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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

Get ready for shale

Written by Miles Saltiel | Monday 22 April 2013

The prospects for hydrocarbon production on the British mainland seem stronger than ever. On 10 April, Professor Richard Davies of Durham University's Energy Institute published a paper stating that fracking is not a significant source of detectible seismic events. Meanwhile, over the last year, there has been a series of leaks of the forthcoming report by the British Geological Survey which is to raise the UK’s estimated reserves of shale gas by some 300 times.

This is welcome news as it paves the way for a secure, domestic, low-cost solution to the thorny problem of replacing the UK’s obsolescent capacity to generate electricity, with a low-carbon footprint feedstock. Many of the deposits are in the North, which would benefit from the investment; but they are also present in the south. In order to make the most of the opportunity, new policy is in order.

HMG is trailing plans to share revenues to incentivise local authorities to welcome oil development. This is very much on the right track, though I would go further: let programs be configured to encourage local authorities to compete for funding, so that they share (say) ten percent of incremental tax receipts; and bid against each other for a further ten percent for development or remediation.

The Petroleum Act (1934) appropriated subterranean hydrocarbon rights from the land-owner to the Crown, at odds with other mineral rights. This anomaly was theoretical until now, as no substantial deposits had been discovered. In light of new technologies we need to reverse this policy which was recapitulated in the Petroleum Act (1998). The clauses concerned should be repealed so that the interests of land-owners are aligned with the public interest in low-cost energy.

This takes us to taxation. Oil prospecting is beset by a complex of penal taxes, compensating exemptions plus a history of opportunistic impositions. All of this adds to investment uncertainty. HMG should set itself to remove fiscal risk from the investment equation, by introducing a regime of simplified tax treatment for newly-lifted deposits of land-based hydrocarbons, to which it commits itself for at least the next ten years.

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Figaro wonders why people are leaving France

Written by Dr Madsen Pirie | Monday 22 April 2013

The cover of Figaro magazine says it all.  “They are leaving for London, Brussels or New York,” it says, and asks, “Why are they leaving France?”  It then talks of “the ravages of fiscal banishment” and “the youngsters who leave to succeed elsewhere.” The young people shown seem to be happily waving goodbye to France’s punitive taxes.  It bears remembering that there are misguided people in Britain who tell us that taxes do not make people change their behaviour…

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I wonder if Soros will sue over his premature obituary?

Written by Tim Worstall | Sunday 21 April 2013

It isn't after all, all that complimentary:

It's a remarkably ungenerous assessment of Soros' life, starting with the "predatory" in the lead.

However, what really interested me about it all was this comment from Matt Yglesias:

He believes his success as an investor reflects the fact that the stronger forms of the Efficient Markets Hypothesis are false, and that policy conclusions related to the undesirability of unconstrained financial markets follow from this falseness.

I too tend to think that the strong version of the EMH is not entirely true, while the weak is so obviously true as to be almost a tautology. However, that's a rather strange thing to say about a speculator and abitrageur like Soros. For of course it is the activities of speculators and arbitrageurs that make the EMH actually happen, make it true. It is by acting on information that they force prices to reflect said information. If we didn't have people speculating and arbitraging then prices would not reflect information, for there would be no one acting on that information to change the prices.

It may even be true that George Soros doesn't believe in the EMH. But it's most certainly true that the EMH believes in George Soros.

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The quite fascinatingly stupid case of the minimum carbon price

Written by Tim Worstall | Saturday 20 April 2013

The Wall Street Journal picks up on the quite fascinatingly stupid imposition by the current government of a minimum price on carbon permits. This could only have been done by people entirely ignorant of how a cap and trade system works: not a wholly desirable attribute in those supposedly running a cap and trade system.

The European Parliament's rejection this week of the Commision's proposed carbon-permit price-fixing scheme is good news for economies across Europe—except for the U.K.'s, which is likely to suffer from the lower carbon-emissions prices that result...........The carbon price floor, which came into effect April 1, was supposed to increase investment in "green" energy projects in the U.K. by ensuring that carbon-permit prices could not fall below a certain level—starting at £16 per ton of carbon this year and rising to £30 per ton in 2020............The European Commission's idea for shoring up the price of carbon permits—withholding the supply of permits from the market—was voted down this week by the Parliament, and the permit price only fell farther. As of Thursday is stood at €2.80 (£2.40) a ton—just 15% of the Cameron government's floor.

