This is not a good idea, no, just not a good idea

We're pretty sure that someone around here is losing their minds:

The grass is always greener than the gas on the other side, according to a British businessman who claims grasslands could provide enough gas to heat all of the UK’s homes.

Dale Vince, the chairman of renewable energy company Ecotricity, is investing £10m in the first of a generation of what he calls ‘green gas mills’ that he says could compete against gas from fracking.

The company said its Hampshire plant at Sparsholt College, which has planning permission and is slated to be operational in 2018, will take grass harvested from nearby fields and break it down in an anaerobic digester.

Grass at the plant would be turned into biomethane within 45 days and then injected into the national network, providing the heating needs of more than 4,000 homes.

This might be sensible, might not be. Without seeing the numbers it's difficult to tell of course. However:

A report by Ecotricity on Thursday said there are around 6m hectares of suitable grassland in the UK, not including arable land for crops. It argued this would be enough to match the amount of gas the National Grid forecasts homes will consume by 2035, but doing so would require the building of around 5,000 mills akin to the Hampshire one.

Vince admitted that getting to that point would be a huge challenge, given no other country had done it before and it was a new approach in the UK.

“It would be a massive undertaking but it would be permanent. Grass keeps growing, it doesn’t run out, unlike gas from fracking. Most of the value would be in the hands of farmers who, post-Brexit, may be in need of it,” he told the Guardian.

Each of these green gas mills requires about 4 acres of land. So, we're to put 20,000 acres of land underneath factories. Entirely gut the total livestock industry by diverting its major feedstock, God's green grass. As opposed to drilling a few holes in Lancashire.

And we're going to do this in the name of preserving the environment? 

Someone around here has lost their minds and we're really pretty sure that it's not us.

We have to admit that we didn't know this

It is thought that Donald Trump might decide that the US won't in fact even try to ratify the Paris climate accord. About which Bill McKibben says:

So Trump faces a dilemma. Does he please his most extreme friends? If so, he will own every climate disaster in the next four years: every hurricane that smashes into the Gulf of Mexico will be Hurricane Donald, every drought that bakes the heartland will be a moment to mock his foolishness. That’s how that works.

We do have to admit that we didn't know that. 

We're aware that some of the climate models do predict more hurricanes as a result of warming, that's true. The possibility of drought is said to go up, that's also something often said.

But we really are pretty sure that both hurricanes and droughts have happened before climate change, just as they'll happen during and after it. 

Further, even the theory itself does not predict that emissions in 2030, just to pick a date, will cause hurricanes or droughts in 2019. Which is rather the point that McKibben is claiming, isn't it? For the accord talks about limiting future emissions, not about those already emitted. And current weather, even current climate, is all about the emissions that have already been so emitted.

It is of course possible to clear up our confusion. By assuming that McKibben is just churning out the propaganda to fill the column inches - but no one would do that over something as important as the global climate, would they?

If Stamp Duty is too high then it will raise the unemployment rate

Lord Lawson has called for a substantial cut in stamp duty - we agree:

Stamp Duty levels are “crazy” and must be reversed to stop a “tax on mobility”, former Conservative Chancellor Lord Lawson has said.

Lord Lawson said Philip Hammond, the current Chancellor, should cut stamp duty in March’s Budget and increase other taxes to pay down the deficit.

The comments came after research found Stamp Duty reforms have slowed the housing market and raised half as much money as the Treasury predicted.

It's not just that Osborne was politically too clever by half as a Chancellor, it's that such transactions taxes clog up the market. And with housing that's really not something we want to be doing. For if we've a housing market too constipated by the transactions costs then the unemployment rate is going to be higher.

It's well known that if the portion of housing which is owner occupied becomes "too high" then we end up with a higher unemployment rate. Labour mobility is a necessary part of the allocation of labour across work to be done. It  costs a substantial amount of money to buy and sell a house. The more it does, the less geographical labour mobility and thus the higher the unemployment rate. 

We thus desire to have a substantial private rental market which provides that lower cost mobility. And no, council housing doesn't cut it - that market, at least to move across local authority boundaries, takes even longer than the selling and buying of houses.

