Longevity and the rise of the West

Did the Industrial Revolution happen because of improvements in institutions or because of improvements in human capital? A duo of new papers attack the question from an interesting new angle, looking at longevity, and finding that its rise precedes (by a good 150 years) the onset of the Industrial Revolution. The first, a 2013 study from David de la Croix and Omar Licandro, builds a new 300,000 strong database of famous people born from 2400BC to 1879AD (the year Einsten was born) and has four key findings (pdf) (slides):

  1. On average, before the cohort born in the 1640s, there is no trend in lifespans; they stay at an average of 59.7 years for 4,000 years
  2. Between the cohort born in the 1640s and Einstein's cohort, longevity increases by 8 years—this trend pre-dates the industrial revolution by generations
  3. This increase occurred across Europe, not just in the leading advanced countries
  4. This came from a broad shift, rather than a few especially long-lived individuals

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The second, published less than a month ago by LSE economic history professor Neil Cummins, makes use of an even more innovative source of data—a collaborative project between the Mormon Church of Latter Day Saints and individual genealogical experts. Apparently the LDS is a major collector of genealogical information:

‘Baptism for the dead’ is a doctrine of the church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints(LDS). The practice is mentioned in the Bible (Corinthians chapter 15, verse 29, TheHoly Bible King James Version (2014)). The founder of the LDS church, Joseph Smith,revived the practice in 1840 and ever since, church members have been collecting historical genealogical data and baptizing the dead by proxy. The church has been at the frontier of the application of information technology to genealogy and has digitized a multitude of historical records. Today they make the fruits of their research available online at familysearch.org. The records number in the billions.

The paper draws longevity statistics on 121,524 European nobles who lived between 800AD and 1800AD to establish that the West was rising even before the marked gains seen from the 1640s, and suggesting that the roots of economic development go very deep (much deeper than institutions).

The fascinating paper is saturated with insight-nuggets. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the top ten exact death dates in the periods are all battles:

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There's also extra support for Stephen Pinker's thesis of massively declining violence in society:

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And here's the overall result:

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Taken together, the papers seem to provide strong support for the human capital thesis, as against the idea that changes in institutions were key in allowing humans to escape from the Malthusian trap and see general rises in the living standards, for the first time ever.


It sounds like we've the possibility of a deal here


These new figures do need to be taken with a pinch of salt, of course. But even so there does arise the possibility of an interesting deal:

Kevin Farnsworth, a senior lecturer in social policy at the University of York, has spent the best part of a decade studying corporate welfare – delving through Whitehall spreadsheets and others, and poring over Companies House filings. He’s just produced what is, as far as I know, the first ever comprehensive audit of the British corporate welfare state.

The figures, to be published in a forthcoming report, are astonishing. Farnsworth takes the financial year 2011-12 and tots up the subsidies and grants paid directly to businesses. They amount to over £14bn – that is, almost three times the £5bn paid out that year in income-based jobseeker’s allowance.

Add to that the corporate tax benefits, the value of the cheap credit made available to banks and other business, the insurance schemes run by the government to protect exporters, the marketing for British business laid on by Vince Cable’s ministry, the public procurement from the private sector … Farnsworth calculates that direct corporate welfare costs British taxpayers just shy of £85bn a year.

No, let's not try to pry into the accuracy of those numbers for a moment. Let us, for the sake of argument, take them to be true. And let us add one more piece of data. Corporation tax revenues run around £40 billion a year or so. So, if we are to believe these new figures it would appear that we've the possibility of a very promising agreement here. From our side the simple abolishment of corporation tax and also the abolishment of all that corporate welfare sounds like a great idea. And clearly those who believe that number for corporate welfare should also leap at such a deal. The Exchequer would be, by those numbers, near £40 billion a year better off.

The only problem with this deal is that those who claim to believe those corporate welfare numbers simply wouldn't take it. Meaning that they might not believe in them quite as much as they say they do.

