Just what is the problem with grammar schools?

We find the current furore over grammar schools to be puzzling, difficult to understand.

Take this in the Observer. They note, correctly, that Upper Bavaria has an astonishingly low youth unemployment rate of only 3.4%. They credit, correctly, the education system:

Germany’s much-admired dual education system (in which apprentices are trained jointly by employers and at specialist vocational schools) has grown in Upper Bavaria, not because it was seen as the more responsible thing to do, but because companies, unable to “buy in” a fully trained-up workforce, often had to mould the workers they needed themselves.

That education system is dual in another manner too:

 The Gymnasium is designed to prepare pupils for higher education and finishes with the final examination Abitur, after grade 12, mostly year 13. The Realschule has a broader range of emphasis for intermediate pupils and finishes with the final examination Mittlere Reife, after grade 10; the Hauptschule prepares pupils for vocational education and finishes with the final examinationHauptschulabschluss, after grade 9 and the Realschulabschluss after grade 10.

Perhaps not dual then but there's a definite separation into academic and vocational streams - streams which go to different schools. And this is a much-admired system which leads to a 3.4% youth unemployment rate.

Yet mention grammars in Britain, the equivalent of those gymnasium (and common across much of central Europe too) and we are discussing the very devil, encouraging the destruction of all that is good and holy in our society.

We don't understand it. Our assumption is that it must have something to do with left wing politics - we find that's the usual explanation for beliefs entirely at variance with reality.


How to make public policy these days

The TL:DR version of how to influence public policy these days. Ride hobby horse, spout piffle, invent targets then shout loudly.

You might think we are joking but sadly not. For this is exactly what is happening over sugar.

The hobby horse is, as we have mentioned many a time, the insistence that it is sugar which is causing all that obesity out there. This cannot be true given that calorie intake and sugar intake are both down on the levels of the past. It cannot be rising consumption which is the cause as consumption hasn't been rising.

The spout piffle part is to insist that it is:

 Many believe sugar is the biggest contributor to the obesity epidemic crippling the NHS, and the results, published on Friday, reignited criticism of the failure by the government to take a stronger line in its childhood obesity strategy.

It isn't, as we've been saying. The inventing targets:

Britons are advised that sugar should account for no more than 5% of daily calories, but from 2012-14, the average was 13.4% for those aged between four and 10, 15.2% among 11- to 18-year-olds, 12.3% for adults under 65 and 11.1% for those aged 65 and over, the national diet and nutrition survey (NDNS) found.

This is a particularly cute one because the target itself, that 5%, was only invented after the period being described. It was only invented last year:

Dietary sugar should account for no more than 5% of daily calories consumed, half the previous recommended limit, the UK’s official nutrition advisers have said.

Note again, it's not just that the target is entirely pulled from some nether region it's that it didn't even exist, let alone apply to, the time period being examined. And then finally the shouting louder:

The Action on Sugar chairman, Graham MacGregor, a professor of cardiovascular medicine at Queen Mary University of London, said: “Today’s NDNS data shows that children are still consuming almost three times more sugar than the daily maximum recommendation. Theresa May must urgently rethink her pathetic childhood obesity plan that lacks restrictions on the marketing of, and promotions on, products high in saturated fat, sugar and salt.

“The strategy must include the implementation of the soft drinks industry levyand a mandatory reformulation programme, as the failed responsibility deal has already proven that a voluntary system does not work.”

We're not meeting an invented target, one that we've only just invented, which shows that compulsion is required to get everyone doing as we wish.

We really don't think this is a sensible way to run a country if we're honest. If it were possible we'd insist these campaigners spend more time with their train sets - there is at least an acknowledged role for the Fat Controller there. In the absence of that being possible we feel they should best be left to howl in the wilderness - and certainly not taken seriously.


Two particularly stupid views of trade in one morning

It's rare to be treated to two pieces of stupidity about trade on the same day but here we are, the event has happened. And sadly the people in error are people who do have at least some modicum of power over our lives. 

The error being made is to be mercantilist. To think that it is the exports which are the purpose of trade, the exports which make us rich. This is, as we all know, precisely the view which Adam Smith railed against that 240 years ago and Adam Smith was right. Both in what he said and in said railing. For it is, of course, the imports which make us rich, the reason we trade is to gain access to those imports.

