Universal healthcare and market-based systems aren't mutually exclusive

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An op-ed published last week in the New York Times laments Americans' decline in support for government involvement in the redistribution of wealth - or, as the Times author Thomas Edsall calls it, ‘sharing’. Edsall analyses a bunch of polls throughout the article, but what he finds troubling I find to be good common sense. For example, most Americans aren't incredibly trusting of their government:

Even worse for Democrats, the Saez paper found that “information about inequality also makes respondents trust government less,” decreasing “by nearly twenty percent the share of respondents who ‘trust government’ most of the time:”

Smart thinking.

Furthermore, most Americans aren’t convinced that Obamacare is going to be the shining, efficient, cheaper, all-inclusive beacon of hope it was promised to be:

An earlier New York Times poll, conducted in December 2013, found that 52 percent of those surveyed believed that the Affordable Care Act would increase their medical costs; 14 percent said it would reduce costs. Thirty-six percent believed that Obamacare would worsen the quality of health care compared to 17 percent who thought it would improve it.

Also probably wise.

On the whole Edsall appears to understand people’s perceptions of government care (to my relief and his dismay) quite well – except for in one area.

Esdall claims the “most dramatic” change in public opinion has been people’s perception of the ‘right’ to healthcare. He cites the two Gallup polls in an attempt to claim that majority support for guaranteed access to health coverage has dropped radically over the past six years:

The erosion of the belief in health care as a government-protected right is perhaps the most dramatic reflection of these trends. In 2006, by a margin of more than two to one, 69-28, those surveyed by Gallup said that the federal government should guarantee health care coverage for all citizens of the United States. By late 2014, however, Gallup found that this percentage had fallen 24 points to 45 percent, while the percentage of respondents who said health care is not a federal responsibility nearly doubled to 52 percent.

But Esdall isn’t comparing apples with apples. The belief that in a developed society everyone should have access to basic healthcare provisions is not the same as believing that healthcare is a federal responsibility – especially in the United States.

The debate is not – and has not been for a long time – whether or not people should have access to healthcare, but rather how that care should be provided. What kind of delivery of healthcare will create the cheapest prices and best outcomes, and what safety net for those at the bottom will provide the most comprehensive care?

There is huge demand in the States for healthcare reform, and most people want this reform to focus on cheaper access to care. But that can be achieved without fully handing healthcare provision over to the federal government or adopting something that resembles the NHS.

Both the US and the UK should be looking to countries that rank highest for healthcare provisions internationally, which have almost all settled on systems where the central government funds healthcare but does not directly provide healthcare.  The Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, and Germany all have healthy relationships with private companies, ranging from insurance companies and charities, that provide better outcomes than those in the UK and in a cheaper, more efficient manner than in the US.

Support for universal access to healthcare and support for market mechanisms in healthcare are not mutually exclusive; there's plenty of evidence to suggest a combination of the two creates the best healthcare systems in the world.

Don't campaign against tax havens: they are good for us

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Thanks to faulty headline-grabbing propaganda, most people think tax havens are outrageous places in which tens of billions of pounds are being stored offshore, denying UK citizens valuable tax revenue that could be used on public services like schools, health care and roads. Nice idea. But like many nice ideas, it veers far from the truth. First off, what of the complaint that if the money stays in the private sector in tax havens then UK citizens are being robbed of vital tax revenue? To answer this, consider if the money stays in the private sector in a tax haven, who else benefits from that apart from the person with the money? On the one hand that money is invested, which generates plenty of jobs and lots of economic growth. On the other, if a British billionaire keeps £500 million in a tax haven then all the time he's not spending it he makes everyone else in the UK better off in terms of more resources and lower prices. This is because money earned but not spent is like conferring a gift to the UK taxpayers. Moreover, it's important to remember that the primary contribution high earners make to society is not in the taxes they pay, it is in the goods and services they produce.

When it comes to tax havens, what is also being missed by a lot of people is that tax havens actually make us better off in another way, in that they provide vital competition to tax rates in the UK. A popular view from the left is that because of tax havens governments have to increase our taxes to make up for all the tax they are not getting from money stored in places like the Cayman Islands. In actual fact, the opposite is true – tax havens keep our UK taxes lower not higher.

To see why, suppose there is just one quite expensive Bakery in town (call it Bakery A). Along comes another Bakery in competition (Bakery B), offering townsfolk lower prices for bread. The very worst thing that Bakery A could do in response would be to raise its prices even more. Their best response would be to try to out-compete Bakery B for custom. This is the nature of competition, and how it lowers prices and improves efficiency.

