This is not capitalism, this is economics

If we are going to discuss what will happen when the robots come to take all out jobs then we need to get our initial analysis correct. Something that Tim Dunlop fails at we're afraid:

How likely is it that a robot will take your job?

It is a question asked with increasing urgency as everything from 3D printing to driverless cars to machine learning is rolled out by a tech industry that sees automation as almost a sacred duty.

To answer, let’s begin with a little-discussed fact. We live in a capitalist system, and the point of capitalism is to destroy jobs, not create them. That might sound counterintuitive but it is easy to explain.

Capitalism is driven by profit. Wages are a cost to be controlled in pursuit of that profit. This means that whenever capital can find a way to turn a buck without employing a human, it will take it, whether it be with robots in factories, automated checkouts at supermarkets or drones to deliver packages.

The destruction of jobs is not something which defines capitalism. It's something which defines economics.

Our basic starting point is that human desires and wants are unlimited. We also note that we have scarce resources with which to sate those desires and wants. Economics is about the allocation of those resources to meet them. Human labour is a scarce resource - we therefore desire to be efficient in our allocation of it just as we wish to be efficient in our allocation of copper, energy or land.

Whatever our economic system we become richer by increasing the efficiency with which we allocate those scarce resources. All economic systems therefore, at least those that make us richer which seems to be rather the point of the exercise, aim to destroy jobs for that is increasing the efficiency with which we use human labour, one of those scarce resources. 

The only point at which capitalism enters the picture is that this mixture of that capitalism plus free markets is the most efficient system devised as yet to reach that desired goal. Of us all being able to consume more, sate more needs and desires, while employing less human labour to get there.

Jobs destruction isn't capitalism - capitalism's just good at it.

Boost jobs for the low-skilled: extended retail trading hours

Up until 2006, Germany regulated all shops' opening hours under a 1956 union-driven law; all shops needed to be closed on Sundays and public holidays, no shops could open after 8pm or before 6am on work days, and if 24th December was a work day, opening hours could be at most 6am-2pm. Then the federal government devolved control of opening hours regulation to the states, and most of them deregulated.

According to a new paper by Mario Bossler and Michael Oberfichtner opening hours deregulations substantially boosted the market for retail workers, comparing states which did deregulate with those that kept the strictures as-is:

We study the effect of deregulating weekday shop opening hours on employment in retailing. Using administrative data on all German food shops, a difference-in-differences analysis shows that relaxing restrictions on opening hours raised employment by 0.4 workers per shop corresponding to an increase by 4%. This effect is driven by part-time employment and employment in large shops, and it implies an increase by 0.1 workers per additional actual weekly opening hour. While the wage bill increased by less than employment, the deregulation seems not to have reduced earnings of workers already employed in retailing before the deregulation

Of course, these weren't specifically Sunday Trading regulations, which stayed intact, but it's not crazy to extrapolate from this that rolling back the size limits that stop bigger shops from opening late in the UK would boost employment here. So that's a sixth reason to hate Sunday Trading Laws.

Just another reason industrial policies don't work

The dreadful suggestion that Britain really should have an industrial policy is raising its ugly head again. Which is an apposite time for a look at what industrial policies actually do to an economy:

The use of industrial policies to support a country’s steel sector has damaging effects on the export competitiveness of downstream manufacturing sectors that make use of steel. That is the central finding of research by Professor Bruce Blonigen, published in the September 2016 issue of the Economic Journal.

We don't, of course, have to look far to find people telling us that steel is one of those essential industries which a country just must have. And thus a sector which simply must be at the heart of any industrial policy.

The problem with this is that steel is an input into other processes - as any such basic industry we might try to protect will be. And thus that input into other industries becomes more expensive (obviously so, if it were already cheaper than foreign made then we wouldn't be trying to have a strategy to protect it, would we?) thus putting the boot into those other industries. That leads to:

One practical concern is that a layering of industrial policies often accumulates over time, leading to the presence of multiple policies at cross-purposes with each other.

Or as we might put that, government commits some other idiocy to try to adjust for the first. Instead of doing the sensible thing and just stopping doing the original idiot one.

Of course, the next stage of this argument is that no, this time around we'll really, and we mean this, study the effect of our industrial policy on all sectors of the economy. Before we intervene even! But that sadly runs into Hayek's objection, that we cannot use anything other than our market economy to calculate our market economy. Which means that we've got to use a market economy, sans intervention, to calculate our intervention - all of which means we'd probably better stay with the market economy in the first place, eh?

