We look forward to the next two NHS efficiency reports

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Lord Carter's report that the NHS is not in fact as efficient as we would like that august organisation to be. This has led to the predictable cries from the left that it must be the nascent market in said NHS that is to blame:

The aim is, apparently to save up to £400 million for the NHS by making more effective buying decisions that will reduce the product range used by NHS hospitals from more than 500,000 items to just 10,000.

Three thoughts follow. The first is that it is very obvious that Lord Carter is saying that splitting the NHS into hundreds of trusts each making their own buying decisions is hopelessly inefficient, as was always obvious.

Second, he is saying that if you create an inefficient system where cooperation is not allowed because that is contrary to the dogmatically imposed idea that competition produces optimal outcomes you will end up with excess cost.

And third, he is saying that imposing centralisation on the system could save a great deal, as I argued on this blog only last week.

At which point we think we'd like to see proof of the contention.

NHS Scotland and NHS Wales work under very different levels of competition and market outsourcing than NHS England does. There are two possibilities in the Carter report. The first is that the 22 trusts chosen to be examined were from all three systems. At which point it should be possible to pull out the evidence that less market based systems are more efficient, as is alleged. Or, alternatively, the 22 trusts were only from NHS England in which case everyone is, no doubt eagerly, preparing for similar investigations, under the same terms, to be undertaken into NHS Wales and NHS Scotland so as to prove the contention.

For of course those making such a claim would actually like to have solid evidence of said claim, wouldn't they? We'd not want to be deciding something of such public importance merely on the grounds of pure prejudice, would we?

Would we?

So, err, could anyone point us to those calls for or that store of comparative evidence? Because we can't see them anywhere.....

The Swansea Barrage is still an absurd idea

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As Christopher Booker points out, the Swansea Barrage is an absurd idea. Not because the idea of tidal power itself is absurd, but because we've actually studied this version of it and come to the conclusion that it is, well, absurd:

Yet, as I reported on April 18, under the headline “Will Welsh eels scupper the craziest 'green’ project ever?”, in practical terms this scheme should be a non-starter. On the developer’s figures, the 16 tidal-powered giant turbines, built into a six-mile long breakwater round Swansea Bay, will intermittently generate only a pitiful amount of the most expensive and heavily subsidised electricity in the world. They will require constant back-up from fossil-fuel power stations for all the many hours when they are producing little or no power. In return for the developers receiving a mind-boggling £168 per megawatt hour for electricity, including a subsidy of 240 per cent, even more than that for offshore wind, we shall on average get just a derisory 57 megawatts. Yet the £1 billion gas-fired power station recently built down the coast at Pembroke can produce 35 times as much electricity, whenever needed, without a penny of subsidy.

As one of us pointed out some time ago this really does not make economic sense.

There's been a large study of all of the different variations of a plan to generate tidal power from the Severn Estuary. They compared the cost of that tidal power against the cost of natural gas fired stations. And they included the cost of the gas rising into the future, the taxes that would have to be paid on CO2 emissions and so on and on. It was a proper cost benefit analysis done properly. And they found that the larger we built the tidal power plant the more money we lost on it. This being indicated by the net present value of each of the different variations of the plan. The larger it was the greater the negative amount showing up as that net present value.

We can get to the same result by looking at the price for that contract for difference for the energy to be produced. All in costs (including carbon taxes!) for gas fired plants are in the £80 to £100 level. Anything that costs us more than this loses us money. We might, maybe, perhaps, accept small installations that are loss making as a method of encouraging a new technology. Vast monsters of plants designed to work for a century and more do not meet this test, of course.

It's really very simple indeed. Whatever is it that we need to do about climate change deliberately setting out to do so in a manner that makes us poorer just isn't the right way to start. Yet that's what the Swansea Barrage does, as we can see from the two sets of numbers we can use to check it. It has a negative net present value and a requirement for a contract for difference vastly above other potential power sources.

We just shouldn't even be entertaining the idea of building it. Well, not with our money, at least. Someone wants to go and lose their own on it then fine: but that means no contract for difference.

