Blog Review 868

2931
blog-review-868

We hear, incessantly, about why the banking system doesn't work: less often do we hear about why central banking doesn't work.

Those Australian bush fires: hot enough to melt metal.

As ever there's a tension between good politics and good economics and, sadly, the economics ain't winning.

Migration may in fact be a problem: all the skilled people are leaving.

Isn't it wonderful having a Home Secretary with such a cavalier attitude to the use of taxpayers' money. And, of course, there is more.

Incentives do matter but only up to a point.

And finally, more Top Gear.

Bye American?

2924
bye-american

President Obama has been wishy-washy about his leanings toward protectionist policies in the current economic stimulus package, which faced final approval in the senate yesterday. He has been reiterating the word “change" since the beginning of his campaign, and although this “Buy American" clause was certainly a change from conservative methods of economic stimulation, it wasn’t quite a change for the better.

Although exclusively using American companies in this package may seem appropriate given the current repressed situation in the states, Obama needs to remember that the rest of the world is not picking daisies in the sunshine. They are being flooded by the recession storm. The United States is neither Atlantis, nor any other kind of magical self-sufficient land. The US has depended on foreign trade to boost its economy for the past two hundred years, so why is now any different? America needs help from the rest of the world to get out of its current state.

Providing domestic workers with more opportunities from the package will surely have some short-term benefits, but it will not solve the major problem. It will simply delay the process of fixing the economy (both American and World). Protectionist policies will have the same effect on the United States as emptying water out of a sinking ship will have if that ship has a hole in the hull.

He needs to fix the problem by getting to the source, even if it means facing a tough year. Jobs abroad create wealth to buy American products, which in turn creates more jobs for Americans. Investing exclusively in American workers for government projects will not create the future demand that American industry needs because it involves shunning foreign friends. The EU threatened to retaliate against the US if Obama does decide to include the “Buy American" provision, so it is easy to see the immediate negative effects of the policy. Let’s hope that Obama doesn’t stray this way again in the future, and that Gordon Brown keeps his head clear of protectionism as well.

Level playing field

2923
level-palying-field

Train meet Car. Car meet Train. There will only be one winner. The train. Yet people in cars, and more alarmingly pedestrians, are being seen to risk their own lives on a regular basis. As the video in this BBC News story testifies. A few days earlier grieving relatives and parents, criticized Network Rail for their ongoing campaign alerting people to the dangers of misusing level crossings. Claiming that as more people die on level crossings than in accidents then they must be unsafe. Whilst there may well be one or two tragic accidents occurring per year the rest of the casualties seem to be risk takers simply running out of luck.

Network Rail identifies level crossings as, “high risk" something that any rational road user should do as well. Yet the frustrations at having to wait seem to play on many people to such an extent that they then attempt to outrun a train. Imagine if there were no barriers, how many deaths would there be on the railways, and who would be liable? The railway company. Why? Because they had failed in their duty to protect their customers. Yet due to the apparent  rise in the lemming type mentality of many road users (2,000+ per year) Network Rail, and ultimately us, may well find ourselves paying for the installation of bridges and overpasses. This knee jerk reaction would be welcomed by the RMT, (a sure sign that it’s unwarranted).

If Network Rail’s attempts to educate the uneducated about how to properly stop at a red flashing light because there’s over 250 tonnes (or 12,500 tonnes of force, if travelling at 50mph) fail, then the only people who are to blame are those that ignore the warnings. Risk is inherent in life, you can either lessen your exposure to it, or you can raise it. The railways realise that they can reliably protect their customers using these methods. It is up to road users to protect themselves from the elevated risk of taking on a train.

A trojan horse

2922
a-trojan-horse

Most US Republicans were against the $900 billion stimulus package, designed by Nancy Pelosi, which President Obama encouraged Congress to support. Obama’s package lost even more credibility after the detrimental elimination of Tom Daschle from his cabinet, a hard liner in American health care collectivization. In fact, the package has become increasingly unpopular among US voters for many reasons, but especially because the federal government will receive a large percentage of it. Consequently, there will be stealth implications for the health system, as a leading physician has opinied.

The stimulus bill will increase state subsidies to health care, and therefore enhance federal government intervention. It is basically a bail out of troubled state Medicare budgets, transferring huge state debts to the federal government. These billions will most likely become invisibly absorbed by the health care system, just as has happened in the UK during the Labour government's NHS spending spree.

This is the exact opposite of health care reform, and in some regard it results in middle class tax churning at a time when the US tax burden is ever increasing. Furthermore, thirty billion dollars of the stimulus package will be devoted to the healthcare sector under a program called COBRA, which will provide federal assistance to citizens who earn up to one million dollars per year.

Blog Review 867

2919
blog-review-867

What if, given the question that Alan Greenspan faced, there was acually no right answer?

We've had the Russian economy as both tragedy and farce: what do we call the third time around?

Does aid to poor countries help or create a form of welfarism?

A test of how liberal one might be. How far should that State interfere in private contracts: and how far should those contracts be defined by the State?

A heartfelt thanks to the way that British journalism works.

One way of calculating bank bonuses.

And finally, setting the bar.