So government isn't very good at running research programs then?

The standard argument in favour of government running research programs is that the product, knowledge, is a public good. That is, it's non-rivalrous and non-excludable and thus the private sector will underproduce it. Simply on the grounds that non-rivalrous and non-excludable goods are difficult to profit from and thus a profit seeking private sector won't do very much of that activity. Thus government should step in to produce the socially optimal amount of whatever it is.

There are most certainly areas where we agree with the argument. It is exactly the logic which produces the patent and copyright system for example. However, the wider logic of government intervention in the provision of public goods is not the same as concluding that government must provide that item. We think, for example, of the herd immunity provided by a vaccination campaign. The US does it largely by insisting the children cannot enter public education without having been vaccinated - the UK by the NHS directly providing the vaccinations. We think that second system works a little better. But that is not necessarily true of all public goods.

Which brings us to biomedical research. The Zuckerbergs are funding $3 billion of such. This is welcomed as the field currently rather suffers

Success rates for NIH grant applications are at the lowest they’ve been going as far back as the 1970s. When the money for science is this tight, researchers don’t take big risks. Instead of making innovative leaps in science, researchers early in their careers are typically among the most risk averse, taking on bits of studies designed by their senior mentors. Writing a successful grant application often requires preliminary data – in other words, you need to have already done a chunk of the research you’re proposing to do. Even then, about 20-25% of academic biomedical researchers’ time (in my experience) is spent applying for grants to support their projects. Much of their mental effort goes into grantsmanship, which is not at all the same thing as creativity.

Academic researchers are promoted on the basis of “achievement” – grants won and papers published. Volume is what matters here, not necessarily impact. According to Adam Grant, a professor of organizational psychology at the Wharton School of Business, “The greatest originals are the ones who fail the most, because they’re the ones who try the most.” But biomedical researchers can’t afford to have failed experiments because they’re not publishable. Furthermore, they need to take as much of the credit as possible for that “productivity” to count towards their advancement, so there’s an incentive against working with too many other people. Biomedical research is highly siloed in parallel with the grants funding it. An added challenge is that the gold standard for medical research – the randomized clinical trial, ideally conducted in multiple sites and settings – is very expensive.

The NIH spends 10 times as much per year as that entire Zuckerberg gift. And yet we're told that government does this job of funding research rather badly.

Or as we might put it more widely. That we've identified a possible market failure does not mean that government is the solution - for there is such a thing as government failure too.

Questions in the Guardian we can answer

The Guardian asks us:

Do we really want post-Brexit Britain to be the world’s biggest tax haven?


Next question?

Or in more detail, yes we do want tax competition. For it is that very competition, as it is in so many other areas of life, which limits the amount that we the people can get shafted. 

We all know very well that a monopoly supplier of beer would be watering that of the workers even as they raised the price. We prosecute people who build cartels for the very same reason - such cooperation between producers means that it is the consumer that is going to get screwed.

Tax competition is exactly the same logic. It's entirely true that there does need to be government - no, we are not anarcho-capitalists around here - and that means there must be tax revenue to pay for it. It is also true that a government is going to be sovereign over its own territory. Which means that the only form of competition we can have here, to protect us against that monopolist problem, is between tax jurisdictions rather than within them.

And thus the joy with which we welcome tax competition and yes, even tax havens. Simply because their existence limits the depredations the governors may make upon the pockets of the populace.

And why shouldn't it be us that leads the world in such matters? We did, after all, rather pioneer these very ideas. Our own Adam Smith leading the way in much of it of course. Starting with that point that it is economic freedom which leads to the enrichment of said populace, competition being the thing which ensures that economic freedom.  

We insist that the bakers and then butchers compete for our custom. Why should that not be true of those who would claim to rule us, those who claim to know how our money should be spent? We might even find that leaving it to fructify in the pockets of the populace provides that optimal solution.

Which is exactly why those who would rule us don't desire the system of competition - and thus exactly why we must have it.

George has missed the point again

It will not come as a great surprise that George Monbiot has managed to miss the point again. Here he is on transport and cars:

The primary aim has become snarled up with other, implicit objectives: the sense of autonomy, the desire for self-expression through the configuration of metal and plastic you drive, and the demand for profit by car manufacturers and fossil fuel producers whose lobbying keeps us on the road rather than moving along it.

Step back from this mess and ask yourself this. If you controlled the billions that are spent every year – privately and publicly – on the transport system, and your aim was to smooth the passage of those who use it, is this what you would do? Only if your imagination had been surgically excised.

