In which we shoot down a carefully constructed theory with one simple fact

We have another repeat of this idea that CEO pay is just terrible, terribly high that is, and that this leads to all sorts of errors and problems:

This is where the link to excessive CEO pay comes in. These complicated pay packages are structured to produce huge bonuses if share price targets are hit. The majority of shareholders are pretty impatient with businesses that do not deliver regular and repeated earnings increases over the short and medium term. The sort of long-term investment that might raise company performance many years from now, boosting productivity and wages for ordinary workers, is harder to push through. This in part explains why corporate Britain is notoriously sitting on a “cash pile” estimated to be as large as £700bn.

Instead of investing, what do corporate leaders do with all this cash? They pay “special dividends” to their shareholders, or buy back their own shares, thus boosting the share price and ensuring that their bonuses (so-called long-term incentive plans) will trigger a bonanza in two or three years’ time. That’s right: “long-term” is no more than five years away. Welcome to the dysfunctional world of high finance.

While the prime minister is in Japan this week, she may learn something about the patient, long-term support for investment and “continuous improvement” that helped build one of the most powerful economies in the world from the ruins of war. It is a country, incidentally, where the gaps in pay between corporate leaders and their employees are a mere fraction of what they are here.

The first problem with this comes in that middle paragraph. For there is an assumption that that cash paid out to investors in dividends or buybacks somehow doesn't do anything. Once it has fled the corporate coffers then that's it, gone.

Except of course that isn't what happens at all, the investors who receive it can do one of two things with it, spend it or invest it again (the number sticking it in a vault to bathe in being rather small). Investing again might well see it going into new and or small businesses, where more than all of the employment growth is, most of the economic growth and a very large part of the technological advance.

The second problem is in that last para - here is good research showing that Japanese companies do worse precisely because of the method of selection and payment of their CEOs.

The third problem being in the first. A share price is the net discounted value of all future revenue from the ownership of it. Boosting short term results at the expense of the long term therefore doesn't work - or shouldn't. At which point we need to test the idea. And as ever with a theory (let's pretend at least that we're talking about science here, not politics) all we need is one refutation to shoot it down. Do we have an example of a concentration upon that long term, at the expense of current profits and dividends, increasing the value of a firm, not decreasing it?  

At which point our simple fact. Amazon. The company doesn't really make profits, certainly it has never made an economic one (accounting, yes, but the two concepts are a little different, an economic profit is one above the general return to capital), never paid a dividend and as far as we're aware stock buybacks are limited to the need to feed the stock options and awards program, no more. It is also, after a couple of decades of this behaviour, one of the most valuable companies on the planet. Its CEO one of the richest men on it.

The stock market rewards that investment for the long term. The CEO having stock seems to increase that focus on the long term, sacrificing current profits and dividends to invest further increases the share price. 

The theory is wrong.

Change minds, change the world!

I’ve often wondered why people want less immigration. Could it be that they believe that immigration will hurt their job prospects or wages? Put too much of a strain on public services? Commit crimes, or change our culture or politics for the worse? 

If you think the sort of immigration rates we’ve had in Britain since the mid-2000s are good, as I do, you want to change the minds of people who don’t. Hell, you want to know if it’s even possible to change their minds. Maybe arguments and ideas don’t really change anything.

I’ve blogged before about a working paper that may show that you can change people’s minds:

We observe that participants in the treatment group update their beliefs about immigrants, and they donate more money to a pro-immigrant charity. These effects are fairly large, and they correspond to a change of approximately 0.25 of a standard deviation. Moreover, these effects persist even four weeks after the treatment. 

However, participants who receive the information treatment do not become more supportive of immigration reform. Indeed, they do not become more willing to sign a petition in favor of immigration reform, and their self-reported policy preferences remain broadly unchanged. Still, they are less likely to state that there are too many immigrants in the U.S.

Furthermore, we find that Republicans respond more strongly to the information treatment, both in terms of their views on immigrants and in terms of their policy preferences. Indeed, Republicans who receive the treatment become more likely to report having signed the petition in favor of immigration, and they become generally more supportive of immigration. Similarly, we observe that people who are initially more worried about immigration react more strongly to the information we provide them, and they update their views on immigrants and immigration more drastically than people who are less worried about immigration.

