Another societal mass delusion, this time about sugar

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Yes, yes, we know, we're all becoming gross lardybums because Big Food insists on feeding us masses of sugar. And there should be regulation, banning, taxation, anything, to save us from exploding as we gain ever more weight and fat as we gorge. We know this must be true because the nation's favourite cheeky chappie, Jamie Oliver, is telling us so:

If anything, Oliver’s proposed 20% tax on sugary drinks is a pretty modest gesture (it’s hardly the end of pudding as we know it – he’s not asking for anything to be banned), but still it attracts the frothing rage of libertarians and the resistance of industry lobbyists. Oliver’s been there before, of course. But the extra twist is that this row increasingly pits parents against everyone else.

The argument for taxing or otherwise regulating the white stuff is almost always framed as saving the kiddies from an untimely death (Oliver says he was inspired by seeing his own four bombarded with fizzy-drink ads while watching telly). But what separates this war on Big Sugar from his school dinners project, or even from sin taxes on age-restricted products like booze and fags, is that there’s no way of weaning children off sugar without also affecting adult diets. And many grown-ups respond to that with all the fury of toddlers denied a biscuit.

Yet the real problem here is that absolutely none of this diagnosis is actually true. we're not eating more than our forefathers did, we're not even eating more sugar than our forefathers did. We are, in fact, consuming less of both than our ancestors did, even that we did ourselves only a few years ago. As Chris Snowdon has pointed out:

All the evidence indicates that per capita consumption of sugar, salt, fat and calories has been falling in Britain for decades. Per capita sugar consumption has fallen by 16 per cent since 1992 and per capita calorie consumption has fallen by 21 per cent since 1974.

If calories consumed have been falling then it cannot be a rise in calories consumed that is making us all lardybuckets. If sugar consumption is down if cannot be sugar consumption which is making us all grossly fat. It must, obviously, be something else. That something else being that calories expended has fallen faster than calories consumed. Perhaps the largest influence on this has been the general introduction of full on central heating in recent decades. After all, we are mammals and the major energy use in mammals is the regulation of body temperatures.

One more little factoid on this: the current average UK diet has fewer calories than the minimum acceptable diet under WWII rationing. Quite seriously: we are gaining weight on fewer calories than our grandparents lost weight on.

And thus as a society we find ourselves in one of those madness and delusions of crowds events. These are not restricted to markets gone haywire, like the idea that American house prices could only ever rise, or that tech stocks could be day traded to a fortune. They can be rather more societal in nature: think witch burning or the much more recent Satanic abuse mythology. And we are now in the middle of another one about sugar.

It simply isn't true that we are eating more of it, nor that we are consuming more calories in general. Thus the solution to our generally getting fatter just isn't related to our consuming more of what we don't in fact consume more of.

Let them in

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In City AM today I have a piece on the refugee crisis, arguing that the costs that many are (understandably) worried about may not actually be a problem:

A recent study looked at the impact of Yugoslav refugees on Danish workers in the 1990s and 2000s. Because Denmark’s resettlement policy distributed these refugees across the country without respect to local labour market conditions, this is a case study in how “exogenous” immigration affects natives. . .

Instead of starting a race to the bottom, as some feared, this influx of workers allowed the Danish economy to become more complex. Adam Smith’s “division of labour” increased, as jobs became more specialised and hence more productive. . .

Crime is on people’s minds too. And it’s true that asylum seekers do seem to increase property crime rates in the places in Britain they go to, though interestingly they seem to reduce violent crime rates.

But this seems to be a consequence of the tight restrictions that effectively prohibit asylum seekers from working for at least the first 12 months that they spend in Britain. If we liberalised those rules, we could solve that problem.

It's important to get the numbers right. The UK has accepted around 5,000 asylum applications from Syrians, not 216 as many people are claiming – that 216 is the number of Syrians we've actually evacuated from Syria directly. But I think there's a strong case for letting in many more than that.

A brief endorsement of 'Markets for Managers'

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I'm often asked by people who are just getting interested in economics what they should read. There is no shortage of good 'pop economics' books to recommend to them: Freakonomics is the most famous and The Armchair Economist is enjoyably contrarian, but for my money The Undercover Economist is the most interesting. But none of these teach you the sort of economics you'd learn if you studied economics at a university. And that's where Anthony J Evans's Markets for Managers comes in. It's aimed at 'managers', by which Evans means people who make strategic decisions for their firm, and makes the case that managers who understand the principles of economics will have an advantage over their rivals. But in explaining those principles Evans inadvertently gives an introduction to anyone who wants to learn about them.

