But why is private property not allowed to leave the country, even if it is a Cezanne?

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We find this all most odd: An important Cézanne landscape view of the Mediterranean, which has been on public view in Cambridge for nearly 30 years, is in danger of leaving the UK unless more than £13.5m can be raised.

The British government on Monday placed a temporary export bar on Cézanne’s Vue sur L’Estaque et le Château d’If.

Purchased by the industrialist Samuel Courtauld in 1936 and passed down through his family, it was on long-term loan to the Fitzwilliam Museum from 1985 until last year when a decision was taken to sell it.

What justification is there for whoever owns this painting now not being allowed to take their private property where they wish?

After all, consider the peregrinations of the painting so far:

Provenance Ambroise Vollard, Paris, by whom acquired directly from the artist. Baron Denys Cochin, Paris, by 1904. Galerie Durand-Ruel, Paris, by whom acquired on 12 May 1905. Paul Cassirer, Berlin, by whom acquired on 21 September 1905. Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Paris, and Jos Hessel, Paris, by whom acquired on 2 April 1909. Jos Hessel, Paris, by whom acquired on 12 July 1910. Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Paris, by whom acquired on 12 October 1912. Walther Halvorsen, Oslo, by whom acquired on 21 April 1915. Erich Goeritz, Luxembourg, by 1936. Galerie Thannhauser, Lucerne, by whom acquired from the above on 9 July 1936. Wildenstein Galleries, Paris & London, by whom acquired from the above on 11 July 1936. Samuel Courtauld, London, by whom acquired from the above in November 1936, and thence by succession to the current owners.

What is there in all that which justifies the full majesty of the law being applied to keeping it in the UK?

Our general reading of such export bans is that they are a scam perpetrated upon the general public. Some small number of influential people rather like looking at the occasional French painting. But they'd prefer not to have to pay for their pleasures. Thus they manipulate the law so as to insist that their desires are catered to.

It's time for us to change this system: ban export bans now!

School choice for Scotland

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Nevada has become the first state in the US to enact a law making school choice universal. This is a groundbreaking example for other countries mildly experimenting with school choice. Adopting something similar in the UK context is an especially interesting idea. It works through an education savings account (ESA) in which the state deposits what it would averagely expend educating a child under the state system. Parents can use this fund for everything from school fees to private tuition – the choice offered in educational services being as wide-ranging and high-quality as individuals demand. And the catchment allocation of pupils to schools they don’t want to attend is a thing of the past.

Notably, families can roll over unused funds from year to year, a feature that makes this approach particularly attractive. It is the only choice model to date that puts downward pressure on prices. Parents consider not only the quality of education service they receive, but the cost, since they can save unused funds for future education expenses.

Scotland, with roughly double the population size of Nevada and a completely devolved education system, could technically do something similar. Not least because it's an idea that people of all political ideologies seem to be supportive of (see my previous post), but there is no freedom of movement in the education system – something that is neither fair on those trapped in the postcode of poorer schools nor an efficient way of driving up standards.

Remarkably many UK private schools at the cheaper end of the spectrum are running at a lower cost than state schools. Take a look at a 2011 paper (pdf) by James Croft that breaks down the cost of state and private sector schools, controlling for expenditures particular to each. Given that profit-making schools can achieve better outcomes for less money, the state handing back the cost of a child's 'free' education would enable people to attend a private school who previously couldn't afford it.

41% operate on fee levels less than, or on a par with, the national average per pupil funding in the state-maintained sector. On average, fees are approximately £7,500 annually. Fees at the more accessible end of the spectrum attract a high proportion of first-time buyers of independent education.

The best education policy currently on offer in Scotland is detailed in the Scottish Conservatives' 2016 Holyrood election manifesto (pdf) which promises school vouchers. But realistically, 60% of Scottish people voting next year are planning to support the SNP. There's just no avoiding for now that Scottish politicians will churn out yet more legislation from our unicameral conveyor belt to undermine independent schools’ autonomy and unintentionally halt our education system's advancement.