Of course, it's terribly tempting for a Chancellor, when he sees someone cashing a cheque for hundreds of thousands, to insist that he has a piece of it. But any substantial stamp duty upon housing is going to turn up as a cost elsewhere in the economy, in the costs of the dole.

The Neoliberal answer to the BBC

Would you pay for a complete stranger to go to the cinema? Probably not I suspect. So why then, should you pay for the television of a complete stranger, most of which you will likely have no interest in seeing, let alone have heard of? This is precisely what us Britons do, but not gladly. An ICM poll in 2013 revealed that 70% believe that the licence fee should be abolished or cut. 

Undeniably, the BBC is an incredibly important institution to many Britons. Its programmes are the first thing thousands watch when arising for work in the morning, and often the last thing before bed. Whether it’s the iconic “Planet Earth” series, or Andrew Neil’s late night yawn-athons, people love the inspiring and original content that the BBC often comes out with. But this love often clouds judgement and prevents sensible debate about the BBCs future, and how it could make a greater contribution to the UK creative economy. 

It could begin its path to greater contribution by first abolishing the licence fee, which has long been the main source of income for the BBC. Broadband countrywide renders such a licence obsolete for many. At the click of a button you can watch any BBC show for free. Indeed, economist Tim Congdon has argued that technology has nullified the justification behind public service broadcasting in the first place. 

Shifting to a voluntary subscription model would encourage the BBC to compete globally with the big US studios, export more high quality content overseas and spark significant growth in the UK broadcasting industry. This is as well as giving a significant contribution to the wider economy in the UK. 

Subscription TV is the medium’s fastest growing revenue stream. So it is perhaps telling that soon the world’s most popular motoring show Top Gear, will be aired on Amazon Prime. This medium, more than any, has the ability to not only meet, but also monetise the diverse tastes and preferences held by us eccentric English people. Subscription services have in the past been responsible for some of the most remarkable television ever made. These include Breaking bad, House of Cards and Orange is the new Black, and that’s just counting a few from Netflix. 

Unfortunately, the BBC’s ability to produce shows for all to enjoy has recently come into question. Head of television Danny Cohen has admitted that the BBC “couldn’t compete with the amount of money that Netflix were prepared to pay” for programmes that are considered “a classic BBC subject” like Netflix’s £5 million an hour The Crown. Maybe he should ask why, if independent producers like Netflix are willing to pay for high-quality series like these, the BBC should be competing at all. A subscription service would give us a British Broadcasting Corporation that can compete, that can afford to keep the Great British Bake off and can continue producing Planet Earth. An institution that were not forced to own, and that we’re proud of.

Since most people watch the BBC, why shouldn’t most people be given the option to pay a subscription for it? Why should you be forced to pay for channels that you don’t want, simply because you own a television? Voluntary subscription (with some subsidy for core public service content), would enhance ownership, involvement and participation. The best outcome could truly be had for all, and people wouldn’t be criminalised for not paying for a service that they never use. Perhaps then you would agree, that the BBC would be better off as the BB fee.

Harry Reid’s Ring of Power

“To keep it hid and not to use it. You are a new people and a new world to me. Are all your kin of like sort? Your land must be a realm of peace and content, and there must gardeners be in high honour.” – Faramir, The Two Towers, J.R.R. Tolkein

The expansion of government is both accelerative and fracturing. As the power of Washington grows, the incentive to possess and wield it increases. Unlimited capacity in the hands of the wrong people spells catastrophe, and even when the right people come to power, they are driven to use, rather than constrain, authority accumulated by the previous administration. This creates a volatile political see-saw, and makes an unstable foundation for enduring institutions. Many people consider Donald Trump to be the wrong people par none, but it is important to note that any fear of him stems not from his personal characteristics, but because he will be vested with all the powers of the presidency. These powers did not spring from thin air, but were gradually erected as institutional checks on the presidency were torn down. If a victorious opposition to Trump is to create a realm of peace, and avoid setting the stage for subsequent authoritarians, it must comprehend how he has been empowered.