Here is Liam Fox:

“If you want to share in the prosperity of our country, you have a duty to contribute to the prosperity of our country,” he is reported as saying, hinting that companies that do not take advantage of new export opportunities could face sanctions.

Clearly thinking that it is exporting which makes Britain rich:

He added: “We’ve got to change the culture in our country. People have got to stop thinking about exporting as an opportunity and start thinking about it as a duty — companies who could be contributing to our national prosperity but choose not to because it might be too difficult or too time-consuming or because they can’t play golf on a Friday afternoon.”

Again, exporting being equated with increasing the wealth of the nation. From the other side of the Channel we have M. Macron who is an odds on runner for the French Presidency:

British-based financial institutions must be prevented post-Brexit from selling their services in the eurozone, Emmanuel Macron, the likely progressive left candidate for the French presidency has told the Guardian.

This is the same mistake. It is to think that the British companies doing the exporting are the beneficiaries of such exports. When nothing is further from the truth. Those who benefit are the consumers who get to enjoy the imports. for that is why we do this trade thing - in order to gain access to those things which Johnny Foreigner does better or cheaper than we do. And that's the only reason we do trade too.

It gets worse:

But Macron insisted:

“The financial passport is part of full access to the EU market and a precondition for that is the contribution to the EU budget. That has been the case in Norway and in Switzerland. That is clear.” The proposal would be rejected outright by British Eurosceptics.

The insistence is that being able to sell to people is a privilege, one that a government must pay for so that businesses may do so. But this is incorrect - the benefit is to those who may buy the imports.

By not grasping the most basic point about trade M. Macron is threatening to hold the people of the European Union hostage unless some gelt is paid to the Brussels bureaucracy. He really is shouting that he'll make Europeans poorer unless the Brits give him some money. Such is the lunacy one is driven to by not understanding the basics of trade.

It has been 240 years now since the Wealth of Nations was published. We'd really rather hoped that people had grasped the point by now.

Re-dressing old wounds: The unintended consequences of NHS prescription regulations

Re-dressing old wounds: The unintended consequences of NHS prescription regulations

The current system for exempting certain patients from paying for their NHS prescriptions is discriminatory, unjust and unfit for purpose.  The high cost of prescription medication deters many patients from engaging consistently with treatment, increasing their risk of adverse outcomes such as strokes and heart attacks. 

When Bevan introduced the NHS in 1948, his intentions were clear and noble: nobody in this country should suffer from a treatable illness or ameliorable impairment because they were too poor to afford care. 

Why Europeans really do need American healthcare

Psychiatrist and blogger Scott Alexander has been on a tear lately about the price of pharmaceuticals in America, in particular the EpiPen, a common device used to treat people who have had severe allergic reactions. The EpiPen’s price has been hiked by about 400% since 2007, which left-wing website Vox blames America’s lack of price controls for but Scott blames on America’s cronyish regulation:

Let me ask Vox a question: when was the last time that America’s chair industry hiked the price of chairs 400% and suddenly nobody in the country could afford to sit down? When was the last time that the mug industry decided to charge $300 per cup, and everyone had to drink coffee straight from the pot or face bankruptcy? When was the last time greedy shoe executives forced most Americans to go barefoot? And why do you think that is?

It’s a fascinating piece and worth reading in full.

But what I’m really interested in is a part of his follow-up piece where he looks at rates of pharmaceutical innovation in the US, compared to countries with price controls:

1. Golec & Vernon (2006) say that as a result of European drug price regulation, “EU consumers enjoyed much lower pharmaceutical price inflation, however, at a cost of 46 fewer new medicines introduced by EU firms [over a 19 year period].”
2. Eger and Mahlich (2014) find that among pharmaceutical companies, “a higher presence in Europe is associated with lower R&D investments. The results can be interpreted as further evidence of the deteriorating effect of regulation on firm’s incentives to invest in R&D.”
So by my count, there are eight-and-a-half studies concluding that price regulation would hurt new drug innovation, and one-half of a study concluding that it wouldn’t. I’ve tried to eliminate all the studies sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry from this list, but I might have missed some.

Scott also cites an impressive-looking RAND Corporation paper which tries to project the consequences of government price-caps in healthcare.