Take the Education (Scotland) Bill 2015 (pdf), which I have highlighted in a recent post for an unreasoned section that attempts to outlaw inequality in state schools – if it's successfully implemented teachers not registered with Scotland's General Teaching Council will be barred from teaching.This will massively limit what expert teaching Scottish pupils are exposed to. Meanwhile looms the threat that charitable status, and therefore up to 80% tax relief, will be removed from private schools, affecting hundreds of bursaries for disadvantaged children.

Interference with the better-performing independent schools and misdirected moves in state sector has created an environment in which it is impossible for an education market with school choice and low-cost private schools to emerge. Until we take steps in the right direction, the transience of politics will prove to be either a blessing or a curse.

So student loans seem to be working as a policy then

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Some will no doubt decry this finding as evidence of the increasing commercialisation of society, the death of all that is good and holy. We would respond that this is actually the point of having student loans:

The first students to graduate since the imposition of £9,000 annual tuition fees are more focused on securing a well-paid job than their predecessors to pay off their higher levels of debt, according to a major survey of post-university employment.

The survey of 18,000 final year students at 30 universities reported a record proportion had started researching career paths as early as their first year of studies, and more of them undertook work experience to improve their chances of getting a good job after graduation.

The survey found the average level of debt by this summer’s graduates had ballooned to £30,000, compared with averages of £20,000 in 2014 and 2013.

The truth being that university is both enjoyable and highly enriching. To the point that, assuming one has taken the right sort of course, lifetime earnings are some hundreds of thousands of pounds higher for those who have a degree than for those who do not. Thus the major beneficiaries of a university education are those who get one: so why shouldn't they be the ones paying for one?

But while that is true that's not really the point of student loans rather than grants. The real point being that a university education is an expensive thing to provide. We'd rather thus encourage people to go and make use of that expensive asset that they've just acquired. Thus recent graduates looking for well paid jobs isn't a fault of the system, it's the major darn point.

That is, that recent graduates are looking for those better paid jobs as a result of having student debt shows that the system of financing degrees by debt is working.

Is the single market possible in a 2-speed EU?

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This week unites two crises: Greece and the UK’s proposals for EU treaty change.  The EU will get through both with a lot of fudging. Greece will stay in the Eurozone for now and Prime Minister Cameron will keep talking. The former is eventually bound to lead to tougher rules for the Eurozone whether Greece remains in or leaves it.  That in turn will lead to stronger UK demands for non-Eurozone members to opt in or out, thus creating a 2-speed EU with progressive integration for the former and demands for the EU to be merely a single economic market by the latter.  The fact that the latter is also the overwhelming preference of EU voters carries little weight in Brussels or, indeed, in the other countries where Treaty changes require referenda.

The difficulty of isolating economic from social and political issues is where the EEC came in and why the continentals never envisaged a purely economic single market.  This issue was downplayed when the UK joined.

The UK’s position remains that social and political issues should be a matter for the British parliament. David Cameron would doubtless accept John Major’s Maastricht opt out if that were possible.  Indeed the UK should reverse all Tony Blair’s EU give-aways and be grateful to Gordon Brown for keeping us out of the Euro.

But all that is history and the question now is whether the single market we desire is at all possible with a 2-speed EU.  At the beginning of the year, FT columnist Janan Ganesh proposed that the UK be allowed a veto over proposed EU financial regulations it disliked in much the same way that France has a veto on changes to the Common Agricultural Policy. The argument would be that financial services are as crucial for the UK as agriculture is for France.  With the possibility of all the other 27 member states demanding vetoes for their chosen “crucial” areas, German support would be unlikely.

One way to sweeten the pill would be to renounce all UK regulations additional to the EU ones.  In combination they must annoy foreign financial companies operating in the City just as much as they aggravate British ones.  That would help establish the principle that we need clarity on “competences”, i.e. for each area the EU, or the member state, should legislate but not both.  Both doing so drags the whole EU down competitively.

