Expressive voting and the paradox of Corbyn


Last week, YouGov released a new poll of Labour leadership selectors that suggested that Jeremy Corbyn may very well win in the first round. Corbyn’s meteoric rise from charity case to front runner has been all the more remarkable because, in the words of Alastair Campbell, “Jeremy Corbyn as … every piece of political intelligence, experience and analysis tells you will never be elected Prime Minister.” So what’s going on here? Is conventional Westminster wisdom wrong? Is the favourite of the unions capable of repeating the success of Syriza? Or has Labour rediscovered its “desire never to win again”? Perhaps neither.

A useful insight might come from public choice theory, and in particular from a highly-regarded and heavily-cited book by Geoffrey Brennan and Loren Lomasky. In Democracy and Decision: the pure theory of electoral preference, Brennan & Lomasky offer a new explanation for the “paradox of voting”, the rationality-defying fact that people vote despite the fact that the probability of one’s vote mattering is almost zero. As Sam observed on these pages:

No individual can reasonably expect her vote to determine or even influence the outcome of an election. In America, the chance of a one-vote victory margin that would determine the 2008 presidential election was about 1 in 10 million in some swing states, and 1 in a billion in places like California or Texas.

Thus a rational voter would be a non-voter, avoiding the cost of registering for and participating in something that they cannot possibly hope to affect. And yet people vote.

Brennan & Lomasky offer a different explanation. Individuals do not vote primarily to affect the outcome (which they know they cannot) but to express an preference; indeed, to express themselves. Much as we might shout at a football match on television or curse out loud when on our own, there is something inherent in the human psyche that wishes to express its opinion. What is more, the way in which we express ourselves helps define who we are, and enables us to feel good about ourselves.

The crucial point here is that there is absolutely zero cost to expressing oneself any way one pleases at the ballot box, because one’s vote is hardly likely to matter. For the same reason, the only tangible benefit one is likely to reap from voting is that feeling one gets for choosing “the right” candidate. Vote Labour and you are a caring person; vote Conservative and you are a responsible person; vote UKIP and you are a proud patriot; vote Green and you want to save our planet...

Which brings us back to Mr Corbyn. John Mann, Labour MP for Bassetlaw, tweeted that “Quite a number of Corbyn supporters [said] to me that principled opposition is better than seeking an electoral majority.” He dismissed this as “The elite speak[ing]”.

But maybe what is going on here is that Labour supporters, bruised by a crushing defeat and frustrated by the thought of another five years of Conservative rule, are voting not rationally but expressively. Remember, the chance that any single vote matters is going to be tiny: Edlin, Gelman, and Kaplan suggest that “The probability of a pivotal vote is inversely proportional to the number of voters…”; that means that a Labour leadership selector has a 1-in-400,000 chance of being decisive.

But they have a precisely 1-in-1 chance of defining who they are by how they vote. With a probability of one they can make a statement that they are caring and principled, that they believe in social justice, that they reject the Conservative dogma that has dominated electoral politics for a third of a century. Conventional Westminster wisdom may be right that Corbyn isn’t electable, but whether Corbyn becomes leader is not a function of their single vote, whereas that single vote says everything about the voter and their values.

What results, as public choice theorists know only too well, is a collective action problem. No individual can affect the outcome and therefore the worst outcome results. It is important to acknowledge, also, that it is highly unlikely that voters are fully conscious of how the incentives affect their behaviour. But it does explain why supporters whose party has only ever won when it has tacked to the centre are nonetheless willing to vote for the most extreme candidate on the ticket despite the fact that their last, somewhat off-centre leader, lost them the general election.

It may not be the “right” thing to do, but God! It feels good!

Why these crash programmes to build houses won't work


There's any number of plans out there to create massive housebuilding programmes. There's even that lovely Corbynite idea that the Bank of England should just print lots more money to pay for them: along with an insistence that this simply won't be inflationary. Nope, not at all. Because there's slack in the economy, you see? And yes, there is most certainly slack in the economy. But spraying money around and the inflationary effects of doing so does rather depend upon whether there's slack in that part of the economy that you're spraying money at:

Two-thirds of British building companies have had to turn down work because they do not have enough skilled tradesmen, according to a survey by the Federation of Master Builders. The trade body for construction firms said that 66pc of its members have had to refuse new business because of a lack of resources while almost half have been forced to outsource work. The bosses of some of Britain’s biggest housebuilding companies have spoken out this week about the shortage.

