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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

Sunk’ by the creative forces of capitalism

Written by James Lawson | Friday 29 January 2010

Avatar has sunken the old ship. James Cameron’s new film has generated revenues of $1,878,025,999 in 40 days (and rising), making it the highest grossing film of all time worldwide (not adjusted for inflation), finally overtaking his other blockbuster, Titanic. Regardless of the film’s artistic quality (or lack of it), Cameron has proven himself to be an incredibly talented wealth generator. For this entrepreneurial triumph, he should be commended.

On a political level, some have seen the film as a damning indictment of Capitalism. The ‘evil’ exploiting Capitalist humans are driven by their greed for unobtanium, an extremely valuable resource. They are willing to destroy the wonderful environment of the ‘Navi’ alien planet of Pandora and its inhabitants, in order to acquire it. The injustice is further highlighted by the sheer magic of this 3D world, which has reputedly had such an impact on some moviegoers that they have been driven to despair and are struggling to cope in the real world. Either that or their depression has been onset through realisation that in the real world, far away from Pandora, our public finances are in a dire state and as taxpayers; they will be footing the bill.

Despite the anti-capitalist interpretations, the film is quite the opposite: an anti-imperialism movie. Perhaps instead, it is a story of property rights (held by different humanoids) being infringed, and a journey of discovery for one of the imperialists (perhaps driven primarily by love interests). He comes to sympathise with those his side intended to coerce. Avatar also has a clear strand of thought on the environment, warning us about the sustainability of human action. However, with adequately defined property rights, a functioning market and a process of voluntary negotiation, humanoid agents should well manage environmental resources.

Regardless of the plot, Cameron has played a classic entrepreneurial role, in which he and his backers undertook significant risk, developed innovative technology, and are now reaping significant reward for their creative investments. Overall, another victory for capitalism, in an industry not famed for these sympathies.

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ISOS - Renewing Britain

Written by Charlotte Bower | Friday 29 January 2010

On Tuesday 9th March the ASI will be holding its first Independent Seminar for the Open Society of the new decade. A one-day conference for sixth-form students interested in politics and economics, it is named after Sir Karl Popper’s book The Open Society and Its Enemies and as such is based upon the principles on open and tolerant society.

ISOS always attracts prominent and distinguished names from all areas of politics, journalism and business; past speakers include the likes of Boris Johnson, Andrew Marr, Vince Cable and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. It allows students to get involved with the issues discussed; after a 15-20 minute talk students have the opportunity to question the speaker, and voice their own opinions and reactions. Following the success of last October’s trial, ISOS will also be hosting a debate between two panels of experts.

The theme for March’s seminar is ‘Renewing Britain’, and will examine the difficulties and opportunities facing the UK. As always, the talks promise to be on the cutting-edge of politics and economics, whilst complementing A-level syllabi. To book a place at ISOS, please e-mail isos@adamsmith.com. Both individual and school bookings are welcome.

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Do we need a Central Bank?

Written by Nicholas White | Friday 29 January 2010

The Bank of England is the only entity allowed to create or destroy our currency. It uses this power to lend money or accept deposits at a defined interest rate with the aim of controlling the economy's growth and inflation. Not everyone can borrow from or deposit money at the Bank; it only lends to other banks or building societies, and even then only over a few fixed (and usually very short) periods. If a bank wants to borrow or deposit money for a different length of time, or needs more flexibility on how much and when they borrow or lend, they have to go to another bank. However, the rates the banks lend money to each other (indicated by LIBOR) are higher than the Bank of England's rate as other banks can't produce money and so may not be able to pay back what they borrow. Banks make a profit by loaning money to other companies (including other banks unable to borrow money from the Bank of England) at rates higher than LIBOR and credit their deposits at lower rates.

But what if Britain had no central bank? If no one could create money and there were no (effective) money controls then Britain's net imports may eventually lead to a shortage of pounds; people would be forced to use another currency for day-to-day business. However, if the money controls were too tight exports would be hurt, as international investors would find it hard to get the money needed to buy British goods. We would therefore need a way of creating new money. With no central bank, and therefore no variable monetary policy, the value of a pound would have to be fixed relative to either another currency or one or more goods. As the government (or an independent institution) could only provide new notes when the appropriate deposits were placed with it, inflation would only depend on the changes in value of the deposits.

In an economic downturn, credit would be harder to come by as there would no longer be an infinite supply. Banks would still loan money as they need income, but they would be far more selective in who they loaned to. Demand for credit would quickly outstrip supply, bankrupting unprofitable companies and halting unsustainable lifestyles - but this reduction in private and public debt will speed the return to growth.

