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"Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice" - Adam Smith

Unemployment pay increases unemployment

Written by Tim Worstall | Wednesday 19 February 2014

One of the sadder things I've seen over the past few years has come from a coterie of left leaning US economists. They have been insisting that the extension of unemployment benefits (usually in the US they are only payable for 26 weeks, it was extended to 99) has had no effect on the unemployment rate. This is of course untrue:

Extending the maximum length of benefits beyond 26 weeks made highly educated unemployed people “more ‘relaxed’ and more patient in selecting jobs,” wrote Lei Fang and Jun Nie in a new working paper, “Human Capital Dynamics and the U.S. Labor Market.” Had unemployment benefits not been extended, they estimated, “the unemployment rate during the 2010-2012 period would have been 0.5 percentage point lower than the actual level.”

The full paper is here.

The high U.S. unemployment rate after the Great Recession is usually considered to be a result of changes in factors influencing either the demand side or the supply side of the labor market. However, no matter what factors have caused the changes in the unemployment rate, these factors should have influenced workers’ and firms’ decisions. Therefore, it is important to take into account workers’ endogenous responses to changes in various factors when seeking to understand how these factors affect the unemployment rate. To address this issue, we estimate a Mortensen-Pissarides style of labor-market matching model with endogenous separation decisions and stochastic changes in workers’ human capital. We study how agents’ endogenous choices vary with changes in the exogenous shocks and changes in labor-market policy in the context of human capital dynamics. We reach four main findings. First, once workers have accounted for and are able to optimally respond to possible human capital loss, the unemployment rate in an economy with human capital loss during unemployment will not be higher than in an economy with no human capital loss. The reason is that the increase in the unemployment rate led by human capital loss is more than offset by workers’ endogenous responses to prevent them from being unemployed. Second, human capital accumulation on the job is more important than human capital loss during unemployment for both the unemployment rate and output. Third, workers’ endogenous separation rates will decline when job-finding rates fall. Fourth, taking into account the endogenous responses, unemployment insurance extensions contributed 0.5 percentage point to the increase in the aggregate unemployment rate in the 2008–12 period.

There really shouldn't be any surprise at all about this as Richard Layard has been pointing out for decades now:

There is ample evidence that unemployment (and employment) is affected by how the unemployed are treated. Other things equal, countries that offer unemployment benefits of long duration have more unemployment (and less employment). This is because employment depends on the effective supply of labour.

Extending the period of time for which unemployment benefits are paid is quite obviously going to increase the amount of unemployment that there is.

This does not, in any manner, mean that those benefits should not have been extended. It's entirely possible, for example, to claim that the pain and grief prevented by the extension is greater than that caused by that uptick in the unemployment rate caused by it. It's possible to make the opposite argument as well and your conclusion should at least depend upon a combination of your priors and the evidence put in front of you.

But my complaint is that that certain set of economists has been ludly proclaiming to the world that the extension cannot increase unemployment. Therefore no one has been working with the correct facts about the problem under discussion. And I'm afraid that I regard that as more than a little sad. Yes, I know, I'm just showing how naive I am even at my advanced age: but I really would prefer it that professional knowledge was deployed as professional knowledge, not twisted to feed the rabble in politics.

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Think piece: cryptocurrency gets real

Written by Blog Editor | Tuesday 18 February 2014

ASI fellow Preston Byrne explains why bitcoin's recent problems do not mean the cryptocurrency-cum-payments-system is over. In fact, the promise of cryptography in payments and contracts is as exciting as ever.

Last week was a horrible week for Bitcoin: as "transaction malleability" (in effect, a form of distributed denial of service attack) entered the lexicon, $2.7 million of Bitcoins were stolen from Silk Road 2, Russia banned it and the App Store followed suit, the value of a single Bitcoin fell to roughly half – as against USD – as it was 14 days ago.