In which we come over all regal and medieval

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It was never quite true that if a medieval king or ruler felt that the quality of the advice he was receiving was slipping a bit, that then there would be a nice bloody purge of said advisers in order to buck up the quality of policy on offer from those who remained. Britain, certainly, never had quite such absolutism, something for which of course we should all be grateful. But there are times, even in this modern era, when such a policy seems most attractive:

He said EU regulations are the “single biggest impact on our business”. The EU is unleashing Europe’s beet farmers in 2017 by removing a production cap, in a move that is expected to push down prices 15pc by 2020. Farmers will be subsidised to counteract this drop, while cane sugar imports continue to face tariffs of up to €339 (£246) per tonne.

Leave aside the bleatings of the business affected by these rules. And savour instead the absurdity of them.

There's poor people out there, poor people who would be delighted to sell us the sugar we desire at a price we'd be delighted to pay. So, instead of raising both our and their quality of life we tax what they would sell us. Then there's the very much richer farmers of Europe, who do not wish to produce sugar for us to consume at any price that we wish to pay. So, we subsidise them to do so. And bringing up the rear is the lamentable Action on Sugar who are insisting that the whole sector should groan under yet another layer of taxes to prevent us eating what we subsidise the production of.

It is obviously true that waving a broadsword through the apparatchicki of an entire continent is not a liberal proposal. But boy, oh boy, is it still a tempting one. This is of course Kip Esquire's Law, that if there were some rationalisation of the world, some attempt at planning, then we'd be the people getting to do said rationalising and planning rather than someone else doing it in a manner we might not appreciate so much. So back to the boring old, and markedly more liberal, ideas of persuasion, democratic politics and simple exposition of the absurd state of modern affairs.

We are subsidising the rich to produce something, we are taxing the poor who would provide us with that same thing and this is simply a nonsense. We should stop doing both.

Please, and our having asked nicely doesn't mean we don't enjoy the idea of getting a bit more regal and medieval about it all.

It's not capitalism but markets that must be argued for

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Around here we're rather fond of Allister Heath. But we do think we need to gently correct him here. It's not capitalism that needs to be argued for, to be fought for, but markets. And we think it an error to try to fight for both at the same time:

Capitalism creates wealth and opportunity for the many, not just the few. Lower taxes are the best way to forge a stronger and more generous society. Social problems can often be traced to misguided government intervention. These are some of the sentiments that underpin modern small-c conservative thinking across the English-speaking world. Such ideas are relentlessly expounded by centre-Right politicians in the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. But when was the last time you heard such striking, unapologetic language from the Conservative Party? There has been the occasional speech over the years, of course, and the odd newspaper article, but they all quickly vanished without trace.

Well, sorta, but not quite:

There is only one possible way forward for the Tories, and that is to re-engage in the battle of ideas. They must start campaigning explicitly and methodically for capitalism, for markets and against the pernicious view that Whitehall always knows best. The aim over the next five years must be to reframe the narrative around capitalism by depicting it as a tool of social progress, a means to tackle poverty and a mechanism to help families enjoy a better life.

Again, nice, but not quite grasping the very beating heart of the matter. Which is that capitalism and socialism are descriptions of who owns the productive assets of a society. And this is one of the less important factors in determining how good that society is for the consumer (and as both Smith and Bastiat pointed out, we really must be looking at the society and economy from that aspect of consumption). Yes, the profit motive is also important and so on: but what is vastly more important is the market. For it is that market that tempers the profit motive extant under either capitalism or voluntary socialism to the benefit of those consumers.

To take a direct example, the British supermarket industry. One player, Asda, is owned by Walmart, a rather good example of entreprenurial capitalism turned patriarchal. Some 50% of the company is owned by the children of the founder. Sainsbury's is rather further down the road to extended outside shareholder ownership, Tesco and Morrison's all the way. These are definitely capitalist organisations. But we've also got, in this same space, the Co Op which is a mutual owned by the customers, and Waitrose which, as part of the John Lewis group, is mutually owned by the workers. These various methods of ownership are interesting, but they're not in any manner what makes food and booze cheap , plentiful and always available to the consumer. That's that there's these organisations, and others, fighting in a horrendously competitive market for each pound, penny and groat that the consumers desire to spend.

