Public asset fire sale

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Gordon Brown's sell-off of public assets is too little too late.

The government is announcing a £16 billion sell-off of public assets. The include things like the Dartford Bridge, the student loan book, and the Tote – the UK state bookmaker.

Just on that point, we argued that the Tote should be sold off years ago. The government wanted to sell it cheap to a group of horseracing interests, a sale that ASI blocked by complaining to the European Commission – this is a business owned by the public, after all, not something in politicians' gift that they can transfer to a few rich, insider chums. After the EU had stopped all that, they could have auctioned the Tote and got a good price for it. Now, they will be lucky. Potential buyers like Ladbrookes are suffering in the recession.

I'm all in favour of privatization, and a recent ASI report by Nigel Hawkins identified £20 billion-worth. But this is the wrong time to sell public assets. Very few businesses, or even members of the public, have much cash to buy new businesses – especially badly-run state businesses which will need heavy investment to sort out. And everyone knows it's a fire sale – the government need the cash. Instead, the government should wait and sell these things when the time is right.

Gordon Brown sold the nation's gold reserves at a quarter of their value – they would have been worth billions at today's $1000-an-ounce price. He seems destined to sell things at the bottom of the market. He will be be lucky to get much of a price for the assets he is now grudgingly flogging off. And what's the point? That's the amount that the government overspends every month. Unless they cut spending, they will soon run out of assets to sell.

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

I realise that I'm blinkered but....

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Yes, I know, a shock isn't it, my admitting to being blinkered. But I am of course: the logic of unilateral free trade is unassailable so I never really understand those who would complicate matters. For example, there's a campaign going on about the GSP + access that Sri Lanka has to the EU. The essential point of which is that since, as is at least alleged, the Sri Lankan government is being beastly to at least part of the Tamil population then this special access to the EU market should be denied to all Sri Lankans.

All of which sounds really rather strange to someone like me. No, I understand the idea of having special access: it's not for any reasons of economic logic, it's all about politics here within the EU. There are enough lobbyists in Brussels to make sure that the EU will never become a free trader across the boundaries of the zollverien. Sad but true: the best that can happen is that some free traders can sometimes manage to have exceptions made to the rules that prevent the poor of the world from sending us their produce. Essentially this happens by pointing to a place which is so poor, so benighted, oppressed perhaps by the tricks of nature, and saying that you're going to impoverish these people just to please your industrial protectionists? These people? And so it has been with Sri Lanka.

But then we get to the part I really don't understand. Assume all the allegations are true. The Tamils, or some subset of them, are indeed being oppressed by the Sri Lankan government. Our response now is going to be to raise import duties and barriers to exports from Sri Lanka? Really? We're going to make ourselves poorer to protest the actions of a far away government? We're going to make the subjects of that government poorer to protest the actions of that government? Really?

In the name of protecting some of the poorest in the world we're going to make them even poorer? Surely the answer is to have even fewer trade restrictions so that we can continue to alleviate that poverty?

Food for thought

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The summer's Mont Pelerin Society meeting in Sweden featured some challenging papers, as you would expect. One of the most controversial suggested there is a trade-off between regulation and tax levels [pdf here]. Examining the countries on the basis of their economic freedoms, those high on the list also tended to have high levels of government spending as a proportion of GDP. This is not the expected result, and the claim was that the high 'freedom' score is gained despite this, with the other factors outweighing it. Furthermore, figures were presented which showed that high government tax share correlates positively with GDP per head and with GDP growth.

This runs counter to the general free market assumption that economic growth is hindered when government takes a large share of the revenues that could otherwise be driving innovation and expansion. The explanation offered was also challenging. It was that politicians want to run things; that's what they do. They can do this by high spending programmes or by regulation. The suggestion was that high regulation is more damaging to economic growth than is high government share of spending. Governments which regulate less are more likely to preside over higher growth, and will therefore have more to spend. In a sense they 'protect' their tax revenues by minimizing the regulation that would reduce them.

The view that regulation is an alternative to high government spending is certainly a challenging one, and might go some way to explaining why it is that some high tax economies are so prosperous. On the other hand, it does not seem to fit with recent trends in the UK, where an increased proportion spent by government has been accompanied by massive increases in regulation as well. If the thesis is sustained however, it will raise the prospect of governments being bribed to deregulate by the prospect of having more cash to spend…

Check out Dr Madsen Pirie's new book, "101 Great Philosophers."

