How sweatshops help the poor

Recently, the President of the ASI Madsen Pirie wrote a blog telling of how we used to give out rubber wristbands to those who signed up to our mailing list. The wristbands boldly stated “I buy goods from poorer countries”. A rather ironic take on the famous “make poverty history” slogan.

But a common objection to buying from poorer countries is that in doing so, one might be complicit in supporting the atrocious working conditions many are forced into. This has led to various campaigns to boycott companies that don’t source labour responsibly. One source of labour viewed by many as irresponsible is sweatshops.

Sweatshops are frequently vilified, and rightfully so. They are often horrible places to work, with long hours and few workers’ rights. But though they may be awful, they should not be outlawed. They play an important role in the world economy and in bettering the lives of millions across the globe.

The first point to note is that more often than not, the alternative for those who work in sweatshops is much much worse. Yes, they may be blisteringly uncomfortable places to work with disease and abuse rife, but if people have chosen to work there, it must be better than their alternatives.

The danger posed to those unfortunate enough to consider them their best choice was shown by the horrific Rana Plaza collapse in 2013, where 1,129 people died. These included individuals making goods for high street names such as Matalan, Primark, Monsoon and Walmart. Given this, it is easy to see how sweatshops may be viewed as incredibly evil. But it is important to remember that for many of these people, the alternative is to work in agriculture, particularly subsistence farming, which is the most dangerous line of work in the world. If sweatshops were banned, then many of the people working there would be forced to move into far more dangerous, less desirable professions.

This point was illustrated well in 1993, when US Senator Tom Harkin proposed a ban on imports from countries that employed children in sweatshops — a measure that would seem to many both noble and just. But in response to the proposal, a factory in Bangladesh let 50,000 of its workers go. According to Oxfam, a significant number of children made unemployed as a result became prostitutes.

It is important to remember that conditions in sweatshops are awful to us by our own standards. By the standards of cripplingly poor rural Bangladeshis’, they might well be very attractive. Likewise, the pay that sweatshop workers receive would be seen as unimaginably meagre if we were to frame it in the context of the society in which we live. It would be impossible to exist in the UK on what they earn in sweatshops. But to them, sweatshops bring a pretty penny. Research by David Skarbek in 2006 found that wages from sweatshop work exceed national average income in eight out of ten countries surveyed. In paying more than the national average, it lifts people out of poverty and gives them money to spend and invest in things that improve not only their individual lives, but the condition of the nation as a whole.

Which bring me onto my next point. Sweatshops are great for the economic and social development of a nation. The extra money that can be earned can be taxed to provide basic infrastructure and sound governance. More importantly, the extra money earned can be spent by individuals on education, healthcare motorbikes and goats. If people wish to forgo pleasant working conditions (or escape worse working conditions) for these things, then who are we to stop them?

But I must not neglect the remarkable fact that sweatshops seem to be particularly good for women in the developing world. Rachel Heath and A. Mushfiq Mobarak, of Yale and Washington Universities wrote a paper in 2014 that took a look at the impact the garment industry had on young girls and women in Bangladesh. They found that girls who live in villages closest to garment factories (also known as sweatshops) had significant advantages compared to those who did not. Amongst the findings were that girls living near a factory were 28% less likely to get married in the school year than on average for a Bangladeshi girl, similarly, girls were 29% less likely to get pregnant in a school year. These findings were most pronounced amongst 12-18 year olds. Sam Bowman wrote a blogpost on this fascinating study a few years back.

Sweatshops are often seen as stepping stones on the path to economic development. When millions move away from subsistence living and produce a surplus that can be invested and spent, whole nations rise up out of poverty. This can be seen to have happened in Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan (to name but a few), where large scale cheap labour was instrumental in creating the developed nations that exist today.

So buying cheaper goods made in the developing world not only makes you richer by saving you money, but it also makes those in the developing world richer too. It doesn’t mean you are complicit in the abuse of factory workers, it means you are filling the coffers of those who are most in need of having their coffers filled. So next time you are torn between buying from two shops, just remember that to enrich the poorest and neediest in the world, sweatshops might just be your best bet.