One could be forgiven for thinking it is "all over" for cryptocurrency; the sector is more than just Bitcoin, however, and as a whole the market tells a very different story. Slowly but surely, the one-trick crypto pony is becoming a multilateral ecosystem and one of the more interesting of these developments was the establishment of Ethereum, a project to build a platform to run smart contract protocols.

“What the hell is a smart contract?” You ask.

Read more here.

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The Scottish independence debate just got interesting

Written by Dr. Eamonn Butler | Tuesday 18 February 2014

The Scottish independence debate just got interesting. Not over the future of North Sea oil or nuclear submarine bases, but on the dull matter of monetary policy.

In September, Scotland holds a referendum on whether to remain part of the United Kingdom or go solo. So far, many people just assumed that a 'Yes' vote would be crazy. Scotland already has devolved government, with its own Parliament in Edinburgh deciding matters such as health, education and welfare policy. Scotland has more than its share of MPs in the UK Parliament in London, who even get to vote on exclusively English matters. It also enjoys a higher share of UK public spending. Devolved powers and English subsidies...seems like paradise.

The polls reflected the strength of this 'No' case – but things are narrowing. The Scottish nationalist leader Alex Salmond is a wily politician. His party won a majority in the Scottish Parliament despite an electoral system designed to keep them out. He tells Scots not to throw away their one chance of doing something extraordinary. He affirms Scotland's proven ability to run its own affairs. And he makes the point that an independent Scotland would never have to endure a Conservative government ever again.

By contrast the 'No' campaign looks unambitious and condescending, suggesting that Scots aren't up to governing themselves. And the Conservatives, mostly pro-union, have such a polluted brand in Scotland that they kept quiet rather than adding weight to the 'No' lobby.

Brave, then, for Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer to enter the fray, saying that an independent Scotland would not be allowed to keep the pound sterling. Nonsense of course: only draconian laws preventing cross-border sterling business could stop that. And with so much cross-border trade, forcing Scotland into a new currency helps neither country – though that is what Osborne is trying to imply.

The reality is that the Scots could use the pound (or for that matter the dollar, euro or yen) but would have no say in the currency's management. But Osborne insists that the Bank of England would set interest rates and create money according to the needs England, Wales and Northern Ireland – not some foreign country called Scotland. Again, that is over-egging it: with so much cross-border trade, the Bank would have to take account of conditions in Scotland when setting its policy.

So the Scots would be like Ecuador, Panama or El Salvador, who use the dollar but who have no voice in US Federal Reserve policy. And just as they have no hope of the Fed bailing them out in a crisis, Scotland cannot expect any Bank bailouts either. That sounds bleak until you remember that Panama's banks are some of the world's soundest. They have to have big reserves precisely because there are no bailouts. So that might even make Scottish banks more attractive in these uncertain times.

Up to a point. The Scottish banks, or government, would still have to create a financial buffer big enough to ensure that Scotland's financial sector can keep standing without Bank of England support. It is a big ask: the Royal Bank of Scotland alone would need billions of new capital to let go of the Bank of England. Where does the money come from? The worry is that Scotland's huge financial sector would up sticks and head south, where it could still cling to nurse. And that anyone left behind would have to offer investors sky-high interest rates to reflect their risky go-it-along policy – which they would in turn have to pass on to borrowers, like people with mortgages.

The wily Salmond will have some answer, of course. The pity is that we have not had this rather critical debate until now. It would certainly have made the whole campaign a lot more interesting.

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Does the NYT actually read its own editorials?

Written by Tim Worstall | Tuesday 18 February 2014

The New York Times is complaining bitterly that the workers at the VW plant in Tennessee didn't do what the NYT think that the auto workers should have done. That is, they voted not to have a union to represent them:

The “I am satisfied with my pay” rationale for voting no is also problematic. Why are VW workers in Chattanooga satisfied with making less than unionized Volkswagen workers in some other countries? Do they work less or contribute less to bottom line? Are they less skilled or less reliable?