Economics is not just money and shopping

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Economic choice is about time, effort, loyalty, guilt, same – not just money.

Too often, when I appear on the radio or TV and talk about the perverse incentives of some new government policy, I'm accused of being an 'unfeeling economist' who 'reduces everything to money'. Well I ain't. And that view misunderstands what is actually about. Economics is the science of choice. True, many of the choices we make involve giving up money to get something we want. But many more choices hinge on giving up other, non-monetary things – like our time and effort.

Should I go out with friends, or stay at home reading my book? I cannot do both. Should I mow the lawn, or offer to help out at the school fete? No money is involved in these decisions, and yet they are properly 'economic' decisions. How do I juggle scarce resources, like my time and effort, to yield the biggest benefit for me? And I don't just think of my private benefit. I might figure that my friends would like to see me, or that the teachers would welcome my help at the fete. Sure, it makes me feel good that I have helped others, and to that extent I derive some benefit. But it is a psychological, not a monetary, benefit.

Some studies suggest that when you pay people to give blood, fewer donors come forward. That is because people give blood to help others, not for financial gain. Offering payment suggests that you think they are doing it for their own benefit, without thought to the benefit of others, whereupon the delicate psychology of the activity is broken. Likewise, I find that I go to the doctor a lot more now that I have moved from a free NHS doctor to a private one. The reason is that I always felt guilty going to a free doctor, because I imagined that there were others who needed medical help more than I did (well, that and the long waits). Now I'm financially poorer, but I don't feel any guilt. Similar effects have been discovered when nursery schools fine parents for picking their kids up late – more of them arrive late, because they regard the fine as compensating the teachers for the inconvenience of having to stay on, whereas before they would have felt shame in being late.

Yes, there is a lot more to economic choices than mere money. People do things for reasons of love, honour, self-respect, or loyalty – and don't do things out of guilt, shame, idleness, or criticism. Indeed, most, by far, of our 'economic' decisions don't involve money at all.

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

Politicians turn nanny state into bully state

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The nanny state has given way to a bully state in which politicians coerce the public into submission.

A new book by controversial former MSP Brian Monteith argues that the nanny state is dead but has been replaced by a much more malevolent bully state where we are not just preached at, but forced to do what the politicians think we should.

The Bully State: The End of Tolerance charts the movement from nannying health warnings about smoking, through compulsory motor cycle helmets and seat belts, to the bully times of today, when we can be fined for smoking in our own cars and Marmite is banned in schools.

Monteith warns: “We won't lose the freedoms that we cherish by a military coup or some great cataclysmic war engulfing us, but through the gradual invasion of our private lives by the very politicians we elect to protect us – and all in the cause of looking after our health.

“Today’s politicians think us mature enough to elect them, but too immature to decide what we should eat, smoke, drink or drive. So they give officials powers to snoop on us, enter our homes, fine householders without trial for using the wrong rubbish bins, and make shopkeepers hide the cigarettes under the counter.

“This is not just some left-wing campaign. It started when New Labour and Conservative politicians decided that information and choice weren’t enough in their brave new target-setting world. Now politicians of all colours simply bully us into submission if we do things they don’t approve of."

The book traces our evolution from nanny to the bully state, with its growing intervention into the realms of smoking, eating and drinking – including some truly bizarre and absurd examples of politicians’ latest bullying. An edifying and shocking read.

The Bully State: The End of Tolerance is published by The Free Society, price £5.99, is launched on Wednesday in Westminster.

Privatisation is no way to sustain Britain’s runaway spending

In this article originally published in The Telegraph, Dr Madsen Pirie argues that the Government’s asset sales will provide a year of bounty but fail to address the British state’s excessive spending.

First there was “borrowing our way out of debt” which raised the eyebrows of sober-minded accountants. Then there was “printing our way out of debt,” as quantitative easing magically created money out of nowhere. Now the latest round is “selling our way out of debt,” as the Prime Minister announces the sale of £16bn worth of state-owned assets.

First will come the Tote, the Thames Dartford Crossing, the Channel Tunnel rail link, and student loans. The sale of the state’s 33 percent stake in Urenco, the uranium enrichment company, will follow. There are good and bad features of the sale. The good point is that most, if not all, of these will sit happily in private ownership. It has never been clear why the state should be involved in race-course gambling, while transport crossings and loan agencies are often handled elsewhere by private firms.

The disappointing feature is that these are all to be done by private sales. The sale to a single private buyer is the easiest and quickest to implement, but does least to secure public support or to secure improvements to the industry or service.