After President Obama’s re-election in 2012, Republicans, then the minority in the Senate, refused to vote for several of his executive-office appointments and judicial nominees. The senate has historically required a supermajority of 60 senators to approve executive appointments, though changes to traditional senate rules can be made with a simple majority of senators. The ability to alter appointment approval thresholds with a simple majority vote, known as the nuclear option, had been threatened in the face of past minority obstruction, but never used. Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid argued that in the face of unprecedented Republican opposition, a rule change was the only way to advance Obama’s progressive agenda. Instead of accepting that they could not accomplish all they wished to, Senate Democrats altered the threshold for executive appointments, ending a two hundred year tradition of resistance of majoritarianism.

NASA’s director is appointed by the president, and approved by congress. Under Obama’s presidency, NASA increased spending on earth sciences, attempting further our understanding of climate change. Trump has promised to slash its earth science budget and hand responsibility for climate oriented missions to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. If you are a voter concerned about climate change, you may not like this shift, however, because of Harry Reid’s rule change, Democrats cannot force Trump to appoint a NASA director with even marginal interest in earth sciences. If you are concerned about something else, remember that the Secretaries of Defense, State, Environmental Protection, and many more are appointed in the same way.

Supreme Court nominees can still be filibustered, requiring a 60 vote threshold for approval, however, this too can be changed by simple majority vote. Reid’s elimination of the appointment filibuster has been cited as precedent for its elimination with regard to Supreme Court nominees by both the left and right. Expecting a Clinton win, Tim Kaine threatened use of the nuclear option in the face of expected republican opposition to her SCOTUS nominees, while Johnathan Adler, a law professor at Case Western University, writes “Given Reid’s decision to go nuclear in 2013 — and threat to go further, if need be — there is no reason for Senate Republicans not to eliminate the filibuster for nominations once and for all”. Expansions of majority power both transfer losslessly to new majorities, and pave the way for the further expansion of their authority.

Donald Trump the man might be a short-fused reactionary, but he is not a naturally licensed tyrant. He inspires fear because he is the president, supported by a slight senate majority, a position empowered tremendously by those who last held it. While they may wish this power away, they cannot rebuild the norms they have toppled. Mitch McConnell is now the only senate check on Trump’s appointment ability, Harry Reid may have crafted the ring of unlimited appointment power, but it is no longer in his hands. When one side’s winning grants it carte blanche authority the loser, all factions will be less concerned with accepting stable transitions of power than stopping their opponents at all costs. As minority rights are weakened, democratic solidarity and the rule of law weaken as well. In response to potential Republican use of the nuclear option, Albany Law School professor Peter Clark has suggested refusing to accept the decisions of Trump’s Supreme Court pick as precedent, a move which would drastically destabilize the American legal order. Regardless of your political stance, if you are to secure your rights in the long term, you must resist the urge to exploit inherited power. Remember that at some point that power will be wielded by your enemies, and toss it into the volcano.   

The Milton Friedman agenda

When I was younger, I used to think of Milton Friedman, who died on this day ten years ago, as a great man who’d changed the world but gotten a few things wrong. His books, Youtube clips and Free to Choose series made me a liberal. But my liking for Austrian economics persuaded me that he had been wrong about monetary policy and economic methodology; my belief in private charity made me think his negative income tax was unnecessary.

The arrogance of youth! The older I get, the more I realise that Friedman was right about pretty much everything, and I wrong. And, as my friend Dan Klein points out, he gets the credit he deserves – in all the classical liberal pantheon only Adam Smith is more widely respected by liberals and non-liberals alike. Eamonn’s discussion of Friedman’s life is a must-read, and Madsen's new video about him is brilliant.

He deserves to be recognised as one of the leading lights of modern capitalism. But there’s a lot left in the Friedman agenda that still needs to be done. Here at the Adam Smith Institute what we do in policy terms is a continuation of Friedman's priorities.

