Should we legalise commercial mercenaries?

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Vishal was the 2014 winner of the Adam Smith Institute’s Young Writer on Liberty competition. Commercial mercenary activities have been deemed illegal globally and have significantly dwindled in the 21st century. Legalisation may be useful in the short and long-term.

Currently, the extremist ISIS militants threaten to overthrow the Iraqi government. The Iraqi government requested assistance but limited support was offered. This is partly because we are reluctant to risk servicemens’ lives and spend money. For example, the American and British public may despise ISIS but lack the will to send their own servicemen on such an endeavour; Mercenaries could negotiate their assistance in the conflict for money, debt, natural resources etc. This prevents risking servicemens’ lives and costing taxpayers.

In The Anatomy of the State, Murray Rothbard wrote that wars fought with mercenaries were shorter and had fewer casualties. He quotes the jurist F.J.P Veale who claims that “civilized warfare” flourished briefly in 15th century Italy: “the rich burghers and merchants of medieval Italy were too busy making money and enjoying life to undertake the hardships and dangers of soldiering themselves. So they adopted the practice of hiring mercenaries to do their fighting for them, and, being thrifty, businesslike folk, they dismissed their mercenaries immediately after their services could be dispensed with. Wars were, therefore, fought by armies hired for each campaign… For the first time, soldiering became a reasonable and comparatively harmless profession. The generals of that period manoeuvred against each other… but when one had won the advantage, his opponent generally either retreated or surrendered. It was a recognized rule that a town could only be sacked if it offered resistance: immunity could always be purchased by paying a ransom… As one natural consequence, no town ever resisted, it being obvious that a government too weak to defend its citizens had forfeited their allegiance. Civilians had little to fear from dangers of war which were the concern only of professional soldiers.”

Finally, many NATO member-states are cutting defence spending and enemies have noticed. In future, NATO may find its defensive capabilities severely impaired when a war occurs and it may be difficult to compensate for this lost capacity at such short notice, especially when hostiles have been building their own forces in the meantime. Rushed conscription of civilians hardly compares to contracting seasoned warriors. In those circumstances, Governments struggling to fight public enemies can turn to mercenaries (even foreign ones if foreign governments don’t lend direct support) to pick up the slack.

The ASI is hiring paid gap year employees

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The Adam Smith Institute is looking to hire two 18-19 year olds in between A-levels and university as paid gap year employees, working with the think tank on organising events, putting out publications, managing our database, handling merchandise, and running the office. The role is open to applicants of all political stripes (lively debate is welcomed), and they need have no specific experience. It is, however, crucial that the candidate is open-minded, inquisitive, friendly, eager to learn and curious about politics and think-tanking.

The specific duties will be split evenly across the two successful applicants, and will include:

☻Organising lunches and dinners ☻Keeping a database up to date ☻Selling ASI merchandise ☻Doing secretarial work for the directors ☻Setting up and cleaning up events ☻Mailing publications out to subscribers ☻Logging RSVPs for events ☻Supporting donor relations ☻Meeting a wide range of interesting & important people ☻Learning about social & political science ☻Socialising with the staff ☻Carrying out self-directed research ☻Writing blog posts

Previous interns have gone on to work with the Adam Smith Institute, including the ASI's current Research Director, Sam Bowman, and Head of Digital Policy, Charlotte Bowyer, who was a Gap Year intern in 2009-10.

The role will pay £700-1000/month (depending on experience), and is strictly limited to students on a gap year. It will last 2-9 months, starting from late October. All applicants will interview with President Madsen Pirie and Research Director Sam Bowman at the Adam Smith Institute offices in Westminster in mid-October and successful applicants will start from late October.

Please send a CV and cover letter of around 500 words to gapyear@old.adamsmith.org by 13th October

What's happened to the 'Bitcoin Revolution?'