From Japan, with quite strict restrictions on immigration, we have a paper that finds that information campaigns about the potential socio-economic benefits that come from immigration do shift people’s views quite a lot:

Depending on the treatment, we find that this exposure led to increased support for allowing more immigrants into the country by 12-21 percentage points, or over 70% above the baseline rate. The treatments also motivated citizens to take political action in support of a more open immigration policy. Notably, while smaller in magnitude, many effects also persisted 10-12 days after the treatment.

From Norway, a Master’s thesis based on a randomized experiment investigating ‘framing effects’ (a concept I don’t think is very useful, but never mind) around whether people are told that ‘just’ 60 percent of immigrants are in employment, or that 7 percent are unemployed. (Others may be students, children or retirees.) Does positive-sounding information move people more or less than negative-sounding information? 

In my first hypothesis, 𝐻𝐻1, I posited that it is more likely to find statistical significance for the negative framing than it is to find statistical significance for the positive framing. I found support for this hypothesis in both my regressions, and phenomena of loss aversion, “losses loom larger than gains,” and a negativity bias may explain the results. Other explanations include the fiscal burden hypothesis, that people fear higher taxes or lower benefits, and social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1986). In the latter case, by accentuating certain features of immigrants (work status/race/origin) in a frame, one reminds respondents of the out-group status of the immigrants. This reminder strengthens the in-group mentality, and a negative frame may thus strengthen the disfavor of the out-group.

In 𝐻𝐻2, I asked if it is more likely to find statistical significance for the negative impact framing than it is to find statistical significance for the negative behavioral framing. I found that for views on the cost/benefit of immigration, both treatments were statistically significant, though negative impact framing (p<0.01) more than negative behavioral framing (p<0.05), supporting the hypothesis. However, this variable pronounced weaknesses of experimenter demand effects. 

For immigration liberals like me, this is a sign of the importance of challenging negative untruths about immigrants.

And most recently, a paper by one of the same authors as the first study. This finds that if you do change people’s beliefs about how immigrants affect the labour market (ie, they typically do not hurt natives’ wages or job prospects) with, in this case, information about the Mariel Boatlift, you can substantially shift their views about immigration policy:

we find that a one standard deviation change in beliefs about the economic impact of immigration changes attitudes towards allowing more immigration by between 0.5 and 0.6 of a standard deviations. Through the use of real online petitions, we also find that changes in attitudes affects real political behavior. Finally, we find that the effects persist in an obfuscated follow-up study where differential demand effects across the treatment and control group are of no concern. Overall, these findings challenge the current consensus that labor market concerns are not a quantitatively important determinant for immigration attitudes.

These studies all seem to back the ‘naive view’ of opposition to immigration, which is that it is motivated by what people tell us it’s motivated by– like jobs, wages and welfare – and not the view that people are actually concerned about racial or cultural change but are afraid to admit that to a pollster. And they’re evidence that honest debate is worth engaging in if you want to change people’s minds and public policy. Nice one!

Perhaps the TUC would like to make up its mind here

The TUC has a new report out talking about workers' rights to such tings as parental leave, flexible working and so on. The correct response to this being, well, OK, could you please make up your minds

Bosses are punishing parents for taking their sick children to hospital, according to a “shocking” TUC study that finds many low-paid workers are disciplined for taking time off for childcare.

One mother who works in retail said: “My baby stopped breathing and I had to go to hospital – I got threatened with a disciplinary.”

It turns out that "a disciplinary" might be along the lines of "Why didn't you come to work?" "Sick kid" "Hmm, seems like a good reason." 

The report itself is here. And it's in the recommendations that we might want to recommend (sorry) that they make up their minds.

One such recommendation is that employment rights over such things as parental leave should be granted from day 1 on the job. Which is, of course, going to make employers ever so hesitant to take someone on, isn't it? As we actually know from multiple studies of different labour market structures, the more the associated costs of hiring are the less people are willing to take a chance on hiring.

But the one that really boggles our minds is the insistence on both greater flexibility of working hours and also an insistence that hours should be agreed and notified one month in advance. We think that being able to take the day off to take a kid to hospital is just fine, of course, but can't quite see how that is compatible with an insistence upon at least a 30 day in advance commitment to turning up to work. 

That is, we either do have flexibility or we have advance certainty but we can't have both, can we? 

Time for some minds to be made up here.

Is the FCA using the banks’ money to promote itself?

