Dysfuntional dentistry


It was reported in The Times yesterday that NHS dentists will be forced to pay back £120 million to the government for failing to fulfil their assigned quotas of cases seen. Once again we see evidence of government quotas creating a poor quality service, neglecting the areas which really matter.

According to the article, NHS dental treatments targets were missed by 5 million in the year 2007-2008. Previously, dentists were paid per treatment giving them greater economic incentives to provide a better quality service. But, under the current scheme dentists are given a set income for completing an agreed amount of NHS work. This set income minimises any incentives for dentists to provide a quality service, resulting in a ‘drill and fill’ scenario. As I have written before, the inefficiencies of the NHS mean that patients are seen as numbers, rather then people.

The inefficiencies of a quota system are clear, but if the dentists are punished for the governments failure we could see more and more dentists refusing to provide NHS treatment – already about 1,000 dentists have opted out of the NHS scheme meaning that 9,000 fewer patients have been treated – or a brain drain with dentists moving to countries such as the US where they will be rewarded more generously for their talents.

Left to the market this healthcare service would be provided in a much more efficient manner, with dentists responding to consumer needs both in terms of quality and volume of treatments.

What Alistair Darling should have done

In this think piece ASI policy director Tom Clougherty outlines his reaction to the Chancellor’s pre-budget report of November 2008, arguing that Alistair Darling’s so-called ‘stimulus package’ is really a manifesto for wasteful spending, record levels of government borrowing and public debt, and higher taxes in the long term. He argues Darling should instead have announced a substantial rise in the personal allowance balanced by public spending restraint.

Alistair Darling was widely expected to announce a package of tax cuts in his pre-budget report this week, in an effort to stimulate the economy. And a few people actually seem to think he did. In reality though, the Chancellor’s so-called tax cuts were little more than a political smokescreen, a ploy designed to wrong-foot his Conservative opponents and obscure his real agenda – more spending, more borrowing and more tax.

Look at what he proposed. First up, we’re going to get a temporary reduction in VAT to 15 percent. Isn’t that fantastic? A whopping 2.5 percent off! No doubt it will accomplish what high streets full of half-price sales and buy-one-get-one-free offers couldn’t, and get people spending again. Of course, it has also been reported that the Treasury’s figures depend on VAT rising to 18.5 percent in 2011, to pay off all the debt Darling plans to rack up. Thanks, Chancellor, but no thanks.

At least that was an actual tax cut though, if only a temporary one. Most of the measures the government is spinning as tax reductions are nothing of the sort. So the retrospective vehicle excise duty rise is going to be phased in now? Let’s call it a tax cut. No increase in the corporation tax rate for small businesses? Sounds like a tax cut to me. Oh, and the low-income households hit by the 10p tax debacle are going to continue getting their rebate? A tax cut if ever I saw one!

That’s still more than I can say for Darling’s plan to create a new higher-rate tax of 45 percent for those earning more than £150,000. I suppose it’s about time someone tried taxing the rich until their pips squeaked again, but we already know what the outcome is going to be. Most wealthy people will call their accountants and work out how to avoid the increase, while others will just move offshore. Either way, the Exchequer is more likely to lose out than see any increase in revenues.

Then there is the 0.5 percent rise in National Insurance Contributions for both employees and employers, which the Institute of Fiscal Studies has already confirmed will make anyone earning more than £19,000 per annum worse off. For the employee, this is an income tax rise in all but name. And as for the employer, their National Insurance Contributions are a perverse tax on jobs even at the best of times. Making it moreexpensive to employ people is precisely the opposite of what the government should be doing, especially with unemployment predicted to reach 2.9 million by 2010.

But like I said, that’s all just window-dressing. The real story here is that the government’s budget deficit will hit 8-9 percent of GDP over the next couple of years, as the government borrows up to £120bn per annum to fund its profligacy. Public sector debt is likely to top 60 percent of national income (so much for the long-cherished 40 percent ceiling), and even that figure excludes obligations incurred under the public finance initiative (£180bn and counting) and unfunded public sector pensions liabilities (now in excess of £1tn). The taxpayer already shells out £30bn a year servicing government debt, but that’s nothing compared with what’s to come.