In this sense we're entirely indifferent to either capitalism or voluntary socialism. Of course, we're still vehemently opposed to imposed socialism: but then so are we to imposed capitalism, or as that's normally called, crony capitalism.

Sure, we think capitalism is pretty good. It works which is always nice for a socio-economic system. But we really do not think it's the important and defining thing that needs to be argued or fought for. That it is possible is enough: as that people can organise themselves into whatever version of mutual or socialist cooperative they desire is also enough. Neither needs to be promoted.

But we must absolutely make sure that whoever does own those productive assets is made to compete, to sweat it out, in those markets. So if as and when the Tories, or anyone in fact, goes out on the road to argue for capitalism we'll be the ones right behind them shouting "Markets!" at all times. Just as if people want to go out and argue for mutuals and co ops we'll be the ones shouting that "Markets!" at all pauses in the conversation.

Because the truth is that whoever does own those assets their behaviour, their chase for profit and advantage, is only tempered by the existence of others doing the same. Those markets that we shout about.

Ed Miliband is right: in-work poverty is the scourge of our time

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Ed Miliband has given his first Commons speech since losing the election, where he's focused on inequality and low pay in Britain. He’s almost entirely wrong on the first of those, in my view, not least because most of the problems he identifies come from perceptions of inequality, which are not driven by reality. But on low pay, he makes an important point. In-work poverty really does appear to be the scourge of our time, and free marketeers ignore it at their peril.

By poverty, I do not mean relative poverty, although that is the definition the government uses to define the word. (A household is defined as in poverty if it earns less than 60 percent of the median wage.) I prefer the approach of the IEA’s Kristian Niemietz and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which calculates the cost of a basket of goods that most people would consider essential to living a decent life in modern Britain.

This approach is in the spirit of Adam Smith’s conception of poverty:

A linen shirt … is, strictly speaking, not a necessary of life. The Greeks and Romans lived, I suppose, very comfortably though they had no linen. But in the present times, through the greater part of Europe, a creditable day-labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt, the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty which, it is presumed, nobody can well fall into without extreme bad conduct.

According to the JRF, single working-age people need to earn at least £17,100 before tax to live decently; a couple with two children need to earn £20,200 each (versus £13,900 in 2008), and a lone parent with one child now needs to earn more than £27,100 (versus £12,000 in 2008).

Because real wages have fallen across the board since 2008, and the cost of living has risen, an increasing number of people in full-time jobs are still in poverty. My fear is that this is not simply a product of the financial crisis and Great Recession, but a reflection of a longer-term trend.

Wages usually reflect worker productivity, so simply jacking up the minimum wage is no solution to this. Any worker who is less productive than the minimum wage costs will just not be able to find a job. In general, when minimum wages rise, so does unemployment. So there is no simple way to boost workers’ incomes by forcing wages up.

Changes like automation and offshoring work (to call centres in India, for instance) will raise global living standards overall, and should be welcomed for that reason, but they may hurt the incomes of low-skilled British workers by increasing competition for the jobs they have been doing and leaving only relatively unproductive work left to be done. Some people say low-skilled immigration does the same, but labour market liberalization seems to be a tidy solution to that problem.

The techno-pessimist view that machines may simply replace workers in some jobs, without creating new ones for them to move into, is not impossible or even particularly unlikely. Even if it is wrong, improvements in automation or competition from abroad may make low-skilled workers’ marginal productivity too low to earn a decent amount. Their productivity might just not be enough to earn as much as we would like them to.