I know, I know, many of you are more sensible than I am when it comes to this climate change thing. I'm still under the delusion that it's a problem we should do something about. But at least I do understand the role of price in a cap and trade system. In a carbon tax system, the other viable alternative action, it is the tax, the price of carbon emissions, that reduces them. In a cap and trade system it is instead the number of permits issued which reduces emissions. The price for such a permit is simply telling you how tough it is to meet that cap. Thus, the lower the price of the permit the better for all. It shows that reducing emissions is actually quite simple and quite cheap.

In this case, we're seeing that eliminating the marginal emissions necessary to stay under the cap costs less than £2.40 a tonne. Quite why the British government insists that everyone should pay £16 a tonne for it is known only to the more frenzied minds within it. In a cap and trade system a low price for permits is a good idea, a welcome sign that it's all less of a problem than we had thought.

As I say I do indeed think that carbon emissions are a problem that we ought to do something about. But I do also think that we should not use this as an excuse to do fascinatingly stupid things: like artificially raising a price that we are gloriously grateful about being low. The cost of reducing emissions that is.

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Think piece: The Keynesian bias in A-Level economics

Written by Nigel Watson | Friday 19 April 2013

I have taught A-Level Economics for twenty-five years. The economic crisis has pushed macroeconomics into the spotlight. Non-teaching friends often say that it must be a really interesting time to teach Economics. They are right, it is. However, it is also a frustrating time to be an A-Level Economics teacher. The source of my frustration pertains to the Keynesian bias that exists within the A-Level Economics specification, examination papers and marks schemes.  

Keynesian economists were unable to foresee the economic crisis that erupted in 2008. This view is not controversial. Unsurprisingly, Keynesian demand-side policy remedies have been unsuccessful. Despite fiscal stimulus and ultra-loose monetary policy, UK national income remains lower than what it was before the crisis. The Keynesian paradigm is under pressure. Unfortunately, students across the country are being taught this failing paradigm. 

Continue reading.

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Ten reasons why the Left should like the ASI, 6: Drug legalization

Written by Dr Madsen Pirie | Friday 19 April 2013

6. The ASI supports the decriminalization of narcotics.  The Left should be pleased that the ASI has many times called for the decriminalization of drugs and for drug-addiction to be treated as a medical rather than a criminal problem.

The ASI has expressed the view that the criminalization of narcotics causes much more harm than would result from decriminalization.  Because narcotics are illegal they are in the hands of a worldwide criminal network.  Their illegality makes dealing a risky operation and results in very high prices for drugs, out of all proportion to the actual cost of producing them.  Those high prices result in turf wars between drug gangs and make murder a commonplace.  Addicts often resort to crime to fund the cost of their habit, making innocent people victims of mugging, burglary and theft. 

The ASI has called for most drugs to be medicalized, meaning they would be available at high street clinics manned by doctors and nurses, to be consumed on the premises.  In return for undergoing medical examination and receiving advice, addicts would receive free supplies to consume within the clinic.  While this would work for most hard drugs, no-one would want to consume recreational drugs such as ecstasy and cocaine in such clinical conditions. The ASI suggests that these should be legalized since they do no harm to anyone but the user.

The effect of these reforms would be to cut drug crime to near zero, and to exercise control over the quality of narcotics.  There would be fewer deaths from overdoses or adulterated supplies, and most addicts would come within the scrutiny of doctors and nurses equipped to help them. 

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Leave One Direction alone!

Written by Sam Bowman | Thursday 18 April 2013

In yesterday's City AM I responded to Vince Cable's condemnation of the boyband One Direction's £25m earnings. The point that Cable missed, I argued, was that income is a reflection of value created for other people: 

Earnings are not a reflection of moral worth, they’re a product of how much other people are willing to pay for your work. If a lot of people are willing to pay you just a little, you can make a lot of money.

To understand how high pay can be fair, the philosopher Robert Nozick suggested a thought experiment. Imagine a society where wealth was distributed equally. Now suppose a great basketball player, like the legendary US player Wilt Chamberlain, comes along. Everyone wants to see Chamberlain play, and his team charges fans an extra 25 cents to see him.

After the first season, 1m people have paid to see Chamberlain’s games. His income for that season is $250,000 – much more than anyone started off with. Is there an injustice here? Chamberlain is happy and his fans are happy. They could have spent their money on something else, but seeing him added enough value to their lives to be worth that extra 25 cents.