And to what end? Are we really meant to believe that public spending is going to stimulate the economy? We’ve tried it before and it doesn’t work. ‘Priming the pump’ simply creates temporary and artificially high demand in certain sectors (generally the inefficient ones), at the expense of others (typically, the ones that actually create wealth). This is followed – as night follows day – by dislocation and unemployment when the artificial demand ceases.

You think borrowing money to renovate schools and hospitals is going to boost the economy, Chancellor? Dream on. Japan spent the nineties trying to kick-start their economy with infrastructure spending and it accomplished nothing except running up debts amounting to 180 per cent of GDP. In the US, massive spending hikes in the 1930s, 1960s and 1970s all failed to increase economic growth rates. And let’s not forget 1970s Britain.

Instead of resurrecting Keynes, Darling should have taken the pre-budget report as an opportunity to put some money back into the struggling private sector economy, where it actually stands a chance of being productive. He could have done this very easily by raising the personal allowance – which currently stands at £6,035 – to £12,000 for every taxpayer. At a stroke that would take 7 million low-paid workers out of income tax altogether, and ensure that no one earning the minimum wage or less would pay income tax at all.

To the average worker, this would be like getting an extra £1,730 a year in gross pay, leaving them £100 per month better off and reversing the substantial falls in disposable income that have occurred over the last 12 months. Indeed, had the Chancellor been feeling prematurely festive he could even have given this measure retrospective effect for the current tax year, which would have meant a one-off ‘Christmas rebate’ of £1,800 for a typical dual-earner family, and another £200 per month thereafter.

Assuming that the higher-rate threshold was kept where it is, and not raised in line with the personal allowance, such a measure would cost the Exchequer around £18.9bn a year in lost revenue – not an inconsiderable sum, but not an overwhelming one either. There would certainly be no need to increase government borrowing to do it: simply forcing government departments to stick to their budgets would save £14bn a year, while cutting quango budgets by 10 percent would save a further £6bn.

Needless to say, that analysis ignores the dynamic effects such a tax cut could have. By freeing up an extra £19bn to be spent or invested in the private sector economy, it could boost growth (or prevent contraction) and therefore increase revenues (or prevent them falling). Raising the personal allowance would also strengthen incentives to work, help to eliminate the ‘benefits trap’ and make low-paid jobs more economic – greatly increasing opportunities for the unemployed.

Of course, even if it didn’t do any of those things, raising the personal allowance would still be worth it, just because it would make everyone’s day-to-day lives that little bit easier. In the face of a recession, isn’t that what government should be aiming for?

Click here to download the ASI’s briefing paper on why the personal allowance should be raised and how to do it.

Blog Review 790


We are repeatedly told about the ever longer working hours of modern life. The only problem is, as this graph shows, it simply isn't true.

There are those who say that current events show that we must abolish risk from the banking system. A slighty unfortunate thing to wish for as banks exist to manage risk for us, that's their very purpose.

Saving Lehman or not saving Lehman. Perhaps it wouldn't have made any difference either way, the financial deleveraging was going to create panic at some point.

Yes, free trade matters.

No, local trade is not better than non-local trade.

Spending how much to create how many jobs?

And finally, even if you're asking for your last cigarette you still can't smoke it indoors.


Lies, damned lies, and Labour budgets


It was all meant to be about tax cuts, wasn't it? And yet it turned out that Alistair Darling's so-called tax cuts were little more than a political smokescreen designed to wrong-foot his Conservative opponents and obscure his real agenda – which is more spending, more borrowing and more tax.

Look at the tax announcements we actually got, as opposed to what the government has been spinning:

  • A temporary fall in VAT to 15 percent.
  • No increase in the corporation tax rate for small businesses.
  • People who lost out when the government abolished the 10p tax rate are going to continue to get a rebate.
  • Retrospective rises in vehicle excise duty are going to be phased in, rather then implemented in one go.
  • Increased taxes on petrol, alcohol and tobacco.
  • A new higher-rate tax of 45 percent for those earning more than £150,000.
  • A 0.5 percent increase in national insurance contributions (an income tax rise in everything but name).

