That idea of a national investment fund then

A highly fashionable idea these days is that there should be a national investment fund. Financed by borrowing perhaps, by just printing money maybe, even that taxes should be higher so as to allow the government to direct more investment into the economy.

This does rather fail the usual economic test of efficiency - we've really no evidence at all to suggest that government is better at identifying nor investing in projects than the private sector. Other than the most obvious public goods that is - and do note what a public good is. Not goods for the public but things which, by definition, the private sector isn't going to be good at investing in. The absence of infectious disease from that combination of treated drinking water, drains and vaccines is a public good, but it's the absence which is. Clean water, sewers and injections are not themselves public goods. 

We're suspicious of the likely success therefore. But we also have an interestingly different problem from Malaysia:

1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) is a Malaysian strategic development company, wholly owned by the Minister of Finance (Incorporated). 1MDB was established to drive strategic initiatives for long-term economic development for the country by forging global partnerships and promoting foreign direct investment. 1MDB focuses on strategic development projects in the areas of energy, real estate, tourism and agribusiness.

Strategic investment in essential areas of the economy. Sound familiar

The former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak has appeared in court in Kuala Lumpur where he was charged with corruption-related offences over his alleged involvement in the multibillion-dollar 1MBD corruption scandal.

In a stunning fall from grace, the former prime minister was charged with three counts of criminal breach of trust and one count of corruption in a prosecution led by the attorney general, Tommy Thomas. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Some billions are said to have gone missing and into the pockets of the political class. Sure, we could say that such would never happen here but then we did have T Dan Smith and other such, didn't we?

PJ O'Rourke's point that we should never let the people with all the guns and the people with all the money be the same people comes to mind.

Or to be a little less apocalyptic about it, let's not think about outright theft. Instead, politically directed investment will go to those with the right political connections, won't it? It'll still be a slush fund for the friends of the politicians in power. Which isn't, when we come to think of it, quite the way to make the rest of us richer, is it?  

Don't tread on memes

I'm in City AM today blasting a new EU law that will ban memes. 

"The law effectively bans memes, as even the best filtering systems will struggle to distinguish between the unauthorised use of a stock photo and a great meme. Rather than protect creators, this law will stifle them.

And it doesn’t just apply to big tech – any site that lets users post content is threatened too. Mumsnet, JustGiving, and City A.M. will all have to install new filter systems. The tech giants may have the budget to develop new filters, but smaller firms don’t."

Article 13 of the EU's proposed Copyright Directive will require online platforms to automatically filter out any copyrighted material uploaded. It's a shockingly badly drafted piece of legislation and has been criticised by academics, think tanks, and businesses.

The filtering systems that online platforms will be required to develop or purchase will be far from perfect. While it's straightforward enough to takedown video or audio content without accidentally harming fair-use in the process, it's much harder to do the same with images and gifs. As a result,  a filter designed to protect stock photo libraries will end up catching distracted boyfriend memes in the process. 

Of course, while Google and Facebook will be able to develop monitoring and filtering systems, smaller firms will struggle. By the EU's definition, online platforms will include forums like Mumsnet, JustGiving (where fundraisers upload videos), and even the Guardian comment section. The EU's simultaneously attacks Facebook and Google as monopolies and also passes laws that give them a leg-up over the competition.

I hope when the European Parliament votes tomorrow that they respond to the recent public outcry and scraps this provision.

Family life costs £40,000 a year in the UK apparently

It appears to be time for the annual moan from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation about the cost of living in the UK:

Families need to earn £40,000 a year to have decent standard of living amid rising cost of childcare, transport and energy, a study has revealed. 

Figures from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation show that each parent in a working couple with two children needs to earn £20,000 in order to fund a reasonable lifestyle, up from £13,900 in 2008. 

A single person needs to earn £18,400, an increase from £13,400 a decade ago. 

We've been making regular fun of this regular calculation for well over a decade now. These numbers are pre-tax and they're calculated on the basis of Adam Smith's linen shirt. This is what people think that people ought to be able to do in a rich country like today's Britain. The bit they never do quite get right is, well, what do we do about it?