The 'applied economics' method that Evans uses is extremely readable. If, like me, you prefer to learn by applying abstract ideas to reality, Evans's approach is ideal. And for British audiences there is something quite nice about reading examples applied to Fernando Torres rather than basketball players I've never heard of. What's most impressive about the book is that Evans even covers the drier parts of economics, like international trade and macroeconomic policy, that the 'pop economics' books don't bother with.

Evans is a Senior Fellow of the ASI and can claim to be one of the UK's only "Austrian school" economists, and these perspectives do shine through, though not to the detriment of the economics being discussed. What he's done with Markets for Managers is to give a clear, interesting and comprehensive primer in economics as it's taught in the classroom. No doubt many managers would benefit from reading it but even more so I find myself recommending it to university students who are not studying economics. For historians and political science students especially, the boot-camp in economics it gives might well give a surprising new way of understanding their own fields.

Markets for Managers at Amazon.co.uk

Markets for Managers at Amazon.com

So that's the end of minimum pricing on booze then

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Ever since the idea was first put forward we, along with others, have been saying that minimum pricing for booze would fall afoul of the law. And we were right:

Nicola Sturgeon’s plans to fix a minimum price for alcohol has suffered a huge blow after the European court’s top lawyer ruled it would infringe EU law on free trade.

In a formal opinion on Sturgeon’s flagship policy, the advocate general to the European court of justice, Yves Bot, has said fixing a legal price for all alcoholic drinks could only be justified to protect public health if no other mechanism, such as tax increases, could be found.

Bot’s opinion is expected to mean a final defeat for the Scottish government’s efforts to be the first in Europe to introduce minimum pricing – supported by leading figures in the medical profession and the police, after several years of legal battles.

Over and above the obvious illegality of the proposal the thing we couldn't get our heads around was the mind gargling stupidity of the idea. We don't accept the idea that boozers don't cover their costs currently but imagine, for a moment, that we do. Why, as a solution, would you boost the profit margins of producers with a minimum price rather than raise the prices with more taxation? We have not been able to find anyone who can explain this to us.

All we're left with is the rather uncharitable opinion that some people wanted nice jobs as campaigners but wanted to make sure that they campaigned for something silly that quite obviously would never happen. Nothing, other than sheer raging stupidity, makes sense as an explanation to us.

Economic development can have some old, old, roots

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An interesting little piece of research showing just quite how old some of the roots of economic prosperity can be. And shown using the most modern technology as well. For some years now economists have been measuring economic development by the amount of light that can be seen in satellite photographs of an area. For one of the very first things people seem to do, as soon as they can, is to light up that bulb rather than curse against the darkness. The technique has been used to estimate African GDP growth for example, coming to much more cheering results than the official figures would have us believe. And here it's used to measure quite how old some of the roots of successful development might be:

In ancient times, the area of contemporary Germany was divided into a Roman and non-Roman part. The study uses this division to test whether the formerly Roman part of Germany show a higher nightlight luminosity than the non-Roman part. This is done by using the Limes wall as geographical discontinuity in a regression discontinuity design framework. The results indicate that economic development—as measured by luminosity—is indeed significantly and robustly larger in the formerly Roman parts of Germany. The study identifies the persistence of the Roman road network until the present as an important factor causing this development advantage of the formerly Roman part of Germany both by fostering city growth and by allowing for a denser road network.

It's a very interesting little piece of work.

Why are corporations 'socially responsible'

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In a 1970 piece in the New York Times magazine Milton Friedman argued that 'the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits'. They should make as much cash as possible for their shareholders, and shareholders should give directly to charity. It is hard enough to be an efficient firm, without needing to be an effective charity at the same time. But it is popularly believed that corporations' role in society does include various other responsibilities rather than simply maximising long term shareholder value. And in real life we note that firms often run charity events, match their employees' charitable donations and so on. Why would firms spend money on charity when they don't have to?

At first you might expect that managers are exploiting the firm to selfishly gain themselves prestige. There is some evidence, for example, that more narcissistic chief executives do more corporate social responsibility.

But the bulk of evidence suggests that firms do better financially when their 'corporate social performance' is higher. A 2003 meta-analysis of 52 papers and  33,878 firms found a positive association—though this was stronger when you measured financial performance by accounting measures rather than investor measures. A 2007 meta-analysis looked at 167 studies and found a similar result: corporate social responsibility is associated with higher financial performance, though quite weakly.