In the short-term, things get better – drugs are cheaper. Great! But in the longer-term, things get worse. Much worse. Innovation declines and life expectancies fall in both the US and Europe.

Which makes me think that, as bad as the US system is in many ways, there’s a very important silver lining. All that money and intellectual property protection create much, much bigger incentives for healthcare innovation in the US than in Europe.

And that allows those of us in price-controlled countries to get something like the best of both worlds: cheap(er) drugs, but lots of research for new drugs, funded by our less fortunate friends in the United States. In a very important sense, it looks as if we’re free riding on American healthcare spending.

None of which is to say that the US system isn’t a dog’s dinner. Read Scott’s posts to get a flavour of that. But it does make smug posts and charts like the one above, which laugh at the nutty Americans and their wild, wasteful overspending, look quite silly. Without Americans spending all that money on healthcare, those of us living in price-controlled European systems would be living shorter lives, too.

The dirty little secret about GDP

An interesting point made in The Times about GDP:

For even GDP — the greatest, most definitive statistic of all — is really just a survey too. Forms are posted out to a selection of companies where they are filled in and sent or faxed back (“Informed estimates are sufficient for our needs”, says the bumf). Those figures go into a model and soon enough they become GDP. The size of Britain’s economy, the question of whether we are in or out of recession, the fate of governments — ultimately it all hangs on a questionnaire.

Well, yes, obviously it's a survey for as Hayek pointed out we cannot possibly gain enough information to really measure something as complex as an economy. There is the idea that we should move more to tax data - but the problem with that is that we know very well that people lie about taxes.

But there's actually something much more important than this. GDP isn't what we're interested in. It's a proxy, an interesting and useful proxy but a proxy all the same.

What we want to know is "How well off are the people?" We want to know this so that we can consider whether what we're doing makes them better off again or not. And our problem with GDP is that we're measuring things at market prices. What people actually pay for things.

Yet we know very well that this is not the price at which people actually value something. If a producer were able to price discriminate so that we each paid exactly what something was worth to us then it would be of course. And they attempt this. VW sells much the same car under the Skoda, VW, Audi and so on brands, each at a different price, in an attempt to do such price discrimination. But it doesn't work entirely.

The usual rule of thumb is that this consumer surplus, this value that we gain but which we don't have to pay for, is about equal to recorded GDP. So our consumption value is really some 200% of recorded GDP.

Which is where our problem comes in. Because the digital world would appear to be changing that multiplier. WhatsApp appears in GDP as something like $30 million, $50 million. There's no sales of it, no revenue from it, just the cost of the engineers working on it. And yet this is something that a billion people use for their telecoms needs, or some of them. The value in actual human value as consumption is obviously more than $100 million a year.

We must therefore remember not only that GDP is a proxy for what we really want to know but also that it's becoming an ever less reliable one.

Food of the Future: Chinese Food Security and the Opportunities of Brexit

Food of the Future: Chinese Food Security and the Opportunities of Brexit

The old adage – “the way to someone’s heart is through their stomach” - has never been more pertinent to global security. With the world’s population now exceeding 7.2 billion (an awful lot of stomachs to fill) we require a mind-boggling amount of food. In fact, farmers will need to grow as much food in the next fifty years as they did in the last 10,000 years combined. And at a time when one in eight people on the planet is already chronically malnourished, this is clearly an issue that isn’t going to be resolved purely by traditional production methods. Resources are particularly limited in high economic-growth regions such as China, a country that has to feed 22% of the world’s population but which is endowed with only 7% of the planet’s cultivable land. With so many increasingly vociferous middle-class mouths to feed, it is unsurprising that food security is rapidly becoming the most contentious issue in Chinese politics.

Inspired in part by India’s “Green Revolution”, China has been keen to expand their area of influence in the agrichemical sector, and have been investing heavily in their own research into genetically modified technologies. As with many aspects of China’s economy, however, their GM industry is dominated by state-owned companies, reflecting the government’s political objective of securing domestic food supply through improving agricultural productivity. 

What would it be like if the government really did run the economy?

It's very difficult indeed for us to map out exactly how it would all turn out if the government really were to run the economy in detail. Thus we need to try and find a comparator, somewhere that has two economic systems and we can observe the different outcomes.