Unlimited sources of cheap credit have fuelled many asset price booms. Without the Bank of England, the amount of money a commercial bank could lend is limited by its deposits. During a boom speculators withdraw their deposits and take out loans to invest in the booming assets, and so the laws of supply and demand will limit its extent by driving up the cost of credit.

Many countries experience tremedous growth and stability without the aid of a Central Bank - would Britain be better off too?

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The end of consensus on climate change

Written by Wordsmith | Friday 29 January 2010

[I]t is now clear that the majority of those involved in the IPCC process are not scientists at all but politicians, bureaucrats, NGOs and green activists.

Andrew Neil 'The dam is cracking' Daily Politics.

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Libertarianism and the Conservative Party

Written by Philip Salter | Thursday 28 January 2010

Mark Wallace on ConservativeHome argues that based upon British Social Attitudes Survey the people of this country are becoming increasingly libertarian. This would certainly be a welcome development, which if it were to continue would leave the Conservative Party in need of another rebranding.

At present, those in positions of power within the Conservative Party are not keen to be associated with the perceived radicalism of many in the libertarian movement. Cameron’s speech writers have many times built up the straw man of libertarianism in order to try to sell an alternative compassionate communitarian message. Perhaps for electoral reasons they have had good reason to do this (although Thatcher’s success rather questions the logic of this position), but they may be advised by changes in social attitudes to alter their message.

How then could the Conservative Party join up the gaps between its present position and libertarian ideas? As this thoughtful article by David B. Klein sets out, an understanding of Adam Smith would guide the way. Klein argued that “The communitarians should give more consideration to the Invisible Hand, that is, to the beneficial decentralized processes whereby individuals and families choose voluntarily for themselves". As Alexis de Tocqueville learned from his studies of America, when the country was somewhat freer than it is today: “Local freedom, then, which leads a great number of citizens to value the affection of their neighbors and of their kindred, perpetually brings men together and forces them to help one another in spite of the propensities that sever them."

From the welfare state, to schooling, through to regulations and on to almost every facet of government action, the state undermines the community. Cameron’s post-bureaucratic age acknowledges this, but as the new quangos pile up, it looks set to require a lot of bureaucrats to administer. The Conservative Party need to instead embrace the communitarian results of libertarian policies, and build a party that can deliver real radical reform to reflect an increasingly libertarian electorate.

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Through the eyes of a Dane

Written by Alex Ulrich | Thursday 28 January 2010

During the last five months I’ve been living in the UK. This has been an extraordinary experience as it is the first time I have lived outside my native country Denmark. Before I came to the UK I expected to be arriving in the liberal front-runner of Europe, the country where state intervention and regulation was the exception rather than the rule. I was expecting to go from socialism to a small state, but it was quite the opposite. If what we have in Denmark is social democracy and what you have here in the UK is liberal democracy, then I’ve become a social democrat!

One of the most striking experiences I have had is the discovery of health and safety? Before I came to Britain this was something that existed on construction yards and in laboratories, where it is probably sensible to have safety rules. In the UK health and safety has become the new ruler of everything, and it overrules any other decisions. I’ve manage to discover some very extraordinary rules and associated courses for using a chair and computer screen. Yet the most ridiculous health and safety regulation I have meet so far is the rule that children are not allowed to leave schools when it snows.In Denmark we don’t prohibit snow fights, we organise them.

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Britain is no longer free

Written by Dr Eamonn Butler | Wednesday 27 January 2010

It's official – the UK is no longer a free country. Well, semi-official, because the judgement comes from the independent Heritage Foundation, based in Washington DC, which has been compiling its influential Index of Economic Freedom for a decade and a half. It surveys 183 countries, assessing them on ten scores including business freedom, property rights, trade, government spending and corruption.

This year, though, after the financial crisis and the regulatory clampdown on banks, investment, and finance, both the United States and the United Kingdom have headed down the scale. By contrast, Switzerland – which is attracting financial firms and their high-flying employees away from the City of London – has been storming up the league table.

The most shocking news, though, is that the UK has dropped out of the top ten for the first time. In the view of the Heritage Foundation, in other words, it is no longer a free country. Well, we could have told them that. The Heritage experts say that it is not just a fall in the UK's financial freedom that explains its slippage. They blame high public spending and workplace regulations, which take decisions out of the hands of individuals and empower officials instead. That growing official power is one reason why the UK is slipping in terms of corruption and the respect for property when compared to other countries.

Sure, we are better than North Korea, Zimbabwe, Cuba, Eritrea and Burma, which make up the tail end of the Index. But in any index of free countries, it is a bit galling to fall behind Chile. Galling, but certainly fair.

Dr Butler's new Alternative Manifesto is available here.