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Last Tuesday PayPal announced partnerships with the three biggest Bitcoin payment processors, BitPay, Coinbase and GoCoin. Merchants can now accept Bitcoin through PayPal’s Payment Hub platform, although the company hasn’t integrated the currency into its system directly. With over 143m registered users and $125bn worth of transactions last year this is a boon for the digital currency-cum-payments processor, which currently sees up to 80,000 transactions a day.

It's also a suggestion that the 'Bitcoin revolution' (if it is to happen at all) could be less explosive, more incremental, and far more reliant on existing processes than many might believe.

In many ways the last 12 months have been incredible for Bitcoin. It’s gone from an underground obsession to a mainstream curiosity and the darling of the FinTech world. Huge companies such as Overstock and IBM now accept payment in it, and the currency is on track to attract more VC funding in 2014 than the Internet did in 1995.

Yet for some Bitcoin's performance has been a disappointment. Despite all the investment and media attention, Neither Bitcoin’s price nor its use have seen anything like the exponential rise anticipated by its biggest proponents.

Enthusiasts are prone to making eye-watering predictions of Bitcoin's value, yet its price has been falling in recent months and is down from a peak of $1,000+ in December to around $400 in recent days. Bitcoin transaction volume has also stagnated around 100,000btc/day, a decline from around 250,000 last November & December.

There’s also been little vindication for the more ideological Bitcoin supporters, who view the protocol as a tool with which to challenge power structures and state legitimacy. Wall Street and the banking sector are more interested in harnessing the power of cryptocurrency and distributed ledgers for themselves than in lobbying to protect themselves from the technology. There’s also little indication that central banks (even privately) consider cryptocurrencies a threat to fiat currency. And whilst Bitcoin fans are quick to proclaim its resistance to state censorship, places like China and Russia have done a good job of suppressing its use within their borders.

Yet none of this renders Bitcoin a failure. Whilst crazy price rises no longer dominate the news and public interest may have waned, the past year has seen significant professionalization within the Bitcoin community and the development of a staggering amount of infrastructure.

Actors like the Bitcoin Foundation have worked hard to safeguard the Bitcoin protocol and to provide the currency with a ‘legitimate’ face. Bitcoin conferences now cater to serious investors and carry hefty pricetags to match. Self-styled crypto-consultants and established law forms vie to provide specialized advice, whilst groups like Google Ventures and Barclays Accelerator have their eyes on crypto-entrepreneurs. Whilst basic problems like securing an UK bank account for Bitcoin businesses persist, financial innovation in areas like Bitcoin derivatives which compensate for the currency’s volatility race ahead.

Lawmakers are also starting to take Bitcoin seriously. The UK Treasury has already offered really very reasonable tax guidance on Bitcoin and has a detailed report on it due out this Autumn. The Bank of England’s most recent Quarterly Bulletin labeled Bitcoin a ‘significant innovation’ and remarked that its underlying protocol has the potential to ‘transform’ the financial system as a whole.

This doesn’t guarantee that governments will make the right decisions or regulatory steps. Indeed, proposed legislation like NYC’s 'BitLicenses' threaten to affect Bitcoin companies across the globe. However, in the UK and the USA at least policymakers are seem interested in understanding Bitcoin technology and how it can contribute to society, rather than in controlling the network completely.

This ‘professionalization’ of Bitcoin invokes the ire of some members of the coin community, who regard it as selling out and the establishment of a new, powerful Bitcoin elite. Certainly, companies which pre-emptively comply anti-money laundering and know-your-customer laws applied to other financial services cannot utilize the full potential of Bitcoin technology. However, it is inevitably these boring, corporatized activities-  not transactions fueled by price speculation or clickbait about the Dark Web- that create the chance of a sustainable future for Bitcoin.

It also looks like Bitcoin’s success will be increasingly related to its integration with established payment, merchant and finance companies such as PayPal, Amazon, Apple and Visa. Bitcoin is a disruptive technology with the capacity to bring about huge changes, even within the confines of today’s regulated industries. However, these changes look likely to come with the help and blessing of today’s commercial giants, rather than by a process of immediate disintermediation.