We can of course think of the grand experiment that was the 20th century. Those places that had state socialism ran a race against those that used markets and the state socialism lost. But of course no one calls for such any more - at least we are continually assured.

But there are people calling for a democratic economy - that is, one where everything is decided through voting on committees. Others call for the bureaucratic economy, where the committees decide and there're even those absurdists who demand a Courageous State, where politicians decide each detail.

What we would like to find therefore is somewhere which has something like our market mix and right next to it something more like that state run and controlled economy so we can observe the different outcomes. Fortunately we have this - the United States. Government, planning, bureaucratic control, once again lose

Imagine if the government were responsible for looking after your best interests. All of your assets must be managed by bureaucrats on your behalf. A special bureau is even set up to oversee your affairs. Every important decision you make requires approval, and every approval comes with a mountain of regulations.

How well would this work? Just ask Native Americans.

The federal government is responsible for managing Indian affairs for the benefit of all Indians. But by all accounts the government has failed to live up to this responsibility. As a result, Native American reservations are among the poorest communities in the United States.

Hmm, perhaps government isn't the way to run life and the economy then?

What’s to be done with the House of Lords?

Two recent events have brought back into prominence that hardy perennial House of Lords Reform. The first event was former prime Minister David Cameron’s disastrous Resignation Honours List. The second event was the vocal threat by Baroness (Patience) Wheatcroft that she and a claque of similarly-ignorant peers would seek to block Britain’s forthcoming Brexit and do so from the (unelected) House of Lords.

Because of all that the new prime minister Theresa May has been obliged to raise the priority of House of Lords Reform, as if she hasn’t got enough on her plate already. So as a helping hand, here are the seven basic principles for her and her advisers to consider:

1. We always need a Second Chamber to keep tabs on the first.

2. The British people should have the last say who sits in it. Ten Downing Street should have nothing to do with choosing virtually all its members.

3. Its members should each only ever be elected once, so they are not constantly buttering up their voters seeking to get re-elected. They have independence of mind. Bruce Tulloch examined that distorted motivation in an Institute of Economic Affairs pamphlet published decades ago. He called the problem “The Vote Motive”.

4. Currently the Lords has far too many members. As with all legislatures 250 is ideal, 400 should be tops. The current 797 is utterly ridiculous.

5. It must not become a political clone of the House of Commons.

6. Its members should possess a worthy level of experience and expertise and be expected to lead the House on their specialist areas. In the process they should expose the House of Commons for what it is: far too many bumbling over-opinionated ignoramuses who succeed only in bringing the whole of politics into disrepute.

7. The major political parties should have as little as possible to do with its membership.


None of those seven points is even remotely original. I first heard them in 1974 at a formal Chambers of Commerce gathering, almost half a century ago. They were expounded by a very clever, original-minded accountant from Birmingham called Bruce Sutherland. 

Bruce held the interesting distinction of being chairman of both the Chambers of Commerce and also the CBI Taxation committees - the only person to straddle both. In passing one might fairly observe that Patience Wheatcroft was working in the same building at the same time as a junior journalist of the London Chamber of Commerce's monthly magazine.

So now let’s move on from that, adding in a few tweaks of my own. The most important question, as always, is how anyone gets on a ballot paper, especially for the House of Lord. All too often, it’s simply a shoo-in after that anyway. Ten Downing Street often prefers, or rather in the pre-crony era used to prefer, experts in their own particular field, and not mere sycophants. I quite like that previous idea as well, so let’s stick with it.

8. So if we want clever surgeons or clever architects to become candidates for the Lords (they are not yet members, of course) then let the Royal College of Surgeons, or the Royal Institute of British Architects choose them from among their own number. They, better than anyone, know who would be the most suitable.

Let all the royal-somethings get a shout, plus bodies such as the Chambers of Commerce, the CBI, the legal profession, the military, the churches, the TUC and indeed the Commons and the Civil Service itself. Indeed that could well give the Palace something to think about as well. If a few eccentric-somethings get on the list it hardly matters because none of them will go any further.

In effect, the process of selecting future members of the House of Lords has been Privatised.