The point being that a free society does not have some rational planner determining what everyone should be doing. Rather, we allow the system to be emergent from what the people actually want to be doing. And as it turns out absolutely every society where people have been able to afford cars has had people flooding to have cars. Simply because that appears to be what people want.

Whatever the purported rational planner says about it.

There is this though:

Let’s reopen old rail lines closed in the mistaken belief that train travel was on the way out (it has grown 74% since 1995) and build new lines to bridge the gaps. Let’s bring train services under public control and use the money now spent on road-building to make tickets affordable for everyone.

Privatisation has led to a 74% increase in rail use. Therefore let's reverse privatisation in order to increase rail use.

That is better than just missing the point, isn't it? 

Why the Middle East needs more female entrepreneurs

Why the Middle East needs more female entrepreneurs

The majority of Middle Eastern and North African Countries (MENA) have a problem with female unemployment. While male unemployment has been falling in countries such as Bahrain, Iran, Jordan and Tunisia, female unemployment is growing. The country with the largest gap is Egypt, where female unemployment is four times that of male.

For a region that is cutting unemployment rates faster than any other developing region, this may at first seem surprising. Equally, the Middle East has made a huge amount of progress enrolling more girls into primary and secondary schools as well as universities. It would seem that as more jobs are on offer overall, and more women are educated and therefore employable, female unemployment should be falling.

A good month for neoliberalism

It hasn’t been a great year for neoliberalism, which is a word that I am determined to appropriate (like a modern suffragette, without the violence). Donald Trump and Brexit (at least, if it was down to anti-immigrant sentiment, which I'm not sure about) both make it look as if the pendulum is swinging away from pro-market globalism. But September has been quite a good month for neoliberalism.

  1. The Resolution Foundation’s examination of the famous “elephant curve”, which was thought to show that global growth had mostly passed the West’s working- and middle-classes by between 1988 and 2008. It turns out that the seeming lack of growth is an artefact of population shrinkage in Japan and post-Soviet states. If you remove them from the data, income for all groups has risen very healthily across the Western world, especially for the bottom 10% in Britain. Nice one.
  2. Japanese PM Shinzo Abe’s full-throated defence of free trade and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive trade deal that would bring more countries into the global liberal trading order, and be a huge boon to the poor in places like Vietnam. TPP has taken flak from both Clinton and Trump during the campaign (though Gary Johnson supports it) but it may end up being passed in the lame-duck Congressional session between the election and the inauguration – a way of passing it that won't be electorally catastrophic for those involved.
  3. The news that US household income grew by 5.2 percent in 2015, after years of post-crisis sluggishness. That was the largest single-year rise since records began in the 1960s, and though we can't read too much into single year rises (or falls), many people do – and this is a sign that the Western neoliberal model of relatively low regulation, low market interventions and low taxes might not be quite as useless as some of those people think. 
  4. Lots and lots of banks and other forecasters are revising their UK growth estimates upwards, as the UK economy looks more resilient than we thought. Brexit hasn’t happened yet, and we don’t know what exactly it will look like, but all the hard data we’ve seen so far has been fairly positive. If a big shock was expected we should have been seeing investment and consumption both begin drop straight after the referendum. Maybe becoming a North Sea Singapore really is on the cards for Britain.
  5. Italy’s populist, anti-trade Five Star movement may be facing decline after a long period of rising support. Its candidate was elected mayor of Rome earlier this year, and she has been a disaster – garbage is piling up in the streets and she has “faced the resignations of four top officials, an ongoing scandal about the sanitation chief she chose to clean up the city, and accusations of being a hapless tool of party leaders”. Darn it – looks like electing incompetent populists has its price!

I’m not trying to be panglossian. I’ll be depressed if Donald Trump wins the US election, and only slightly less depressed if Hillary does. Much of the above could evaporate quite quickly. But it does seem as if there’s some fight left in neoliberalism yet.