For instance, Bitcoin is much more than the new PayPal, for it’s simultaneously both a currency and a payment processor. Despite this, Bitcoin’s price rallied significantly after a long period  of decline following the PayPal announcement. Whilst the Bitcoin protocol has absolutely no need for an Apple Pay or a debit card to transmit it (in fact Bitcoin was developed to render such third parties obsolete), there’s no denying that it would also work wonders for user adoption. As the Bitcoin ecosystem grows and seeks increasing legitimacy, integration with established companies is a very realistic route to long-term success. In addition these companies have much to gain from embracing Bitcoin early, rather than risk competing with it later.

Understandably, this doesn’t make the ‘Bitcoin revolution’ seem much like a revolution. But for libertarians and free marketeers there’s still much to celebrate. The fact that Bitcoin can reduce payment transactions fees by a couple of percent isn’t all that sexy, but the fact that it could slash the fees associated with remittances to developing countries certainly is. And if established companies like Western Union or M-Pesa can work with a Bitcoin company to speed up this process, so much the better.

There are also innumerable areas (many of which are still in their infancy) where Bitcoin and blockchain technology can work to make the world richer and freer, such as in providing finance for the unbanked , establishing a decentralized internet, or enabling Decentralized, Autonomous Corporations.

Bitcoin is still an alternative to fiat currency, which is great for those anticipating global monetary collapse as well as those experiencing extreme inflation in countries like Argentina. Bitcoin can still be used to circumvent capital controls, give funds to politically outlawed organizations, and to achieve increased levels of financial privacy.

As Bitcoin ‘legitimizes’ and enters the mainstream it is inevitable that the companies and services interacting with it will become regulated. There's even demand for the legislation, since businesses tend to prefer regulatory clarification rather than to be stalled by uncertainty. However, the beauty of the blockchain is that whilst companies and specific actions can be restrained by law, the underlying Bitcoin protocol cannot be controlled or regulated. This allows for disobedience and experimentation in the shadows. No matter how Bitcoin is taxed, treated or regulated in the open economy, the possibility of a parallel realm where no interaction with the current political and financial system is required- however small- remains as an enduring idea.

 

Isn't Will Hutton's logic here just so lovely?

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We'd probably have to invent Will Hutton if he didn't already exist for his logical twists and turns are something of a national wonder to behold. On the subject of FIFA he's noticed that it's not the purest of organisations, not as white as the driven snow:

This is a disgrace. Based in Zurich, Fifa is the governing council of world football, with 209 national member football associations. Yet even though it has global reach, power and income, earning $4.5bn this year from the World Cup alone, it is run with less transparency than a car boot sale. Football, and the world, needs better.

The president is elected by a simple majority of the 209 members. There are no checks and balances; no accountability to a governing board; no transparency over key issues such as pay; no protocols for the publication of reports like those of the former New York district attorney, Michael Garcia. Once elected, the president of Fifa can run the organisation like a tribal chieftain, dispensing favours to seek ongoing support from the tribe’s varying factions and brushing off criticism. His position is unassailable.

Well, yes, OK, perhaps being part of an organisation where not everyone accords with the British notions of fair play and honesty might not be all that wise a decision. Possibly we migfht leave then, or refuse to deal with it until it starts to live up to those values we deem important.

It underlines the larger point: we have to live up to our values and make common cause with those who share them. Yet the Conservative party is gearing up to fight the election on a nativist programme of leaving the European Convention on Human rights (ECHR) and moving ever closer to exiting the European Union.

But we mustn't leave an organisation that doesn't accord with British notions of fair play and honesty. Actually, doesn't even agree with the basic and fundamental underpinning of our system of law (as Lord Woolf so notably pointed out). If Hutton didn't exist we would have to invent him, wouldn't we? Otherwise where would we find our logical equivalent of the Red Queen, where an argument means whatever he says it does rather than that plain and honest meaning.