Virtue-signalling does not help the poor

Eleven years ago people were wearing wristbands that said, "Make Poverty History." It was a popular virtue-signalling slogan partly because it did not involve actually doing anything. 

The Adam Smith Institute produced its own wristbands for the first and only time.  They said, "I buy goods from poorer countries," expressing something people can actually do about relieving poverty.  Of course the wristbands were made in poorer countries, and we sent a free one to anyone who gave us a mailing address.  We had thousands made and they went all over the world.  A second batch was made, then a third.  Having made our point, we stopped.

Our point was that poor countries don't become rich because of pious sentiments, or even by receiving development aid.  They grow richer through trade, through selling their goods on world markets.  Globalization, free trade and neoliberalism have done more in a generation to relieve poverty and uplift the human condition than has ever been done before in human history.

All of the major indicators of deprivation, including child mortality, hunger, illiteracy, and poverty, have taken a steep downward path.  Poverty, for example, has halved worldwide in the past 20 years.  Some critics try to depict neoliberalism as an approach designed to increase the wealth of rich countries at the expense of the poor ones, and claim the gap is widening.  The reverse is true; it is people in poor countries who have benefitted most from it.

This graph features in a CapX article by Chelsea Follett

Yet the free trade that has lifted so many from subsistence and starvation is currently under attack by a devil's band of anti-capitalists, protectionists, populists and environmentalists.  They would deny poorer people the chance to gain wealth by selling us what they produce, and they would deny us the chance to gain wealth by buying it.  Maybe in the fanciful world of their ideologies the slogans they bandy about might resonate, but in the real world they have no traction.  Globalization, free trade and neoliberalism can stand on the record of what they have achieved in practice. 

The arguments we made when we produced those wristbands are just as valid today, and are supported by even more years of practical achievement.  Poverty is well on its way to becoming history, but it is not virtue-signalling that is working toward that goal, nor is it protectionism.  It has been capitalism and free trade.

This grammar school ding dong is so confusing

To us the arguments of grammar schools are almost exotically simple. The customers of the school system are the parents of the children in it. Systems should deliver what customers want. Thus those parents who wish to have a selective school system should be able to have one.

We would also note that those who wish to have a non-selective school system are equally free to send their children to one. We know of no one who does advocate grammars who insists they must be universal. That insistence upon uniformity only works the other way, those insisting upon a purely comprehensive system. And that too makes the decision of which side to support exotically simple. One side is stating that they want this and you can have what you want, the other insisting that everyone must only have the one system, choice must be denied.

Grammars it is then.

But even within the arguments being offered there is confusion

Theresa May’s personal crusade to expand the number of grammar schools is in serious jeopardy today as senior Tory, Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs unite in an unprecedented cross-party campaign to kill off the prime minister’s flagship education reform.

In a highly unusual move, the Tory former education secretary Nicky Morganjoins forces with her previous Labour shadow Lucy Powell and the Liberal Democrat former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg to condemn the plans as damaging to social mobility, ideologically driven and divisive.

The opposition is clearly nothing but ideologically driven but that's just the normal hypocrisy of politics. But this insistence upon social mobility is a mark of the confusion among those arguing.

Social mobility, near always and everywhere, has been low. The UK's measure of it isn't very different from other countries, other places with very different school systems - say Sweden, as Greg Clark's research has shown. The one great burst of social mobility was post-WWII, but that's not quite what it seems either. We tend to apply greater social status to indoor work, no heavy lifting, and those decades were when the economy shifted from mass manufacturing into those sorts of services. And this happened right across the Western world and there's just about no correlation at all with the underlying school system.

But what really flabbers our ghast is that people are talking about social mobility when what they mean is economic mobility. For that's how they measure it, income of children relative to income of parents. And it's absurd to have a conversation in England, of all places, which confuses the two issues. Social position, in this of all countries, is more about whether you use a knife to eat your peas rather than how much money you make. Polly Toynbee may have emulated* Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickled and Dimed by trying out a few week's of society's scut work but she was still the gg granddaughter of an Earl and that matters in England.

We find this whole discussion, as at the top, very simple, exotically so. What confuses us is why everyone else seems to get so confused.