As I see it, there are three possible ways we could reduce in-work poverty:

  1. Reduce the cost of living. Instead of trying to raise workers’ take-home pay, we could reduce the cost of things they want to buy. Housing and childcare are two of the most expensive things in most people’s budgets. Housing could be made much cheaper if the supply of housing was increased by liberalising planning. Britain has the tightest staff:child ratio requirements in Europe, and in a labour-intensive industry like childcare that has driven costs extremely high. Allowing as many children per staff member as they do in, say, Denmark would let costs fall considerably. However, both of these reforms, as well as most other supply-side deregulations, face considerable political opposition.
  2. Cut taxes on low-income earners. The government has already pledged to raise the income tax threshold to be close to the minimum wage level. But National Insurance payments kick in at a much lower level – £155 a week, or 23 hours of minimum wage work. Raising this threshold, ideally to kick in after forty hours of minimum wage work, should be a major priority. But the higher the threshold goes, the fewer of the poorest people it helps, because they are already earning less than the threshold amount.
  3. Just give money to poor people. Whether we do it through something like a Negative Income Tax, a Basic Income, or a significantly simplified and reformed tax credits system, direct cash transfers seem to be a good way of boosting the incomes of the poor without messing markets up in other ways. If they are only conditional on income, they can be designed to avoid severely perverted incentives that exist in the current welfare system. But paying for this would mean major changes to existing benefits system, which the Universal Credit reforms have shown are a minefield. There is also a danger that this kind of system would be implemented as a costly addition to existing welfare payments, rather than a revenue-neutral replacement.

In practice, some combination of the three is probably our best bet. There is no single political grouping that favours all three of these policies; indeed the false solution of massive minimum wage hikes is popular across the political spectrum.

This is worrying, but there is so much evidence against it that it will surely fail, and accepting that we have a problem may be the first step to solving it. So, in highlighting low pay as one of the central problems of the 21st Century, allow me to say something rarely heard on this blog: Ed Miliband is right.

David Cameron is wrong and Owen Jones is right

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Not quite a headline we thought we would ever offer. But it is true here:

In contrast to the nation’s deficit, Cameron’s rational, evidence-based approach to drugs has disappeared. The self-evidently catastrophic war on drugs – an unforgivable waste of life, wellbeing, treasure and time – is now to be intensified. A new crackdown on “legal highs” will now mean the criminalisation of, among other substances, poppers, a substance particularly popular among gay men interested in enhancing their sex lives.

The idea of making yet more drugs illegal is simply the wrong way to be going about things:

We have a clear choice. Do we leave drugs in the control of murderous drug gangs who destabilise entire nations – or do we regulate them, bring in tax revenues, and stop locking up harmless youngsters?

Quite so, we legalise.

We, being proper liberals, know that it's entirely your right to stick whatever you wish into your own body. Interesting parts of other consenting adults, cheeseburgers and whatever form of toot it is that brings on whatever level of toot! toot! feeling that you desire. We will not be able to convince conservatives and Puritans of this.

However, we should be able to convince Conservatives, the most pragmatic of the British political parties, that the War on Drugs simply does not work:

As a London School of Economics report highlighted last year, the 44-year-old so-called war on drugs has achieved nothing, except “mass incarceration” in the US, repression in Asia, “vast corruption and political destabilisation” in Afghanistan and west Africa and the spread of HIV in Russia. “The strategy has failed based on its own terms,” the report declared. “Evidence shows that drug prices have been declining while purity has been increasing.”

That it's morally wrong to have a war on the right to party may well be true and we'll keep on saying so. But that it doesn't in fact work is in itself sufficient justification to simply stop doing it. And if that means allying with Owen Jones, or indeed anyone else from any corner of the political spectrum, then so be it.

Far from banning any more drugs we need to legalise them all now.

Wait a minute: is the government self-interested or isn't it?

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Are politicians and voters public-spirited or selfish like firms in the marketplace? Sam argued that lots of voting and legislating behaviour was 'sociotropic', and that it couldn't be squeezed into a model where actors maximised their narrow self-interest. But Sam's argument is best taken on the libertarian margin: public choice theory is probably less true than the average libertarian economist thinks; but it's probably still more true than the average person thinks. Five new papers illustrate this nicely. Firstly, a finding that goes against public choice. Public choice says governments do what's likely to maximise their own power/votes/income. The alternative is that they do what they honestly think is good for the country/citizenry as a whole. According to an experiment from Thad Kousser & Daniel M. Butler legislators play public goods 'games' (imagine game theory scenarios where you get real payouts for the outcomes you achieve) more co-operatively than undergraduates. I suppose playing less selfishly than 19-year-old students is hardly a huge achievement but it's something.