Back in 1998, Which? drew attention to the banks mis-selling personal protection insurance as add-ons to mortgages, loans and credit cards. The topic has rarely been out of the media in the following 19 years. In January 2005, Gordon Brown’s Financial Services Authority became the regulator for insurance and made PPI mis-selling a top priority. In 2006 the FSA started fining small companies for mis-selling PPI and big companies the following year. In the coalition government’s bonfire of the quangos in 2010, the FSA duly perished and was promptly replaced by three new ones. The Financial Conduct Authority, which largely duplicated the Financial Ombudsman Service and other regulators. The FCA, and the others, inherited PPI. In 2011, the banks gave up their fight against paying compensation for mis-selling and the ban on selling insurance jointly with loans.

The PPI claims industry was unleashed. At one point 50% of all nuisance phone calls were from “advisers”, honest or otherwise, offering to recover compensation. This was not policed by the FCA (it still isn’t) and no regard was given to personal data protection or the risks of identity fraud. One of the FCA’s three key roles is to protect consumers: it would be easy enough to ensure that claims can only be made by the individual claimants to the providers (banks) or the FCA itself.

The FCA is not short of staff. The City paid the FCA £554M last year, not counting fines which go to the Exchequer. That comfortably covers the cost of its 3,500 employees and their accommodation. And the Office of Fair Trading, The Competition Commission and the Financial Ombudsman Service have all been piling in too. The last, which is about half the size and cost of the FCA, had received 1.6M PPI complaints by the end of 2016. Add it all up and the regulators policing of PPI is costing the City about £1bn. That’s about 9% of the total cost of Britain’s 43 police forces.

So in this munificent context, it should be no surprise that the FCA bullied the banks into spending £42M on prime time TV to tell us all what we have been repeatedly told for 19 years, namely that if we have a PPI claim we should make it. The ad, possibly the most irritating ever made by M&C Saatchi, is even more annoying than the nuisance phone calls from which the FCA should have been shielding us.

Why is the FCA doing this? The 18 banks funding the campaign communicate regularly with their customers. It would cost them little to remind those customers of their rights and potential windfalls. Indeed it would be good PR for the banks themselves to do so. Instead the FCA takes all the credit and then tells those who go to the website to register claims, and get advice from, the banks. No mention of the Financial Ombudsman Service. Better still, the FCA website says “Today also marks the start of a new basis for complaining about PPI, meaning customers could be entitled to compensation – even if they were not mis-sold.” Yes, you read it right. We are entitled to mis-selling compensation even if we were not mis-sold if we think the bank made too much profit from the sale.

Even by their Alice in Wonderland standards, this is odd FCA behaviour: there are cheaper and more pragmatic options. Might they just be trying to impress their masters in the Exchequer?

No, full expensing isn’t crony capitalism

Writing for Bloomberg View, Tyler Cowen argues that ‘full expensing’, a key part of the GOP’s tax reform plans, is being oversold. I disagree.

Under the status quo firms can immediately deduct labour and running costs (stationary, raw materials) from their total tax bill, but can only deduct capital costs (plants, machinery) as they depreciate. Rather than being able to deduct £1,000 investment in a new computer from my tax bill right away, I must instead deduct gradually over five years as it depreciates. The problem is that £1,000 up front is more valuable than £1,000 in instalments over five years (after all that £1,000 could be collecting interest in a bank). This creates a tax incentive for firms to spend more on labour and day to day expenses, and invest less in new plants and machinery. That’s a problem not only because capital expenditure drives worker productivity and as a result, drives wages, but because it likely distorts investment across regions with areas that would benefit from capital-intensive manufacturing missing out.

The problem’s compounded by the fact that there are numerous different depreciation schedules for investments in equipment, plants and research and development. If it takes 10 years to depreciate a new robot, but only five years to depreciate a delivery van, and both investments will produce the same amount of revenue, then I will choose to invest in the delivery van over the robot. In essence, depreciation schedules end up favouring one kind of investment over another.

Full expensing solves that problem. It allows firms to immediately deduct productivity-boosting investments regardless of asset-class. It should encourage more investment and should prevent the current ‘picking winners’ aspect of the status quo.

Cowen suggests that the benefits of ‘full expensing’ are overhyped for two reasons.