By voting no, workers in Chattanooga very likely not only limited their own pay raises, but probably those of their relatives, friends and neighbors. That’s because the higher pay that generally results from collective bargaining at a major employer tends to influence the pay scales at nearby employers, even if those other workplaces are not unionized.

Please note that I've not edited or elided here: these really are the two paragraphs as they first laid them out. And it's things like this that make me wonder whether the people who write these editorials ever bother to read them. For they've used two entirely contradictory arguments about what explains wage rates, one after the other.

That first argument is that workers in different places should be paid according to the productivity of their labour. Doesn't matter what local wage rates are, if you're adding $x to the value of a car then your wage should be $y.

The second argument is very different: it is stating that if local wages are higher in general then your wages, in that locality, will be higher. If car workers in Tennessee are being paid more money then the people who flip hamburgers in Tennessee will also be paid more. Not that there will be any change in the value the flippers are adding, no change in their productivity, just that because local wages are higher then all local wages will be higher.

And that's why those two views conflict. Either wages are determined by productivity, not location, or they're determined by location not productivity. Trying to claim both in the same piece is just a bit much for me.

As it happens it is the second argument that is correct. Wages are determined by the best available alternative job for that skill set in that location. Someone able to make cars productively somewhere there are no cars to make won't get a carmakers' wage. But if carmarkers' wages are high then yes, given that being a carmaker is an alternative to flipping burgers then where there are high carmakers' wages then burger flippers' wages might well rise. Location, not productivity, is the key.

What makes it all so annoying is that one of the very best explanations of all of this is by Paul Krugman. Who is, perceptive readers will note, the economic columnist writer for, umm, the New York Times. You think they'd give a shout out down the corridor or  something when composing these editorials, wouldn't you?

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On why the Club of Rome was wrong

Written by Tim Worstall | Monday 17 February 2014

I think we all recall the Club of Rome report that came out in the early 1970s? That all minerals were going to run out imminently and that therefore by today we'd all be dead?

I've recently found out that it all depended upon an assumption which was questionable to be polite about it. That assumption being that mineral resources were around ten times mineral reserves. Thus we can look at the official numbers for reserves, work out how much is used each year and thus work out when the resources will run out. Add in a bit of growth in consumption and we get to scarily close, in historical terms, numbers for when we are all savages plundering the decayed remnants of our civilisation.

The problem is that this assumption is untrue. Not just a bit off, wildly inaccurate even, but just plain flat out wrong. For there is aboslutely no relationship at all between mineral reserves (the working stock of current mines, largely speaking) and mineral resources (again largely speaking, where we know we could go and open new mines). Simply nothing at all: for metals like germanium, gallium, tellurium, there are no reserves at all, certainly no resources and yet there's vast amounts of these metals lying around all over the place. For the first two we throw away many hundreds of times current snnual usage in minerals that we already process, we just don't bother to extract them. For others like, say, potassium for fertilizers reserves are some 50 odd years while resources are 13,000. To claim a 10:1 ratio is just nonsense.

But it is nonsense that leads to the desired conclusion. For financial reasons reserves are rarely more than 30-50 years' worth of production. So claim that resources are ten times this, add in some growth in consumption and you will always come to the conclusion that there's not that long before we all die AIEEEEE! Thus the conclusion reached by the Club of Rome is something that is baked into their assumptions, not a reflection of anything about the real world that the rest of us inhabit.

There's more though! While reading through these reports to work out what they were really saying I came across this paper, A Comparison of the Limits To Growth With Thirty Years of Reality. Essentially it's a defence of the fact that nothing the Club of Rome predicted actually happened but just you wait, it's about to. And in this paper I came across this delightful point:

First, it is assumed here that metals and minerals will not substitute for bulk energy sources such as fossil fuels.

What? But, but, that's what renewables are! We substitute silicon, gallium, a bit of germanium (other designs use cadmium and tellurium etc) for the fossil fuels we would use to generate electricty by making those metals into solar cells. Wind turbines are using aluminium and rare earth metals to do much the same thing. The entire point of this Great Green Gambit is that we're using metals to substitute for fossil fuels.