But Eurozone integration threatens that.  Distinguishing competences between EU and member states is hard enough but a three way split between Eurozone, other EU and then member states may escape Brussels’ rather limited imagination.

Inequality: some people know what they want to find

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One wonders how many times Guardian economics columnists have revealed the shocking discovery that: 'trickle-down economics' doesn't work, equality isn't only desirable for fairness reasons but also for growth and stability; some important group with heretofore sound neoliberal credentials agrees; and that shadowy international organisations and selfish elites are to blame for this fairly clear truth not being tackled through policy. Messrs Elliott, Chakrabortty and Inman, responsible for most of the august paper's economics comment, and all apparently endowed with eternal reserves of surprise, regularly inform us of these groundbreaking findings, that shatter economists' ideological complacent laissez faire free market neoclassical neoliberal capitalist consensus.

The latest has a title that might well have been automatically generated: "So much for trickle down: only bold reforms will tackle inequality" with an equally excellent standfirst, "Even the IMF recognises the vicious circle in which inequality breeds instability, which causes recession and spending cuts that make inequality worse". Between them they really hit up all of the bases, and the piece is no different.

IMF research released last week (pdf) shows that there are economic downsides to inequality. Raising the income share of the poorest 20% of the population increases growth by as much as 0.38 percentage points over five years. By contrast, increasing the income share of the richest 20% by 1% decreases it by 0.08 percentage points. So much for trickle down.

She added that these disparities were becoming baked in, with social mobility on the decrease. To get on in life, you had to live on the right side of the tracks, and according to Lagarde, that “didn’t sound fair”.

At this point, readers might be wondering whether this IMF has anything to do with the other IMF, the one that tells countries seeking financial help that they need to liberalise labour markets by cutting minimum wages and reducing the scope of collective bargaining; the one that demands cuts in public spending and insists that state assets should be privatised at every opportunity.

They are indeed one and the same. The IMF that warns of the perils of inequality is the IMF that is demanding measures of Greece that will add to poverty and make inequality worse. One half of the fund – the economics team that comes up with the big-picture analysis – says one thing. It supports investment in education, an enhanced role for trade unions and higher taxes on the rich. The other half – the part that draws up the structural adjustment programmes – says something entirely different.

What's weird is that while it would be nice to believe in a mendacious Larry Elliott, realistically it's more reasonable to assume this is all in earnest. Indeed, does it really make any less sense than my worldview?

I can point to evidence suggesting that inequality doesn't perpetuate through educational differences. I can point to evidence that people don't actually care about real world inequality, which they wildly mis-estimate; they only care about their perceptions of inequality, which changing inequality doesn't necessarily change. I can show that inequality doesn't unduly affect politics, that it doesn't undercut morality or community, and that the Spirit Level is nonsense.

But then you have people like the IMF, surely among the most credible bodies in the world, regularly releasing papers saying we should care. Who would you believe? As ever, it's very hard to decide what to do when one's meta-rationality goes awry.

I can say that the methodology of the IMF work is shoddy and that you should look at credible meta-analyses—but why should Elliott et al. trust me when I'm going against far more credible people. And surely we cannot expect everyone to dissect the details of every paper when they make a judgement on the area.

So while I might criticise the rather silly framing of this new 'revelation' I can hardly give full-throated criticism of the Guardian economics section line in general—interpreting evidence is just too hard.

Sensible regulation

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Regulation involves compliance costs that large businesses can afford more readily than can small firms.  Indeed, big business sometimes colludes with government and bureaucracy to have regulations that make market entry difficult for start-up and small competitors.

Regulation should be cost-effective, doing as little economic damage as possible, limiting competition or increasing prices as little as it can while achieving its objectives.  Above every regulator's desk should be inscribed the words: "Competition is the best regulator," for it is the ability of the customer to go elsewhere that compels firms to keep their quality high and their prices low.

Above all, regulation should be sensible.  Those who have no experience of business are unlikely to produce sensible regulations unless they consult with those who have.  Part of the problem is that things change.  New products and processes render old regulations irrelevant or inappropriate, and legislators struggle to add extra pages of detail to keep up with events.  The pile of regulatory requirements grows higher.