*That's one, rather polite, description of the genesis of "Hard Work"

We do have to say this, Duncan Weldon is entirely correct here

Up to a Copperian Point Weldon is correct that is. It is entirely true that if the British State is to carry on spending in the manner of that nautical shore leave then taxes must rise to match:

Back in the 1960s and 1970s tax receipts averaged around 38% of national income, but after a large drop in the 1980s they have bounced around the 34% to 36% mark ever since.


Despite all the rhetoric on the pressing need for deficit reduction, since 2010 the burden has fallen mainly on the spending side of the ledger. Current tax receipts stood at 36.4% of the economy in 2010-11 and by 2015-16 had fallen to 36.2%. Meanwhile, government spending as a proportion of the economy was cut from 44.9% to 40%.

Quite so. And there is a political choice to be made here. We can have the low tax low redistribution near laissez faire of Hong Kong, we can have the high tax and redistribution heavy social democracy of the Nordics and we can also have this middle way, the Anglo-Saxon muddle through the middle which characterises the US and UK. It's pretty clear which of those we ourselves would prefer but it is also equally obvious that this is a choice, it's a vision of the good society and it's perfectly valid to aim for any of the three.

But here's the thing. This is Britain and thus which of the three we aim for will depend upon the wishes and desires of Britons en masse. And we can very easily get the inhabitants of these sceptre'd isles to tell us that they'd just love more government services and more hand outs and that Nordic welfare state. But when push comes to shove we come up against revealed, rather than expressed, preferences:

Not since 1992 has one of the major political parties felt able to commit itself openly at an election to raising one of the major taxes – the basic and higher rate of income tax, NICs or VAT.


 In the past few decades only Gordon Brown’s increase in NICs in the early 2000s – a pledge explicitly linked to the NHS – has received broad public support.

We Brits will happily contemplate getting more from government but we're not willing to pay government to have them. That is, we're not being serious, we don't in fact want these things at all.

To have that Nordic state would mean paying (much) more in tax. We won't pay much more in tax - thus we're not only not going to have the Nordic state we don't want it either.

Ho hum, looks as if we're stuck with that Anglo Saxon through the middle thing then, much as we ourselves would prefer the Hong Kong option.

We know Polly Toynbee doesn't like Murdoch but still

Even though we all know that Polly Toynbee really doesn't like Rupert Murdoch we do think that rather more evidence than this must be used to decide upon whether he may buy those parts of Sky that he doesn't already own. For Polly's tirade really just isn't enough:

She had no real choice. The culture secretary, Karen Bradley, this morning referred to Ofcom the Murdochs’ 21st Century Fox bid to take over all of Sky. Ownership of the remaining 61% would bring them enormous future profits and greatly expand, yet again, their control over British media.

Way to go Polly, way to go. In order to gain access to those enormous future profits it is necessary for them to purchase the parts of the share register which they do not currently own. The market value of those parts being the net present value of that future profit stream of course.

After 10 years, the deal last time said, Sky News would revert to Sky control. In those 10 years we can expect to see a groundswell of pressure to change the laws that impose strict impartiality on British broadcasting. Hear the drumbeat already. How stiff and staid is our TV news! How old-fashioned, in the new media circus of raucous opinion! Fox News makes a fortune, unlike Sky, which loses heavily, so take off the gag, let news be noisy and exciting!

If people wish to have a biased news source then why should they not have access to a biased news source? We here might complain about the Guardian's slant on matters but we most certainly don't think that government should insist it start telling the truth occasionally. And no, we cannot see the difference between pixels that appear, static, upon your screen and pixels that move around upon it.

We might also make a comment or two about how the BBC's influence is rather an elephant in the room when discussing media plurality in the British marketplace and so on. But let's cut right to the important point here.

Those shareholdings in Sky which Murdoch wishes to buy are currently the private property of those who own them. Polly's demand is that they should not be able to dispose of their own private property, as they wish - for don't forget that an offer must be made which tempts them to sell - simply because Ms. Toynbee doesn't like Rupert.

It's true, there are times when we don't allow people to sell their own as they wish. We're just fine with restrictions upon trading with the enemy in wartime for example. But however much La Toynbee is the grande dame of British journalism we're not convinced that such breaches of property rights are justified just because she thinks she has enemies.