Similarly, tax havens are like Bakery B: their more competitive tax rates place competitive pressures on governments that might be tempted to tax us highly. Competition for prices occurs with tax just as it does with bread, laptops and cars. Governments must be competitive with their tax rates, otherwise more and more money will be stored in places with lower tax rates. Tax competition is a key driver of economic growth in the world, as this incentivises politicians to keep taxes on savings and investments low. When tax rates are excessive, there is less economic growth. Tax havens provide the necessary competition to militate against this happening.

Finally, tax havens can claim to have some of best standards of living and economic growth in the world. That's precisely because low taxes stimulate economic growth and better standards of living, as the qualities of the free market predominate over party political interests. Instead of calling for politicians to tackle the grave injustices of tax havens, campaigners should be calling for a more fruitful tax system here, based on lower rates, reduced complexity and bureaucracy, and increased market freedom.

Well, that's markets for you

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Not only is this markets for you it's rather the point of markets for you:

The Co-operative Group has told its members that it cannot make an enhanced commitment to stock Fairtrade products because of tough competition among supermarkets and its shift towards convenience stores.

The UK’s largest mutual made the remarks in response to a motion tabled ahead of the upcoming annual general meeting asking for the commitment to Fairtrade – for which the group has prided its link in the past – to be reiterated and also retain the long-term strategic objective that that if a “Co-operative product can be Fairtrade, it will be Fairtrade”.

Saying it could not back all elements of the motion, the board blamed the current financial position of the group and “the austere market climate we continue to face and the strategic direction of the business into convenience shops which naturally increases pressure on space and range”.

There are some out there who desire to purchase Fairtrade products. We don't share that view, thinking them to be counterproductive at best, but we absolutely defend the more basic idea. If your worldview means that you either desire to, or desire not to, purchase products made in a particular manner, or place, of by a certain group of people or not, then that's rather the point of having a market economy. So that you may do so. If enough people share those values of yours then you might even be lucky enough to find that supply arises to meet your desires. This is true of bread without alum, of meat that isn't rotten, of food prepared to certain religious standards and, yes, to things made by poor people in poor countries. It's wonderful, it's glorious in fact.

However, it is worth noting that perhaps not everyone shares your particular worldview. As here: the Co Op finds that while there's enough people who care about Fairtrade to make it worthwhile not enough people care about it to make it compulsory. And that's where we'd slightly argue with the description of it being "competition" that causes this. Because yes, OK, the supermarkets are in competition to sate our desires. And some of us do desire to pay higher prices to provide that outdoor relief for the dimmer children of the upper bourgeoisie that is the real result of Fairtrade. But not all of us: and therefore it's not really the competition between the supermarkets being the problem here, it's that not enough of us Britons share the initial worldview.

Which is, again, one of the great glories of this free market idea. You get to maximise your utility by purchasing things made in the manner you approve of and so do I, we, them and they. According to our different estimations of our own utility.

Do patent-owners 'hold up' further innovation?

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One of the standard arguments of the anti-patent crowd is that patents hinder follow-on innovation by making it risky or costly to build on other people's breakthroughs. There is some evidence for this (see this post from my colleague Charlotte).

However, a new paper challenges this general thesis by looking at whether the outcomes it predicts happen in the real world. If it is true that owners of standard-essential patents (SEPs)—those ones that set up a whole standard used across the marketplace and essential for a large number of follow-on innovators—charge over-the-odds fees and prevent follow-on innovation, then it must also be true that:

  1. Industries where SEPs predominate are ones with relatively stagnant (quality-adjusted) prices, because new entrant innovators have less chance to bid them down through competition
  2. Court decisions that reduce the power of SEP holders will lead to more innovation in those sectors

The paper, "An Empirical Examination of Patent Hold-Up" (pdf) finds neither of these to be true:

A large literature asserts that standard essential patents (SEPs) allow their owners to “hold up” innovation by charging fees that exceed their incremental contribution to a final product.

We evaluate two central, interrelated predictions of this SEP hold-up hypothesis: (1) SEP-reliant industries should experience more stagnant quality-adjusted prices than similar non-SEP-reliant industries; and (2) court decisions that reduce the excessive power of SEP holders should accelerate innovation in SEP-reliant industries.

We find no empirical support for either prediction. Indeed, SEP-reliant industries have the fastest quality-adjusted price declines in the U.S. economy.

The principle is nicely illustrated in a few charts.

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At one point there was more or less of a consensus among libertarians that intellectual property was a good kind of property rights. Nowadays you are more likely to see a proto-consensus against copyright at the very least and often patents as well. I think that emerging evidence means we should keep our minds open.

