The Dangers of Health-Fetishism

The Dangers of Health-Fetishism

The ideology of the nanny state can perhaps be summarised as coercing people to be healthy. Complaints about the first half of this (coercion) are well known: people should be able to make their own choices even if this involves them opting to smoke or drink or eat sugar. However, most people would regard the second aspect (health) as uncontroversial. Whilst the means of nudging, taxing, banning, and regulating may be objectionable, the end of promoting health is obviously a ‘good thing’.

I’m not so sure that this is true. Obviously, health has its benefits. Most people would prefer to not have typhoid. A healthier population may also be more efficient and happier. And, if you enjoy your life, it’s rational to want it to last and to die at 80 rather than at 40.

Another reason to hate planning

Regular readers do not need another reason to despise Britain's complex planning system, they will of course know that it – increases rents massively, retards economic growth, and produces deeply ugly buildings. But like a balcony in a London new build, you're getting one whether you like it or not.

Economists Matthew Kahn and Edward Glaesar found that denser cities are greener cities. That is to say, when you add up the environmental costs of transport, heating and household electricity usage, densely packed cities New York and San Francisco impose dramatically fewer costs on the environment.

This graphic from a 2014 Washington Post article, illustrates the issue perfectly. Barcelona and Atlanta have comparable populations, yet Barcelona is able to cram that entire population into just 1/25th the total size of Atlanta. Leading to Barcelonans making fewer, shorter trips in cars and instead using public transit and cycling more frequently. As a result, Barcelona emits dramatically fewer tonnes of CO2 on transport. And it's not just Carbon Emissions that fall when cities become more dense, according to the World Resources Institute a move to denser cities could save $15tn in infrastructure spending.  

Unfortunately, the article presumes that the only way to achieve denser cities is by careful government planning. Yet, as Glaesar and Kahn show, it's often planning that's the biggest obstacle to greater density. The greenest parts of the US, were also the parts with the toughest land-use regulation, blocking development within green cities and pushing it to brown suburbs (San Francisco's restrictive planning laws deter local developments, but do nothing to prevent development across the US). 

Instead of subsidising renewable energy and dictating new energy efficiency standards, the Government could tackle climate change much more cheaply, by doing two simple things. First, radically simplify our planning system by scrapping most, if not all, restrictions on new developments that artificially limit the supply of housing. Second, encourage councils to allow more building by, once again, letting them fully retain their revenue from business rates and council tax, giving them a financial incentive to avoid using the planning system to block new developments.

Paul Krugman has gone too far this time: let’s re-train him as a cosmonaut

Paul Krugman has gone too far this time: let’s re-train him as a cosmonaut

I admit it: I have never been a big fan of Paul Krugman. I do not care for his vulgar Keynesianism or his vulgar rhetoric. His humourless sanctimoniousness, his angry ad hominem attacks, his lack of courtesy and his cavalier attitude to the facts are not to my taste. 

All this said, I cannot deny that he plays a useful role in the economists’ ecosystem: everyone needs a bogeyman. His proposal in 2011 that we should solve the economic crisis by faking an alien space invasion was a hoot. But whereas sensible people had a laugh and took his proposal as the logical outcome of Keynesianism pushed ad absurdum, he really meant it. If he didn’t exist, we would have to make him up. 

However, his recent slurs against the Cato Institute are a step too far even by his standards. 

How Negative Income Tax could lead us towards material abundance

How Negative Income Tax could lead us towards material abundance

120 years ago American factories electrified their operations, triggering the Second Industrial Revolution in which steam engines were replaced with motors. This general purpose technology (GPT) – a technology that can affect an entire economy, usually at a national or global level – created new advantages for factories and prompted the invention of new work processes, allowing for increased growth and productivity. Innovation researcher Erik Brynjolfsson outlines three major GPT since the 18th century: the steam engine, electricity, and the internet, and along with Andrew McAfee, has coined this era The New Machine Age and produced a highly praised book of the same name. In this New Machine Era, they identify growing decoupling of productivity and employment: productivity is growing, but employment is decreasing. Correspondingly, wealth is increasing, but work is decreasing.