First, Cowen suggests that full expensing won’t stimulate investment by a huge degree because the businesses most likely may be turning losses and thus won’t benefit from a shortened depreciation schedule.

He writes:

“If nothing else, full expensing would benefit businesses by accelerating when the relevant deductions could be taken (right away, rather than over a multiyear period), and for that reason it would boost investment. But that in turn benefits some kinds of businesses more than others. What about businesses that invest a lot today, but earn back the cash slowly and turn a profit only years later? Without a big tax bill, they won’t get a significant tax reduction now, which would blunt the benefits of full expensing. That’s OK, but again it means not to expect a miracle from tax reform.

“As it is likely to be implemented, full expensing applies most easily to companies that already have steady profits. And those are the companies where “getting the expensing benefits now” versus “getting the expensing benefits later” probably matters the least.”

Cowen’s right that full expensing by itself wouldn’t create a tax incentive for loss-making firms to invest. But, he’s failed to mention that the GOP’s tax reform plan adjusts the tax code to fix the existing bias against loss-making upstarts.

Firms are currently able to carry forward tax losses to years where they run a profit. It often causes confusion amongst journalists but it’s a fundamentally sensible system. The problem is that the value of a loss carry forward declines because of inflation and opportunity cost (it could have been in the bank collecting interest after all), the GOP’s tax plan corrects for this by adding an interest factor to carry forwards. (1) As a result, contra Cowen even firms who are not currently running a profit receive a tax benefit from full expensing. 

Second, Cowen’s worried that full expensing would devolve into the crony capitalism that its advocates decry.

He writes:

“Under one pure version of full expensing, the government would transfer funds to companies once those companies have started new investments, even if those companies are not yet making money. For instance, Gavin Ekins at the Tax Foundation has suggested: “In some cases, the federal government could consider refunding deductions above the taxable income of the business or allow larger companies to lease investments to small companies.”

"That I find worrying, because the government would be fronting money to companies and wouldn’t see the money again if those companies failed. Furthermore, companies would end up lobbying for what would evolve into corporate subsidies, no matter how hard legislators tried to write neutrality into the tax code. Full expensing again ends up as less neutral than it seemed in theory.”

It is easy to see the potential for abuse with refunding deductions upfront for loss-making firms, and Ekins himself points out you would need robust anti-fraud rules. But, as I’ve already mentioned adding an interest factor to tax loss carry forwards eliminates the need for the government to front money to companies that might crash and burn.

But even if full expensing were to create an incentive for cronies to lobby for favourable treatment it’s unlikely to be as favourable to cronyism and winner-picking as the status quo. As Cowen points out “current methods of determining expensing and depreciation seem to be chaotic, capricious and uneven in their impact across sectors.”.

If the US follows through with tax reform and lets firms fully deduct capital expenditures then we should expect a significant boost to investment. A paper from Devereux, Maffini and Xing suggests that when the UK expanded First Year Allowances allowing firms to deduct more of their investments straight away, firms benefitting invested substantially more (an 11% increase in the average firms rate of investment). And modelling of the GOP’s business tax reform plan by Kotlikoff, Benzell and LaGarda predicts that GDP would 8% higher after ten years.

Despite being virtually unheard of outside of tax wonks, the case for full expensing is powerful. If anything it’s been undersold.

I advocate for reforming carry forwards and full expensing in The Entrepreneurs Network’ report ‘A Boost For British Businesses: Policies For A New Government’.

It's as if the last 38 years haven't happened, isn't it?

It could even be true that the tech platform companies are gaining something like a monopoly. We don't tend to think so, we're running with the idea that a contestable monopoly will not be exploited as a natural one would be. But, for the sake of argument, OK, but that doesn't mean that this is the solution, does it

What’s the answer? We’ve only begun to grasp the problem, but in the past, natural monopolies like utilities and railways that enjoy huge economies of scale and serve the common good have been prime candidates for public ownership. The solution to our newfangled monopoly problem lies in this sort of age-old fix, updated for our digital age. It would mean taking back control over the internet and our digital infrastructure, instead of allowing them to be run in the pursuit of profit and power. Tinkering with minor regulations while AI firms amass power won’t do. If we don’t take over today’s platform monopolies, we risk letting them own and control the basic infrastructure of 21st-century society.