So basically, we get one temporary tax cut, along with a whole raft of tax rises. Great.

Of course, taxes aren't even the real story here. What we should really be worried about is the fact that government borrowing and public debt are going to skyrocket. We're looking at budget deficits in the region of 8-9 percent of GDP, as the government borrows north of £100bn a year. Taxpayers already shell out £30bn a year servicing government debt, but on these figures Fraser Nelson is predicting that "debt interest payments will eclipse not only defence [spending] like it does now, but schools and policing too".

All this so the government can test to destruction (again) the Keynesian fallacy that public spending increases economic growth. It's never worked before and it's not going to work now. Japan spent the nineties doing it, and all they got in return were debts amounting to 180 percent of GDP.

The government may truly believe that yesterday's pre-budget report is the first step on the road to economic recovery, but history will judge it far more harshly.

The cultural politics of the BBC


The cultural politics of the BBC's so-called "Sachsgate" scandal are fascinating. I discern a sea change. Under attack for its "standards" not being worthy of the licence fee, the debate has opened up many cracks in the status quo. Those who see the Beeb as a dinosaur have in the past had to make the attack on disbanding it, but now the BBC is forced to mount a defence its position.

And for me at least that position is indefensible. Can the Beeb claim that it offers a shared cultural experience? Not when a large part of its audience is howling in dissent about the lowbrow antics of the Sachsgate players. Can the Beeb claim that it has to provide a seamless robe of programming? Well, it can – but the split among licence payers shows that many don't want to pay for what others want. Can it be proud of its dedication to public service programming? Yes, but what about the dross from Ross and Co?

And sniping from the sides are those who see the lumbering dinosaur poaching markets on-line, in digital and from your local press. 

At last the BBC's incumbency of access to the public purse is being seriously questioned. The micro-politics of change in such a cultural icon is ever so slow – our politicians are too entwined in the Whitehall media village to want to act on any principle – but I think we have reached a point of no return. The BBC's fee-protected bigness is now being seen as a problem not an answer, audiences are fragmented and paying for what they want more and more.

I still believe the BBC will end up dying slowly, cut by cut it will lose out on other media channels that grow up around it. What a pity that the politicians cannot just get to grips with privatizing it and letting it win or lose in its markets. My bet is that there is enough talent in its corridors that it would end up even larger than it is now, but serving subscription paying customers in a competitive marketplace that brought out the best of its genius.

A handful of dust


It has been revealed that women with ID cards who change their name after marriage could face fines of up to £1000 if they fail to inform the government. Fines will also be forced upon those who fail to report a change of address to the relevant authorities. The world has turned upside down. It will soon be you who has to prove you are the person in the government’s database, not the other way around. Welcome to Britain, the year is 2008.

As the subtly titled "ID cards for foreigners" are instituted, more facts are revealed about this Gestapo inspired project. We are on a very slippery slope. The 21st century offers many new challenges. Not from terrorism, but from those employed to protect us. Terrorism has long existed, but the quest for absolute security is now being used as a pretext for absolute control of the people.

This loss doesn’t come cheap. As public debt reaches astronomical levels, the government is committing us to shelling out in excess of £5 billion over the next ten years. As John Stepek makes clear, ignoring the civil liberties argument, the practical arguments in favour of an ID cards just don’t add up.

As the wheels of bureaucracy grind ever onwards, the freedom that we once knew is turning to dust. It is impossible to say if and when the people of this country will stand up to the political class. The French recently stood up to Sarkozy’s vision of a police state, why cannot the people of this country round on this Blair-Brown dystopia? Legislation needs to be introduced to protect the individual. Certainly this should cover the threat posed by other private individuals and companies; but the real threat to liberty comes from that most traditional enemy: the politicians.

Blog Review 789


It's often said that corporate culture cannot be changed....just another reason why GM should be allowed to go bust then?

Something that perhaps economists don't pay enough attention to: the weather.

Time for a scalpel....or perhaps a machete? That might depend on whether you think you can cut 10% out of this or 50%.

One thing President-elect Obama should certainly be congratulated on. Proving Naomi Klein entirely wrong.