The year of the insurrectionists

The year of the insurrectionists

This is very much the year of the outsider, and the year in which the establishment machine politicians are rejected by angry voters.  Donald Trump is a complete outsider, yet in a series of bruising battles that make up US primaries, he has seen off every single establishment party-machine politician ranged against him.  Now there is only one more left against him, and that is Hillary Clinton whom he now faces in November. 

She is almost the embodiment of machine politics, and has the misfortune to face a populist outsider in a year when conventional politicians are mistrusted.  Furthermore, she is tainted as well as mistrusted, with enough doubts about her probity to dampen her support.  The chances must be very high that come November, Donald Trump will be elected the 45th President of the United States.

Why Britain’s company law is not fit for purpose

The closure of British Home Stores shows not only how badly managed the company has been. It shows how Britain’s company law is not fit for purpose.

Founded in 1928, the company was one of Britain’s longest-established high-street department-store brands. But it has ended up with a £571m pension deficit, all its 163 stores will close and 11,000 jobs will go. Sure, the high street is unforgiving? But how can such a giant be brought so low?

Step forward Sir Philip Green and Dominic Chappell, particularly Green, the high-profile businessman so regularly pictured with supermodel Kate Moss on his chubby arm aboard his superyacht. Green and other investors took more than £580m in dividends, rent and interest payments during his tenure at BHS; Chappell’s Retail Acquisitions consortium was paid millions in fees and salaries. Meanwhile, Green did not close BHS’s defined-benefit pension system (as most other large and small companies have done, following Gordon Brown’s disastrous change in the regulations while he was Chancellor). What on earth was he thinking? Was he thinking about the future at all?

It’s a bad advertisement for capitalism, right enough, when the reality is that most businesspeople scrimp, save, mortgage their homes and watch every penny to help their companies grow. 

But it’s an even worse advertisement for all the UK (and, dare I say it – EU) regulation around business governance. Designed to keep businesses transparent and well run, our company law now has the opposite effect. It has tried to substitute official rules for shareholders. And shareholders are the best regulators – after all, it is their business, and their money at risk. 

Sadly, UK and EU politicians did not appreciate this regulatory role of shareholders (though the rising volume of shares held by corporatist-minded pension funds did not help either). Shareholders were seen as merely money-takers; their power was curbed and the powers of boards and executives grew – with everyone being told that’s fine, because there were so many rules to control them.

It is not a new problem. Philosopher and corporate law expert Dr Elaine Sternberg pointed it out in the ASI report Competition in Corporate Control as long ago as 2003. Let shareholders run their businesses as they want, she argued. If some mess up – paying too high salaries, say, or giving executives too much control – nobody is likely to do that again. Competition in corporate control is self-regulating: good systems crowd out the bad. But our regulatory system, substituting top-down rules for market-driven competition, kills that self-regulating process.

It really is time for a bonfire of controls. At least then when we see CEOs sipping G&Ts on their £100m superyachts, we could be confident that deeply interested and farsighted share owners figured they are worth it.

If corporations have all this power then where the heck is it?

Peter Walker points out that there's a certain problem for those who would claim that corporations have some vast amount of market power which they use to lord it over the rest of us. If this were true then we wouldn't see corporate disasters:

Part of the idea here is that large corporations have power over markets and their consumers. When "corporate power" get mentioned I sure people think of companies like Microsoft, Google, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and McDonald’s etc and the control these firms are said to have over their sectors of the economy. One aspect of this power is the control these corporations are claimed to have over their consumers, but if these "powerful" firms produce spectacular failures, then perhaps consumers are not as docile as some would suggest and we overestimate the extent of said corporate "power".

The latest example might be Microsoft's entirely dismal failure with Nokia. And it really has been an absurd failure as this rather hopeful email details:

Microsoft and Nokia created opportunity for companies in need of ICT professionals
1,000 ICT professionals available in Tampere, Finland, for any industry

Recent news about the Nokia and Microsoft layoffs are good news for those in need of experienced and international ICT professionals. The City of Tampere, Tampere Region Economic Development Agency Tredea and Invest in Finland (Finpro) address this unique opportunity with #Tampere4ICT campaign to attract foreign investments.