Thus the problem in housebuilding is more of a structural one than a short term financing one. Meaning that just spraying money at the sector will only raise wages of those in short supply to do the work. And that is, erm, inflationary, isn't it?

So perhaps it isn't a very bright idea to simply print more money to firehose into this sector then?

Victory for vaping


The report from Public Health England is highly significant.  A major health body has concluded after research that e-cigarettes are 95% less harmful than smoking tobacco cigarettes.  PHE is an executive agency sponsored by the Department of Health.  It asked a team of experts to conduct an independent review of the evidence, and the findings are unequivocal.

They conclude there is no evidence that e-cigarettes are a gateway to lead children or non-smokers into smoking.  On the contrary, they find that almost all of the 2.6 million vapers in Britain are current or ex-smokers using e-cigarettes to help them quit or to keep them from reverting.

They found that increasing numbers, now nearly half the population, believe that vaping is as harmful or more harmful than are cigarettes, even though it is estimated to be only up to 5% as harmful.  This could be because the anti-vapers trying to have it banned indoors or in public places have persuaded them that it is harmful.  The report makes a telling estimate:

At the moment, 80,000 people [in England] die every year as a result of cigarette smoking. If everybody who was smoking switched to e-cigarettes that would reduce to about 4,000 deaths a year. That's the best estimate at the moment. It may well be much, much lower than that.

It also makes it plain that e-cigarettes are an effective means of helping people to quit.  Those who oppose vaping because "it looks like smoking" are missing the point.  It is probably because it resembles smoking that it works.  Users put it with their hands to their mouth and produce vapour that looks like smoke, while giving them the nicotine kick.  They don't have to quit doing any of this, but the harmful cigarette smoke with its tars and noxious gases is absent.

The report suggests that e-cigarettes are a "game changer" in public health.  It is interesting that many of the big tobacco companies have bought e-cigarette companies, clearly spotting where the future is going.  There will be some who campaign against the acceptability of vaping because they claim it normalizes smoking.  This is not only silly, but threatens the most effective method to help smokers to quit.  It is not smoking that e-cigarettes normalize; they normalize giving up smoking.

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There's a fairly simple answer to this question


Over in The Guardian there's a question asked that rather horrifies us:

What is the correct number of children each of us should have? It’s a question to which we urgently need an answer – made all the more necessary by the latest reported figures, which show that Britain now has more families with four or more children than at any time since the 1970s. According to the European statistics agency, Eurostat, there’s a growing trend for large families – even though the average family size is getting smaller.

Should this be celebrated, or condemned? We need some guidance, surely. If not, how are today’s young people of childbearing age ever going to work out what to do?

The horror coming from the fact that if there is some "right" number of children that each couple, or woman, should have, then obviously there has to be someone, somewhere, who decides what that number is. And then, naturally, some system of enforcement. And when there's enforcement of anything like this we get to the horrors of those Chinese and or Indian systems of forced sterilisations, enforced abortions and the rest. Things that have also happened, on a smaller scale, here in Europe within living memory.

Thus the correct answer to the "how many children should people have?" question is: none of your damn business matey.

Isn't Corbyn offering us all such lovely sweeties?


As the cynics realists among us know, the art of electoral politics is to bribe enough people with other peoples' money that you've managed to buy enough votes. Which is what Jeremy Corbyn is doing here:

Corbynmania went into orbit when the Labour leadership frontrunner revealed he would reopen coal mines if he becomes Prime Minister.

Bookies favourite Jeremy Corbyn has unveiled his vision for the country, which includes nationalising parts of the gas and electricity sector and “where you can” reopening pits.

That's all three of the remaining members of the NUM onside, plus any number of Labour Party romantics who get all hot and sweaty at the thought of manly men doing manly things like dying of black lung and being crushed by cave ins.

“I think we can develop coal technology. Let's do so because energy prices around the world are going up. Open cast mining is not acceptable, deep mined coal is possible and is an alternative.

Open cast mining: it's not that it creates a hole in the ground that is the problem (and the spoil piles of deep mining are just as much of an eyesore) it's that it can be done with two men and a dog which isn't going to revive that industrial proletariat that all too many still swoon over.

