US Presidential Election 2016: what’s the worst that could happen?

For anyone who is economically literate, concerned about civil liberties, opposed to corruption and cronyism, in favour free trade and fiscal conservatism, supportive of peaceful internationalism, and/or in possession of a conscience, the 2016 US Presidential election is unlikely to produce a good result.

Hillary Clinton’s Democratic campaign amounts to a Frankensteinian attempt to create a powerful but confused and unnatural electoral monster. In essence, she is seeking to sew together a continuation of the Obama-era status quo, a pitch to the centre and disaffected establishment Republicans, a pandering to Sanders-inspired left-wingers, and a kids-gloves approach to populist dissatisfaction.

Donald Trump’s Republican platform is a hodgepodge of bad ideas. The central narrative and policies turn on isolationist-nationalism and authoritarian populism, exemplified by aggressive nativist rhetoric and opposition to immigration, international institutions, and trade deals. Trump also has a confused foreign policy, synthesising isolationism with erratic aggression.

This has been combined with the usual Republican package of tax cuts and deregulation. However, any continuity with conservatism is a veneer and should be of no comfort to principled Republicans. Trump’s proposed tax cuts are unfunded, and would add at least $10 trillion to the budget deficit. His enthusiasm for deregulation seems confused, given his platform’s support for reinstating Glass-Steagall. And a moderate-alienating social platform sits in uncomfortable tandem with Trump’s own ambivalence on these issues.

It is, therefore, ambiguous how either candidate would actually govern. Clinton is more predictable and will probably fall back on continuing Obama’s policies with a more hawkish outlook on foreign affairs. Platitudes and watered down policies will be offered to the left, whilst centrists and moderate Republicans will have to make do with stability.

A Trump Presidency would have uncertainty as its defining characteristic. It is impossible to tell which, if any, of his policies he actually believes in or intends to implement, even if his flip-flopping is set aside. Does he actually want to pull out of the UN? Would he actually rip up existing trade agreements? Would he really consider using nuclear weapons? Does he genuinely intend to build The-WallTM on the Mexican border and ‘Make Mexico Pay’? Does he really think he can ‘bring back jobs’ through protectionism? Has he even read NAFTA?

If his expressed views and attitudes are taken at face value, he remains unpredictable. Asides from the contradictions between his policies, his temperament and belligerence appear to pose something of a security risk. The exact nature of his isolationism is unclear, as is the extent and manner of any realignment in US-Russian relations. It is also unclear exactly how far any trade war with China would go. Many of his policies are also near impossible to achieve. Attempting to follow-through on banning Muslims from entering the USA, building The-WallTM, and mass deportations will cause chaos.

Even a Republican controlled Congress is likely to resist Trump’s most draconian and nonsensical policies. Trump is likely to respond by trampling any constitutional restraints. Civil disobedience and resistance would be likely, as would spiralling cycles of violence. And if, as is likely, building a 2000-mile wall and deporting 11 million people cannot be done, the frustrated response of Trump’s base could be very dangerous.

Given all of the above, and how objectionable and destructive many of Trump’s policies are in themselves, a Clinton win is the less bad option. Whilst the Democratic platform falls somewhat short on civil liberties, surveillance, and criminal justice reform, it is at least not flirting with fascism. Likewise, whilst Clinton has embraced populism on trade (a reversal that exemplifies her lack of consistency and principle) and has picked up fiscally irresponsible ideas (such as ‘free college’) from Sanders, her budget adds less to government debt than Trump’s, and she at least doesn’t seem to be under the impression that she can personally manage a multi-trillion dollar economy as a dictatorial CEO.

It is also important that Clinton does not win an overwhelming mandate. The very real flaws with her candidacy should be reflected electorally, and her ramshackle coalition should not be proven viable. Paradoxically, Trump must also lose by a large margin. If Trump loses by anything less than a landslide, his impact on the Republican Party will be deep and permanent. It will remain a nativist-populist party, with any commitment to small government, fiscal responsibility, individual liberty, and tradition a distant memory. He will also have succeeded in making openly bigoted and inflammatory discourse, as well as uninformed and fantastical policies, mainstream and electorally viable.