Brexit: By-passing Sir Humphrey

Only one radical plan for Brexit has been made since the referendum: John Redwood, and like-minded MPs, propose the UK repeals the 1972 legislation under which we entered the Common Market in the first place.
There are attractions to this. For example, it would allow us to take back control of our fisheries, decide our own agriculture policies, and stop sending cheques to Brussels.
It also involves no negotiation, the UK would unilaterally decide what continues, leaving the other 26 member states to propose an alternative – if they could ever agree one.
This would be a real benefit since the UK has lost all its trade negotiators and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are notoriously underwhelming as is. It could spare us years of uncertainty.
Unfortunately, the Vienna Convention on the law of treaties (1969),  does not allow us to scrap a treaty just by passing or repealing a law. But it does allow a unilateral termination if there has been a "fundamental change" in circumstances since the treaty was agreed.
The Common Market the UK joined in 1972 is a far cry from today's centralised Federal State with its own currency, diplomatic service and (emerging) army. And the UK population was not consulted on the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, which made truly fundamental changes.
Another “fundamental change” is the non-delivery of the “subsidiarity” promised by Article 5 of the Lisbon treaty, under which the great majority of new regulation would be left to member states. Brussels has successfully challenged every attempt to do that and subsidiarity never happened. When the UK signed the Lisbon treaty it could not have known the EU would behave in this way.
Lisbon is a multilateral treaty between 27 independent countries, not the EU, which is not yet an actual state. If the UK followed Redwood's idea it could refuse to deal with the EU, since it has not signed a treaty with the EU.
Probably the dispute would be kicked upstairs to the United Nations. That should provide employment for diplomats into the foreseeable future, but meanwhile, the UK would be free to act as it chooses. The agenda for discussion would be interesting, but:
• On contributions to the EU budget, Norway only pays because its EU exports are 50% higher than its imports. On this logic the EU should be paying the UK.
• The UK would not be bound by EU regulations domestically nor when exporting to other parts of the world.
• The free movement of people has no logical link with common market access and is purely a political bargaining chip. The UK population has already demonstrated its views on the issue.
• Post-Brexit, the UK would not be bound by the Common Fisheries Policy – and indeed, it should adopt fishing rules similar to Iceland’s, as the ASI has recommended.
This leaves only tariffs for discussion and civil servants would not be required for that. The UK has plenty of business people well qualified in international price negotiation. Battles are won by the unexpected.

The Finnish education system is not quite what people think it is

The Finnish education system is a pretty good one. Does the job of getting almost all to the jumping off point for further study. However, rather too many people then start to project their own prejudices onto it - and the thing is it just isn't as some would have it. This is important as we discuss that subject of grammar schools ourselves.

For example, this in The Guardian:

The success of Finland’s comprehensive school system is a story now well-told. At the turn of the century, much to the surprise of the Finns, let alone the rest of the world, it emerged as a global leader in education. Pisa tests revealed Finnish pupils produced some of the world’s highest scores in maths, science and reading. In the three subsequent reports, the last in 2012, the country’s performance dropped slightly but it remains the highest-ranked in Europe.

Its success came under a system built resolutely against the grain of prevailing education fashions adopted by developed countries, including the UK, in the 1980s and 90s. In Finland, children do not start formal academic learning until seven. Driven by a commitment to equality (on both moral and economic grounds), it outlaws school selection, formal examinations (until the age of 18) and streaming by ability. Competition, choice, privatisation and league tables do not exist. “Teaching to the test” is an alien concept. Grammar schools, the UK government’s current obsession, were abolished decades ago. Free school meals, tentatively endorsed for younger pupils only in the UK, are universally provided.

The error in there is that it's not actually a comprehensive system. Here's the actual structure of the system. Or a written description.

Upper secondary education begins at 16 or 17 and lasts three to four years (roughly corresponding to the last two years of American high school plus what in the USA would be a two-year Community or Junior College). It is not compulsory. Finnish upper secondary students may choose whether to undergo occupational training to develop vocational competence and/or to prepare them for a polytechnic institute or to enter an academic upper school focusing on preparation for university studies and post-graduate professional degrees in fields such as law, medicine, science, education, and the humanities. Admissions to academic upper schools are based on GPA, and in some cases academic tests and interviews. For example, during the year 2007, 51% of the age group were enrolled in the academic upper school.

It is comprehensive up to the age of 16, just as our primary schools are comprehensive, and then there's a very rigid division into the academic and vocational streams. To the extent that the two only meet again, and this is very much a might meet again, at the PhD level.

It's entirely possible to argue that perhaps 11 isn't the right age at which to decide upon the split. Or that 16 is or any other combination of such ages. But we can't go around pointing to what is said to be the world's best system and argue that it proves that we should not split - not when that "world's best system" does indeed split.

Effectively that world's best system splits at O Levels when we measure it against the English system. And after that split there's a vocational route up and through technical colleges and something very like City and Guilds, an academic route through A Levels and universities.

You know, that system we've spent the last few decades abolishing in the name of better education?