Thursday, 25 December 2008

Another reason to like Paul Walter

Perhaps we should set up a small factory making these.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

The pot calling the kettle black

According to the Daily Mail, the Pope has been accused of spreading fear about homosexuals.


Are our leaders misrepresenting Keynes?

Central Banks appear to be citing Keynesian monetary policy as a reason for pushing down interest rates to dangerously low levels.

Yet it is far from clear that the dead economist would himself have approved of low or no interest rates.

According to his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, when the "rate of interest has fallen to a certain level… almost everyone prefers holding cash to holding debt which yields so low a rate of interest," as a result of which central banks can "lose effective control over the interest rate" (p. 207).

The problem, as I have noted repeatedly, is that if interest rates are low, there is no incentive to lend money, thus furthering the very “liquidity trap” that the Central Banks believe they have to resolve. As Keynes understood, people have no incentive to hold bonds (or deposits) rather than cash. In fact, the rational investor would shift their money abroad.

Rather than resolving the problem, today’s low interest rate policy is sowing the seeds of the next economic crisis by encouraging further credit expansion which, in turn, will lead to further misallocations of resources and requiring future punitive interest rate rises.

The role of the economist as policy advisor

Economists are not traditionally popular as policy advisors. Economics teaches that resources are limited, that choices made imply opportunities forgone, that our actions can have unintended consequences. This is typically not what government officials want to hear. When they propose an import tariff to help domestic manufacturers, we economists explain that this protection will come only at the expense of domestic consumers. When they suggest a minimum-wage law to raise the incomes of low-wage workers, we show that such a law hurts the very people it purports to help by forcing them out of work. On and on it goes. As each new generation of utopian reformers promises to create a better society, through government intervention, the economist stands athwart history, yelling "Remember the opportunity cost!"
Peter G. Klein: Why Intellectuals Still Support Socialism.

Monday, 22 December 2008

The Green Road to Nowhere

History is repeating itself, though whether as tragedy or farce awaits to be seen. As our economy enters another of its periodic recessions, caused as ever by government meddling in the economy, politicians race to solve the problem with further doses of the same poison.

Sadly, in an age where politicians fear differentiating themselves from one another and parties squabble over a consensus they disingenuously call the middle ground, there seems to be no real debate over how best to ensure that the recession that we are now in is as brief as possible. Just as President Hoover’s failed interventions were succeeded by President Roosevelt’s even greater interventions, so today politicians seem to be in a bidding war to intervene in the economy.

The latest dose comes from the Liberal Democrats, who have joined the chorus with their latest call for action. Nick Clegg has announced a Green Road Out of the Recession that is built on the same errors that underpin Labour’s proposals and the $4.61 trillion US bailout.

It is a simple error, summed up by Henry Hazlitt when he notes that “The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.” It is the error of looking at the immediate results of what one does but not the damage that doing it causes; specifically, of believing that one can utilize a resource (in this case, money) for one purposes without denying it to another.

So let us be utterly clear: when the Lib Dems say “Now is the time for big investment to get the wheels of the economy turning again”, any rational observer should immediately ask “From where is the money coming, and what will be sacrificed so that this investment can be achieved?”

It is an impressive list the Lib Dems have compiled: new trains; new railways; new track; social homes; insulated lofts; smart meters. It will “create jobs and ensure that once this recession is over, we have something to show for the money we borrowed.” All of which is true, but what it does not show is all the jobs that will not be created because the money that would have been spent creating those jobs has been siphoned off by government to pay for its own projects.

There is absolutely no reason why government spending of £12.5 billion (as the Lib Dems propose) should create more jobs than private spending of £12.5 billion. On the contrary: while markets operate specifically to maximise economic efficiency – by, for example, allowing people to spend money on projects that will maximise their own utility – government’s have no such built-in discipline and no means of weighing the efficiency or efficacy of different projects. In fact (as the sorry litany of failed government projects demonstrates) governments all too often blow vast sums of taxpayers’ money on projects that promise big benefits but deliver dubious or disappointing outcomes.