The first report got the availability of minerals and metals wrong, howlingly wrong, and that is what would lead to disaster. This second report agrees that metals are easier to find than that but then goes onto state that we won't actually use them and therefore diaster will follow.

Both reports are, therefore, wrong. Unfortunately, the people who rule our world tend to believe the reports.

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So how's this Bolivarian Chavismo working out then?

Written by Tim Worstall | Sunday 16 February 2014

It has to be said that this Bolivarian Chavismo, socialism with a Venezuelan face, really isn't working out all that well. A few months back we had the absolutely absurd story that people were using high tech gadetry like smartphone apps just to work out which shop had toilet paper in stock. Things are going downhill from there:

At least three airlines have grounded flights to and from Venezuela so far this year, in part because the nation's government owed the carriers $3.3 billion in foreign exchange they need to pay operating costs. ........Carmakers are also in trouble. Toyota Motor Corp. is halting production in Venezuela, while Ford Motor Co. is reducing output. A mere 722 vehicles were sold in a country of almost 29 million people last month. Trade group Cavenez reckons this amounts to an 87 percent drop in sales in one year. Ford’s chief financial officer, Robert Shanks, understated the problem when he told Bloomberg last week that “price controls and a very limited and uneven supply of foreign currency to support production, have affected output adversely.” So adversely that Chrysler, Ford and General Motors produced no vehicles in Venezuela last month. Business isn't much better for newspapers. In the last six months 12 papers have shut and more than a dozen might cease publication if the government doesn’t sell the newspapers enough foreign exchange to pay for imported paper. .......A greenback in the black market now goes for 84.2 bolivars, or 13 times the official rate. ......With the highest inflation on earth, rampant violence, declining oil output and a hobbled private sector, Venezuela seems instead to be on a sustainable path to economic ruin.

I'm not sure that anyone would have the chutzpah to claim that that is all a mark of success.

The basic problem was an old one that confronts socialists. Desiring to reduce inequality might be something that I'm not very concerned with but it's a legitimate view to hold. Desiring to improve the position of the poor is one that I do agree with. But either of these things cannot be done by screwing with the market. For doing that is going to, inevitably, lead to the results above.

As I mentioned a couple of days back if you institute price controls then if you set them high, over the market clearing price, then you'll get a surfeit of whatever it is that you've just controlled the price of. If you set it below that market clearing price then you'll suffer a dearth. And if you set it at the market clearing price then why on earth are you bothering to control prices?

There is just no way out of this problem.

Unless, of course, you don't screw with the market as your method of increasing the incomes of the poor or of reducing inequality. And the most obvious method of doing that is to tax and then redistribute that money to said poor. Obviously this can be overdone but it is indeed what every country currently does do and they all manage to keep airlines flying, toilet paper on the shelves and the exchange rate within sight of the official numbers.

That, according to what they said at least, they wanted to move Venezuela a little in the direction of Sweden's icy social democracy isn't something we should condemn them for. For being complete fools about how they went about doing so perhaps is.

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The annuities market

Written by Tim Ambler | Saturday 15 February 2014

The Financial Confusion Authority (FCA) has just spent a year, and a massive amount of our money, discovering that some annuities are better value for money than others. Fancy that!  Some brands of corn flakes are better value than others too.  Some brands of corn flakes are more trustworthy than others and the same applies to annuity providers.  Consumers consider it good use of their money to pay a premium for security.  And who is the FCA to tell them that they shouldn’t?  According to the FCA, differing annuity payments means the market is “disorderly”.

They now intend to spend a further year considering what to do about it, i.e. interfere further in the market and thereby raise the total costs for all buyers of annuities.  Yes, of course financial markets need regulation, as do all markets, but the excessively detailed interventions we have witnessed since Gordon Brown gave us the Financial Standards Authority have eroded the very value for money these regulators were set up to achieve.