Would anyone say that these earnings were “grossly immoral”? Adding a little bit of value to a lot of people’s lives is a good thing, and if people are willing to pay for that, good for the Chamberlains of this world. Some may prefer Beethoven to Harry Styles, but One Direction’s fans disagree.

It hasn't propelled me to international pop-stardom, as I'd hoped, but you might still want to read the whole thing.

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Incentivising excellence in education

Written by Gabriel H. Sahlgren | Thursday 18 April 2013

There’s a broad mismatch between educational and broader societal progress that’s puzzling. How is it that schools are organised and education supplied today in basically the same way as they were a hundred years ago? The main difference between education and other sectors is the lack of incentives at work to raise performance.

The theory sounds simple: allow competition through choice, and the rest will follow. Of course, reality is not that simple. Choice operates within broader institutional structures that either support or undermine it. So system design, with attention to how to incentivise improvement, is key if we are going to see any genuine transformation in education.

In Incentivising excellence, I discuss how choice serves as a catalyst for improved quality, and propose reforms to this end. The proposals are underpinned by a comprehensive review of the international evidence that takes into account the methodological strengths and weaknesses of studies, while at the same time paying attention to the competitive incentives of different education systems.

The cross-national research, which focuses on long-term effects, finds that independent-school competition is positive for achievement in PISA, the OECD’s educational ranking system. Competition also reduces costs. The total efficiency gains are striking. This contrasts with PISA’s official report, which fails to note any benefits from competition. This report, however, is not an academic study and it is likely that methodological weaknesses are responsible for the results. There is consequently no reason to disregard the proper academic research on the subject.

In terms of national and smaller-scale programmes, the evidence is mixed. Studies either note positive or neutral impacts. The results showing negative effects of choice are few and far between, while some studies display large gains in various countries.

A key lesson is that most attempts by governments around the work to introduce choice have been flawed.  Many regulate in such a way as to prevent strong supply-side dynamics from arising (often partly because the profit motive is absent), don’t allow schools enough autonomy, and prop up failing schools by giving them additional funds. Such constraints work against true competition.

The English school choice model suffers from these same shortcomings. With proximity as the main tie-break device, rich parents move closer to good schools, thus increasing residential segregation, leaving poor parents with few options. In England, therefore, choice has to a large extent been a chimera.

There is a role for the government in education. The benefits of education for society as a whole, and parents’ need for information that might not be in the interests of suppliers to provide, mean there is a case for government involvement in funding and information provision. But this is far from the prescriptive and dominating role the state currently plays.

Transforming the education system into an education market requires more than just the right to choose schools: it requires careful system-wide reform to a change the incentive structure fundamentally. Only then can we expect a revolution that increases productivity significantly.

Gabriel H. Sahlgren is the Director of Research at The Centre for Market Reform of Education. Incentivising excellence: school choice and education quality was published last week. The author’s policy recommendations for the English education system are given in a discussion paper, available to download from

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Why do we exchange things?

Written by Blog Editor | Thursday 18 April 2013

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Ten reasons why the Left should like the ASI, 5: Anti-surveillance

Written by Dr Madsen Pirie | Wednesday 17 April 2013

5. The ASI opposes official surveillance and secret powers.  The Left should welcome the ASI's opposition to snooping and surveillance by authority and its support for an open rule of law.

It is not a legitimate exercise of authority for a state to spy on its subjects.  If they go about their peaceful business, their activities are no concern of government, and government has no right to intrude into them. Government is our servant, not our master, put in place by the people to protect them and to safeguard their liberties.  Using the excuse of monitoring possible terrorist acts, government has resorted to quite illegitimate surveillance measures into the lives of its law-abiding citizens.  The ASI has opposed the extension of these powers, and the use of CCTV cameras by local authorities in quite trivial cases such as improper parking, putting out rubbish for collection at the wrong times, or to monitor whether parents live at the addresses claimed in their school applications.

The cry that "only the guilty have anything to fear" has been used to justify the oppressive intrusion of tyrants throughout history.  In fact the innocent have a great deal to fear from governments which demand the right to read their mails, to eavesdrop on their conversations, to record them on camera, and to monitor their movements.  These things are no legitimate concern of governments. 

The ASI supports the rule of law, done openly and subject to public scrutiny.  It opposes secret courts and secret powers, and supports the right of accused persons to trial by jury and full public scrutiny of the judicial process.  Where there is legitimate cause for concern about public safety, and surveillance is indicated, there should be separate application each time, judged on its merits by a magistrate, rather than an automatic and general right to conduct it.

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