Trump must receive less than 40% of the vote, whilst Clinton should not win more than 50%, with the gap being filled by third party candidates. In an ideal world, the Johnson-Weld ticket would win by a landslide (and a sane Republican Party would have nominated them itself). As it is, this is a somewhat unlikely result. However, the opportunity for the Libertarian Party to make a significant breakthrough is real. It is worth remembering that Ross Perot received 19% in 1992 and George Wallace received 13% in 1968.

If Johnson can break double-digits, dissatisfaction with the two main parties, and the importance of a fiscally conservative but socially tolerant bloc, cannot be ignored. I would say the same of the Green Party, as a principled liberal-left is desirable, if it were not for Jill Stein’s apparent commitment to the kookiest and most irresponsible aspects of the eco-left.

This election may not provide any good options. But it’s clear what the least damaging result would be.

How distressing that we should have to defend Keith Vaz

We are not in favour of Keith Vaz. This would be a mild statement of our attitude to him in fact. However, we do find ourselves having to step into the breach here and defend him. For we find it impossible to understand what it is that has been done wrong here.

The allegation is that he entertained, and had sex with, one or more men. Drugs were taken and cash changed hands. To which our reaction is, yes, and?

Freedom and liberty mean that consenting adults get to do what consenting adults wish to do. As long as there is no damage to people not consenting (or those not capable of consenting) that is, to us, the end of the matter.

One of the great advances in such freedom and liberty in recent decades is that men who wish to have sex with men may do so without fear of the law. A part of that great movement to take consenting sex of all kinds out of the grip of the law in fact.

The drugs, those allegedly actually taken, were and are legal, poppers. Cocaine, currently illegal, was apparently discussed - but then we think that cocaine should be legal anyway, see above about consenting adults.

Which leaves the cash issue - and again our question is, and? Any one of us is at liberty to swap bread with anyone we wish either as a mutual exchange of some sort or for cash. The giving of back rubs for mutual pleasure is legal as is charging cash for them - as the existence of one sort of massage parlour proves. That cash changes hands in the other sort of massage parlour we know but consider it to be that very same thing. 

Or to put this another way, consenting adults get to do as consenting adults wish and we don't see that the intermediation of cash makes any damn difference.

And that is what the law is today. Cash for sex is not illegal as it should not be.

As at the top, we are not in favour of Mr. Vaz. And the thought of him fired up and "very horny" is not one that is improving our appetite for breakfast. Yet why is it that consenting adults should not be getting on with whatever it is that consenting adults wish to get on with?

Which leads us to one final point:

VETERAN Labour MP Keith Vaz last night stood down from chairmanship of the Home Affairs Select Committee after he was exposed for paying young men for sex.

The married father-of-two was caught meeting two Eastern European male prostitutes, believed to be Poles, for sex eight days ago and boasting about having unprotected sex, according to a newspaper.

Mr Vaz, 59, has been chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee – which monitors crime, immigration and drugs policy - for nearly a decade. He has previously said he is ‘not convinced’ men who pay for sex should be prosecuted.

The committee is currently overseeing a major shake-up of the UK’s prostitution laws.

Why would we want to stop a politician who actually knows something about the subject under discussion from taking part in a discussion on that subject?


There's a reason we invented farming you know

The season for trooping off into the forests to pick mushrooms is upon us. And the signs telling people that they will be prosecuted if they do so are even now being nailed up. For there really is a reason that we invented farming, along with that concept of private property, all those millennia ago. That reason being something that Garrett Hardin made rather a fuss of and Elinor Ostrom gained her well deserved Nobel for.

Marxian access to a common resource only works up to a point:

Twenty years ago, no commercial fungi foraging was carried out in Britain. By 2013 it had risen to such a scale that there were 20 successful prosecutions for illegal fungi-picking in Epping Forest alone, with one person being caught with 20 sacks of mushrooms. Those found guilty were fined sums of around £200.

But many foragers insist that their handiwork does no harm. Carried out in a responsible manner, it causes no damage. It is the equivalent of the blackberry gathering that many families enjoy at this time of year, they argue.