  1. Drug legalisation. Friedman, a long-time advocate of the legalisation of drugs, argued that “the harm that comes from drugs is because they are illegal”, as rising costs led to drug users switching to things that give a stronger hit for a given amount of money. He would have been heartened today to see the rapid move towards legalisation and regulation of cannabis in the United States, a move that seems to be gaining momentum in lots of developed countries. We have a paper on what this means for Britain out next Monday.
  2. Monetary reform. Friedman’s greatest achievement, and the one that won him his Nobel Prize, was to recognise and demonstrate that “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon” and that the Great Depression was, above all, caused by bad monetary policy – in that case, excessively tight money. Friedman also realised that the stagflation of the 1970s was caused by excessively loose money. Some mistakenly characterise him as a hardcore anti-inflation advocate for this reason, forgetting about his other work. He was neither a consistent dove nor a hawk – he wanted monetary stability and realised that the discretionary approach to central banking, where a panel of wise men made all the decisions, could not produce that. Instead he wanted rules that were predictable for markets and designed to keep the macroeconomy on an even keel. As Scott Sumner argues, he probably would have supported nominal GDP targeting if that had been a live issue while he was alive. And he supported quantitative easing for Japan in the 2000s. Our Sound Money paper is in this tradition, though we would ultimately like to see central banks scrapped altogether.
  3. Negative income taxes. Friedman worried about welfare creating a poverty trap. Since minimum wages can cause unemployment, Friedman favoured replacing most of the US welfare apparatus with a Negative Income Tax that topped up low-paid workers’ wages in a way that made work always pay more than welfare. That nearly made it into law under Nixon, eventually through a second-best compromise of an “earning income tax credit”, a cash transfer to poor workers. Our Free Market Welfare paper made the case for this, and we've done a huge amount of media and events work promoting this solution to the problems with welfare.
  4. School choice. Why should only rich parents be able to choose the school their children go to? Friedman pushed for school choice throughout the later years of his life so that competition between schools and independence from a central authority would drive up standards for poor children. We’re halfway there – free schools in Britain emulate this, imperfectly, and where charter schools in the US have been allowed they’ve been amazingly good for kids from poor backgrounds, in terms of lifetime earnings, pregnancy rates, incarceration rates and math skills – especially for non-white kids
  5. Economic methodology. This might not sound sexy, but it’s a very interesting one. Some economists do it with models, but Friedman was a hardcore empiricistpioneering a “natural experiment” method that has now become one of the most effective tools in economics. This approach looks for special events in history that allow us to filter out complicating factors, so that we can identify effects of a single cause we’re trying to understand – like a boatlift of Cuban refugees, which allows us to isolate the effects of a large influx of immigrants into a city’s economy. This lets us dispense both with deductive theorising and abstract modelling in favour of testing our hypotheses against reality.

And of course Friedman made the case for lower, simpler taxes; for free trade between nations; for a liberal, but controlled, immigration policy; for giving people control over their own lives. And he did it with a smile.

I’ll leave you with the words of Milton Friedman himself: “A major source of objection to a free economy is precisely that it gives people what they want instead of what a particular group thinks they ought to want. Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.”

It's in that spirit that that we here at the ASI try to continue his great work.

Of all the strange things to complain about

Mars and others have decided to aid poor African farmers by doing the sort of research into plant genetics that hasn't been done as yet, given that these are generally peasant, not commercially farmed, crops. We'll all end up knowing more about these crops, be better able to selectively breed them and just in general this is a good thing.

Therefore people are complaining

Critics of the project say efforts to map the genetic data of crops are more likely to help private companies moving into new African seed markets rather than smallholder farmers.

Mariam Mayet, director of the African Centre for Biodiversity, said: “What are farmers going to do with gene sequences? … These top-down, techno-fix solutions sound good, and sound like we’re entering the 21st century, but they’re not what small farmers need.”

Patrick Mulvaney, at the UK Food Group, said that even if genetic data is freely available online, “the only ones that can really make use of it are the big companies”. He suggested corporations “want orphan crops too, to consolidate their control” of global food systems.

Sigh. There is no way that the poor can be made worse off as a result of this new knowledge.

Imagine that the knowledge does lead commercial breeders to design better crops and then sell them. The old varieties will still be available, it will still be possible for those peasant farmers to save some of last year's crop to plant this. They might, possibly, want to pay for the commercially bred seeds but this will be true only if that is of net benefit to them.