Getting it entirely wrong on fatcat CEO pay

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An interesting little piece of research over at the Harvard Business Review. What do people think the difference between worker and CEO pay is and what do they think it should be? The research is interesting it's just that the conclusions people are likely to draw from it are entirely mistaken. The result won't surprise many:

We’re currently far past the late Peter Drucker’s warning that any CEO-to-worker ratio larger than 20:1 would “increase employee resentment and decrease morale.” Twenty years ago it had already hit 40 to 1, and it was around 400 to 1 at the time of his death in 2005. But this new research makes clear that, one, it’s mindbogglingly difficult for ordinary people to even guess at the actual differences between the top and the bottom; and, two, most are in agreement on what that difference should be.

“The lack of awareness of the gap in CEO to unskilled worker pay — which in the U.S. people estimate to be 30 to 1 but is in fact 350 to 1 — likely reduces citizens’ desire to take action to decrease that gap,” says Norton.

It really shouldn't surprise that an awful lot of people are remarkably ignorant about the world that they inhabit.

The error though is in what is then assumed should be done about it. For of course you can already hear the screams (from people like the High Pay Commission) insisting that as the average voter doesn't want there to be this income disparity therefore there should not be this income disparity. The error being that what the CEO of a large company gets paid is none of the damn business of the average voter.

It's the business of those doing the paying: and if the shareholders in a company wish to pay the person managing their business handsomely then that's entirely up to them. Nothing to do with the jealousy of the mob at all.

There is a small coda: some argue that it's the same old interlocking boards that keep raising the CEO's pay, knowing that their own will get raised in turn. The theory that the managerial class is ripping off the owners, the shareholders. It's true that this could happen, principal/agent theory is true. However, if this were true then private equity would be paying their managers considerably less than public companies do as they would not be subject to this rip off. Given that in reality, out here in the world, private equity pays very much better than public companies do then this isn't true either.

On Unite's demand for a £1.50 rise in the minimum wage

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Howard Reed has done this particular piece of pencil sucking research for Unite to back up their demand for a rise in the minimum wage of £1.50 an hour. They're very proud of the fact that this would increase the amount of tax paid. Which doesn't really strike us as being all that good an idea really. Hoovering more money out of the wallets of the lowly paid never does sound like a good idea to us but we assume that things are seen differently over in unionland. But in the report they also say this about the macroeconomic effects:

A £1.50 per hour increase in the National Minimum Wage has three potential multiplier impacts on UK GDP: • The wages impact: the increase in net incomes arising from the increase in gross wages should lead to increased consumer demand which has a positive multiplier impact on GDP. • The profits impact: the reduction in net incomes arising from a decrease in profits may lead to reduced consumer demand which would have a negative multiplier impact on GDP. • The public finances impact: the increase in income tax, expenditure tax and NICs receipts and the reduction in benefit and tax credit spending leads to an improvement in the public finances even after taking into account increases in the public sector wage bill and reductions in corporation tax revenue. This means that government spending does not need to be cut as badly as current plans suggest. If the improvement in the public finances is matched by an increase in government departmental and investment spending – so that the overall government fiscal position is unchanged – then there should be a positive multiplier impact on GDP.

Reed also looks at the number of jobs that will be lost from that rise in the minimum wage and, hey presto, finds that more will be created than lost. He manages this by taking the lowest estimate of unemployment to be created he can find and the highest one for the number of jobs to be created available.

Hmm. Think we'll file this report in the policy based evidence making file, that round one under the desk, shall we?

UKIP is on the right track to beat low pay

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Certain policies proposed by UKIP this morning remind us how far away the party platform is from a classically liberal agenda. However.

In the kick-off to their party conference, UKIP has also announced that its general election manifesto will raise the personal allowance threshold by £3,500 pounds:

At its party conference, which has begun, UKIP will also promise to raise to £13,500 the amount people can earn before paying any income tax.

In a plan to win the "blue-collar vote", Nigel Farage's party will pledge to fund the changes by leaving the EU and cutting UK foreign aid by 85%.”

(At present, the) 40p rate is payable on income from £41,866 to £150,000, with the "additional rate" of 45% paid on anything over £150,000.