Now here's four supporting the public choice model. Jonathan Brogaard, Matthew Denes & Ran Duchin, all at the University of Washington, find that connected firms get much better government contracts. Specifically, "connected firms are 10% more likely to win a contract. Connected firms receive larger contracts, with longer durations and weaker incentive structures". Pretty nice for them, but not so nice for us, and definitely something predicted by public choice and crony capitalism.

In "A Structural Model of Electoral Accountability" by S. Borağan Aruoba, Allan Drazen & Razvan Vlaicu we discover that term limits make governance worse by leaving top politicians nothing to exert effort for after they've got as far as they conceivably can. Looking at US state governors 1982-2012, they find that first-term politicians do considerably less when they can't win a second term. They say that a two-term regime improves voter welfare by 4.2% over a one-term regime, and a three-term system could be even better.

This one's probably obvious: Joshua L. Kalla and David E. Broockman show through an experiment that donors get much more access to their congressmen than non-donors.

The experiment focuses on whether contributions facilitate access to influential policy makers. In the experiment, a political organization attempted to schedule meetings between 191 congressional offices and the organization's members in their districts who were campaign donors. However, the organization randomly assigned whether it revealed to congressional offices that prospective attendees had contributed to campaigns. When informed prospective attendees were political donors, senior policy makers made themselves available between three and four times more often. T

Finally, perhaps the most damning paper shows that perceptions about a revolving door between politics and business are borne out in fact. "Is the Revolving Door of Washington a Back Door to Excess Corporate Returns?" by Mehmet İhsan Canayaz, Jose Vicente Martinez & Han N. Ozsoylev finds that "firms where current public officials become future employees outperform other firms by a statistically significant 7.43% per year in terms of four-factor alpha". You might just think that government workers are more attracted to better firms, but show that "such financial gains are significantly reduced during periods in which presidential executive orders restrict revolving door movement", ruling this out. However, it still seems possible to me that government workers are talented and know the system and that this improves the firms' returns in 'legitimate' ways.

I still think libertarian economists might have run a bit far with the public choice model, but this is a nice reminder that for all that it does bear substantial fruit.

George just doesn't quite get it, does he?

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A quite wonderful rant from George Monbiot. Apparently all those firms that pay their employees lots of money are in fact just vampires sucking the lifeblood and all that is good and holy out of said employees:

To seek enlightenment, intellectual or spiritual; to do good; to love and be loved; to create and to teach: these are the highest purposes of humankind. If there is meaning in life, it lies here.

Those who graduate from the leading universities have more opportunity than most to find such purpose. So why do so many end up in pointless and destructive jobs? Finance, management consultancy, advertising, public relations, lobbying: these and other useless occupations consume thousands of the brightest students. To take such jobs at graduation, as many will in the next few weeks, is to amputate life close to its base.

I watched it happen to my peers. People who had spent the preceding years laying out exultant visions of a better world, of the grand creative projects they planned, of adventure and discovery, were suddenly sucked into the mouths of corporations dangling money like angler fish.

It is just ever so slightly odd to hear a man reputedly of the left complaining that the workers are receiving too much money. We did rather think that was the point of said left, to ensure that the workers by hand and brain received their just allocation of the moolah.

Other than that it's the arrogance on display here from Monbiot that is so breathtaking. It may be that he thinks that the meaning of a good life is to teach, to create. But that's his view of life, one he's entirely welcome to of course, but he's not welcome to impose it on others. Others can, and do, have entirely different conceptions of what that good life is. Perhaps to be able to raise and take care of a family: something that a decent income does make rather easier. Heck, some people even enjoy being bankers.

Or to be more serious about it, what on earth is anyone doing calling finance "useless"? Or indeed lobbying? Finance is the mobilisation of the savings of this generation into the building blocks of the better world of tomorrow. This is useless? Or badgering a minister into dropping one or other of their foolish and ill thought out plans as a lobbyist does not add value to all our lives?

