The best way to think of gold

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So the best way to think about gold in the longer term, rather than as a specific hedge against either inflation or deflation, is as a currency. A currency that cannot be debased or undermined by any government. Central banks in emerging economies certainly seem to be looking at gold that way.

John Steepek, 'Why your portfolio should be braced for another crash' MoneyWeek

Air travel duty a stealth tax, not a green tax

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Air Passenger Duty rises will damage tourism without helping the environment.

Charles Starmer-Smith makes a powerful ten-point case against the first of two increases in Air Passenger Duty (APD) which came in on 1 November.

First, APD of £5 (short haul) and £20 (long haul) was imposed as a 'green' tax in 2004. Since then, the airlines have improved the efficiency of their fleets, yet the government is raising the tax by up to 425% of the 2004 level. This is a stealth tax, not a green tax.

Second, private jets are exempt (so Roman Abramovich is OK, then). As (third) are cargo planes. Why, if this is a 'green' measure?

Fourth, a new banding system means travellers flying 11 hours to LA incur less duty than those flying just 8 hours to Barbados. And (fifth) Tunisia incurs tax of just £11 while Egypt is socked with £40. Why?

Sixth, premium-economy passengers pay most. The tax on them will rise from £80 to £150 by the end of 2010. If four of you fly to the Caribbean, that's £600 in tax. It could make premium-economy uneconomic.

Seventh, the tax will damage the economy. The Netherlands' APD brought in €300m last year but cost the Dutch economy €1,200m. Eighth, while posing as 'green', not one penny generated by APD is being spent on environmental causes.

Ninth, with the Olympics coming in 2012, is raising APD the best way to encourage tourism? And tenth, anyone travelling from within Britain to (say) London and then changing planes to fly abroad will pay not just one, but two sets of tax on their journey. Which means travellers will choose to fly to an overseas hub rather than London. Another dent for the UK economy. Thanks, Gordon.

Dr Butler's book The Rotten State of Britain is now in paperback.

Politicians against science

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The Home Secretary has been displaying some rather statist behavior of late (see here & here). However, his latest attempt to stifle debate and research contradicting government policy is particularly authoritarian.

As a distinguished scientist, Dr Nutt has proven been unafraid to speak out about the findings of drug research. In this way, he has been able to provide the public with more information on the actual risks of illegal and legal drug-related choices. Yesterday's defense of his position is clear and logical, even if does not call for the legalization and medicalization of currently illegal drugs.

This is not the first time the government has ignored expertise on this matter. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs' recommendation not to reclassify cannabis was contradicred by Jacqui Smith. Dr Nutt was also forced to apologize for remarks made comparing the risk of ecstasy to horse-riding. Lucky he did, else the government might have crimanalized that too.

What passes for debate and grown-up discussion of the issues of drugs is pitiful. It is only when the myths are swept away, that reasoned policy will emerge. Close-minded, hypocritical and cowardly; our politicians have a long way to go.

EU're bang wrong: A history of lies!

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Nothing is set in stone, especially when it comes to the world of politicians. Their mission is to govern, and to govern down to the minutiae of each of us. A prime example of this is the ever expanding wasteline of EU law and regulations. The European Union will never be a simple single market place where people can freely trade due entirely to the nature of the politicians and civil servants in Europe. It will become a federalist state with extremely high barriers to trade: where people are licensed to trade, outside goods are allowed only under exorbitant tariffs and exports are heavily subsidized.

Reading the original Treaty of Rome and comparing it to what it has become clearly defines the natural advancements of a relatively simple idea corrupted by the poisoned hands of politicians. But then a politician's idea of a market place is radically different from a rational person's. What was it that we were signed up for? In the Conservative Party manifesto of 1970 Europe was only mentioned three times and then in respect to negotiations. Yet Heath signed us up to the Treaty Rome without asking. Wilson's referendum of 1975 was built on the renegotiations of entry that had taken place over the previous year. Yet reading a Labour Party pamphlet of that time exposes the fabrications and limited knowledge of trade that politicians had (and continue to have).

The modern era is tainted with lies and obfuscation from all sides. A Labour party that reneged on its manifesto pledge for a referendum and a Conservative party leader purposively muddying the waters via convoluted English. Conservative Home's analysis suggests that the Tories are unlikely to offer a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. The party will instead seek renegotiations. Since Chamberlain returned from continental Europe with a piece of paper in his hand, that is all the politicians of this country ever come back with. Unfortunately for us that piece of paper is regularly stamped with, "WE HAVE GLADLY SURRENDERED TO EU".

Are restaurants supersizing us all?

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Yes, yes, we've all heard about how those awful, nasty, fast food restuarants are making us all so fat we'll keel over from the cholesterol before we hit 35. Even that this generation will be the first in modern times to live shorter lives than their parents. That the NHS is about to buckle under the weight of lard butts demanding treatment so we must immediately impose the Big Mac Tax.

The problems with this narrative are numerous: not least that people dying young from being porkers saves the tax system money, not costs it. But the first question we really need to ask ourselves is, is it true that fast food restaurants, or indeed restaurants of any kind, actually lead to the observed increased whaleness of the nation's shape?