We tend to think we've all just spent the last 38 years proving that nationalisation isn't the answer to what ever monopoly problems might actually exist. The nationalised railways had a continuing decline in passenger numbers something that reversed as soon as even a simulacrum of private ownership returned. The privatisation of the electricity and water companies led to higher investment and a smaller workforce, showing that nationally run companies just weren't efficient.

And we're absolutely sure that everyone's just dandy with getting their search services from British Leyland, right? 

It is indeed true that monopolies can and do exist, either for those natural reasons or because of legislative privilege. But we've already tested the nationalisation solution to destruction and no, it's not the answer.

Peter Hitchens is wrong to oppose festival drug testing

Earlier this month, Peter Hitchens and Transform’s Steve Rolles appeared on a minor TV channel to debate whether UK festivals and police forces should continue partner with drug-testing services like The Loop in an attempt to reduce the harms associated with illegal drug use.

The discussion quickly turned towards the question of Britain’s legislative approach to drugs in general, a vital part of the context in which drug-testing services operate. Hitchens’ argument is that Britain is stuck in a halfway-house of drug prohibition; whilst police target suppliers, they largely turn a blind eye to cases of individual possession. Deaths, health risks, and other harms from illegal drugs are in his view not the result of too much prohibition, but too little. Post-1971, the War on Drugs was never fought in Britain.

Steve Rolles countered Hitchens’ call to intensify user-level enforcement of drug laws by citing a 2014 Home Office review of international approaches to drug policy, which found no clear relationship between the intensity of user-level prohibition and overall levels of drug use. The review also states that comparatively low rates of drug use in Japan—Hitchens’ go-to example of effective drug policy—cannot simply be explained by its harsh enforcement of drug laws:

In Japan, where cultural conformity is traditionally valued, drug use is subject to a degree of stigma. In this context, it is difficult to tell whether low levels of drug use are a consequence of legislation, or a product of the same cultural attitudes that have informed the zero-tolerance approach.

Hitchens dismisses this reference to Japanese cultural norms as “racialist”, conflating race and culture without actually rebutting the point being made. However, it does seem reasonable to expect some level of deterrence from harsher enforcement of drug laws, even if other factors also play a role. The key point that Hitchens fails to grasp is that the harms associated with drug use are not simply a function of the number of drug users. Drugs sold on the black market and consumed in the shadows create more health problems due to impurities, non-standardized dosage, HIV risks, and economic distortions. Criminal gangs tend to be more violent than regulated commercial premises.

But I suspect that weighing up the costs and benefits of different regulatory regimes is secondary to Hitchens’ moralistic case against all drug use. Despite being an occasional drinker, he believes that taking drugs “severs the link between hard work and reward, [making] deferred gratification appear a waste of time and a foolish rejection of readily available delight”. He does favour the tightest possible restrictions on alcohol, but its legality is surely irrelevant to the wider moral question of whether having a big bag of cans with the lads irreparably damages your ability to work hard. Of course, the answer is usually no, and the same is true for Britain’s illegal drug users. Nothing is risk-free, but many regulated drugs can be relatively safe and enjoyable consumer products.

Eventually, the segment returns to the original question of drug-testing at UK festivals. Hitchens argues that allowing these services to operate makes a mockery of the law, and would only support them if they weren’t part of “a deliberate campaign to undermine the idea that the law should be obeyed”. In other words, he doesn’t support them.

This argument sits uneasily with his belief that our drug laws are already toothless. Given that laws against illegal drug possession no longer exert a serious deterrence effect anyway, what difference will festival testing sites make? And since Hitchens’ approach is extremely unlikely to be tried in this country, isn’t the only realistic way of creating greater respect for the law to get rid of the drug prohibition that he argues isn’t being enforced? In the meantime, services like The Loop are doing great work by reducing the risks of drug use—we should encourage more clubs and festivals to welcome them.

How can competition law avoid being anti-competitive?

The rise of large tech companies mean that antitrust law is in vogue again. The US’s Federal Trade Commission disappointed many people by deciding that there was nothing anti-competitive about Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods, but last month the European Commission ruled that Google’s presentation of Google Shopping search results was a monopolistic practice. It looks like this debate will get bigger and bigger, particularly since after Brexit the UK may need to make new rules about how we regulate large firms to replace Articles 101 and 102 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, which govern important elements of competition law in EU member states.