Microsoft Mobile and Nokia (Alcatel-Lucent) will release highly experienced technology professionals in the Tampere Region, Finland. There will soon be around 1,000 ICT professionals available, with experience of 10-20 years and with ability to build new, innovative solutions for any industry. Especially companies looking to set up product development, and willing to move fast, there is now a unique opportunity to acquire fully functioning product creation teams to develop advanced connected products.

They bought the company, played around with it for a couple of years and are now effectively closing the whole thing down. That simply wouldn't have happened to a corporation that was wielding great market power. And the explanation for why it did happen is simply that no more than some trivial fraction of us consumers were willing to use Windows for Phone. We beat one of the largest corporations on the planet and all their tens of billions of expenditure just by saying "Nah, think I'll have that one over there instead, ta very much." 

The notion of great corporate power over us consumers doesn't really stand up to close examination.

Why Keynesians are wrong

The most prominent theory in macroeconomics is New Keynesianism. One of the most striking and unique predictions that New Keynesianism makes is that when the economy is in a recession, everything gets flipped upside down. Specifically, when interest rates are at the zero lower bound and the economy is stuck in a liquidity trap, most of the things that would usually improve economic outcomes actually worsen them.

The NK model predicts that supply-side loosenings, like lifting employment regulations, cutting taxes or liberalising immigration laws, will actually make things worse in a recession, as will interventions that increase price flexibility. However, this prediction—familiar from Paul Krugman's NYT columns since 2007—seems to have been strongly challenged in a batch of recent papers.

The first is "Supply-Side Policies in the Depression: Evidence from France", by Jérémie Cohen-Setton, Joshua K. Hausman, and Johannes F. Wieland. It, as the title suggests, looks at data in from the great depression in France, one of the areas that suffered it from the longest, due to the obsessive desire of the Bank of France never to sever the currency's link with gold. The Keynesian model would predict that devaluation and leaving gold were the only game in town, but in fact the negative supply-side shocks that happened at the same time depressed activity, even in a deep slump.

The effects of supply-side policies in depressed economies are controversial. We shed light on this debate using evidence from France in the 1930s. In 1936, France departed from the gold standard and implemented mandatory wage increases and hours restrictions. Deflation ended but output stagnated. We present time-series and cross-sectional evidence that these supply-side policies, in particular the 40-hour law, contributed to French stagflation. These results are inconsistent both with the standard one-sector new Keynesian model and with a medium scale, multi-sector model calibrated to match our cross-sectional estimates. We conclude that the new Keynesian model is a poor guide to the effects of supply-side shocks in depressed economies.

The second is "Are Supply Shocks Contractionary at the ZLB? Evidence from Utilization-Adjusted TFP Data", by Julio Garín, Robert Lester, and Eric Sims. It looks at more extensive data on productivity. The Keynesian model predicts worse productivity improvements from supply shocks that occur in slumps but the data finds quite the opposite result.

The basic New Keynesian model predicts that positive supply shocks are less expansionary at the zero lower bound (ZLB) compared to periods of active monetary policy. We test this prediction empirically using Fernald's (2014) utilization-adjusted total factor productivity series, which we take as a measure of exogenous productivity. In contrast to the predictions of the model, positive productivity shocks are estimated to be more expansionary at the ZLB compared to normal times. However, in line with the predictions of the basic model, positive productivity shocks have a stronger negative effect on inflation at the ZLB.

The third, "What Was Bad for General Motors Was Bad for America: The Automobile Industry and the 1937/38 Recession" by Joshua K. Hausman, tackles the question less directly, finding that shocks that impacted the car industry, even if they weren't aggregate, demand-side shocks, nevertheless had large impacts on overall output and income.

I think the New Keynesian model is wrong about a lot of things. It seems that the impact of supply-side moves in a recession is yet another prediction it gets wrong.