While many researchers and policymakers infer from correlations between eating out and body weight that restaurants are a leading cause of obesity, a basic identification problem challenges these conclusions. We design a natural experiment using highways in rural areas to exploit exogenous variation in the effective price of restaurants and examine the impact on body mass. We find no causal link between restaurant consumption and obesity. Analysis of food-intake micro-data suggests that consumers offset calories from restaurant meals by eating less at other times. We conclude that regulation targeting restaurants is unlikely to reduce obesity but could decrease consumer welfare.

Well, no, it appears that the restaurants aren't in fact the problem. After gorging at a restaurant we all seem to eat less next time, when not at a restaurant. Meaning that our targetting of those restaurants won't in fact cure whatever ills we diagnose as coming from the undoubted rise in weights that is going on.

Meaning also that the problem lies elsewhere: but good luck to the government that tries to deal with that. There aren't all that many votes in saying "You're fat because you're greedy" now, are there?

John Redwood Seminar

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On the 14th October, John Redwood MP gave a seminar at the ASI based upon a publication he has just written for us, Credit Crunch: The anatomy of a crisis.

Published one year on from the part-nationalizations of Lloyds-HBOS and RBS, this report by John Redwood MP pins the blame for the financial crisis squarely on bad monetary policy from the Bank of England and misguided regulation and inadequate crisis management by the UK government. Redwood attacks the notion that the UK economy was well run in the period leading up to the crisis, and that its problems were imported from the US, making clear that while Britain's crisis may have had much in common with America's, it was in fact very much home grown. In addition to analyzing the financial crisis and its causes, Redwood also makes a series of recommendations for the future of the banking sector, as well the broader economic policies of the next government.

See the video of the event below:

Dangerous substance

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A friend of the ASI sent us a letter that he had received from a company after purchasing a product. It opened as follows:

You have recently ordered product(s) from XXXX which are subject to the Chemicals (Hazard Information and Packaging) Regulations 1993. Where a product is classified as containing hazardous chemicals under CHIP legislation and the product is to be used in the workplace, XXXX is obliged to provide a safety data sheet on the first occasion a customer orders the product. Please ensure that the enclosed sheet(s) are held in a safe place for future reference by any staff using the product(s).

What follows are five sheets of ‘Product Safety Data Sheets’. Here are some extracts that might give you a clue as to the nature of this ‘dangerous substance:

  • “Prolonged skin contact may defat and dry skin leading to possible irritation and dermatitis. Eye contact may cause smarting and irritation."
  • “If contact of any material with the eye occurs, irrigate the area affected thoroughly with cold water."
  • "Skin contact: wash affected area thoroughly with cold water."
  • “If confined to the mouth, do not swallow; wash out the mouth with water… If swallowed, drink plenty of water and medical advice."
  • “Protective equipment is not normally necessary. Gloves should be worn where repeated or prolonged contact can occur. Avoid contact with eyes. Safety glasses should be worn".

At the end of five pages we learn that “this product data sheet was prepared in compliance with Commission Directive 91/155/EEC, 67/548/EEC and 1999/45/EV as well as their relevant amendments, on the approximation of laws, regulations and administrative provisions relative to the classification, packaging and labeling of dangerous substances and preparations".

So what is this dangerous substance that requires the full bureaucratic force of Brussels? Answer, Blu-Tack. Typical!

New banks

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Amazing, isn't it? A year after Gordon Brown forced the merger of Lloyds Bank and HBOS, in order to stem an online run on the latter, now the government is planning to break the banks up again. It could see the return to the High Street of names such as TSB, the old Trustee Savings Bank bought by Lloyds, and Williams & Glyn's, a 1970s name bought up by the Royal Bank of Scotland. Northern Rock, rescued by taxpayers two years ago, will be broken into two.

The episode shows how mixed-up markets become when politicians start interfering. For years, policy has favoured giantism in the banking sector. Then in no time flat, everyone has to restructure again. It's no way to run a railroad: nor a bank, a mail system, a healthcare service, or schools, for that matter. It's only happening because the EU competition commissioner, Neelie Kroes, insists. The Treaty of Rome is a very pro-competition document, after all.

I'm very much in favour of having more, and smaller banks. Our problem has been, and is, the lack of competition in the sector. Banks have merged and grown then merged and grown again. Without competition, the banks have been able to drift into risky forms of business that their customers don't want, and to pay themselves huge salaries and bonuses for not very much useful public service. They've become so big that government cannot possibly let them fail, lest the entire monopoly financial edifice comes tumbling down.

But what has made the banks so big and bloated? Regulation is the answer. Lots and lots of it. Regulators crawl over every aspect of a bank's operation, right down to how quickly they answer the phone. It costs a fortune. You cannot run a bank without hiring a huge compliance team to keep you within in the rules. So smaller banks cannot survive, and have to merge to create bigger banks. Bigger, less competitive, more profligate banks. Yes, this is entirely a problem of government's own making. And if the government is being forced to break up the banks, it should lighten the regulatory burden on them at the same time. Otherwise, they will not survive.