But this is rejected by fungi expert Professor Lynne Boddy, of Cardiff University. “People say picking fungi is just like picking blackberries off a bush. But it is not,” she said. “Plants like the blackberry bush evolved to produce fruit that contain their seeds, which birds and animals eat and transmit through their droppings. These berries exist to spread seeds.”

By contrast, most fungi transmit their spores in the wind.

Hardin made the more basic point - as demand rises on such a common, open, resource we end up with a problem. With no limitation upon who may take what or how much the resource will be exploited beyond its capacity to regenerate.

Take, for example, fisheries. When technology is simply a line and a hook, then all who wish can fish the seas. When technology is vast nets which scoop up everything then some limitations must be placed upon extraction. The economic imperative for each individual player is to go get some while there is some left. This leaves none to regenerate for the next season. 

It doesn't matter what the resource is. When demand is low then that Marxist, open for all to fill their boots, access is just fine. When demand starts to meet the limits of what the resource can provide then some form of regulation is necessary. Hardin tells us that we must either have private property or government regulation - what he called capitalist or socialist methods of resource management.

Either works, dependent upon the specific resource we need to manage.

Ostrom proved that a third possibility exists- communal management. Voluntary  cooperation that is - and it does work, up to a certain size. When the group doing the managing, and self-limiting extraction, rises above a couple of thousand people then that system to breaks down. The group is too large to be self-regulating and we are back in the economics of the hunter gatherer and the stripping of the resource before someone else comes along.

Going off foraging is fun - the mushroom hunt is a central part of the folk and family experience in many parts of central Europe, just as the blackberry thing is in rural England. But all depends upon the volume of people descending to do it and the volume they wish to take when they do.

There really is a reason we invented this exclusionary clause in private property and farming. Simply because there's too many of us to be able to maintain that open access to that common resource. If we do try to maintain that Marxist access then the resource will disappear. Just as the cod did from the Grand Banks.

Sadly, Sarah Wollaston seems not to understand the basics here

Sarah Wollaston may indeed be a GP as well as an MP. But she seems not to have grasped the first and most basic thing about the relationship between economic and health inequality:

In her first speech as prime minister, Theresa May promised to tackle the nine-year gap in life expectancy between rich and poor, placing this at the top of her list of burning injustices. This yawning inequality has defeated successive governments, and the gap is even wider between rich and poor for years lived in good health. Closing it will require action across areas such as poverty, housing and education, as well as those more conventionally thought of as affecting health. May will need to start early and look far beyond the short-term political cycle for results.

In that little image above the point is made that analysis is a part of public health. why is such and such happening? This is a larger point as well of course, only when we have worked out what is happening and why can we even dream of trying to do something about whatever it is. Or even decide whether to do something.

And here, looking at lifespans and incomes there's one hugely important point being missed.

It's entirely true that the rich generally live longer than the poor. But why is this? Some part of it is undoubtedly that better diets, less self-destructive behaviour, leads to a long life. But is is also true that chronic illness leads to poverty.

We cannot thus insist that reducing economic inequality will equalise lifespans - simply because it is unequal lifespans and health which is one of the causes of income inequality.

As is so often true both processes are going on at the same time. And until the public health advocates start admitting that we should pay very little attention to them. Simply because they're not being serious.

Ireland might bring in citizenship by investment

The recent decision by the UK to leave the EU gives it the opportunity to make major reductions in its Corporation Tax.  It could cause problems for Ireland if the UK were to match its 12.5%, and even more if it were to lower it as the ASI has recommended, first to 6.25% and then to zero.  Investment that presently goes to Ireland might head for the UK instead.

Ireland could counter this by introducing citizenship by investment, as several other countries do. Presently Irish citizenship is only available to those with an Irish grandparent, or to those with a 5-year residency qualification, or 3 years with an Irish spouse or civil partner.  Residency with the intention to remain resident is also required.

Ireland could extend this by offering fast-track citizenship to those prepared to invest substantial sums in the Irish economy, or to create a significant number of Irish Jobs.  By doing so, Ireland would be emulating several countries worldwide which offer citizenship in return for investment.