Markets are actually quite good at regulation

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The ASI blog reader may not be surprised to discover that some regulations have unintended consequences that, instead of solving a given problem, make the situation worse. This isn't necessarily always true—though it might be, it's an empirical question—but it seems that regulatory fair disclosure laws, intended to make executives disclose more bad info about their firms, are another one of these. A new paper "What Induces CEOs to Provide Timely Disclosure of Bad News: Regulation or Contracting?" (pdf) by Stephen P. Baginski, John L. Campbell, Lisa A. Hinson & David S. Koo finds that regulatory fair disclosure laws lead to executives systematically guessing more pessimistically about the future. But the laws fail to stop executives delaying the release of bad news.

By contrast, they find that contracts including provisions for 'golden parachute' payments get rid of the career concerns which incentivise repressing bad news, and get around the asymmetric information problem that would exist in their absence.

Prior research finds that career concerns encourage managers to withhold bad news in the hopes that subsequent events will turn in their favor, and that government regulation (i.e., Regulation Fair Disclosure, or “Reg FD”) eliminates this problem.

In this study, we re-examine the effectiveness of government regulation at mitigating the delay of bad news, and consider the effectiveness of a contracting mechanism that accomplishes the same goal. We provide two main findings.

First, recent studies show that Reg FD changed the way managers provide forecasts in two fundamental ways: (1) managers are more likely to issue a range forecast that is pessimistically biased rather than a neutral point estimate, and (2) managers are more likely to issue forecasts at the same time as earnings announcements.

We show that when design choices do not reflect these changes in manager behavior, the extent to which regulation induces timely disclosure of bad news is overstated.

Second, we identify a compensation contract (i.e., ex-ante severance pay agreements) that firms use to explicitly reduce their CEO’s career concerns, and thus should encourage more timely disclosure of bad news. We find that if managers are promised a sufficiently large payment in the event of a dismissal, they no longer delay the disclosure of bad news relative to good news.

Overall, we find that managers continue to delay the disclosure of bad news after Reg FD, and that if firms provide compensation contracts to reduce their managers’ career concerns, this asymmetric release of information is eliminated.

Just like obscure traditions, market practices that look arbitrary, weird, or irrational are often one of the ways market institutions create a successful and rational economic order. Regulators need to be very careful before tinkering with them.

Finnish politics just got interesting

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We think it's fairly obvious that over the past decade the most successful economy in the eurozone has been that of Germany. And we also think it's fairly obvious why this has been so, the so-called Hartz IV reforms. Which appears to be very much what the new Finnish likely Prime Minister believes in:

A millionaire former telecoms executive touted as a technocrat capable of rescuing Finland from economic slump won Sunday's parliamentary election, but he will likely need coalition support from a second-placed eurosceptic party critical of any more Greek bailouts.

Opposition Centre Party leader Juha Sipila, who advocates a wage freeze and spending cuts to regain Finland's competitiveness, beat pro-EU and pro-NATO Prime Minister Alexander Stubb after four years of policy stagnation and a bickering coalition.

Hartz IV looked at Germany's labour costs and concluded that they were too high for the productivity levels in the country. This therefore meant unemployment for some, low economic growth for all. The answer to this was to change the relationship between the costs of labour and the production from that labour.

It's worth nothing that this is one area of economics where there is no difference between the different schools. All will agree that involuntary unemployment is the result of wages being higher than the market clearing level. The arguments all start with why this is so (a supply or demand shock? Capitalist plutocrats screwing everyone? The banks have fallen over?) and then continue on into what should be done about it (raise demand in the economy? Increase educational levels? Lower wages?).

Dependent on the details of what is happening, something which is an empirical, not theoretical, question one of all of them could be happening, could be the right solution, at any one time. Germany then and apparently Finland now mapped it out and decided that it really was simply the general wage level that was too high. That was managed down in Germany and a decade of comparative success has followed (yes, we do have to limit ourselves to the eurozone economies in that comparison, given the burdens of the single currency). Here's hoping that the Finns have the analysis right this time and that the same solution works again.

There is no such thing as tax avoidance

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You don't have to go far through the public prints to find all sorts of blood curdling tales about how the Treasury is being ripped off by varied forms of tax avoidance and even aggressive tax avoidance. And yet the truth is that as a thing tax avoidance doesn't actually exist. So it isn't as we're told in the Telegraph, that tax avoidance is actually a good thing, it's that it just doesn't happen:

Successive governments have left us with a tax regime so complex it verges on chaotic.

Which is exactly why we should be suspicious of politicians who talk imprecisely about “tax avoidance” and “tax evasion” – or who muddle the two terms, or use them interchangeably.

There is nothing wrong with tax avoidance.

Tax avoidance is what everyone does, not just the wealthy. It’s what we do when we save in Isas and pensions, or in Junior Isas for our children.