Various different types of study confirm this point from different angles. For example, a 1997 paper looked only at 27 event studies of share prices when firms revealed socially irresponsible behaviour and found the converse of the other results: bad behaviour cut firm value. Event studies on financial markets are quite a good way of isolating causality; with a short enough timescale the change in question is very likely to be the one driving price changes.

But why exactly does CSR help firm performance? Recent work provides some clues. For one, it seems to cut a firm's financial risk. It seems to raise a firm's access to capital. This might be why market analysts tend to recommend firms more in their notes after they engage in CSR. And it explains why firms with more shareholder-driven corporate governance give more incentives to CEOs to engage in CSR—not what you'd predict if it was an agency cost.

This probably comes from reputational improvements, and reputational insurance. Customers prefer to buy from firms who do more and better social programmes, and engaging in CSR seems to cushion stock declines after ethics in business become popularly salient (e.g. after the 1999 Seattle protests against the WTO).

Intriguingly, the reputational advantages may also extend to the government. Davis et al. (2015) discovers that firms who do more nice stuff also lobby more and pay less tax; i.e. that corporate social responsibility and tax are substitutes. This suggests that CSR overall is not driven simply by some measure of manager altruism or empathy or quality—the sort of thing we might usually wonder about. (Though some evidence disagrees.)

None of this really answers whether CSR is good for society at large. If it does enhance reputation, leading consumers to like it more, then this is basically a transfer from consumers to charities. Either way we probably shouldn't lionise firms when they do it—they're just trying to maximise profits, as usual.

 

There's silly housing policies and then there's stupid ones

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We'll leave it to you to work out which one this is, silly or stupid:

Londoners should be given the chance to buy a new type of state-built, price-capped home that could only ever be sold to a first-time buyer, according to David Lammy, a Labour mayoral candidate.

Announcing new details of his plans to address the housing crisis in the capital on Monday, Lammy said his plan would create a new type of tenure in the UK housing market and see the state showing “hands-on leadership” in housing.

Lammy, one of the six contenders hoping to be named as Labour’s candidate for mayor in the 2016 election, said he wanted to build 30,000 of what he described as new “first-time homes” with the intention they would provide affordable housing for Londoners for generations to come.

The homes, which he said could be available for as little as £150,000, would be built on public land and sold with conditions on the leasehold intended to stop the price rising in line with normal London house price inflation.

The buyers would be able to sell for up to 10% above cost price, but only if they had lived in the home for a long time. For those trying to sell after a shorter period, the cap on the amount by which the price could rise above cost would be “significantly lower than 10%”.

Well, no, we won't leave it to you: this is a stupid policy, not merely a silly one.

There's two ways you can ration things: by price or by queues. And if you fix the price then you will be rationing by queue. Thus the inevitable outcome of this plan will be a vast waiting list of people wanting to buy this price controlled housing. The difference between this and standard housing association or council housing is only that people will be paying a mortgage to live in it rather than rent. Which isn't in fact all that much of a difference.

If there is in fact public land upon which housing can be usefully built then sure, housing should usefully be built upon that public land. But it should of course then be sold at the market price for to do otherwise means a subsidy from all other taxpayers to those who gain that below market price. That is, the politicians would just be buying votes with our money again.

Turning points

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There have been turning points in the development of humankind.  Some would point to the ability to make fire and the effect it had on people's diet and survival chances.  Undoubtedly the development of agriculture about 12,000 years ago and the domestication of grains and livestock enabled humans to become a settled species and to store value against adversity.

For most of the time men and women have been on this planet they have lived a meagre existence at subsistence level, vulnerable to storms, drought and crop failure.  Something happened about three centuries ago that changed that for an increasing proportion of Earth's population.  It was undoubtedly a turning point when people began to use some of their resources as capital to generate wealth. 

Social and intellectual changes played their part in fostering a culture of experiment, innovation and investment.  Led by Britain, the Industrial Revolution set humankind on an upward course of wealth creation that has lifted large and increasing portions of humankind out of starvation and misery.  The wealth generated by the use of capital has made possible a secure and adequate diet as well as modern medicine and sanitation.  It has enabled widespread access to education and healthcare.  It has profoundly altered the conditions of life along with the other major turning points.

Capitalism has spread and is spreading its benefits across the world.  It is not to Socialism that we owe lifestyles replete with opportunities as well as comforts.  By concentrating on the creation of new wealth instead of the mere redistribution of existing wealth, capitalism has set humankind on an upward path of limitless development.  In place of envy of those who have more, it provides space or what Adam Smith called "the uniform, constant and uninterrupted effort of every man to better his condition," and of course it applies equally to women.