“Under UKIP's plans, everyone earning between about £44,000 and £55,000 would pay income tax at 35p. Those earning more will pay 40p, with the additional rate scrapped. “

Despite other policy failings, UKIP's commitment to raising personal allowance surpasses the coalition's and should be heavily applauded.

This is the first policy of 'party conference season’ that properly addresses the root of the cost-of-living crisis and provides a simple, effective solution to relieve the tax burden on low-income earners.

For years, the Adam Smith Institute has illustrated the pointlessness in taxing workers out of a living wage, to then compensate their low income with government handouts and benefits. The Labour party’s recent pledge to raise the minimum wage to £8 an hour threatens to put more young, unskilled workers out of jobs, while still taking away a substantial potion of income from anyone who happens to benefit from the small pay raise.

A hike in minimum wage is a symbolic gesture at best, that continues to tax away - or destroy - low-earner incomes. A raise in the personal allowance threshold, however, gets more money into the pockets of those earners, creating no dangerous side effects in the jobs market.

With both the Liberal-Democrat and Conservative Party Conferences ahead of us, we can only hope both party leaders will continue to embrace an increase in personal allowance and match UKIP’s threshold; or maybe even one-up them. (National Insurance cuts, anyone?)

Colin Hines and the Magic Money Tree

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It had to happen of course: once people started talking about unconventional monetary policy then there was always going to be someone who espied the Magic Money Tree. And it's Colin Hines who has:

It was heartening to hear Ed Miliband say in his speech that tackling climate change is a passion of his and that solving it could be a massive job-generating opportunity (Report, 24 September). The inevitable question of how to pay for this can be tackled by writing to Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England. He is on record as saying that if the government requested it, then the next round of QE could be used to buy assets other than government debt. Miliband said that the Green Investment Bank would be used to fund green economic activity and so Labour should allow it to issue bonds that could then be bought by the Bank using “Green QE”. Similarly, local authorities could issue bonds to build new energy-efficient public homes funded by “Housing QE”.

The Bank has already pumped £375bn of QE into the economy, but with little tangible benefit to the majority. Imagine the galvanising effect on the real economy of every city and town if a £50bn programme of infrastructural QE became the next government’s priority. This could make every building in the UK energy-tight and build enough highly insulated new homes to tackle the housing crisis. It would provide a secure career structure for those involved for the next 10 years and beyond, massive numbers of adequately paid apprenticeships and jobs for the self employed, a market for local small businesses, and reduced energy bills for all. Such a nationwide programme would generate tax revenue to help tackle the deficit, but in an economically and socially constructive way. Best of all it would not be categorised as increased public funding, since QE spending has not and would not be counted as government expenditure. Colin Hines Convener, Green New Deal Group

Wonderful, eh? We can have everything we want, and a pony, without ever having to pay for it!

Hurrah!

The problem being that Hines (and there are others of that ilk out there too) hasn't grasped the difference between the creation of credit to reduce interest rates (what QE does) and the creation of base money to spend into the real economy. That second has rather different effects: as the Germans found out post WW I, the Hungarians post WW II and the Zimbabweans more recently. It creates hyperinflation, those last having it to such a bad extent that they kept printing until they'd run out of the real money necessary to buy the ink to print the play money.

I do not, note, claim that £1 billion or £50 billion or even £500 billion of this "Green QE" will inevitably produce inflation of 1000 % a day. I do however claim that use of this Magic Money Tree will, given the way that politics works (which politician doesn't like spending money she's not had to find through taxation?) will inevitably lead to hyperinflation. For the thing is we've tried this experiment before, many a time, and that is always what does happen.

Simply not a good idea.

Trying to explain the American academic jobs market

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Something's clearly not right about the academic jobs market in the US. The actual process of applying for a job seems to take forever and as one of the more recent Nobel Prizes pointed out such search frictions and inefficiencies do prevent markets from clearing. This is, you know, a bad thing. Further, we've got the fact that American academia is pumping out huge numbers of Ph.Ds who then can't find jobs as tenured professors: but also can't find them elsewhere in the economy as the only thing they've really been trained to do is to try and become tenured professors. They thus end up trying to survive on less than minimum wage as adjunct professors.

