to consider whether someone is wholly acceptable in the round before allowing them to perform a task. If jobs are allocated on the basis of belief then obviously what those beliefs are is of importance. But a market society operates on the basis of "what can you do for me?" That's rather the joy of it. We don't have to know whether the window cleaner supports the wrong football team, has more traditional opinions on gender roles than we might be comfortable with or is insistent that the world popped into existence last Tuesday afternoon and all memory before that is simply a general hallucination. We care only about how well they clean windows and what they charge for doing so.

The same is true of all the other interactions which make up a market economy. We don't have to worry about the sexual preferences of the provider of our morning coffee, we care only about the coffee, the price, and perhaps the smile or not with which it is delivered. It is not necessary for the car mechanic to share our views on Che Guevara, whatever those might be, we want only that she can mechanic a car for us. And so it is with the pretty faces that mumble through the scripts to us on the television. We care only for the face and the mumble, not whatever beliefs occupy the void between their ears.

And no, this is not just some trivial matter. Humanity spent some millennia where only those who held the approved ideas on matters religious were allowed to perform certain jobs. It is only in this last century or two since the Enlightenment that this has changed and yes, it really is part of that liberal and market order which has so enriched us all. It is exactly the same thing that a creationist be allowed to read the news, a Jew to own land, an atheist to publish books and us all to be free to truck and barter across the society regardless of whatever damn fool beliefs we might have about anything at all.

* The "I disapprove of what you say" line is actually from a play about Voltaire, not from the man himself.

Yes, obviously industrial production is down


We cannot quite share this shock and horror at the news that industrial output is down:

Britain's industrial plight was laid bare today after official figures showed output at the end of 2015 fell faster than at any time over the past three years. Industrial production contracted by 1.1pc in December from the previous month, the biggest monthly drop since September 2012 and much worse than the 0.1pc decrease expected by economists.

And for manufacturing:

The ONS also revealed that manufacturing production fell 0.2pc in December, the third consecutive monthly decline. The last time the UK's manufacturing sector contracted for three months in a row was during the depths of the Great Recession in 2009. Compared with a year earlier, manufacturing output fell 1.7pc, against expectations for a 1.4pc decline.

One reason we're not all that worried is that manufacturing output is some 10% of GDP, meaning that a 2% fall in the sector is 0.2% of the economy as a whole. Industrial output is essentially energy and mining plus manufacturing and that's not much larger as a portion of the economy. And we have all noted that the prices of fuels have dropped recently, meaning that an index of the value of what is produced is going to fall whatever happens to the volume of what has been produced. Essentially, these are minor changes in a minor part of the economy.

A second reason we're not all that bovverd is that there isn't anything special about manufacturing or industrial output. Sure, they're nice things to have but they are no more valid or valuable than any other form of economic activity. The standard trope that making things you can drop on your foot is the only important form of production is simply wrong.

And the third reason we're not worried is this:

David Cameron has hailed Britain's technology sector as "extraordinary", after a report revealed companies are generating £161bn for the economy. According to the Tech Nation report, now in its second year, the digital economy grew 32pc faster than the rest of the economy between 2011 and 2014, and is creating new jobs at an unprecedented rate. The sector accounts for 1.56m jobs across the UK, with this workforce growing by more than 10pc over the three-year period - three times faster than the wider UK job market.

Yes, obviously, that's being bigged up by that quango but this is exactly what we would like to be happening. The current industrial revolution is in those digital thingies, those 1s and 0s being placed in precise rows. We Brits pioneered the first industrial revolution, rather lagged in the second and third, but seem to be doing well at the fourth. And just like doing well at the first made us relatively richer than everyone else, lagging at the next two led to a bit of relative poverty, getting this one right will lead to relative riches again.

And this is what an economy is supposed to do: over time move from doing that doesn't add very much value old stuff to the adding lots of value new stuff. Something we seem to be doing rather well. We wouldn't say that all is lovely in the rose garden but it's most certainly not doom and gloom.

Delusions on the NHS


Sadly, one of the reasons that the political conversation about health care in the UK is so difficult is that a number of people taking part in it simply do not know of what they speak. And example here in the Guardian:

Four flawed beliefs have dominated the actions of UK governments on healthcare over the past 25 years: personal responsibility for health supersedes government responsibility; markets drive efficiency; universal healthcare is ultimately unaffordable; and it is entirely legitimate to view healthcare as a business.

Responsibility is a moral argument and not really our point here: no one at all says that universal health care is unaffordable, only that all healthcare that everyone would conceivably like to get is unaffordable. But of course it is legitimate to regard healthcare as a business: there're inputs, there're outputs, there are people in the middle doing the transformation, that's a business. But that point about markets not driving efficiency is drivel: because this is the same NHS which is now separate organisations, NHS England, NHS Wales and NHS Scotland. And NHS England has had rather more of that market stuff applied to it. And NHS England has been getting more efficient more quickly than NHS Wales and Scotland too. The very subject under discussion disproves that assertion about markets.

But there's more too:

The 2014 Commonwealth Fund report on 11 wealthy countries shows that the UK spends least but ranks first in healthcare performance; the US spends most but ranks bottom.

Actually, no. Healthcare performance was only one of the things measured. Things like equitable access and so on were also measured and the NHS did very well on some of those measures (that the Commonwealth Fund agitates for single payer health care in the US is not a result of such studies, it is the cause of their measurement methods). On actual healthcare performance, mortality amenable to healthcare, it came near last. And oddly, we do think that how well a healthcare system is able to treat things that healthcare systems can treat is a pretty good measure of how good that healthcare system is. Or, for the NHS, not very.

In the US, one in six citizens has no health cover and inability to pay healthcare bills is the primary cause for personal bankruptcies, yet we are witnessing extraordinary, deliberate moves towards a failed US-style healthcare model.

Absolutely no one at all (and we are ourselves one of those voices shouting loudly for NHS reform) is calling for a US-like system. Instead we're calling for a system rather more like that of France, or Switzerland, or Singapore, all of whom have rather better healthcare systems than either we or the Americans do.

So why is this a problem if piffle like this appears in The Guardian?

Neena Modi is professor of neonatal medicine at Imperial College London, and president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health

Because this piffle is being spouted by people who really should know better.