One possible solution might be to draw on the tradition of English Common Law, relying on precedent rather than on closely-written requirements.  For example, many pages of detail set out what toilet facilities employers have to provide for employees.  A general requirement that employers should have to provide 'decent toilet facilities' immediately begs the question of "What counts as decent?"  It could be determined by a series of decisions by juries and tribunals, so that an understanding of what was expected would soon emerge.

The advantage of this method is that it would incorporate the common sense of those sitting in judgement, and could adapt in response to changing times, just as Common Law does. 

This is not the Continental tradition of statute law.  Law there tends to be made by legislators and bureaucrats rather than by juries.  The rules are written down in advance and in detail, rather than emerging from a series of decisions dealing with circumstances.  EU regulations are made in this way, and there is little prospect of them changing.  

Mr Cameron might make part of his EU negotiating stance that the 95% of UK firms which do not export to the EU should not be subject to EU regulations.  A common law system of regulation could then be applied to them, making regulation more sympathetic and more flexible, lowering compliance costs and making it easier for new firms to start up.  It would give a significant boost to the economy.

The seriously fascinating opening to a European Union report

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We find ourselves near helpless with laughter at this opening to the latest European Union report. It's the one about how the eurozone should be deeper, have a common treasury and so on. And it opens with this:

The euro is a successful and stable currency. It is shared by 19 EU Member States and more than 330 million citizens. It has provided its members with price stability and shielded them against external instability. Despite the recent crisis, it remains the second most important currency in the world, with a share of almost a quarter of global foreign exchange reserves, and with almost sixty countries and territories around the world either directly or indirectly pegging their currency to it.

Europe is emerging from the worst financial and economic crisis in seven decades.

At least one of us around here is known to be deeply eurosceptic, but even given that isn't this just the most delightful piece of political prose?

For there's not a single economist who wouldn't add a "therefore" to the beginning of that second paragraph. Yes, the recession was not caused by the euro itself, but the existence of the euro most certainly made it worse than it would otherwise have been. As that same single currency made the boom beforehand even more frenzied. And then the actual monetary policies followed made matters even worse: the ECB was still raising interest rates when unemployment was soaring past 20% and more in some countries.

We can't help thinking that, well, observe the following:

This report has been prepared by the President of the European Commission, in close cooperation with the President of the Euro Summit, the President of the Eurogroup, the President of the European Central Bank, and the President of the European Parliament.

.... This report reflects the personal deliberations and discussions of the five Presidents.

Five presidents might be four or more too many for an organisation but leave that aside. But do we really desire the governance of an entire continent to be in the hands of those who could violate Poe's Law so grievously?

Six thoughts about the tax credit cuts

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  1. Working tax credits are a good idea in principle. Low pay is a big problem, and shifting the welfare system away from being a safety net towards topping up the incomes of low-skilled people who are in work is probably the right approach.
  2. It doesn’t make sense to both tax people and pay them benefits. Cutting income tax and, especially, raising the National Insurance threshold on low-income workers is less complicated than making them apply for tax credits, and probably would incentivise work by getting rid of the tax credit withdrawal 'tax', without removing their incentive to join the work force (as ditching tax credits alone might do).
  3. That isn’t what’s happening here, though. These cuts are meant to reduce the deficit, so they won’t be offset entirely by tax cuts. That might disincentivise work (reducing people’s incentive to enter the work force) and will clearly make some poor people worse off.
  4. Lowering the child tax credits threshold and increasing the withdrawal rate would be one of the least harmful ways to cut tax credits, because these are not tied to work and because they are paid to couples earning up to £41,000/year, which is quite high.
  5. Housing benefit and pensions would probably be better things to cut. The £26bn housing benefit bill could be reduced significantly by reforming planning to allow more houses to be built. Abolishing the pensions triple-lock and increasing pensions in line with inflation only would produce major year-on-year savings – this year, the £92 billion pensions budget would be essentially frozen.
  6. Deregulations that cut the cost of living would offset some of these cuts. Housing and, for people with children, childcare are the biggest costs for people on low incomes, and payments for childcare in particular are built in to the tax credits system. The UK has some of the harshest regulations in Europe on both of these things, driving up costs. If the government made it easier for the private sector to build more houses and relaxed regulations about staff:child ratios in crèches for children, the cost of living for poor people would fall significantly.