I should add that this is not a criticism of any individual project and certainly not of the environmental (“green”) thrust of the proposals. That the “road out of recession” is “green” is irrelevant. We could as easily talk about the white heat of technology or indulge in some blue-skies thinking. The point is that this is being sold on economic, not environmental, grounds; if the Lib Dems were as keen on agriculture as we are on environmentalism, we could as easily advocate policies akin to President Hoover’s New Deal farm programme, and the proposals would be no less flawed. Government cannot spend the country out of recession.

The reason for this is that government money must come from somewhere, and not matter what its source, it merely transfers money from one use to another. If we spend £12.5 billion on new trains to “create jobs” and “stimulate industry” then the money, workers and materials that are diverted to those ends are no longer available to make shoes, televisions, meals or whatever else we might buy. The net effect in jobs created, wages spent and economic activity stimulated is zero.

Indeed, while we may scoff at the 2.5% cut in VAT and say that the £12.5 billion could be better spent insulating lofts, it ignores the fact that the £12.5 billion would otherwise have been spent by consumers on (for example) carpets. The criticism that the VAT cut would not in fact encourage people to buy is valid in as far as an individual price reduction of 2.13% is not going to make a product hugely more attractive to buy. But the fact that the money remains in people’s pockets means that it will eventually be spent somewhere. It will still represent an increase in consumer demand and so will stimulate growth.

Thus the one part of the Green Road Out of the Recession which is sound is the bit that promises “big, permanent tax cuts”. It is the bit that has been policy for over a year and upon which conference voted. It would transfer spending from inefficient governments to efficient consumers and so allocate resources in the marketplace (that is to say you and me and our respective savings) most efficiently.

A couple of additional points need to be made, to head off possible comments (welcome though all comments are, of course!). Firstly, it makes no difference if the government gets the money through taxation, inflation or borrowing. Borrowing has exactly the same effect as taxation in as much as it diverts savings from being invested in industry and instead invests it in public services; there is still no net gain. It also lands future taxpayers with a bill, so diverting money from future generations to the present. Inflation is effectively a flat tax: if we “print” an additional 1% of money, we are reducing the value of everybody’s savings and wages by 1% - an “inflation tax” that falls as heavily on the poor as it does on the rich (except that rich people are more likely to own commodities or foreign assets that are inflation proof, so inflation may actually be regressive). It also creates imbalances in the economy that will lead to further crises in the future.

Secondly, it makes no difference that this is supposedly “investment” rather than mere “spending”. It is certainly true that this sort of government spending will ensure that “once this recession is over, we [will] have something to show for the money we borrowed.” I have a house to show for the money I borrowed in December, but it does not follow that I made a sound “investment”. Had my internal chancellor not borrowed and spent, my internal taxpayer would not now be saddled with debt.

As Adam Smith noted over two centuries ago, “What is prudence in the conduct of every private family can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom”. What is more, the fact that we can see what the borrowing has financed should not blind us to the fact that we cannot see the things that the borrowing has denied us: other investments will have been sacrificed. And finally, even spending on consumer fripperies stimulates long-term investment: if demand for MP3 players and trainers increases, so does investment in the production and retailing of these (so creating jobs) and in the infrastructure needed to move them about. Indeed, as taxes/inflation/borrowing tend to make it particularly hard for new businesses to arise, because capital formation (i.e. saving) is harder and credit is absorbed by government, new start-up businesses such as those marketing new solutions to environmental problems struggle to get off the ground. Big government spending may therefore be counter-productive even environmentally!

I also ought to add that members of other parties shouldn’t’ take too much pleasure in seeing me demolish my own party’s latest policy initiative. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives have exactly covered themselves in glory during the present economic crisis and both are participating in the flawed concensus politics outlined above. This article focuses on Liberal Democrat policy only because errors are doubly galling when they come from within one’s own camp and I would like to see the Lib Dems taking a braver, more distinctive and more honest approach to the current crisis that did not argue that more government can get us out of a problem that government made in the first place. The alternative norm of passing money through the hands of politicians instead of citizens has been Labour and Conservative policy for the last century and it has been a tragic disappointment.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Gordon Brown: Superhero!