Drugs: come down off your high horse

2916
drugs-come-down-off-your-high-horse

The government's drug tsar, Professor David Nutt, has caused a furore by commenting in a scientific journal that the club-drug Ecstasy is about as dangerous as riding a horse.

He's probably right. I've seen the lives of young girls ruined through an addiction to ponies. Their minds seem to turn to equine mush. And of course falls from horses can and do kill or paralyze people – as in the case of Superman actor Christopher Reeve.

But I'm not proposing that horse riding should be made a Class A activity. (I'm sorry I mentioned that idea: it can't be long before the government starts banning dangerous sports and withdrawing NHS care from those who ride motorbikes or go mountaineering.)

Professor Nutt might have been unwise to mention the comparison, but some rationality in the debate on drugs is devoutly to be wished. When I thought that my teenage son might be taking drugs at school, I asked a neighbour, a clinical psychologist, for advice. His view was that schools were rife with drugs, but that most of them were far less harmful than alcohol and cigarettes. It put things into perspective.

It's only when we can actually discuss the real risks of drugs that we will be able to advise young people on how to handle them. But the government seems to be more concerned by the outrage of the Daily Mail than the facts. It spreads the misconception that all drugs are as bad as heroin or crack – driving the others underground and making them more difficult to control. As a policy, it's failed.

True, many modern drugs haven't been in common use very long, so it's difficult to know their full medical and psychological effects. Even with drugs that have been around for years, like cannabis, we are still learning the full physical, psychological and social consequences. So maybe we are right to be cautious about them. But let's be honest: because then, at least, we can steer people away from the most damaging drugs by giving them a genuine profile of the risks.

Digital despots

2917
digital-britain

The long awaited report, called euphemistically Digital Britain, has been launched with a rather vainglorious opening paragraph. It reads like a noble goal to better the internet for all British users.

“An action plan to secure the UK’s place at the forefront of innovation, investment and quality in the digital and communications industries will be developed by Stephen Carter, the first Minister for Communications, Technology and Broadcasting."

In fact, Lord Carter, a firm believer in the big government New Labour mantra, is aiming for his quango to further erode the private enterprise that is internet provision. Now Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will have to spy on their users. In effect, this report aims to nationalize ISPs as part of the security services.

Being a government backed idea, you will have to pay the quango £20 a year so they can make ISPs spy on you while limiting their ability to provide you with the best service they can.

“To bring industry together to agree how to provide incentives for legal use of copyright material; work together to prevent unlawful use by consumers which infringes civil copyright law; and enable technical copyright-support solutions that work for both consumers and content creators."

A sensible government would poll broadband users, and providers to find out what problems exist in internet provision. To most it would probably show that if you use anyone other than BT there is some foot-dragging when it comes to their parts of the internet network (ie: exchanges for ADSL).

Gordon Brown has written in the Times praising this socialistic digital plan. Then again one would expect him to be pleased to see a further expansion of government meddling in the business of the private companies and citizens of the UK.

New tax, new meddling, new erosion of liberties.…in other words typical New Labour.

Fallout from the boom

2915
fallout-from-the-boom

A friend of mine in Washington DC has just remortgaged his home, to take advantage of falling interest rates. Mortgages in the US tend to be fixed-rate, unlike the variable-rate loans we have in the UK. So if rates fall, you get a new loan at a lower rate and pay off the old one.

But my friend found a new line on the application form. He had to agree to give his lender access to his tax records. The reason is that in the boom, many borrowers simply made up their income figures when applying for loans. Often they would download the IRS tax form and just fill it with fanciful information. Sometimes, lenders would just ask them to scribble their income down on the loan application form, but it would never be checked.

Now you might think that if you were lending a large sum to someone, you'd want to be pretty sure that they could repay. Even if you could repossess their home should they default, that's a cost and nuisance you could do without. But in fact the lenders made a rational calculation. All their computer models showed that checking people's real financial circumstances was a waste of time. It didn't make much difference. Most people would actually make their mortgage payments. Delving into the details of their income and other outgoings was a waste of costly staff time.

They were undoubtedly right. But that was when everything was booming. While house prices were soaring, credit was easy, and jobs were plentiful, not many people defaulted, even those who fibbed about their real income. The trouble was that when everything went sour, people defaulted in legions.

The banks' error was the same as everyone's error. We actually believed that the boom was real. That we really had learned how to abolish slumps and run a continually expanding economy. I don't think you should blame the banks for the inevitable outcome of this hubris; you would be better blaming the politicians, monetary authorities, and regulators who created it in the first place.

Blog Review 866

2918
blog-review-866

What Adam Smith actually said about the banks....and can we please put this "invisible hand" thing to rest?

With Alex Renton's misunderstandings of the food market there's a certain wonder that he manages to remain nourished.

My word, this anti-terrorist legislation is effective, isn't it?

If certain economies (say, Continental European) have structurally higher rates of unemployment than others (say, Anglo Saxon or even Nordic) then that rather damages the Keynesian case that unemployment comes from a lack of aggregate demand, doesn't it?

A reminder to those who argue for higher taxes: you can always raise your own voluntarily, you know? (HMG runs a similar scheme, cheques to "The Accountant", 2 Horse Guards Road).

Wouldn't it be interesting if we had a truly "accountable" government?

And finally, what they are spending those unaccountable higher taxes on. Charlatans.