How to get high-er revenue

In common with Milton Friedman, the ASI is skeptical about most taxes, especially proposed new ones. There is, however, one new tax the government might consider to plug the holes in its finances. It is a recreational narcotics tax.

It would involve first passing a law to remove their illegal status, but it would yield immense advantages. In the first instance it would undoubtedly raise billions of pounds in revenue. Last year the direct taxes on tobacco products, excise duty plus VAT, raised £12bn. This does not include the income tax paid by the industry's employees or the tax on the profits made by their sale. Undoubtedly a recreational narcotics tax would make a major contribution to the Treasury's coffers.

It would also enable quality controls to be put in place to greatly reduce the incidence of contaminated doses or overdoses. Labelling would protect users. It would cut crime massively, with some users no longer needing to engage in criminal activity to fund their use. Without their criminal status, there would be no turf wars between drug gangs, or the shootings and stabbings that characterize them. Government would save money on prisons, hospitals, and policing.

Even with the tax, legal narcotics would be cheaper than ones which today carry the costs of criminality. The many current users in conflict today with the police and the courts would be brought within the law and have no such cause for hostility.

The main losers would be the dealers and the criminal gangs which are part of today's supply chain. Examples from overseas show the positive results of such measures. By adopting such a tax, government could reduce the pressure on other taxpayers without incurring the wrath of those newly taxed, a group that would overwhelmingly back the measure. It might be time for it.

What we really don't like about corporation tax

Most readers of this blog will be aware that we don't much like corporation tax. In various blogs, articles and reports we've called for its abolition and replacement. We've argued that it falls heavily on workers, discourages investment and encourages excessive accumulations of debt.

But I think it's worth getting into the fundamentals of why we think corporation tax is so harmful and what you'd need to do to fix that.

Simply put, corporation tax taxes capital (goods that produce other goods, from new machinery to training and professional development) and taxing capital deters firms from investing in their workforce, lowering productivity and wages.

People invest money today in order to spend it at a later date. By taxing investment you essentially are imposing an uneven tax on consumption. You're taxing people who invest and wait to spend their money at a higher rate than people who spend it immediately. And it gets worse: the longer you wait to spend your money the higher the consumption tax rate will be when you do. In fact, relatively low tax rates on investment can imply extremely high rates on consumption down the line. I wrote a blog a few months back explaining the maths behind that.

But while there's a lot wrong with corporation tax, fixing it is actually quite simple. Let's think about this from the point of view of a business. Pretend you own a widget factory and you're deciding on whether or not to invest in a new Widgetmatic 3000 widget-making machine. You'll only make a marginal investment if the return you get from it outweighs the cost of investing.

There's a lot for you to consider. First, you need to know how much the actual machine costs to buy, then you need to know at what rate it will depreciate at and what the interest rate is. You also need to know what tax rate you'll face on the investment. If the return from the investment will be taxed that will increase the cost as well. For instance, if the rate of corporation tax is 20% and you can't deduct the cost of the investment at all from your taxable income then that adds 25% onto your cost of capital. (Think of it like a sales tax: 20% off a £125 jacket raises £25 leaving the retailer with £100. In essence, the sales tax has increased the price from £100 to £125, a 25% increase.)

But suppose you could deduct half the value of the investment from your taxable income. That'd lower the cost of capital to 12.5%. The bigger the deduction, the smaller the effect the headline tax rate has on the cost of capital. If it's a full deduction, then the tax rate is irrelevant. If you want a more mathematical proof, check out Alan Cole's Tax Foundation report on it.

As it stands businesses can gradually deduct the cost of an investment from their tax bill over the years as it depreciates. But unlike normal business costs like purchasing pens and papers, the purchase of a new widget-machine wouldn't necessarily be deducted in full the year it was bought.

Herein lies the problem – things are worth more now than they are tomorrow. It's simply better to have £50 today than £10 every year for five years. That's because you can put that £50 in the bank and collect interest. You've also got to deal with the value of that £50 being eroded by inflation.

If you let people deduct the full cost of an investment just like any other business cost, then the tax rate doesn't matter. Corporation tax would become what we call a cash-flow tax, a much simpler way of raising revenue. It would effectively tax consumption and profits above the normal rate of return (what economists call rents).