So it's not just that he's wrong in trying to impose his own view of life upon others, it's that he's not even got a reasonable view of what those others are in fact doing.

So, situation normal on the Guardian comment pages then.

It's a wonderful life

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The name of Nigel Vinson may not be one bandied across the breakfast tables of Britain, but he has done more, for longer, to promote the cause of personal and economic freedom than most. And, raised to the peerage (as Lord Vinson of Roddam Dene) for that and for his work in re-shaping and promoting British business, his impact continues. So it is good to see a new biography, Making Things Happen, written by Gerald Frost and published by Biteback, which provides fascinating insights into Vinson's quite remarkable life, ideas and approaches. He had a good start in life, but built up his own business – and fortune – from scratch.

In the 1950s, Vinson was one of the first to see the huge potential of plastics, particularly as an anti-corrosion covering for metal. Starting from a Nissen hut in Guildford, he overcame the technical difficulties to coat all sorts of metal objects, from refrigerator shelves to aircraft parts. He would later win the Queen's Award for Industry in recognition of the company's technological innovation.

As well as his insight and initiative, much of Vinson's success was cutting through the class barriers that dogged British business in the postwar decades. Vinson saw his workforce as a team, the only distinctions being the different tasks they each did. Even as the business grew, he insisted on personally meeting every new employee and on 'walking the ship'. He kept production units small, so that people felt part of a human enterprise, not cogs in a faceless machine. When he eventually sold the business, he shared a large part of his gain with those workers, even though he did not have to: they were not just his employees but his friends and colleagues.

Vinson's abilities as a successful entrepreneur and enthusiast of the potential of better-managed British business, put him in demand elsewhere. He joined the Council of the CBI and became President of the Industrial Participation Association and Chair of the Wider Ownership Group – again promoting his idea that employees of a business should be participants in that business. Many other businesses sought him for their boards.

Never slow to back the things he believes in, Vinson was an early supporter of the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Centre for Policy Studies. In the early 1980s he also supported IOUS, an annual freedom conference for students: the new Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, was one of its first participants. IUOS eventually grew into ISOS, a series of sixth-form conferences run by the Adam Smith Institute, and the Freedom Week student training course, run jointly by ASI and the IEA.

Making Things Happen is an uplifting story of how much one person with a vision can achieve – though it makes you yearn to have just a quarter of Vinson's drive and energy.

So Britain has solved climate change then

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As regular readers will know we're pretty simple in our approach to climate change around here. If it's happening, we're causing it, then the thing to do about it is a carbon tax. That lovely Pigouvian Tax on externalities, just as Mssrs. Stern, Nordhaus and Tol tell us is the solution. And, for the sake of argument, while we think it's too high, we're willing to at least consider Stern's rate of $80 per tonne CO2-e. Which brings us to:

Environmental taxes hit a new record high of £44.6 billion in 2014, official figures show, as the bill for renewable energy levies rose to almost £3 billion. The data from the ONS shows that the green tax burden has more than doubled over the past two decades, from £19.4 billion in 1994. Last year saw the ninth consecutive increase in the tax burden, which stood at £43 billion in 2013. The vast majority of the taxes are those levied on transport fuels such as petrol and diesel, accounting for £27.1 billion. Vehicle duties accounted for £6 billion of the total and air passenger duty £3.2 billion. The cost of renewable energy taxes to subsidise wind and solar farms rose by more than a fifth to £2.9 billion.

So, the UK has already solved climate change. We're done and dusted. Emissions are of the order of 500 million tonnes a year in this country. That's $40 billion in taxes righteously required in order to adjust market prices. We're already charging ourselves more than that. We're done.

This is of course somewhat in contrast to the repeated squeals that much more should be done. But this is absolutely the mainstream scientific opinion here that we are cleaving to. If climate change, then carbon tax. And when the appropriate tax is in place then no more need be done, we can just wait for that alteration of prices to work through the market system.

So, what's it like to live in the first country that has actually dealt with the major environmental challenge of our times? And wouldn't it be just lovely if those who rule us realised that they've already managed that feat?