The risk tolerant benefit more from entrepreneurship training


Policymaking always utilises a broad brush with which to redraw the lives of individuals. However, though broad, with the right evidence this brush can be narrowed by taking account of the heterogeneity of human behaviour. Just consider the many and varied schemes designed to support entrepreneurs. Putting aside the debate over whether or not this is the best use of tax revenues, nobody could deny that if we are to spend money on promoting entrepreneurs we should do so in most efficient way.

In “Entrepreneurship Training, Risk Aversion and Other Personality Traits: Evidence from a Random Experiment”, Robert W. Fairlie and William Holleran from the University of California draw on data from Growing America through Entrepreneurship (Project GATE), the largest randomised control experiment on providing entrepreneurship training ever conducted in the United States. Fairlie and Holleran find that:

[I]ndividuals who are more risk tolerant benefit more from entrepreneurship training than individuals who are less risk tolerant. The estimated interaction effects are large: averaging our estimates across the three waves implies that individuals who have a one standard deviation higher level of risk tolerance experience a 2.9 percentage point larger increase in business ownership and a 3.7 percentage point larger increase in the likelihood of starting a business from receiving the treatment than individuals with the lower level of risk tolerance.

This is a useful insight and suggests that we should consider identifying specific groups that may benefit more or less from government programmes to help people start a business. There can be no sure-fire way for spotting the next Zuckerberg, but we can increase the odds. Interestingly, Fairlie and Holleran also find “no evidence that individuals who are more innovative benefit more from entrepreneurship training than individuals who are less innovative.”

As the paper states: “some of the most disadvantaged groups such as at-risk youth and individuals with a criminal background have high levels of risk tolerance, and thus might benefit more for entrepreneurship training than more traditional job training programs.” There might be something in this: John Timpson has found ex-offenders fit in well with his unique entrepreneurial, bottom-up model for running his high street retailer.

As things stand in the UK, we have a remarkably limited understanding whether the schemes used to support entrepreneurship are doing any good. According to Gov.uk, business owners have 278 schemes to choose from. With proper analysis it might turn out that this is the correct number and they are being targeted at exactly the right group in the most efficient way. But I doubt it.

Philip Salter is director of The Entrepreneurs Network.

Five myths about ISIS


For my money, the very best foreign policy blogger on the internet is anonmugwump. One thing he is particularly good at is skewering popular myths. His latest post is one of the best I've read on his blog—an extremely well-sourced and detailed look at five popular myths about ISIS. He shows, in detail, that:

  1. Military intervention probably won't make things worse
  2. The issue isn't predominantly political
  3. ISIS is likely a threat to the West
  4. Intervening isn't a trap
  5. Cutting off ISIS's funding from gulf states isn't the best way to deal with it.

To some extent, the following myths are all interlinked. The typical anti-war activist believes that the current crisis is mainly political and financial and so military means are not addressing the primary cause of the rise of ISIS. The idea that we’re going to make it worse through military intervention isn’t just because its failing to address the key causes but because it reinforces what went wrong: Maliki alienated Sunnis and bombs will alienate Sunnis. And somewhat linked but not entirely, they think because ISIS is a response to local conditions, ISIS is not concerned with attacking the West. This post is addressed to these people – their premises are false and so their conclusions and prescriptions are also flawed.

Read the whole thing, as they say.

In which we take to Buzzfeed to bang the drum for open borders


Over at Buzzfeed I've written the ASI's first 'community post', with nine reasons people should favour more open borders:

2. Immigrants don’t steal native jobs, they create them

When immigrants take jobs, that’s all some people see. What they don’t see is that immigrants spend the money they earn too. That means that for every job taken by an immigrant worker, she will create another one by buying goods and services with the money she earns. Study after study has found that immigrants don’t ‘steal’ jobs.

The idea that immigrants steal jobs is sometimes called the ‘lump of labour fallacy’, because it mistakenly assumes that there is fixed amount of work to go around. If that were true, women entering the workforce in the mid-20th Century should have created mass unemployment. It didn’t.

It's quite a fun format, and I was able to include the obligatory Mean Girls gif, so hopefully it'll get a bit of attention. Now I want to think of other subjects to cover – Which era of Hayekian political philosophy are you?; 10 reasons to privatise the NHS; The Great Recession in 13 kitten gifs. Suggestions in the comments, please...