Instead of complicated corporation rates where businesses have to hire accountants to manage a range of investment allowances and depreciation schedules, a business would only be taxed on its annual turnover minus its investments and normal business costs.

Moving to such a system would be rocket-fuel for investment, boosting GDP and wages. When Estonia replaced their corporate income tax with a cash-flow tax levied on shareholders they attracted significantly more investment than neighbouring countries. This is the idea at the heart of a lot of free-market plans to abolish corporation tax, with both the IEA's Diego Zualaga's and the TPA's Single Income Tax plans featuring Estonian-style dividend taxes.

Many economists have argued the theoretical case for increasing and speeding up depreciation deductions, but it's been hard to prove empirically because we can't usually isolate the effect on investment from other bigger macroeconomic changes. However, a new paper from the Oxford Centre for Business Taxation backs up the intuition that it's the deductibility of an investment that really matters with proper empirical evidence.

On the EU's recommendation in 2004, the Labour government changed the definition of SME, allowing many more companies to qualify for First Year Allowances (FYAs). FYAs let you immediately deduct the full cost of an investment up to a certain amount (rather than deducting it as it depreciates). Devereux and colleagues compared those firms that now qualified for these deductions with firms that never qualified throughout the process. They found that investment rates increased 11% relative to firms that didn't qualify.

Over the past few years, the government has been focused on lowering the corporate tax rate. This is broadly speaking a good thing: the corporation tax as it stands deters investment and a lower rate will deter it less. But as The Tax Foundation's Kyle Pomerleau points out there's been a big problem. As they've cut the headline rate, they've also lengthened depreciation schedules. Think back to the widget example, they may have the main rate but they've also cut the deduction to make up the revenue.

That's a problem. Pomerleau points out that even though the corporate income tax rate has declined in the United Kingdom, the effective marginal tax rate on corporate investment has actually increased. We actually have a higher effective marginal tax rate on corporate investment than the US (the third highest in the OECD). In tax terms, the cost of buying a new Widgetmatic 3000 is higher now.

That explains why despite having one of the lowest corporate tax rates in the OECD, Britain persistently invests significantly less than the OECD average. It might even go some of the way to explaining why Britain's consistently lags behind our friends in Europe and America.

Devereux's findings shed light on the solution. Let's switch to a cash-flow tax to boost investment and give British workers a well-needed pay-rise.

A little something about those child poverty figures

When some statistic that we're all supposed to be shocked and disgusted by is trundled out it's always worth pondering upon what the statistic actually is:

The upward trend in child poverty in the UK has continued for the third year running, with the percentage of children classed as poor at its highest level since the start of the decade, latest official figures show.

Child poverty is an emotional term but it does not mean waifs about to be stuffed up chimneys in order to earn their daily crust:

About 100,000 children fell into relative poverty in 2015-16, a year on year increase of one percentage point, according to household data published by the government on Thursday. About 4 million, or around 30%, are now classed as poor.

This is relative poverty. Children living where household income is below 60% of the median, adjusted for household size - and usually measured after housing costs. This is not a measure of poverty of course, it is a measure of inequality. And as such there's a point or two that can be made about it:

The Institute for Fiscal Studies said income for working-age adults was no higher than eight years ago. Inequality and poverty remain slightly lower than before the financial crisis.

Recessions cut inequality and therefore, bizarrely, cut poverty by this measure. It is profits and capital incomes which fall fastest and furthest in a recession, meaning that it is the richer, where such are concentrated, who lose most. This compresses inequality. And as the recession recedes then it is capital incomes which grow again, increasing inequality.

We're thus using a very odd measure of poverty here, one which shrinks as we all get poorer (a recession does do that) and grows as we all get richer (a boom does do that).

However, we can go further than that too:

The data showed that nearly half of single-parent children are poor, with a noticeable surge in poverty over the past year among children of lone parents who work full-time.