That household requiring £40,000 a year - only 30% or so of households do earn more than that. No, they don't have enough money that we can take the excess, redistribute it to the other 70% and bring them up to said income standard. Redistribution isn't a solution to this identified problem.

Which leaves, well, what is? Childcare, we can reduce the cost of that by relaxing the regulation around it which makes it so expensive. But try insisting upon that. Housing can be made cheaper by again relaxing the regulation around housebuilding but try suggesting that.

Which really only leaves two things. If this is the righteous amount that people should have for the good life then we must stop taxing people who earn less than this amount. Put the personal allowance  (for both types of NI and income tax) up to £18,400 and we're there. We do have the economic emancipation of women so couples are taxed separately and we'd pretty much deal with that £40k number as well.

Yes, this would mean rather less government all round but then we've not got a problem with that.

The only other thing we could note here is that the country just isn't rich enough - redistribution won't work, recall - to support some 70% of the population in the manner we feel they should be supported. Excellent, that means the country needs to be much richer to achieve this goal. So, hell for leather on that economic growth front then and damn the torpedoes.

Less government, much lower taxation and more economic growth. You know, we're warming to this JRF analysis.

The kidnapping of Adam Smith

Adam Smith was kidnapped by gypsies at the age of 4, and was rescued by his uncle, who, according to some accounts, led a horseback posse into the woods to achieve this. It might have been the most exciting thing that happened to Smith in his lifetime. He lived most of his life with his mother, never married, and led the life of a scholar in research and writing.

He has, however, been kidnapped many times since his death as assorted scholars and others have sought to explain that he didn’t mean what he wrote, and was really on their side. Every few years some new study comes out to reinterpret Smith’s work, and after the initial reaction, quietly disappears. Even Gordon Brown had a go. Smith has been claimed as a kind of proto-socialist, and even as a precursor of Karl Marx. To be fair, Marx did indeed adopt one of the very few things Smith was wrong about, namely the labour theory of value.

The Adam Smith Institute is usually derided in such reinterpretations for abusing the great man’s name and propagating a cardboard cut-out simplification of his ideas. The straw man is a simplistic, capitalist, laissez-faire apologist for the abuses of big business. This is not what the ASI does. Our emphasis starts with Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments,” the book that first established his reputation. The human “sympathy” (which we would call “empathy”) that we all share leads us to identify with our fellow men and women, and is the source of our morality.

Far from assuming that some “invisible hand” will direct selfishness to achieve social goals, we note that Smith only used the phrase twice, in discussion of income distribution and production. We do, however, highlight his reference to “the uniform, constant, and uninterrupted effort of every man to better his condition,” to point to the importance of incentives. And we also quote his observation that. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest,” to show that a legitimate self-interest can provide goods and services that benefit others.

We share Smith’s skepticism of government, and his observations about the way in which markets generally allocate resources. And we heartily endorse his rejection of mercantilism and protectionism. These would be difficult to explain away, but that doesn’t stop people trying.

The problem is that “Adam Smith” has become like “Freedom,” with such favourable connotations that everyone wants to be on the same side. For some this can only be achieved by redefining the original. Thus we hear of “Real freedom” and “What Adam Smith actually meant.”

At the ASI we tend to take the unremarkable view that he probably meant what
he actually said.

Would you describe yourself as a cynic or a realist?

Our view of this is more than a little dyspeptic. The question is though, should we be describing ourselves as cynics here, or realists

The European Union has been accused of using the world's poorest as a “bargaining chip” after threatening to pull funding from British aid organisations in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Senior officials at the European commission have been inserting disclaimers in aid contracts warning UK development charities that they could be dropped as a partner in programmes should Britain crash out of the EU next year.

The move has brought fierce criticism and warnings it will hurt “the most vulnerable people on the planet”.

As we're all aware that third sector has quite some influence in our domestic political life. To threaten to pull large parts of their funding unless - well, there's going to be a certain amount of activity on that unless, isn't there? 

Large charities losing a chunk of their funding unless there's a deal, that deal quite obviously being something the EU itself gets to determine by agreeing to it or not. It's possible to describe this as having bought the loyalty and activity of a large portion of that influential third sector.