Media outrage as a poltician visits a turkey slaughtering plant and turkeys are....being slaughtered.

Not a good sign: markets rise because a politician is appointed to office. Do we really want the economy to depend upon the (highly variable, to be polite) quality of those who seek office? Or would we prefer that the economy were insulated from the (highly variable, to be polite) quality of those who seek office?

And finally, what those names on the map really mean (no, not this set of meanings).

What's wrong with pimps?


I have to admit that I'm getting very confused over these proposed changes in the law regarding prostitution. It's not just that they're going to be unworkable, or that they're clearly the result of a near deranged view of how morality should be imposed through the political system. Phillip outlines the basic liberal view that we should simply legalize transactions between consenting adults. Unity both has some fun creating a tagline for the proposed policies and details the farrago of nonsensical research upon which they are based. But over and above those critiques, what is confusing me is this:

And, crucially, her plan placed the duty on the punter to discover whether the prostitute is controlled by a pimp, a trafficker in human flesh or a drug dealer.

What's wrong with pimps?

A pimp isn't, contrary to what many believe, someone who holds a prostitute captive and steals whatever pitiful amount of cash she manages to earn by degrading herself. The relationship between the two is, rather, an economic one and a voluntary one at that. One which, like all voluntary exchanges, benefits both parties to it.

OK, so perhaps you'll not accept that statement from me but what about from Steven Levitt and Sudhir Alladi Venktash, two of the very few economists who have ever actually tried to understand the subject?

In Roseland, there are no pimps and women solicit customers from the street. Just a few blocks away in Pullman, all women work with pimps who locate customers and set-up tricks, so that the prostitutes rarely solicit on street corners. Under the pimp model, there are fewer transactions, but the prices charged are substantially higher and the clientele is different. Prostitutes who work with pimps appear to earn more, and are less likely to be arrested. It appears that the pimps choose to pay efficiency wages. Consistent with this hypothesis, many of the women who do not work with pimps are eager to work with pimps, and indeed we observe a few switches in that direction over the course of the sample. Pimps are limited by their ability to find customers, however, so they operate on a small scale.

Higher wages for less work and a reduction in risk. Pimps are therefore beneficial for the prostitutes which is why they choose to work with them.

So I ask again, what's wrong with pimps?

It's not as if politicians don't employ agents to promote their work, is it?

Time to raise the personal allowance


In a new briefing paper, published today, I call on Alistair Darling to raise the personal income tax allowance to £12,000 in his pre-budget report (due to be delivered this afternoon).

A few points:

  • Raising the personal allowance to £12,000 would take 7 million low-paid workers out of the income tax net altogether. People earning the minimum wage or less would pay no income tax at all.
  • To the average worker, this would be like getting an extra £1,730 a year in gross pay, leaving them £100 per month better off and reversing the substantial falls in disposable income that have occurred over the last 12 months.
  • If the Chancellor wanted to give this measure retrospective effect for the current tax year, it would mean a one-off £1,800 'Christmas rebate' for the typical dual-earner family, plus £200 per month thereafter.
  • This tax cut would put almost £19bn per year back in people's pockets, allowing considerable additional spending and investment in the productive, private sector economy. This is the key to overcoming recession and restoring economic growth.
  • As well as stimulating the economy by giving people more disposable income to spend and invest, raising the personal allowance to £12,000 would strengthen incentives to work, help to eliminate the 'benefits trap' and make low-paid jobs more economic – greatly increasing opportunities for the unemployed.
  • If the higher rate threshold were kept at its current level, rather than raised in line with the personal allowance, this policy would cost the Exchequer just £18.9bn a year in lost revenue (it would cost £25bn if we raised the higher rate threshold too). Of course, this calculation is based on a static analysis, and because of the effects outlined above, the actual loss could turn out to be smaller.
  • Either way, I argue strongly against the government financing this tax cut with increased borrowing, suggesting they balance it by reducing public sector waste and cutting spending on non-essential programmes instead. The taxpayer already spends more than £30bn a year on servicing government debt, and we shouldn't add to that burden when there is so much fat to be trimmed elsewhere.

You can download a PDF of the briefing here