Note again what our measure is here, it's household income. One which we might think is going to be lower where there's only one potentially working adult rather than two. And 25% of households containing children are headed by a single adult, 75% by a married or cohabiting couple. Their working arrangements being:

In spring 2004 most working-age families with dependent children (couples and lone parent families combined) had at least one resident parent in employment (84 per cent) and a half had two parents in employment (50 per cent).

The median income is, as we know, where 50% of households, assuming we are measuring median household income of course, where 50% of the units are below, 50% above. 50% of UK households with children in have two adults working, 50% have only one or perhaps none.

It is not hugely surprising that a majority of the children in families with only one potential bread earner are in households with income significantly below the median given that modal set up of the two earner family.

At which point what is our child poverty statistic really telling us? Britain has a certain amount of inequality, a little less than it had 8 years ago but rising again as we climb out of the effects of the recession. This may or may not worry you. It does not particularly worry us.

Britain's child poverty is also, in large part, caused by measuring it against median household income, something which is naturally going to be lower in single parent households where the norm is two earner households. This also does not worry us very much on the grounds that if people prefer to live their lives this way then who are we to gainsay them? This is not widows struggling to bring up their semi-orphaned children after all.

It also poses something of a policy problem - if it is single parenthood where this dreadful child poverty, that inequality, problem is concentrated then what actions should be taken about it? Anyone up for returning to the social pressures of old where the insistence was upon two adults raising children?

No, us neither even though that would seem to be a solution which would largely solve the problem being complained about. Ourselves we say leave people to make those decisions as they will for we are in fact liberals. We just have to put up with the resultant inequality of incomes in households containing children.

What we can't see as being quite just is to tax those doubling up that child raising duty in order to provide for those who eschewed that choice. To tax to relieve actual poverty, deprivation, yes, we can see that, but not inequality brought about by choice.

What Brexit means for Ireland

What Brexit means for Ireland

As the ASI’s resident Irishman, I was asked to speak at an event at the Irish Embassy yesterday to consider, among other things, what sort of impact Brexit will have on Ireland and the Irish people. Although Ireland is small, its destiny matters to Britain. Ireland is the United Kingdom’s only land neighbour, Northern Ireland is still unstable, 5.1% of British exports go to Ireland (nearly as many as the 5.7% that go to France), half a million people born in the Republic of Ireland live in the UK, and six million Brits have at least one Irish grandparent.

We thoroughly approve of this national insurance backtracking

This will be, is being in fact, painted as a disastrous u-turn, career ending damage, the beginning of an omnishambles, (cont. page 94.) and yet we here thoroughly approve of the reverse that has happened in this short period since the Budget over national insurance contributions for the self-employed.

Not because of any insistence we have over the policy itself nor of the personalities involved. The collective view veers one way and the other on those two but none of us think that they're hugely important. But reversing a mistake, now that is welcome.

For mistakes do always happen, there is never going to be a system containing human beings and human decisions that doesn't contain more than the occasional oopsie. As here:

Philip Hammond has abandoned plans to raise national insurance for self-employed workers in this Parliament after admitting that it breached the "spirit" of the manifesto.

The Chancellor provoked a furious reaction from Tory back-benchers after using his Budget to announce plans to raise NI contributions for the self-employed by 2 per cent. 

Mr Hammond has written to Tory MPs saying that while the changes are justified the Government has chosen not to go forward with the rise in "class 4" national insurance contributions. 

Oopsies will happen, just as most business ideas will fail, there's always going to be a business cycle, bad luck will dog some people and so on. What matters is what we do when that mistake is made, that bankruptcy is obvious, that recession arrives, that disaster is visited upon the unfortunate.

One reason we so like the market system is that the mistake of a bad business idea becomes rapidly obvious and people stop making that mistake. They run out of money and that's that. Politics tends not to work that way because all the playing is done with other peoples' money and as St. Maggie pointed out it takes a long time to run out of all of that. Until it does happen the practice is run upon reputation, careers, ego - and it's easy enough to spend an awful lot of other peoples' money on protecting those. Yet here we've had only a week to reverse what is said to be a mistake, something we find encouraging.

We're note really sure whether it was a mistake or not, whether the reversal is one or not. But normally political mistakes run on and are stoutly defended to the death of the last kulak. That politics might correct such errors rather earlier, more like a market system would, we think to be a Good Thing.