The US awards 10,000 green cards annually (designated EB-5) to those who invest $1m, or $0.5m in a designated area of high unemployment, and who create at least 10 US jobs.  Several EU members have similar schemes.  Among the most accessible are Malta and Cyprus.  Malta offers 1,800 visas annually to those who invest €1.15m (of which €350,000 must be in property and €150,000 in government bonds), with a requirement to be at least a part-time resident.  An EU passport can be issued with a year.  Cyprus requires an investment of €2.5m and can fast-track a passport inside 3 months.

Other EU countries that do this include Austria and Bulgaria.  Worldwide one of the most successful second passports is offered by St Kitts and Nevis.  Those who contribute $295,000 to help their industry diversify from sugar, or who invest $500,000 in property, can secure a passport without any residency requirement.

The Maltese, Cypriot, Austrian and Bulgarian options all offer EU passports allowing free movement to live and work anywhere in the EU, and an Irish passport would do the same.  This would make it an attractive option, especially given that English is its main language.

While the Adam Smith Institute, unlike the European Union, does not make a habit of intruding on the sovereignty of independent nations, it does suggest that the government of Ireland might at least investigate the possibility of instituting a citizenship by investment programme.  It would create investment and employment to counter-balance any problems caused by the UK's new-found ability to make itself more attractive

Vaping isn't perfectly safe - and?

The latest piece of medical hysteria about vaping has arrived - with the finding that the consumption of a stimulant restricts the aorta. This apparently is sufficient to mean that vaping should be banned, or at least restricted, and therefore many more people should die from smoking:

Vaping could be as bad for the heart as smoking cigarettes, a new study suggests. 

The findings triggered warnings that electronic cigarettes may be “far more dangerous” than was thought.

Trials found that a typical session using a device caused similar effects to the main heart artery as smoking a cigarette.

This is not in fact a stunning finding. Stimulants tend to do this:

Researchers said a a typical vaping session had a similar impact on stiffness of the aorta - the main artery into the heart - as smoking one regular cigarette.

Lead researcher Prof Charalambos Vlachopoulos, from the University of Athens Medical School said: "We measured aortic stiffness. If the aorta is stiff you multiply your risk of dying, either from heart diseases or from other causes.”

Nicotine is a stimulant, stimulants tend to do this, nicotine will do this. 

As our friends at the IEA have pointed out, this isn't the point about vaping anyway. We have a stimulant that large numbers of people enjoy, a stimulant which is legal and a stimulant which will kill some large percentage of those who partake of it. Vaping is a safer, not safe, manner of taking that stimulant.

Of course it should be legal. In fact, given the greater safety it should be subsidised in theory.

It's worth noting that those nicotine patches, which we do subsidise through prescriptions, have very much the same effect on the heart. Because they're a nicotine delivery system and nicotine is a stimulant.....

In defence of Richard Branson’s honour

John McDonnell has, as is not unprecedented, suggested introducing a bad policy. As the drama surrounding ‘Traingate’ continues unfolded, McDonnell responded to Richard Branson’s intervention by floating the idea of stripping him of his knighthood.

Writing in the Sunday Mirror, McDonnell described Branson as a “tax exile who thinks he can try and intervene and undermine our democracy”, and went on to write that:

“But the whole purpose of the honours system is undermined when the rich and the powerful can collect their gongs without giving anything back. It’s even worse when tax exiles are given honours.
And tax exiles should not be allowed to keep the privilege of an honour or a title. It should be a simple choice for the mega-rich. Run off to tax exile if you want. But you leave your titles and your honours behind when you go.”

There are a few things wrong with this. It is certainly not the case that Branson has given nothing back. His tax arrangements do not invalidate his contributions. And he has every right to “intervene” in “our democracy”.

It is true that Branson is a “tax exile”. He is a resident in the British Virgin Islands and pays no income tax. However, this is perfectly legal and McDonnell is not accusing him of tax evasion. Virgin Group, the conglomerate that owns the various Virgin enterprises, does pay millions of pounds in UK tax, as do many of its subsidiaries.