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Working better

Written by Charlotte Bower | Wednesday 27 January 2010

Like most organizations that commit themselves to a ‘fairer’ society, the UK’s equality watchdog – The Equality and Human Rights Commission – rarely comes up with socially or economically sensible ideas. Its new set of proposals focuses on over 50s in the workforce, and caries the usual suggestions for ‘anti-discriminatory’ government initiatives and legislation that would bog down the labour market and do more harm than good. However, they also suggest one very good idea: namely scrapping the default retirement age.

The state pension age reflects an era where many workers only lived a few years past the retirement age. Nowadays however, 64% of women and 24% of men wish to work beyond this, and provided they are still adding value to their workplace, they should be free to do so. Out-of-date legislation shouldn’t be used to push the workforce onto state dependency.

Once out of work, people must rely on their lifetime savings and any available pension to get by. And as people are living longer, their own saving must stretch further, while pension schemes become increasingly strained and unsustainable. When people retire at 65, they take with them valuable skills and knowledge that could still contribute to the economy and provide them with personal financial and personal gain. Abolishing the default retirement age makes individuals better off & the public purse a little less pushed: Research from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research suggests that extending the average Briton’s working life by 18months would net Britain an extra £15bn.

The Department of Work and Pensions has signalled that it is taking this suggestion seriously, which can only be a good thing. Now, onto reforming the giant Ponzi scheme of a state pension...

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Is Britain really out of recession?

Written by Dr Eamonn Butler | Tuesday 26 January 2010

All economic statistics are iffy, and growth figures are the iffyest. There is no doubt that we have been through the deepest and longest recession since the Second World War, but are we really out of it now? Yes, says the Office of National Statistics (ONS), delivering a message their political masters will love to hear – there's an election looming, after all. The UK economy actually expanded over the last quarter of 2009. Not by much – 0.1% – but as they used to say in black-and-white films, 'That's your story, boys!' And the story is 'Recession over – official.'

Maybe it is, but a 0.1% statistic hardly proves it. Economists measure growth by comparing output at the start of the period with output at the end of it. Both figures can be wrong, so the difference between them can be doubly wrong. It is hard enough trying to measure growth over quarter of a decade, never mind quarter of a year. And 0.1% is well within the possible error. Quite possibly, the economy actually shrank again.

Additionally, the calculations are done on sampling, rather than measuring the whole economy. You would need to be a statistical superhero to measure everything, particularly most businesses probably will not know exactly how they did last quarter until all the bills are settled and the spreadsheets are made up at the end of January, or beyond. So again, big mistakes are possible.

Even if the ONS guess is correct, we are not necessarily out of the recession woods. The £175bn of new money that the Bank of England created must have done something to stimulate business – though no more, it seems than to keep its nose above water. Now that this stimulus has come to an end, business might just slip under again. Don't trust any economist – nor statistician – who says they know for sure.

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From Russia with thoughts

Written by Dr Eamonn Butler | Tuesday 26 January 2010

Just back from Moscow, where the locals were managing perfectly well with temperatures of -18C. There must be a point about climate change there. No, I'm not saying that the freeze invalidates the idea of global warming (though you have to ask how many more years of falling world temperatures would be needed to do so). Rather, it shows just how adaptable we are. Maybe adapt (if necessary) is the best and cheapest policy after all.

The reason I was there, though, was to tell the deputy head of Russia's central bank, Alexei Ulyukayev, that he might as well take a holiday. China, not him, is going to determine monetary policy hereabouts. China is overheated, and know that they have to rein in. That means their demand for commodities will grow less fast, and the all-important oil price is likely to hover around $40pb for the next half-decade. That too suggests that Alexei could take a break, because the resulting downward pressure on the rouble makes a strong rouble policy unsustainable (you can't buck the market, after all), which will have the beneficial result of lowering inflation.

Russia has been addicted to oil, and to inflation, for too long. High inflation makes rational investment impossible, because the signal of real price changes get hidden in the noise of all prices soaring upward. And 10% annual price rises make quite a bit of noise. Dependency on oil is fine when prices are booming as they have been, but it looks pretty sick now. Output is already falling, and Russia needs to diversity – not by trying to 'pick winners' but by making it easier for people to invest in Russia and get a fair reward for their investment. But when you are around 120 out of 181 countries on the World Bank's list of good places to do business in, something radical is needed. Like asserting the rule of law, cutting back bureaucracy, standing up against protectionism, and changing the culture whereby politicians and officials think position is about lining their own pockets, rather than the country's. When things are booming, you can indulge conservatism, put off reform, and endure inefficiency and waste. In tough times, you need to be a lot keener. It is a lesson that not just Russia needs to learn.

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