Broadly speaking, there are two views of how competition regulators should act when faced with a potentially anti-competitive firm. The first, which is dominant in the United States, sees direct harms to consumers, such as excessively high prices in an uncompetitive market, as being the most and often only reliable measure of whether a firm is acting monopolistically. This position tends to prefer to wait and see whether a big firm which may have market power will use it to harm consumers. 

The second view is that regulators should take action before a firm gets powerful enough to do this, and wants anti-monopolistic interventions in advance of a firm getting big enough to harm consumers. Members of this group would look at a firm like Amazon and, acknowledging that it has not yet hurt consumers by raising prices to extract monopoly rents (profits above normal market rates), worry that it may someday be in a position to do so, its rivals in the market being too weakened to compete back. 

This disagreement has several different elements. How good are courts at judging whether a practice is pro-competitive or anti-competitive? Many behaviours by firms could be either – taking over a supplier could allow a seller to raise prices for consumers monopolistically, or it could allow them to lower prices for consumers by reducing markups across the supply chain. How do you know which a given takeover will do, and is it better to wait and see? 

How good are markets at financing smaller rivals to monopolists? How important is innovation, and do monopoly rents incentivise innovations that can disrupt monopolists? Should a firm’s political power, not just its market power, be something that regulators consider – in other words could a giant Amazon be so influential someday that it is able to bully politicians into protecting it from antitrust lawsuits? (Interestingly, a new paper appears to show that ‘social lobbying’, like wining and dining, but not ‘office lobbying’ of politicians is effective at changing their minds.)

These are all disputed, but probably the biggest divide is whether you view false positives or false negatives as being equally harmful. An influential Frank Easterbook article from 1984 argues that the harms are not symmetrical, and that in fact a mistaken conviction of a firm for monopolistic behaviour that is in fact pro-competitive and efficiency-raising is much worse than a mistaken acquittal of a firm that is acting monopolistically. 

The reason for this is that even very imperfect markets still have some dynamics that work against monopoly firms. As Ben recently argued, when monopolists earn excessive profits (rents), there is an incentive for other firms to think up or apply new innovations that allow them to challenge them and win some of those rents for themselves. Specifically in tech, antitrust actions against IBM, AT&T and Microsoft do not seem to have boosted consumer welfare.

Waiting and seeing might give more information about a practice, or it might encourage investment in innovation by rivals who want to displace a monopolist with their own technological monopoly. Google’s large market share in search is clearly very valuable and has led Microsoft to try to displace it (unsuccessfully) with Bing. If Bing was indeed a superior product to Google, this outcome would have been positive for consumers even if Google had been effectively monopolistic for some time. 

So we have some pressures internal to markets that will push against monopolistic behaviour even if a court has failed to convict on it. Judicial errors of excessive leniency may still be corrected by the market – this is not to say that they always or even often will be, just that this mitigating pressure exists and, clearly, some monopolists do eventually get beaten by rivals.

On the other hand, false positives – judgements against firms that are in fact engaging in pro-competitive, pro-consumer behaviour – have no such self-correcting mechanism. Practices that appear anti-competitive but are in fact pro-consumer, such as aggressive price cuts that are ruled to be ‘predatory’ on other firms, will tend to be abandoned by all firms and the benefits they would have delivered to consumers will be lost. This does not mean that all antitrust convictions are wrong, but it does suggest that the burden of evidence should be more akin to that of a criminal conviction (beyond reasonable doubt) than a civil ruling (“fifty percent plus a feather”).

Even worse, consider what an antitrust conviction actually involves. As Easterbrook pointed out, to determine whether a given business practice like buying up your supplier is pro- or anti-competitive requires both a large amount of knowledge of the businesses and sector you’re looking at and a theory of how the sector would look if this practice was not happening. 

Economists rarely agree except on basic things like rent controls (bad) and free trade (good). In many cases a court will be expected not just to judge what the evidence before it says, but choose from several rival economic theories about how a given market works. Doing so accurately may be difficult. Easterbrook’s whole essay, which proposed five ‘filters’ for eliminating misguided antitrust cases, is still engaging and relevant today, as is Joshua Wright and Geoffrey Manne’s paper relating it to modern tech firms.