Virgin Group employs around 50,000 people worldwide, many of them in the UK. Subsidiaries of Virgin, such as Virgin Mobile and Virgin Money, provide a plethora of services to millions of people in the UK. In fact, since the 1970s Virgin has operated in the music, aviation, and telecoms industries before selling its share in its subsidiaries. Many of these, such as Virgin Media and Virgin Records, still exist today under different ownership. Virgin, and Branson personally, have also made significant contributions to charitable causes.

Even if Branson’s tax status is problematic, that doesn’t trump these significant contributions. Even if the law is in need of reform, that doesn’t make what Branson is doing especially objectionable. People are not, and should not be, under an obligation to pay as much tax as possible, above and beyond what is required by law.

As for Branson’s “intervention”, I’m not going to comment in detail on Traingate. However, regardless of the rights and wrongs of the situation, as someone with a stake in businesses based in this country, Branson has every right to “intervene”. And, in any case, ignoring the opinion of everyone who is not resident in the UK is a horribly insular vision. This applies just as much to Branson’s “interventions” on matters such as the EU Referendum and drugs policy, and equally to those of other informed parties.

McDonnell also succeeds in the muddying the waters by mentioning Sir Philip Green’s tax avoidance. Whether or not Green is at fault over the BHS pension deficit, it is a separate issue from his tax affairs. His conduct, and whether it warrants the loss of his knighthood, should be judged without reference to tax.

Stripping legal tax avoiders of honours sets a bad precedent. Does minimising your tax bill invalidate job creation, providing services to millions, sporting achievements, public service, or community work? Or would McDonnell only strip honours from people the Labour leadership dislikes? The idea that your “contribution” can only be measured by, or trumped by, the amount of tax you pay is dangerous and ignores the fact that the state is not identical with society.

Five things to know about the EU's Apple tax ruling

This week, the European Commission ruled that Ireland provided State Aid to Apple through preferential tax rules. Unsurprisingly this has brought corporation tax rules into the spotlight, but there are a number of points about this particular case that many commentators have missed so far. Here are the key points:

1. Nothing has been proved (yet)

The EU Commission has yet to publicly show proof of any special deal between Apple and the Irish government. As such, we cannot judge its claims until its evidence is published. Central to the Commission’s claim that Ireland has provided a special “sweetheart deal” to Apple are two rulings by Ireland’s national tax authority, the Revenue Commissioners, which stated that Apple was in compliance with Irish tax rules.

However, it is very common for companies to seek clarification from tax authorities in order to ensure that they are keeping on the right side of the law, especially when dealing with new tax structures. A statement of compliance is not State Aid. While the Commission concedes this, its main argument is that Revenue found an internal profit allocating structure that has “no factual or economic justification” to be legal – and this amounted to State Aid.

So far, the Commission has issued a finding without releasing its evidence publicly, nor its methodology to coming to such a conclusion. The Commission has not provided any evidence of a deal, nor has it provided any evidence of State Aid. Its argument to date boils down to the Revenue providing Apple with a letter of comfort, and the Commission disagreeing with Revenue’s rationale.

2. Is this even a special deal?

Typically, for this to constitute State Aid under European Competition Law, the Commission would have to show that this is a special deal for Apple, within certain parameters. The fact that Apple was utilizing a uniqueness in Ireland’s tax law does not equal state aid. The uniqueness in question is that Irish tax rules state that non-resident companies are only charged Irish corporation tax on the profits attributable to Irish operations, and therefore, in the words of the Revenue Commissioners, “[t]he profits of non-resident companies that are not generated by their Irish branches – such as profits from technology, design and marketing that are generated outside Ireland – cannot be charged with Irish tax under Irish tax law”.

If this option is available to any non-resident company, it is a legitimate feature of Irish tax law as opposed to specific state aid. Even if Apple was the first and only company to do so, this would merely be taking advantage of a tax loophole – not State Aid.

The Office of the Revenue Commissioners has publicly confirmed that Apple has paid all tax due, and that there was no departure from Irish Tax Law in its treatment of Apple, nor was there any preference given to Apple in its application of the law.