So where has all of Keynes' leisure gone?


In Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren Keynes famously proposed that by about now we'd all be working 15 hours a week. As a result we've had endless little reports from the likes of the not economics frankly people suggesting that we should all indeed work only 15 hours a week and spend the rest of our time being poor. But there is another answer, the correct answer, to where all of Keynes' predicted leisure time has gone:

Women devote well over the equivalent of a working day each week to household chores – double the amount undertaken by men.

They spend an average of 11-and-a-half hours doing housework, while men complete just six.

A survey, commissioned by BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour, found cooking was the most popular job.

Women said their chief responsibilities included changing sheets (86 per cent) and cleaning the toilet (83 per cent).

Whereas men were in charge of bins (80 per cent) and DIY (78 per cent).

The least popular tasks for both sexes were loo cleaning and ironing.

Keynes was proposing that as we got richer then we'd take more of our increased wealth as leisure. Which we have, in terms of our market working hours, to some extent at least. In the 1930s Saturday was still, for many, at least a half-working day. The standard 37.5 hour week of today would have been regarded as being near a part-time rather than full-time work load. But the real reduction in working hours has come as a result of the mechanisation of household production. Those microwaves, vacuum cleaners, gas ovens, central heating and so on, what Ha Joon Chang and Hans Rosling refer to collectively as the "washing machine", have led to a massive drop in the hours spent on running a home.

It would be stretching it a bit to say that a housewife in 1930 was working 11.5 hours a day on housework but not much: it was certainly 8-10 hours a day, very much a full time job. And it's that labour that just isn't being done any more: leading to the explosion of leisure time that we all currently enjoy. Keynes was right in that we've taken more of our increased wealth in the form of leisure. It's just that we've taken it from the non-market, household, part of our labours rather than the market and paid side.

Nominal GDP targeting for dummies


Nominal Gross Domestic Product (GDP) targeting is a type of monetary policy that people like me think would give us a more stable economy than we currently have. It would replace the Bank of England’s current monetary policy, inflation targeting. Nominal GDP can be understood as sum of all spending in the economy. Total spending can increase either because of price rises (inflation) or because there’s more stuff to go around (economic growth). If this year inflation is 2% and we have 2% economic growth, nominal spending (nominal GDP) will have risen by 4%.

The current policy of inflation targeting means that the Bank of England tries to control the money supply so that prices rise, on average, by 2% every year. If prices rise by more or less than this, the Bank is judged to have failed in its job.

Nominal GDP targeting would mean that the Bank of England would stop trying to target price rises, and instead try to target the total amount of nominal spending that takes place in the economy. That means that if economic growth was lower than usual, the Bank would have to try to make inflation higher than usual. If economic growth was higher than usual, inflation would be lower than usual.

This system is appealing because it is often the total amount of spending in the economy that matters, rather than inflation per se. Wages are usually set in nominal terms, which means that they do not automatically adjust upwards and downwards according to inflation.

Because of this, a drop in the amount of spending going on can lead to a mismatch between all the wage demands in the economy and the amount of money available to pay them. In other words, there is not enough money in the economy to pay everyone. This has two possible outcomes: either wages can be cut to meet the new level of spending, or people will have to be fired.

Empirically, it seems as if firms prefer to fire some workers than to cut wages across the board. In fact, firms really hate cutting wages, for some reason, and unemployed people are often reluctant to take the same job that they once had for a lower wage. Economists refer to this phenomenon as “sticky wages”.

So the outcome of a fall in total spending is usually unemployment. This is an example of a nominal change having a real effect, and destroys wealth that need not be destroyed, because the previously-profitable relationship between the worker and the firm has now been undone.

When this happens across the economy it can affect economic growth. In fact, this seems to be a very important factor in recessions – when there is a steady level spending taking place, the market is pretty good at finding new ways of using unemployed workers fairly quickly. When there just isn’t enough spending going on, we have to wait for workers and firms to cut wages enough to hire them again, which can take a long time.

Under nominal GDP targeting, the Bank of England would commit to keep the spending level growing even if economic growth dipped. As I've said, that would mean more inflation in times of slow growth and less inflation in times of quick growth.