9. And at that point we could also re-admit all the hereditary peers to the process as well. Some of them are very clever, almost more clever than parliament deserves.  Ralph Percy, aged 59, Duke of Northumberland, does an excellent job with all his highly-skilled farming mates. He lives in Alnwick Castle and all around him are the arable farms of his tenants.

Northumberland is very rich and I wager most of his tenant farmers are millionaires too. They run their farms on a very large scale, essentially organising a know-how co-operative. Not a fool among them; Ralph Percy would never allow that.

The late Gerald Grosvenor, Duke of Westminster, was one of the world’s most expert - and philanthropic - property developers.  I would have a man like that as my Member in the Lords any day of the week.  Some of the world’s finest inner suburbs of Mayfair, Belgravia and Pimlico were mainly the Westminster’s own work.  It was the farming family of the Grosvenors who spotted the potential of their lands and turned themselves into Britain’s richest Dukedom in the process.

Therefore we need about eighty constituencies, substantially more than there are states in the USA. In a sense it is an extension of the way each American state has a Senior and Junior Senator, and I consider that a wise principle we ought to adopt over here; it would make for admirable continuity.

The insanity of the JRF's latest poverty campaign

We've kept something of a wary eye on the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's ruminations on poverty over the years. Near a decade back they started that idea of the living wage. Ask people what people should be able to do if they're not in poverty. Along the lines of Adam Smith's linen shirt example. So far so good - but it was a measure of what is it that, by the standards of this time and place, people should be able to do and not be considered to be in poverty. 

In this latest report of theirs they are saying that if the average family isn't on the verge of paying 40% income tax then they're in poverty.

This is not, we submit, a useful or relevant measure of poverty. But it is the one that they are using. Here is their definition:

In 2008, JRF published the Minimum Income Standard (MIS) – the benchmark of minimum needs based on what goods and services members of the public think are required for an adequate standard of living. This includes food, clothes and shelter; it also includes what we need in order to have the opportunities and choices necessary to participate in society. Updated annually, MIS includes the cost of meeting needs including food, clothing, household bills, transport, and social and cultural participation.

JRF uses 75% of MIS as an indicator of poverty. People with incomes below this level face a particularly high risk of deprivation. A household with income below 75% of MIS is typically more than four times as likely to be deprived as someone at 100% of MIS or above. In 2016, a couple with two children (one pre-school and one primary school age) would need £422 per week to achieve what the public considers to be the Minimum Income Standard, after housing and childcare costs. A single working-age person would need £178 per week

Having an income that is just 75% of these amounts –£317 for the couple and £134 for the single person – is an indication that a household’s resources are highly likely not to meet their needs. The further their incomes fall, the more harmful their situation is likely to be.

So that's £16,500 a year for the high risk of deprivation and £22,000 a year for poverty. But note (this for the average family, two plus two) that this is disposable income after housing and childcare costs. We must add those back in to get the other definition of disposable income, the one that ONS uses.

Average rent is £816 a month, average childcare costs are £6,000 a child a year.

That's therefore £38,500 a year or £44,000 a year in actual consumption possibilities for such a family. That higher number marks poverty, the lower potential deprivation.

As ONS tells us (and this is disposable income, after tax and benefits, before housing and childcare) median household income in the UK is:

The provisional estimate of median household disposable income for 2014/15 is £25,600. This is £1,500 higher than its recent low in 2012/13, after accounting for inflation and household composition, and at a similar level to its pre-downturn value (£25,400)

And do note that ONS definition:

Disposable income:

 Disposable income is the amount of money that households have available for spending and saving after direct taxes (such as income tax and council tax) have been accounted for. It includes earnings from employment, private pensions and investments as well as cash benefits provided by the state.

The JRF is using a definition of poverty that is higher than median income for the country. This is insane. It gets worse too. The band for higher rate income tax starts at £43,000. The JRF is defining a two parent, two child, household beginning to pay higher rate income tax as being in poverty.

To put this another way, a British family in the top 0.23% of the global income distribution for  an individual is in poverty and one in the top 0.32% of that global distribution is deprived. Yes, after adjusting for price differences across countries.

The British population is some 1% of the global population. It's not actually possible for us all to be in anything more than the top 1% of the global income distribution.

This simply is not a valid manner of trying to define poverty.