Regulators were created to bring about fair, competitive markets and then step away leaving choice to consumers.  Of course this means that the necessary information should be provided, be it the weight of a packet of potatoes or the amount of the annual annuity. The consumer is not helped by information being excessive or over-complex.  The regulator should be able to specify the key facts to be provided by annuity sellers in two days, not 12 months.

The primary mission of any organisation is to survive and, better, to grow.  The FCA is no exception.  The reality, as has been shown before (“I dreamed a dream of the FCA” 29 April 2013 and other ASI blogs and publications) is that the FCA is unnecessary.  The little it achieves could be handled by the Financial Ombudsman Service and Office of Fair Trading.

They key lesson from these two years of FCA self-promotion is that it is struggling to justify its existence.

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In which I fully support Natalie Bennett of the Green Party of England and Wales

Written by Tim Worstall | Saturday 15 February 2014

I should, I suppose, support Natalie Bennett of the Green Party of England and Wales, given that I publicly supported her at the time of her election. But I do have a feeling that this support she's about to get from me will not be quite so welcome.

She's come out in an official party document demanding that everyone who rejects the science of climate change be fired from government: apparently elected or unelected.

Ms Bennett said: "We need the whole government behind this. This is an emergency situation we're facing now. We need to take action. We need everyone signed up behind that." Pressed on the issue, she agreed that even the chief veterinary officer should be removed if he didn't sign up to the view on climate change also taken by the Green Party. A policy document released by the party said: "Get rid of any cabinet ministers or senior governmental advisors who refuse to accept the scientific consensus on climate change or who won't take the risks to the UK seriously." Ms Bennett added: "It's an insult to flood victims that we have an Environment Secretary (Owen Paterson) who is a denier of the reality of climate change and we also can't have anyone in the cabinet who is denying the realities that we're facing with climate change." She said her party took the consensus view shared by many other organisation including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

This is, of course, a betrayal of all that is holy about democracy and so we'll not be having with that. However, let us just put that to one side for a moment and think through, properly, what is the accepted science of climate change.

We can start with the SRES: these are the economic assumptions that go in at the beginning of the process. How many people will there be, at what level of wealth, using what technologies: these estimates produce the emissions numbers that then do into the climate models from which everything else is derived. We have four families of such scenarios and they run A1, A2, B1, B2. A largely stands for a capitalist economy red in tooth and claw, B for something more akin to a caring sharing social democracy. 1 means a more globalised economy than the one we have now, 2 means a more balkanised one, one more autarkic than at present.

In terms of human flourishing, the wealth of people in the future (and do recall that wealth is not simply more things or more consumerism, it is an expansion of the possibilities available to people),  then as we would expect the capitalist bit produces better results. But what's even more interesting is that a more globalised result produces better results than a more autarkic one. In fact, even in terms of emissions the globalised (whether capitalist or social democratic) families produce fewer emissions than the autarkic ones. Thus we can see that the science of climate change insists that we must increase, not decrease, globalisation.

This is not, to put it mildly, something that Ms. Bennett believes nor the Green Party of England and Wales. But under this stricture proposed by those very people we will simply have to fire from government everyone who opposes greater globalisation. Sad but there it is, we do have a planet to save after all.

We can go further as well. As My Lord Stern has pointed out (and as have eminences like Richard Tol, William Nordhaus, Greg Mankiw and, in fact, just about every economist who has bothered to look at the issue) the correct solution to the results that come from the IPCC is a carbon tax. Of some $80 per tonne CO2-e in fact according to Stern. And it's well known that UK emissions are around 500 million tonnes. And also that we already pay some swingeing amount of such Pigou Taxes: the fuel duty escalator alone now makes petrol a good 15p per litre more expensive than it should be under such a tax regime. And there are other such taxes that we pay, so much so that we are already, we lucky people here in the UK, paying a carbon tax sufficient to meet Lord Stern's target (which is, it should be noted, rather higher than what all the other economists recommend: we're not stinting ourselves in our approach to climate change).