The interesting question is whether that description reveals one to be a cynic or a realist.

One estimate tells us that UK charities receive some £300 million from the EU. That'll buy quite a lot of political pressure.

For example

Friends of the Earth, the environmental charity under fire for openly campaigning to keep Britain in the EU, is "urgently" reviewing whether its activities breach new impartiality guidelines.

The charity pledged to look "very carefully" at how detailed advice from the watchdog released on Monday impacts its campaigning as a Tory MP formally complained it was breaching the rules.

In findings that will fuel claims of a conflict of interest, analysis by this newspaper has found that Friends of the Earth groups received almost £10m of EU funding in recent years.

So, are you a cynic or a realist? 

They're at it again, like rabbits again

Prostitution exists and some think it shouldn't. Our own view is that consenting adults get to do as they wish subject only to their not harming the same ability of others to do as they wish. OK - but that's no excuse for people to be lying about it all.

Which is what we are seeing here. A determined effort to manipulate the language - so badly as to be such a lie - so as to sway the body politic. For there's a very large difference between sexual exploitation and sexual exploitation.

The one is the forcing of people into sexual slavery, repeated rape in short. The other is being defined as people voluntarily offering sexual services in exchange for cash, rather than love, fun or a date. We're being told that the first is the reason why the second should and must be banned. 

There is a certain problem with such manipulation:

Ministers will come under intense pressure from a cross-party group of MPs this week to follow the US by banning so-called prostitution websites amid mounting evidence that they are enabling a huge growth in sexual exploitation and the trafficking of women to the UK for profit.

That cross party group. It's an all parliamentary group, meaning whatever selection that have a particular bee in their bonnet. But there are others joining the bandwagon:

France has led the way by taking action on prostitution websites under comprehensive anti-pimping laws and, crucially, tackling the demand underpinning them – by criminalising paying for sex, and decriminalising selling sex. It is time the British government did the same and finally woke up to the sexual abuse scandal playing out in brothels across the country.

It's entirely true that there has just been a successful prosecution for sexual trafficking. But that is as a result of the law already having been changed to blur an essential distinction.

The proper meaning is the movement of people into that sexual slavery and repeated rape. An appalling crime which should indeed be heavily punished. The problem being that a decade back we had a great big look at this. Operation Pentameter found precisely no one to prosecute for it. That was every police force in the country specifically investigating for it. Details here. The meaning being used by these campaigners - and the law currently - is the organisation and movement of people across geography to voluntarily take part in cash based sexual transactions.

This is a different thing.

That thing which we all righteously abhor doesn't, to any appreciable level, exist at all. But the language is being hijacked to outlaw what some 80,000 people - the estimated number of prostitutes in the country - voluntarily do.

In Britain, prostitution advertising websites continue to operate, the UK’s patchy and inadequate laws against commercial sexual exploitation leaving sufficient leeway for them to profiteer openly.

That's actually what they're complaining about and that's what they want to ban. We disagree with them and they've every right to argue their case as they wish. But we do indeed think that using the non-existence of sexual slavery to ban consensual, if paid, sex is a torturing of the evidence and language amounting to a lie.

Venezuela Campaign: Law & Order

Venezuela is the world’s most dangerous country for the second year running. More than 40% of Venezuelans have been victims of robbery or theft, leaving just 17% of Venezuelans feeling safe as they walk home at night. But it is not just property crime: there are 24,000 violent deaths a year, and nearly a quarter of Venezuelans have been assaulted. Venezuela is more dangerous than actual warzones, and the Foreign Office now advises against all but essential travel to Venezuela. Some areas of Venezuela are completely off-limits, as the breakdown of law and order in the country has led to a massive increase in criminal activities, including kidnapping and drug smuggling.

If Venezuelan criminals were not enough to be afraid of, the government is brutally cracking down on political dissent. Over 8,000 people have been killed by security forces since 2015, in addition to the many wounded when riot police are deployed to disperse protests. Additionally, the security services seem to be operating outside the law. The UN has declared the rule of law to be 'virtually absent' from Venezuela, and that extra-judicial killings and disappearances are rife. As a result, less than a quarter of Venezuelans have confidence in their police.