It therefore looks to be unlikely that there was any special deal, but rather this is the case of Apple taking advantage of Irish tax rules, and the national tax authority merely confirming that what they were doing was legal.

3. The European Commission is being deeply political

The Commission stated on 31 August that Ireland is free to spend the €13bn of uncollected taxes how Ireland wishes. This, while being in direct contravention to European fiscal principles (which state that windfalls should be allocated to national debt reduction), was also political act designed to undermine the Irish government's reaction domestically.

The Irish government is currently a minority government composed of Fine Gael (a centrist Christian Democratic party) and mostly left-of-centre populist Independent MPs. The Commission’s statement could foment further unease domestically by providing pressure to the populist Independents not to support a cabinet decision to appeal the finding, which has potential to collapse the government. It is naturally very much within the Commission’s interests not to be challenged on this, and it appears that the Commission’s statement was designed to weaken the government’s political freedom to challenge it.

4. …and it was about more than just Ireland’s lax tax laws

The finding was a political warning shot against US companies keeping money effectively stateless until such a time as they can be brought to shore in the US. The EU has been pressuring US authorities over this mostly-untaxed money for years in its fight against tax avoidance (as opposed to evasion). This is more than about competitive Irish tax policies.

Companies, which naturally don’t want to pay punitive US corporate tax rates, have been keeping money offshore in the hope that the US will undertake substantial corporate tax reform. US firms have amassed a sizeable amount of money offshore, thought to be in the trillions of dollars.

American policymakers will therefore be none-to-keen about Europe making a grab for their rainy day fund. Indeed, the US Department of Treasury released a damning statement, just before the publication of the EU Commission’s decision, noting that the Commission’s Apple investigation went beyond regular “enforcement of competition and state aid law”.

5. It is fundamentally a question of sovereignty

Irish tax policy is and ought to be the sole business of the Irish government. Any intrusion into this by the EU should be resisted strongly unless it can be shown there was very specific preferential treatment that was more akin to a subsidy than a true feature of the tax system.

At the very fundamental level, unless there is a deal catered specifically to Apple, this amounts to a Commission overreach into national tax policy. Tax policy, as set out in European Law, is the sole competence of the Member States. If it becomes a case where the EU may declare tax law features “State Aid”, it sets a dangerous precedence for EU intervention in an area that should be the sole remit of national governments.

Ireland’s economic strategy is based on its competitive corporation tax regime. It is what fundamentally transformed the poorest country in Western Europe to one of the richest in the world in less than two decades. Ireland should therefore appeal this decision to the European Court of Justice, as a modest windfall should not be allowed to alter its successful strategy. Thankfully the main governing party, Fine Gael, recognises this. Let’s hope the populists do too.

Cillian Fleming is based in Dublin. These remarks have been written in a personal capacity and do not reflect the views of his employer.

Well spotted but this is how it's supposed to work

Interest rates are down again, the return to saving is ever lower. As a result people are saving less. So, yes, this is entirely true:

Record low interest rates, falling consumer prices and high employment levels have caused the largest collapse on record in Britain’s saving habits.

A monthly report from GfK shows that people’s desire to save money plummeted in August, dropping 16 points from July, in the same month that the Bank of England cut interest rates to a record low of 0.25 per cent.

This was the sharpest month-on-month fall in the survey’s history of conducting a savings index, which began in 1996.

The Times then headlines this as people being "Spendthrift". Which is really rather unkind. Because the very point of the cut in interest rates is to stop people saving and to get them our there going spend, spend, spend.

There's something called the paradox of thrift. When people save more this reduces demand in the economy. This slows down, in the short term at least, the growth of the economy. This then leads to people having less to save and so savings fall.

The solution, at least one and generally accepted one, to this is that when there's not enough demand in the economy cut interest rates to dissuade people from saving. This increases spending and gets the economy growing again.

Quite how valid this all is is up to you to decide. But to call people spendthrift just because they're doing what the Bank of England has deliberately changed policy to encourage them to do seems a bit off to us.