So this isn't what we might want to hold up as an example of a successful part of the jobs market. But the question then becomes, well, why is it like this? What's gone wrong?

One possible answer being that this is what happens when you let the left wingers try to run a market. It's not actually much of a surprise to anyone, or at least it shouldn't be, that the US professoriate runs largely leftish. 90% to 10 D to R is the usual number bandied about. It also wouldn't be a surprise to find out that those who do the academic administration tend further left than that: there does have to be an explanation for the various diversity policies around the place.

The end result being extraordinarily strong union protections (that tenure means that, roughly, absent raping the Dean in his office no professor can get fired), vast overtraining of would be market entrants and the majority not actually being able, they being excluded from those union protections, to gain a living. Oh, and the end product becoming ever more expensive as the providers layer themselves with ever more orgies of bureaucracy.

Sounds just wonderful really: or perhaps we might want to use it as a warning. This probably isn't the way that we want the entire jobs market to work so let's not attempt to add more of those job protections, unionisation and so on.

 

 

Everything's coming up monetarist!

In "QE and the bank lending channel in the United Kingdom", BoE economists Nick Butt, Rohan Churm, Michael McMahon, Arpad Morotz and Jochen Schanz tackle the popular creditist view that movements in lending drive overall activity, and that quantitative easing works by stimulating lending, and find "no evidence to suggest that quantitative easing (QE) operated via a traditional bank lending channel". Instead, their evidence is consistent with the monetarist view, that "QE boosted aggregate demand and inflation via portfolio rebalancing channels." They find this result by looking at the difference between banks that dealt directly with the Bank of England when it was buying gilts (UK government bonds) with new money in its QE programme. If the creditist view held, these banks would be more able to expand their lending with the extra deposits created when the BoE hands over new money for gilts.

Our first approach exploits the fact that, for historical and infrastructural reasons, it is likely that not all banks are equally well placed to receive very large OFC (other financial corporation) deposits. We use historical data on the share of banks’ OFC funding (relative to their balance sheet) to identify a group of banks that are most likely to have received deposits created by QE, which we call ‘OFC funders’. We use this variable, along with variation in banks’ OFC deposit funding to test whether there was a bank lending channel by comparing the lending response of such OFC funders to that of other banks during the QE period.

They check their result by looking at gilt sales that commercial banks had no control over, since they were obliged to carry them out on the behalf of their clients. This makes them random with respect to those banks' separate funding and lending decisions, and isolates the effect of extra deposits created by QE on those banks' credit activity.

Our second approach makes use of the fact that while most gilt purchases were from OFCs, these had to be settled via banks who were market makers in gilts. As these gilt sales were likely to be unrelated to banks’ lending decisions, we can use data on gilt sales to remove the endogenous variation in banks’ OFC deposit holdings and so test for a bank lending channel using an instrumental variables approach that controls for the interrelatedness of the bank’s decision.

This paper only adds to a welter of recent studies supporting the monetarist perspective on the macroeconomy. "Institutional investor portfolio allocation, quantitative easing and the global financial crisis", another BoE paper released earlier this month found, like Butt et al., that pension funds and insurers rebalanced their portfolios in response to QE, moving away from gilts and into corporate bonds relative to what they would have done without the programme.

If firms rebalance their portfolios to reflect their preferences, then relative prices would not appear to be 'distorted' by the programme, and markets would still be performing their chief function—aggregating information so everyone can economise effectively and create wealth.

Another BoE paper, from April, "What are the macroeconomic effects of asset purchases?" found that:

Our results suggest that asset purchases have a statistically significant effect on real GDP with a purchase of 1% of GDP leading to a .36% (.18%) rise in real GDP and a .38% (.3%) rise in CPI for the United States (United Kingdom).

Finally, another new paper tells us that even the good old quantity theory of money is pretty good at forecasting post-war US inflation. Looks like everything's coming up monetarist!

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