This has been facilitated by President Maduro, who has consolidated his hold on power and removed all remaining checks and balances on his office. The Attorney-General who questioned the security services’ use of force and opened investigations into them has since been removed from office by Maduro. UN inspectors were not allowed into Venezuela and had to assess the situation remotely. Maduro’s refusal to cooperate with the UN is deeply troubling, as it shows that he has something to hide.

Venezuela is a country in which people are at risk from both criminals and their own government. Law and order has broken down to the point that the country is more dangerous than war-torn Afghanistan. This is appalling and there must be change for the sake of the Venezuelan people.

More information on the Venezuela Campaign can be found on their website

Rural broadband - if it's not worth it, it's not worth it

A useful guide is that if something's not worth doing then it's not worth doing - whoever is paying for it. This is true of, say, a road. If the benefits of having it are lower than the costs of doing so then don't build it. This is true whether it is privately or publicly funded.

This is also true of rural fibreoptic broadband:

Rural communities risk being left behind if the Government fails to subsidise the rollout of fibre broadband across the country, ministers have been warned. 

The National Infrastructure Commission said that the Government needs to go "further and faster" by subsidising the rollout of fibre broadband in rural areas to replace the ageing copper wiring. 

We're not even certain that this is the right technological solution. There are, after all, vast areas of the world which will never be wired up for landlines - mobile has superceded that requirement. We don't know but we can imagine that the onward development of mobile data will create the same situation.

However, it's still not true that we should be running fibre to every hamlet:

His report, due to be released next month, will recommend that while private businesses are likely to install broadband for urban areas, the Government must intervene to ensure it is also extended to people in remote and rural communities.

Schemes have already been launched by firms to install fibre broadband including CityFibre and Vodafone, Virgin Media and BT, but these programmes less likely to be commercially viable in rural areas, because the cables and too expensive to install and reach fewer people.

The clue is in that too expensive to install. The cost of installation will be more than the value of it. This is something that makes us poorer and therefore should not be done.

Even if we want to move up one level in analytical sophistication - perhaps it is worth it but the installing company cannot capture that value. In which case those who do gain that value will install, won't they, as with those Welsh villagers who've just got out and dug their own trenches. 

Living rurally does indeed mean access to less infrastructure, it's rather the definition in fact. We don't run water, sewage nor electricity to every cottage in the land on those very grounds of cost effectiveness. The same is and should be true of fibre.

Who pays for this, the resident or the general taxpayer, doesn't change that base calculation.

Menstrual leave - well, it's a great way to increase the gender pay gap

As we're continually told one of the great afflictions of our civilisation is the manner in which men and women - in general and on average - earn different amounts. Our continued insistence that this is about the manner in which - in general and on average - men and women seem to make different choices about how to earn money seems to cut little mustard.

This though would be a great way of increasing the problem being complained about:

Perhaps legalised time off is a solution. Legislation offering menstrual leave exists already. Women in Japan, Korea and a few other countries are allowed to request days off work, something that one academic called “an unusual institutionalised practice”. It sounds like a good idea. When Italy tried to bring in similar legislation last year, it didn’t pass, and critics came up with the usual objections: Italian women are already stigmatised for their biology, with some employers forcing them to sign undated resignation letters in case they become pregnant. Other objections: menstrual leave sends the message that menstruation is a disease or an affliction. It is sexism, or stigmatisation. It may lead to the women who seek menstrual leave being paid less...

There's no may about it.

Now it is true that most of us around here are men and of an age kindly called rich in maturity. Which means we have seen some of that world out there. It's not so much the menses as the pre- at issue here. So, let us be kindly and suggest two days as this menstrual leave.

So, what is the effect upon annual wages of an extra 26 days (no, lunar months here) off, or at least potentially so, each year? Note that's rather more than 10% of the usual quota of working days in a year. Pay of those gaining such time will be higher or lower than that of those who don't on that annual basis? 

Quite, if you actually wanted to increase the gender pay gap you'd find it hard to come up with a better plan, wouldn't you?