And clean coal, carbon capture, simply isn't going to happen in anything approaching a reality that we would want to live in. Quite apart from anything else, any technology that actually works (not something we're sure can be achieved) would turn out to be vastly cheaper if applied to natural gas rather than coal. So the very idea of clean coal is pretty much a non-starter.

But then this is an election campaign, isn't it? Nothing anyone says has to make any sense, it just has to buy those votes....

To disagree a little with Allister Heath here


We like Allister around here, really we do, but we fear that he's fallen into a slight error here in his list of taxes that should be abolished:

Third and fourth, the supplementary charge on the profits of oil and gas firms working in the North Sea, and the petroleum revenue tax, which hits older fields. Adam Memon of the Centre for Policy Studies is right to be calling for the immediate abolition of both taxes. The official statistics are grim: in 1998, Britain’s oil and gas output reached 230m tonnes of oil equivalent; in 2014, this was just 76m. One consequence of this catastrophic shrinkage is that the Scottish National party’s stated plan to rely on North Sea revenues to keep the welfare state going in an independent Scotland are deluded – but it also means that the Government must stop using the tax system to discourage what is left of this industry. Offshore corporation tax receipts have collapsed from £9.8bn in 2008/09 to £2.1bn in 2014/15, the Centre for Policy Studies reminds us, and is set to fall further to £600m and below shortly. Many fields still face horrendously high marginal tax rates, yet yield less and less for the Treasury. The supplementary charge and the petroleum revenue tax should both be axed. This wouldn’t be enough to turn back the clock but it would help engineer at least a minor renaissance for the sector. As a result, it is possible that the industry would, on balance, yield more cash for George Osborne.

Even The Guardian once managed to note that there really is a Laffer Effect on oil taxation. Noting that Gordon Brown has managed to raise tax levels so high that production, and thus revenues, declined. But that's an issue about tax rates, not about the existence of a tax. And the truth is that these are resource rents and those really should be taxed until the pips squeak.

The point being that such natural resources simply exist. No one created them and thus there's not really any reason why anyone in particular should profit from their existence. And we do need some tax revenue because we do need to have some government (no, we are not anarcho-capitalists). That people should profit from their capital, ingenuity and work in extracting and refining is just fine: but not that a private company should profit simply from the existence of such natural resources. That value, that resource rent, should be taxed away.

That is, we can have productive arguments about whether the tax rates are currently too high, but we shouldn't then fall into the error of arguing that such taxes should be done away with. The price of oil is set by the market in general: thus all such resource rent taxation does is change who profits from that happenstance of the creation of a natural resource, private company shareholders or all of us from lower taxation upon our incomes or consumption.

Change the oil taxation system by all means but don't end up not taxing resource rents.

Old myths die hard, don't they?


Well, no, not really Geoffrey, not really:

Poor harvests, far away, were famously one of the causes of the Arab spring. In 2007-8 grain prices spiked after poor weather cut worldwide production, at a time when food stocks had been run down – and export restrictions, by countries wishing to secure their own supplies, made things even worse.

This is to introduce the idea that climate change is going to lead to extreme weather and.....yes, you guessed it....Aieee! We All Die!

Except of course it wasn't bad harvests that caused the problems. It was the idiot idea of feeding corn (and, to a lesser extent, wheat) into car fuel tanks rather than people. As much as 5% of the crop was diverted to this process leading the World Bank to tell us that "large increases in biofuels production in the United States and Europe are the main reason behind the steep rise in global food prices".

That is, the problem was caused by one of the sillier attempts to deal with climate change. And as ever, if you misdiagnose the cause of a problem you're never going to be able to solve it.

Somewhat ghoulish but interesting all the same


Another one of those reports telling us of the terrors of inequality:

The death rate among preschool children in the UK is almost double that of Sweden, with social inequalities being partly to blame, according to researchers.

We have to say that we're not convinced. We could imagine poverty contributing to such things, but simple inequality we have a hard time believing.

The researchers found there were 614 deaths per 100,000 of the under-fives population in the UK, compared with 328 in Sweden. The primary causes of death in the UK were problems associated with premature birth, congenital abnormalities, and infections, with the mortality rate for the first of these factors being 13 times higher than in Sweden.

The study’s co-author Imti Choonara, emeritus professor at Nottingham University’s academic unit of child health, said: “The major cause of death is prematurity, and social economic inequalities are one of the causes [of prematurity]. A society with large inequalities inevitably results in worse health outcomes.”