Because inflation is being used to offset the changes in economic growth, negative economic ‘shocks’ like oil crises will translate into higher prices, prompting the market to adjust to take account of new realities, but never creating the domino effect of mass unemployment that we sometimes currently experience. The real economy would still adjust to real shifts in supply and demand, but we’d avoid the chaos that unstable monetary environments can create.

The key is that almost all contracts in the modern economy are set in nominal terms. That means that money that is managed in the wrong way can create a lot of unnecessary destruction of wealth. Nominal GDP targeting would probably give us the most neutral monetary system possible with the government, with the monetary environment kept stable so the real economy can do its work in allocating resources.

Money matters. The 2008 crisis happened because expectations of inflation, and hence nominal spending levels, dropped sharply, causing the ‘musical chairs’ problem of too little money to fulfil all the existing contracts and wage demands, which led to widespread bankruptcies and job losses. Today, the UK and the US have begun to get their spending levels growing at a healthy rate again, and their real economies have begun to grow healthily again too.

The Eurozone is the saddest story. The European Central Bank has been obsessed with fighting inflation (possibly because Germany has not suffered much, and Germans have bad memories of hyperinflation during the 1920s), and as a result nominal spending has grown very slowly indeed. The consequences are easy to see: in the weaker European economies, like Greece, Spain and Italy, unemployment is at historically high levels. It seems likely to stay there for many years.

Many people, myself included, believe that a system where private banks could issue their own notes without a central bank at all would be the best system. This is known as ‘free banking’. One of the best arguments for free banking is that it would keep nominal spending levels steady, because banks would issue more notes during periods of slow growth and fewer notes during periods of high growth. This should sound familiar – nominal GDP targeting is probably the closest we can get to ‘stateless’ money while having a central bank.

Nominal GDP targeting would not prevent all recessions or guarantee growth. The real economy is what determines things like that. But badly-managed money can destroy growth, create recessions by itself, and turn small ‘real’ recessions into extremely bad depressions, as happened in the 1930s and 2000s. Nominal GDP targeting would give us stable, neutral money that avoids these things. We would have been better off with it in 2008, and we would be better off with it today.

Where does Will Hutton get these ideas from?


This is just fascinating from Will Hutton:

The fall in real wages is blamed on EU immigrants, when the real culprit is more old-fashioned: workers in general, and young workers in particular, have not been organised enough to offer countervailing labour market power. It is not technology, globalisation or immigration that have triggered such a generalised collapse in real wages – it is the weakness of trade unions.

Where does this confident assertion come from? He provides us with no actual evidence to support it. Just the flat statement that it is so because Will Hutton has declared it to be so.

This is a statement that rather needs to be tested, don't you think? For example, unions are rather stronger in Germany than they are in the UK. Real wages have been declining in Germany:

After a decade of falling real wages, Germans’ purchasing power has started to increase over the past few years. In 2013, wage hikes are clearly outpacing inflation on the back of rising employment and a robust economy.

Unions are rather weaker in the US private sector than they are in the UK. And we all know the complaints about the stagnation and possibly fall in real wages over there.

We even have a report about this. The effects of globalisation upon incomes around the world. By a real economist using actual real data. The finding of which is that the people who haven't seen much gain from globalisation, the people who have had those stagnant real incomes as a result of it, are largely those below median incomes in the already rich countries. We can argue about whether that makes it all worth it or not (the 80% rises in income for almost all of the poor of the world make it so for us) but it's very definitely evidence that it's not the absence of unions that has led to the current situation: it's globalisation.

So where does Willy get his confident assertion from?

You can have cheap pensions and you can have interventionist pensions


But you cannot have cheap and interventionist pensions investment. That combination being what The Guardian is demanding:

Indexation keeps charges low – Nest is fantastically cheap. There are lots of good reasons to spread your investments over a diversified range of international companies, which Nest is doing. What’s more, in achieving returns of 10%-plus a year since launch, it hasn’t had to face too many awkward questions.