It seeks not a fairer world but a better one, not equality but opportunity.  It works with the grain of the real world rather than attempting to impose a preconceived mental pattern upon it.  It works by improvement and evolution, not by revolution.  Even though this seems obvious, it is worth repeating from time to time to people for whom this is not so.  When people are tempted by the fantasy world of Socialism, it is worth reminding them of the real-world achievements that Capitalism has brought about and Socialism never has and never can.

No, prefabs are not the housing crisis solution

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There's a short answer to this question posed in the Telegraph:

Are prefab boxes the answer to Britain's severe housing shortage?

That answer being "No".

There's a longer possible answer as well: "No way".

Because, as the article itself goes on to point out, the problem is not in fact the cost of housing:

“The nature of London property prices in particular makes moving house impossible. We want to prove prefabs can be cool - if you have spare land, why not have an extra bedroom. And you can take it with you if you do move, “ said Lee Thornley, co-founder of Bert & May. He adds that prefabs are a cheaper alternative to costly extensions, as planning permission isn’t required for structures that are counted as mobile homes.

That "cheaper" part isn't quite right:

Bert & May Spaces, which launches its units next month at design show Decorex, will sell three types of units. The smallest will be a one-roomed box retailing for £25,000, a one-bedroom unit will be available from £75,000, while the most expensive will be the two-bedroom option at £150,000.

Because any form of volume building operation will have a build cost of better than £150k for a two bedder. However, accepted, the total cost, when including that planning cost, might well be lower. But at this point we need to note that it isn't the cost of building houses that is the problem. It's the cost of negotiating the planning system.

That is, prefabs, classed as mobile buildings, are an arbitrage around the planning system. Meaning that our problem is in that planning system, not in building nor the cost of it. Our solution must therefore be to do with the planning system as that is the root cause of our problems.

It's possible to be reformist here and suggest minor changes and tweaks to the system. But we are increasingly of the opinion that that's just not going to work. We're not entirely convinced that incremental reform is impossible but very nearly so. Thus the solution is simply the wholesale shredding of the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 and all the subsequent updates to it.

The real importance of this solution is that we know that it would actually work. It's said that we need 250,000 new homes a year: the last time the private sector managed this was in the 1930s, before planning became so constipated restricted. And what was constructed was exactly what gains a significant premium in today's market: the 1930s suburban house, the very thing which people fight over to buy in the Home Counties.

That is, the last time the market was left free to build houses for the people the industry built the houses that the people wanted, where they wanted them. Our current system does not manage that so why not blow up that current, nonfunctional, system and retreat back to the last one we had which actually worked?

Out today: The Oxford Handbook of Austrian Economics

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Released today, The Oxford Handbook of Austrian Economics (edited by Peter J. Boettke and Christopher J. Coyne) contains contributions from two of our Senior Fellows: Kevin Dowd and Anthony J. Evans. In his chapter, Evans takes an Austrian look back at the causes of – and the lessons we can draw from – the UK's 2007 Financial Crisis. Focusing on regime uncertainty, he rejects both the idea that the crisis was "caused by greedy bankers, complicit politicians, or capitalism itself" and the prominence of analysis that overstates the role of incentives in the run-up to the crisis. Instead, he takes the view (with reference to the work of Jeffrey Friedman, among others) that

There is far more evidence to suggest that it was ignorance and error that caused the crisis and that theoretical issues such as regime uncertainty, big players, recalculation, price naiveté, trading strategies, and corporate governance deserve closer attention.

And that

Allowing insider trading (to improve market efficiency) and reducing barriers to entry and exit (so that foreign banks can provide additional competition) help to thaw the economy and to solve the knowledge problem.

That "ignorance, not omniscience, is the norm" (and a well-functioning price mechanism is the only feasible method by which to ameliorate that problem) is a point too rarely made in reference to the crisis, which is most often blamed on the greed of bankers or the laxity of financial regulations.

As well as being a Senior Fellow of the ASI, Anthony J. Evans is Associate Professor of Economics at ESCP Europe Business School in London and a member of the IEA's Shadow Monetary Policy Committee.

You can buy The Oxford Handbook of Austrian Economics here, visit Anthony J. Evans website here, and download Dr. Eamonn Butler's (excellent) ASI primer on Austrian Economics here.