We don't quite pay it on all the right things as yet, this is true, but the total amount being paid is about right. We just need to shift some of the taxation off some products and on to others. Less on petrol and more on cowshit for example.

That is, according to the standard and accepted science of climate change we here in the UK have already done damn near everything we need to do to beat it.

This, in turn, means that we now have to fire everyone who disagrees with this application of that accepted science. Which means we get to fire Ed Davey for suggesting more windmills for example. We don't need any other schemes, plans, subsidies, technological boosts nor regulations. As Stern and all the others state once we've got that appropriate carbon tax in place then we're done, problem solved. We just then sit back and allow the market to churn through the various options now that we've corrected the price system for externalities.

All of which I think is rather wonderful. Given that the Green Party is very much against globalisation then their demand is that no member of the party can ever be employed in a senior political or civil service role. For globalisation is a cure as the settled science of climate change insists. Indeed, it's one of the basic assumptions that go into the original models. And we also get to fire everyone who comes up with any scheme for regulation or subsidy, given that these are all contra-indicated by the accepted solution of the carbon tax. And finally, do note that we're already paying enough in green taxes, we've only got to tweak, in a minor manner, what we're paying them on in order to have completely solved the problem. And, as Ms. Bennett states, we now have to go and fire absolutely everyone who disagrees.

Which, given that I seem to be the only person who has actually read all of this guff, understood the implications of it and managed to piece it together makes me Prime Minister, doesn't it? Or Grand High Panjandrum or something? I seem to have convinced Matt Ridley of this over the years so perhaps he could handle the Lords for my new government.

So when do I get to meet the Queen?

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How Scotland could flourish by unilaterally keeping the pound

Written by Sam Bowman | Friday 14 February 2014

Between 1716 and 1844, Scotland had one of the world’s most stable and robust banking systems. It had no central bank, no lender of last resort, and no bank bailouts. When banks did fail, it was shareholders who were liable for paying back depositors, not taxpayers. Scottish GDP per capita was less than half of England’s in 1750; by the end of the era in 1845 it was nearly the same. Now that George Osborne has ruled out a currency union if Scotland votes for independence, the Scots have an opportunity to return to this system more seamlessly than any other place in the world could.

As I said to the press this week, there’s nothing really stopping Scotland from continuing to use the pound unilaterally. (Unless the remaining UK introduced strict foreign exchange controls, which would be absolutely crazy.)

What the Chancellor's announcement actually means is that the Bank of England (BoE) would no longer consider Scottish interests when it determines monetary policy and that illiquid Scottish banks would no longer be able to use the BoE as a Lender of Last Resort.

I’m not sure that the first point really matters at all. Scotland’s five million people can’t have much of an influence over the BoE’s policy for the UK’s 63 million people as it is. And, frankly, I’m not sure the BoE knows what it’s doing well enough for it to matter whether it cares about you or not.

The second point is the interesting bit. George Selgin has pointed to research by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta about the Latin American countries that unilaterally use the dollar. Because these countries – Panama, Ecuador and El Salvador – lack a Lender of Last Resort, their banking systems have had to be far more prudent and cautious than most of their neighbours.

Panama, which has used the US Dollar for one hundred years, is the most useful example because it is a relatively rich and stable country. A recent IMF report said that:

“By not having a central bank, Panama lacks both a traditional lender of last resort and a mechanism to mitigate systemic liquidity shortages. The authorities emphasized that these features had contributed to the strength and resilience of the system, which relies on banks holding high levels of liquidity beyond the prudential requirement of 30 percent of short-term deposits.”

Panama also lacks any bank reserve requirement rules or deposit insurance. Despite or, more likely, because of these factors, the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report ranks Panama seventh in the world for the soundness of its banks.

I suspect that there would also be another upside. Following Walter Bagehot, central banks are only supposed to lend to illiquid banks, not insolvent ones. Yet since the start of the Eurozone crisis the ECB has clearly made significant bond purchases to prop up both insolvent banks and insolvent governments. This may have been a lesser evil than letting them collapse altogether, but it’s hard to say that this kind of moral hazard is not present.