Thus the only possible end results of this is that they will be better off or that they will be just where they are today. Matters getting worse is not one of the available options the universe is offering us here.

Quite why people are complaining about a zero risk opportunity to make things better we're just not sure. But there it is, they really are complaining about this.


The ultimate Trump infrastructure project

A key plank of Trump's economic platform is his proposal for massive infrastructure spending, which some estimates put at $1 trillion, to boost the US economy.  He will pay for this by tax cuts, one of the most significant being the proposal to cut to 10% the tax on repatriated funds that big corporations currently hold offshore.  There is one infrastructure project, the biggest of all, that he should consider.

When I wrote in the Mensa magazine 30-odd years ago of my imaginary future train journey to America, Harry Harrison, sci-fi author of Soylent Green, commented in a Cambridge pub, "Ah, you'll be using my tunnel."  He had written a sci-fi novel called "Transatlantic Tunnel."  "No," I told him, "I'll be going the other way round."

My imagined train journey would go through the Channel Tunnel, across Europe and Siberia, and then across the Bering Straits Bridge to be greeted in Alaska by a high school marching band at the train station.  I later discovered I was by no means the first to suggest such a venture.  William Gilpin, first governor of the Colorado territory proposed this in 1890, and Joseph Strauss in 1892 drew up engineering designs for such a bridge.  Others have taken it up since.

It is by no means beyond our capabilities.  The deepest water depth is about 55 metres, and the link might be achieved by a 25 mile bridge to the intervening Diomede Islands, and then either a bridge or a tunnel to Alaska.  There is no doubt it could be done, and would provide a link for trade and commerce as well as passengers.  Pipelines alongside could carry oil or gas supplies.

Why it should be done is partly symbolic as well as economic.  The election of Donald Trump will probably mark a thaw in the West's relations with Russia.  President Trump will acknowledge Russia's need for dominant influence on their "near abroad," just as he will respect China's aspiration to be a leading Pacific power.  The easing of tensions will defuse potential conflict, and might be symbolized by the new physical link connecting America and Russia.

The project would generate vast numbers of jobs in both America and Russia, not only for the link itself, but also for the supporting infrastructure.  More than that, though, it would be a symbol of a truly interconnected world.  This is a project he might consider to be worthy of his presidency.

The latest misleading story about climate change

Zoe Williams tries to scare the bejabbers out of all of us with he latest story about climate change:

When it looked like the news couldn’t get any worse, it did: worse in a way that dwarfed our petty elections and clueless, pendulum analyses, worse in a way that dusted the present with the irrelevance of history. In the journal Science Advances, five of the world’s most eminent climatologists warned of the possibility that warming may be significantly worse than we thought. Previous consensus was that the Earth’s average temperature would go up by between 2.6C - life-altering but manageable - and 4.8C - cataclysmic. Now, the range suggested by one projection goes up to 7.4C, which is “game over” by the 22nd century.

This is not going to happen. No, not because all climate science is a crock, not because CO2 is plant food or any of that. But because this report is based upon something that will not happen:

Using the Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5 for future greenhouse radiative forcing

RCP 8.5 simply is not going to happen. As Matt Ridley has been saying for some years now that is not a possible path for our future. It requires that we use more coal in hte future than we do now. That we use energy less efficiently than we do now, more of it and a greater portion of it comes from coal. This is just not going to happen.

As Bjorn Lomborg pointed out near two decades ago all we have ever needed to do to avoid those terrors of boiling Flipper in the meltwater from the last ice floe is to get solar power down to about the price of coal fired. Which we've done. And no one thinks that it is going to stop getting cheaper off into the future either.

The truth about the catastrophic part of climate change is that we've already done what we needed to do to avoid it even if the direst original predictions were true. We needed that economic change to reduce coal burning, the economic change which has been achieved through solar cost reduction. We're done therefore - we are, after all, only a year or two away from people preferentially installing solar purely on cost grounds.

And any and every report, paper and surmise which is based upon RCP 8.5, or the earlier scare story of A1FI, is simply untrue. For we've already done enough to avoid those emissions pathways.