Nest is cheap, that's the way it has been designed. And the only way to have it that cheap is to be sticking the money into low and no load index funds. Any other system would mean having to cream off substantial parts of any likely return for those who do the managing to make the return. In fact, that's rather why Nest was first designed: to make it quite clear that there was a way of gaining pensions savings without having to pay over all of the gains to the Men In The City.

All of which is fine but it's entirely incompatible with this next demand:

Conventional City of London ideology is informing its investment decisions. Yet in Singapore, the country’s compulsory pension fund has been mobilised to held build local housing. Ottawa’s pension fund is extraordinarily interventionist. Given that we will be throwing hundreds of billions of pounds into a pension scheme for British workers, could we at least have a wider debate before sending half of it to Wall Street?

We've had that debate. And the answer was that we'd rather not send 2 and 20% to hedge fund operators, one or two percent to more traditional fund operators, for we've noticed that those fees almost inevitably eat up, and more, any extra performance they produce. And that's why all of these schemes for different methods of pension savings crash into a brick wall set up by reality. Yes, even these ideas that pensions should be in bonds to pay for infrastructure. The extra costs of managing the money, the extra costs of the requirement to have the people managing the money, are greater than the increased returns from having done so.

That's why indexation. For you can have pensions with cheap charges and you can have pensions with interventionist, active, management strategies, but you can't both pay for the activity and also have a cheap pension.

Fighting Daʻish, the un-Islamic State, with Mercenaries: an effective, feasible alternative?

We might be forced to deploy boots on the ground because air strikes are not sufficient to subdue the repugnant Daʻish (ISIS/ISIL/IS); instead, allowing Private Military Companies (PMCs) to lend direct support to suffering peoples via Mercenaries might be a more effective alternative. Many locals want to fight back (Kurdish Syrians, for example); let PMCs hire them and let them liberate themselves from Daʻish! It is not foreign support that people dislike but the feeling of indignity that arises from others having to fight your battles for you. The mask Daish wears is ideological in order to recruit more extremists and maintain an image; however, many rank-and-file members fight because of the relatively high wages paid (like the Taliban). Attracting individuals to PMCs instead of Daʻish and inducing defections would dwindle their numbers, slow their recruitment drive and show people that it would be increasingly risky to join them. Furthermore, as people defect, those inclined toward violent extremism for ideological reasons would realize that Daʻish is not what they thought it was and, therefore, Daʻish would lose some vital, core supporters. This would encourage a natural death for Daʻish through depletion of native support instead of a long and ineffective war against guerilla fighters.

Whereas our own armed forces would be reluctant to employ natives in the rank-and-file for security purposes, PMCs are more flexible with their recruitment policies. Furthermore, they would be legitimized, have more funds available and pay more than Daʻish; thereby giving young fighters a visible alternative (which isn’t their Govenrment, Foreign Governments or Militias they may have learned to despise) to Daʻish at a time when peaceful employment is scarce and they are pressured into joining for economic reasons (in Daʻish strongholds, for example). The PMCs’ recruitment efforts would also be counter-propaganda to Daʻish’s brainwashing.

Private entities could pay the PMCs to fight Daʻish. This would avoid impositions on those who do not want to see their servicemen on the ground in Iraq whilst enabling those who despise Daʻish to act. Funding would primarily be from sympathisers including, but not limited to; the Iraqi, Syrian and Kurdish diaspora, masses of moderate Muslims, humanitarian and charitable organisations, concerned global citizens, businesses that have vested interests in a stable Middle East, Philanthropists etc. PMCs would also have no incentive to continue fighting once sponsors cut funding.

What about the potential for immoral activities perpetrated by the PMCs? Where is their accountability? Sponsors of such PMCs would naturally distance themselves from those who exploit the chaos of war rather than alleviate suffering; it would be in the PMCs’ best interest to behave relatively decently in war though still ruthlessly toward Daʻish.

If Governments are wavering to offer even inadequate support, why should we be forced to lobby them to do so? Why should innocent people suffer as a result? This alternative can avoid compulsory deployment of servicemen, imposition of taxes and, most importantly, enable us to express ourselves and fight injustice in any way possible.