There's no doubt at all that there are attempts to avoid tax. Sticking your money in an ISA or simply not declaring millions in income are both attempts to avoid tax. But we have a system which decides which of those plans is successful in doing so. That system being HMRC in the first line, the various tax tribunals in the second and then on and up to the European Court of Justice as both Vodafone and Cadbury found out. The end result of this system of adjudicating upon attempts is that there's no room left for tax avoidance to actually happen in. For, obviously, once the courts have had their say either whatever is going on is obeying the law of the land or it isn't. And when it is decided that it isn't that's tax evasion. And when it's decided that it is according to said law that's not actually avoiding anything, is it? It's paying, in full, one's dues as Parliament has decided you ought to.

There really isn't anything called tax avoidance. There's only obeying the law and not obeying it.

So, could the public health people please shut up?

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Vaping, smoking, the great question is, is one a complement to the other (complement, meaning that more of one leads to more of the other) or a substitute (more of one leads to less of the other)? Evidence:

Electronic cigarette use among U.S. middle and high school students tripled in 2014 while cigarette use fell to record lows, according to provocative new data that is likely to intensify debate over whether e-cigarettes are a boon or bane to public health.

No, that's not provocative data, that's conclusive data. A substitute not a complement.

Every public health advocate should now be pushing vaping. Anyone who claims to be such and is not is simply a Puritan.

By their actions shall ye know them.

Aren't these free market things just great?

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Two little stories that caught our eye:

Morrisons is trialling a halal pick and mix counter at 10 stores, offering gelatine-free sweets to Muslim customers.

The selection of 36 sweets includes liquorice sticks, cola bottles, jelly beans, gummy bears and sugared lips - all guaranteed to be free of non-halal animal products or alcohol-based colourings and flavourings.

The lust for profits to be made by satisfying consumer desires leads to ever more product differentiation, even to sweeties that those who take their religion seriously can have.

And:

On May 12 it will be 10 years since Malcolm Glazer completed his hostile takeover of Manchester United, loading the business as he did so with the biggest debt in football history. At that moment, a group of United supporters turned their backs on the club they had long followed and decided to establish one of their own. FC United of Manchester they called it, a name now written large across the front of the main stand at Broadhurst Park, the club’s new home. As gestures go, this could not be more substantive.

When the new stadium opens officially on May 29 with a friendly game against Benfica, the 5,000‑capacity stadium, with its enormous terrace, its myriad community spaces and the area earmarked for a microbrewery to produce the club’s own ale, will surely be directing a belligerent architectural two fingers at the Glazer regime.

Don't like the capitalist plutocrats taking over "your" club? Great, start a new one, why not?

All without the intervention of a single bureaucrat.

We do not, by the way, insist that free markets solve each and every problem to perfection. Only that they work remarkably well across wide swathes of life. Which is why were so attached to them really, just because they do produce what people seem to want for the least effort.

Economic Nonsense: 50. Capitalism is unstable, subject to periodic crises, and should be replaced

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Capitalism is not a fixed thing, but rather a process which develops and changes in response to changing conditions, and especially changing technology.  To say it is unstable is basically to say that it changes.  It is not by its nature stable.  The capitalism of the 21st century is very different from that which prevailed at the beginning of the 19th century.  It evolves as circumstances change, adapting itself to cope with the new realities that present themselves.

It is certainly subject to periodic crises.  The business cycle has long characterized it, with economists divided as to its ultimate causes.  Periods of growth are followed by periods of a sluggish or even contracting economy, with some observers suggesting that this is a good thing, helping to weed out underperforming businesses and redirect their capital to newer and more successful ones.

Over and above this cyclical behaviour, there are occasional crises that seem to threaten the whole basis of the capitalist economy.  The Great Depression was one such period, and the 2008 recession was another.  Critics look for some alternative that lacks these wild and damaging fluctuations.  No-one has yet produced a better system.  For all its flaws, capitalism is the best way humans have found to generate wealth and to allocate resources.  Even including its great crises, it has still produced steady average growth in developed economies for the best part of two centuries.  In less developed economies it has recently produced growth and wealth on an unprecedented scale.

Capitalism learns from these crises.  It adjusts itself.  Governments learn from the mistakes that led to them, and devise new rules to prevent the same happening again.  Capitalism develops and adjusts, renewing itself each time.

When the 2008 crisis came, critics prematurely celebrated capitalism's decline and wondered what might follow it.  The answer was capitalism, modified to prevent countries repeating the mistakes of the past.  It is certainly imperfect.  Most institutions made by humans are subject to the frailty and imperfection of humanity.  But they can improve by learning from their mistakes and adapting, and this is what capitalism does and why it endures.