These dangers make me think that engaging in pre-emptive antitrust action would be very dangerous. As Rohan points out, Amazon buying Whole Foods is hardly anti-competitive on the face of it as both are tiny players in the US grocery market. We would only be investigating it because of the possibility that it could become big (which it is in other areas of retail), and then also that it would begin acting in a monopolistic, anti-consumer way which it has not yet done in any other area – it is putting a lot of pressure on its suppliers and its rivals, but we should only care if it begins to use its position to hurt its consumers. 

As I argued after the European Commission’s ruling about Google Shopping being anti-competitive, competition between platforms can be a more efficient model than (legally mandated) competition within them. Business models based on freely-provided platforms like Android, and the innovation and investment that goes with them, may be at risk if regulators try to force them to be internally ‘competitive’.

It’s an open question what competition law in the UK will look like after Brexit, if we aren’t just rule-takers from the EU altogether. If we can set our own rules, and want to make Britain friendly to innovative firms, we’ll need to understand what pro-competitive law actually looks like.

Method, not attitude, marks the political divide

People on the Left, at least in the UK, take the view that the difference between themselves and those on the centre-right comes down to a difference in attitude.  They appear to think that they care for the poor, the deprived, the minorities, and the immigrants, whereas those on the centre-right care only about the rich, the fat cats, the successful, and those who can bend government to boost their profits.

This justifies some of the left, in their own eyes, in hating those on the centre-right as people without virtue, people who can be despised, shouted down, spat at, or physically assaulted.  Since the left thinks it has a monopoly on human values, opponents are deemed to be entitled to no human or civil rights, but treated as contemptible scum.

This not only degrades politics, it also chokes off any rational argument, reasoned discussion, and the possible exposure of errors.  It is a regrettable development, and one that itself is based on a factual error.  It is not a difference in attitude that separates the left from the centre-right; it is a difference in methodology.  Many, if not most of those on the centre-right care as much for the fortunes of the poor and deprived as do many on the left.  The difference lies in what the two sides think can be done about it. 

The left typically favour the use of state power through high taxation, nationalization and the fixing of prices.  The centre-right typically favour relatively free markets, private enterprise, and prices that respond to changes in supply and demand.  Their case is that these usually achieve more sure and more rapid economic growth than can be attained by collectivist planning and state controls.  The left pursue greater equality, whereas the centre-right seek to promote greater opportunity.

Those on the centre-right tend to espouse a real-world approach based on what achieves results in practice.  The left, by contrast, tend to follow an idealized concept of what the world could be like.  The centre-right point to the huge gains in living standards achieved across the world by following their policies, and to the failure of countries that have taken the leftist course.  They point to the numerous examples, from the Soviet Union to Venezuela, of the economic chaos, the shortages and the misery that have followed leftist methodology.  The poor and the deprived are not aided by such policies, they point out, the more so since they often go hand in hand with repression.

The centre-right’s methodology is what separates it from the left, and they regard the difference as being between what works in practice and what does not.

The inadequate economics and history of the slavery reparations movement

We've another of those calls for reparations to be paid for the Atlantic slave trade, this time in The Guardian:

It is clear that it would be just to pay reparations, and it is also possible to calculate the amount that Britain and other nations owe. A lot of work has been done in the United States to determine the damages owed to African Americans. The figure owed comes to far more than the “forty acres and a mule” that were promised to some African Americans who fought in the civil war. The latest calculations from researchers estimates that for unpaid labour, taking into account interest and inflation, African Americans are owed anywhere between $5.9tn and $14.2tn.

That is rather to visit the sins of the father upon the child of course. But the underlying argument is that it was slavery itself that enabled the industrial revolution to take place, therefore we who benefit from that revolution should cough up.

Which is, we feel, rather to get things the wrong way around, for it was the Industrial Revolution which did away with slavery itself. It was precisely the replacement of human muscle power with that of steam and machines which did away with the vileness of chattel slavery and forced labour.

This is not exactly a new idea either - it's a commonplace argument that the Roman Empire never did mechanise simply because human labour was so cheap in the form of all those slaves. Similarly, it's a common enough argument that Britain mechanised first because labour was expensive - there not being chattel slavery in England in any great numbers from the 12 th century onwards, definitely not after Somersett in England and Knight in Scotland in the 1770s.

Our important point here being that pretty much everywhere before the industrial revolution had if not directly chattel slavery then something at least akin to it, and pretty much nowhere has had anything like it since a successful industrial revolution. It being that mechanisation of human grunt work which made the abolition of slavery happen.