But they're adamant that it is that inequality. Which is interesting because other studies of premature birth and survival rates don't think that's it at all.

Rather, they think that the Swedish health care system, despite it costing about the same as the NHS, is rather better at dealing with all of this than the NHS is.

That is, the usual finding on this subject is that the NHS isn't very good. Bit of a surprise that, isn't it?

Scotland's irrational GM crop ban


The Scottish government has decided to ban genetically modified crops to ensure Scotland maintains its ‘clean, green status’. This phrase, symbolic of what we are supposed to want to preserve, has not been defined, and we have no way of discerning exactly how it relates to the consequences of GM crops. Richard Lochhead, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Scottish National Party Member, announced the policy as Scotland's stance, ahead of the government's request to be exempted from EU-authorised GM crops. None of the reasons given for the prohibition follow from the evidence we have about GM crops nor from countries’ experiences with them. One anti-GM-crop writer, Mike Small of Bella Caledonia, remarkably complained we are falling foul of an ‘expertocracy’ because of our ‘unswerving devotion to scientists’. He has also given a number of reasons why we should support the prohibition of GM crops in Scotland. Among those were that GM crops are a long-term economic disaster for farmers; do not increase yield potential; increase pesticide use; and have not been shown to be safe to eat. These claims are simply wrong.

If we take a look at a meta-analysis conducted last year of the impacts of genetically modified organisms we see that the agronomic and economic benefits of GM crops are large and significant. The positive feedback we hear from people in developing countries is reflected in the studies as we find that yield and profit gains are higher in developing countries than in developed countries. It concludes that, on average, GM technology has increased crop yields by 21%, reduced pesticide quantity by 37% and pesticide cost by 39%, and meant average profit gains of 69% for GM-adopting farmers.



The World Health Organisation has verified that all GM foods available in the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. People have been consuming them for decades in the United States and in 2014 GM crops made up 94% of soybean acreage, 93% of all corn planted, and 96% of all cotton. For as long as populations have consumed them no resulting effects on human health have been shown in the countries where they have been approved.

While farmers in the rest of the UK are looking to take advantage of GM technology, farmers in Scotland are concerned by the Scottish Parliament's backwards policy; spokespeople for the agricultural industry say it will impede their efficiency and competitiveness. They are right: Scottish farmers will not be capable of competing in the same market as their neighbours if shut off from technological advances just as other countries are adopting GM crops.

To give any credence to Mike Small and similar superstitious claims would be to completely go against accepted evidence and rationality. So if Scottish politicians follow through with the GMO prohibition without any credible counteracting evidence that it would be harmful for Scotland, it will not only hold the country back, but the boundaries of scientific research will be redefined and Scotland might lose its leading research experts to more supportive political environments.

The fiddly and tricky bit of the new electricity system


That the amount of electricity we can generate from wind turbines is inherently variable is well known. What isn't as well known is how they intend to deal with it:

Households' lights could be dimmed and kettles take longer to boil when the wind isn't blowing, under Government-backed plans to routinely dip the voltage of Britain's electricity supplies. As Britain builds more wind farms, the measures to dip voltage could be used when there is an unexpected lull in wind power output. New technology to instantly dip the voltage of power to entire regions “at the press of a button” has already been quietly trialled on half a million households across north-west England. The system could be rolled out across the UK in coming years, ministers have indicated - after trials showed consumers did not notice any difference.

That is just fine for domestic supplies. No one does notice although we do have a technical word for this: "brownout". It's something that we consider to be part of a Third World (for which read "bad") electricity supply system.

For while there's pretty much no problem with domestic supplies this causes absolute chaos in industry. Something that is already being seen in Germany. There, it's not so much that the grid is intentionally lowering (or, as is proposed, raising at times) the voltage, it's that the country's reliance upon wind just makes it happen. And modern production machinery simply cannot deal with variations in voltage.

There have been cases not just of production runs faltering, ruining what was being produced, but of voltage variations damaging the actual machinery itself. This has in turn led to German industry scrambling to deal with the problem: effectively, the solution is to put something like a giant UPS on the side of every piece of production machinery.

This, of course, has costs, substantial costs, and needs to be added to the cost of this new electricity generation system. And it isn't added: so, therefore, the costs of wind power are not fully accounted for. Just as with the original carbon emissions, we've got an uncosted externality in the system making the numbers even worse than the current massive price.