Many of the 1980s privatisations (now called by the mellower name of “asset sales”) featured public offerings with discounted shares available to workers so they could become part-owners of the new enterprise. Significantly, the Government has already tried a private sale of the Tote, but was rebuffed by the European Court as representing poor value for the public. It would have been bolder (and better) to involve employees and the public in the new round of sales.

Secondly, it is by no means clear that the proposed sales will actually be used to reduce the Britain’s huge debt burden. It is quite legitimate to use capital sales to reduce capital debt, and the sales would deserve support if that were the case. But this looks like the Government’s way of postponing reality until after the election.

Britain has to cut its spending, and that will involve some hard and unpleasant decisions. Asset sales are a one-off. They might be used to fund spending programmes but only for one year. Crucially, that one year will see a general election, and the suspicion arises that the sales revenue will be used to continue with spending that really should be cut until after the election.

The Government has not come up with realistic proposals to cut spending to what can be afforded. Nor has anyone else, to be fair. The budget deficit (£220 billion this year) means that debt is increasing. Asset sales are not, and should not be, a way to sustain high spending; they should be a means of reducing debt.

Published on Telegraph.co.uk here.

The value of innovation

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Innovation is of course a good thing: so too is the science that leads to lovely new things to innovate with. We're all also well aware of the public goods arguments about science: because it's very difficult to profit from it directly we'll not have enough of it. Thus we need taxpayer support for science, so that we've got lots of lovely new things to innovate with and thus we all get richer. An example of the argument from Colin Blakemore:

PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that every pound spent on research by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council sees a rapid return of £10, and £15 to 20 in longer-term benefits........But it’s not just a love of intellectual pursuits that justifies the nearly £3 billion per annum the Government spends through the research councils and the additional £2 billion that is dispensed through the higher education funding councils. It’s the expectation that it will deliver benefits for UK plc — “outcomes" in Treasury-speak.

However, we do also have to add what we know from what I think is one of the great research papers of all time: Schumpeterian profits in the American Economy.

We conclude that only a minuscule fraction of the social returns from technological advances over the 1948-2001 period was captured by producers, indicating that most of the benefits of technological change are passed on to consumers rather than captured by producers.

In more detail, only 3% or so of the value created by new technologies goes to the entrepreneurs, 97% goes to the rest of us lucky people who get to use the new technology. In one way this bolsters the argument that science should be heavily funded: look what we all get from it!

In another, the picture is not so clear. For the science is a public good, as we've agreed, which is why it needs funding in the first place. But as the science is a public good (non-rivalrous and non-excludable) we don't actually care where it is done nor who funds it: only that someone does. Further, if all but some tiny amount of the value of the technologies created by the science comes from the use, not the making or manufacturing of them, then we don't really care where that making or manufacturing is done either. All we care about, rationally, is that we get to use the new gear. And the end result of that chain of reasoning is that there's no real reason why we should be insistent upon funding "British" science, or "British innovation" nor even "British manufacturing". As long as someone funds it, somewhere, why should we care?

If the Americans decide to tax themselves to fund such activities, why shouldn't we just be free riders on their efforts?

The priorities

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Tony Blair listed his three priorities as "education, education, education," and achieved none of them. There will be a great deal of pressure on the incoming Cameron government and many claims on its urgent attention. Given the limits of parliamentary time and attention, the four which should count are "education, liberty, education, liberty" (in no particular order). If they do nothing else, they should reverse the erosion of our liberties by setting up a one-year judicial commission to review the state of our liberties and make recommendations accordingly. I set out in the Telegraphhow this can be done.

No less important is the permanent change that can be made to our schooling by empowering parents with a choice of school backed by the funding their taxes have paid for. Provided this is backed by measures which enable a proliferation of new schools, public and private, there is no single measure which can alter the political landscape so much, or with such lasting effect.

No doubt we will be told that times are hard, money is tight, and time is short. Maybe this will be true to some extent. We do not expect miracles. But we do expect the tide which has flowed against our liberties to be turned back, and lost ground regained. And we do expect that education will finally be reformed so that every child, regardless of their background, will gain the chance to succeed.

This is not an ambition or a distant hope, it is a minimum. Without these two, any new government will go down as a failure which turned its back on the untrodden heights and lost the goodwill that might have sustained it.

Check out Dr Madsen Pirie's new book, "101 Great Philosophers."