How Jeb Bush could get his 4% growth (for a few years, at least)

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US presidential hopeful Jeb Bush says that, with the right policy reforms, the US can achieve 4% annual growth. As economic historian (and Adam Smith Institute Fellow) Anton Howes has pointed out, historically it’s very hard to sustain growth above 2% except when you’re catching up, either after a recession or as a poor country converging on rich ones. For the US, 4% growth would mean catching up to the pre-2008 trend for a few years, and then reverting to normal. Glenn Hubbard and Kevin Warsh, two economists who are likely to advise Bush on economic issues during the campaign, suggest that investment-focused tax cuts and pro-competition deregulations might help the US to recover back to the pre-2008 trend. Well, maybe.

One thing they did not mention was liberalising planning (or urban zoning, in American English). But that could deliver a big boost to GDP. An NBER working paper by Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti released earlier this year argued that:

…worker productivity is increasingly different across cities. We calculate that this increased wage dispersion lowered aggregate U.S. GDP by 13.5%. Most of the loss was likely caused by increased constraints to housing supply in high productivity cities like New York, San Francisco and San Jose. Lowering regulatory constraints in these cities to the level of the median city would expand their work force and increase U.S. GDP by 9.5%.

Basically, making it easier for people to move around makes it easier to put people into the jobs where they’re most productive, and constraints on housing supplies make it much harder for people to move around.

Deregulating planning, then, could massively boost US GDP – even bringing constraints in the most productive cities down to the average level would increase it by nearly 10 percent. Spread over a few years, and combined with the standard 2% we’d expect from the US economy normally, that’s about one Presidential term’s worth of 4% growth.

This is really just a moot point – the President doesn’t have much say over local zoning laws. But who knows? This might be one time where the Presidential bully pulpit comes in handy.

Mostly, this is instructive for those of us in other cities where supply constraints make it difficult for people to move in. How much richer Britain might be if it was a little easier to build houses in the places people want to live – and work.

A proposal to solve the housing crisis

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The problem is not that people lack the resources to buy houses; it is that there are simply not enough houses.  People are living longer, more choose to live singly, and immigrants increase the population.  Schemes that help people to obtain mortgages direct extra funds into housing without increasing the supply, and put more upward pressure on house prices.

The Green Belt acts as a corset around our cities, forcing people to live beyond it and commute through it, with attendant pollution and congestion.  They need houses near the edge of cities, but the Green Belt stops them.

The first step is to classify Green Belt land into its three types.  There is verdant land, with fields, meadows and woods - what most people think of when they think about Green Belts.  There is 'brown,' or damaged land, including abandoned mines and quarries and former industrial buildings.  Thirdly there is agricultural land, much of it given to intensive cultivation on vast fields using fertilizers and pesticides.  It falls well short of being environmentally friendly.

Once the land is classified into its three types, the verdant land should be left untouched.  All of the 'brown' land should be made available for building.  In addition a one-mile deep strip of agricultural land at the inner edge of the Green Belt should be made available for house-building.  In compensation, at least a mile of agricultural land beyond the outer edge of the Green Belt should be added to it as verdant Green Belt.

The grant of planning permission within this extra land near cities would dramatically lower the cost of housing land, putting downward pressure on house prices.  The million extra homes that could be built on this land would have a similar effect.  A move such as this would increase the supply of housing and make it less expensive, bringing home-ownership within reach of many.  

Furthermore, there would be a net gain of properly 'green' land by the outer extension of the Belt with more verdant land.  The prospect of extra housing, a curb on the upward spiral of prices, and with no loss of green land, all suggest this might be a practical and popular help to the housing problem.