So, given that some countries do survive and even flourish without a central bank, how would Scotland do it?

The basic mechanics, I think, would be this: in a hangover from the old free banking period, Scottish banks currently issue their own banknotes. After independence, they could continue issuing their own notes that entitle the bearer to GBP on demand. BoE pounds, in other words, would be the 'base money' that Scottish banks use to back their own private currencies, in the same way gold was used during the last Scottish free banking era.

A banknote from a Scottish bank would be, in effect, a promissory note redeemable on demand in BoE-issued pound sterling. (Scottish notes are already promissory notes, but issuance is closely regulated by the BoE.) Of course, there should be nothing stopping banks from issuing notes redeemable in something else, like US Dollars, gold, Bitcoins, or Tesco Clubcard points. Scottish banks would have to arrange private clearing houses, as they did in the last free banking era, to provide loans to illiquid banks, or they could follow Panama in simply maintaining very high reserves.

No bank would have monopoly privileges: any ‘bank’ could issue notes and it would be up to the market to decide whether to accept them as money or not. As Selgin explains here, banks free to issue their own notes will set their reserve ratios according to people's demand for money, stabilising nominal spending.

With respect to other regulations, I quote Selgin again:

"It is, in any event, desirable that there be no Scottish public authority capable of bailing out insolvent banks and of thereby introducing a moral hazard. Deposit insurance should be resisted for the same reason. Foreign banks should be admitted, by way of branches rather than subsidiaries, and should enjoy the same rights as Scottish banks. (Of course the major "Scottish" banks are themselves no longer really Scottish anyway.) Finally, re-establishing some form of extended liability (though not necessarily unlimited liability) wouldn't be a bad idea."

We take no position on Scottish independence — it is up to Scottish voters to decide. And while a return to free banking in Scotland may seem fanciful, this week’s announcement makes it much more likely. Keeping the pound and treating it as the ‘specie’ on which banks can base their notes would make the transition virtually seamless for the average Scot, while giving them a banking system that is unrivalled anywhere in the world for being stable, open, and free.

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Price fixing doesn't work Part XVII

Written by Tim Worstall | Friday 14 February 2014

Thailand is finding out, in a most painful manner, what happens to those who try to fix prices:

Thailand, once the world’s biggest exporter, is short of funds to help growers under Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s 2011 program to buy the crop at above-market rates. After the government built record stockpiles big enough to meet about a third of global import demand, exports and prices have dropped, farmers aren’t being paid, and the program is the target of anti-corruption probes. Political unrest may contribute to slower growth in Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy.

In order to curry favour with the rice farmers who compose a substantial part of the electorate prices were fixed and fixed high. The inevitable thus happens, magically more is produced than anyone wants to consume and here at least it is looking like the government will go bust over it. "Produced" is of course a flexible word: there are long running reports of rice being smuggled over the Burmese border to take advantage of those high Thai prices.

This really should not be a surprise to anyone. For prices are information, they're information about how many people want to consume how much of what and similarly about who is willing to produce. Changing the prices will change those desires and thus kick the system out of sync.

And it really is always the same: Thai rice, the world's supply of tin back in the 70s, the EU food mountains and wine lakes, Red Ed's idea to subsidise wind and solar power prices. If you set the price high then there will be a glut on the market that someone, somewhere, is going to have to buy at those high prices in order to maintain those high prices. That is, as we all know, the poor bloody taxpayer. If you set the price too low as with Venezuelan toilet paper or Red Ed's idea to freeze power prices then the good in question becomes in dearth. More people want to consume it than there is supply for them to consume.

And if, of course, you manage to set prices where supply does indeed meet demand then why the heck are you wasting your time setting prices? The market will achieve that for you without your lifting a finger.

The error really does come from failing to realise that prices are not something for us to manipulate, they're information that we need to process.

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