Gordon Brown saves the world!

Tories: if it’s fun, ban it; if it delivers papers, spy on it!

The Conservatives sometimes like to think that they believe in freedom. I’m not entirely sure where they get this delusion, but I am always assured that sooner or later they will expose themselves as the paternalistic autocrats that they naturally are.

So a hat tip to Conservative Home for highlighting

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

The generosity of T-Mobile and other retailers

I received an email from T-mobile today telling me that they were kindly passing the 2.5% cut in the VAT rate on to their customers and I would see the reduction in my next bill. They are not the first to make this statement.

Excuse me, but is somebody a bit confused here?

T-mobile is not my bank. Nor are any of the retailers now offering to pass the VAT cut onto customers.

The 2.5% cut in the rate of VAT is not a shift in the rate at which they buy energy from the government, which they may then choose to pass on or not depending on their own whim and the details of my contract.

VAT is a tax on consumption of luxuries (at least in theory). In fact, at the bottom of every receipt it says how much of the bill is tax. Therefore, a cut in VAT should automatically be passed onto consumers.

In fact, it is not the phone company or the retailer that is charging me the 17.5% (or now 15%) VAT in the first place. It is government. So for the retailers to “not pass it on” they would have to raise their prices by just under 2.5%.

So let us thank T-mobile and other retailers for not taking the opportunity of a reduction in VAT to raise their prices in a manner that would either have left them individually less competitive or collectively guilty of operating a cartel.

CEBR forecast 30% rise in property prices

Why the Government’s plans to rescue the economy don’t seem to be working

The Times captures the mood perfectly: “The economy is plunging deeper into recession despite emergency tax cuts and the multibillion-pound bank bailout, the Bank of England said yesterday.”

What it fails to mention is that this is all utterly predictable and indeed inevitable. The reason that “Cutting the base rate to its lowest level in more than 50 years, the Bank said the outlook now was worse than a month ago, with manufacturing and consumer spending in sharp decline” is that cutting the base rate is not going to have much impact.

The base rate is just one driver of credit, and it is not by far the most important. What is more, it does not address the real problems in the economy, which is that the credit expansion of the last decade has fooled entrepreneurs into thinking that investments were viable when in fact they were not. In some cases, whole businesses will now need to be liquidated as reality crashes in on those who had been fooled by artificially-low interest rates.

Reducing interest rates again cannot solve the problem. Just as the first rule when one finds oneself in a hole is to stop digging, so the first rule when one finds oneself facing the inevitable crash following an inflationary spike is to stop inflating. Further interest cuts (as preached by all political parties) are simply attempts to stimulate more credit expansion, which means further inflation. This will lead to more poor decisions by entrepreneurs and more unviable businesses being created, expanded or propped up. That can only lead to an even bigger crisis in the long run.

“The Bank of England pinned much of the blame for the economy’s slide on the borrowing drought that high street banks have inflicted on consumers and businesses alike” according to The Times, but in doing so the Bank misses the point. The borrowing drought is the result of banks making sensible economic decisions in avoiding making the same kind of loans that got us into this mess in the first place.

For let’s be clear about this: the loans that the banks are currently proving reluctant to make are those that they fear may not be repaid; those that, in American parlance, are “sub-prime”. In a market where asset prices are falling, many homeowners are in negative equity and many businesses are destined for bankruptcy, further lending would not only be stupid, it would be irresponsible.

Far from cutting interest rates, the Bank of England should be raising them so as to reduce the demand for credit and increase the desire of savers to provide it. In doing so, it will not only redress the massive imbalance between saving and borrowing that has led the West to borrow trillions of dollars of the (thrifty) Asians as well as creating money through government-backed central banks, but it will also accelerate the reallocation of “factors of production” between unviable and viable industries. As a result, it might just make this a sharp but short recession, instead of another painfully-drawn-out one.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Henry Hazlitt on the so-called “free market”

I have recently been reading Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt, and this section from the end of Chapter XVI particularly caught my attention:

[B]y the greatest miracle of all, this postwar world of super-international controls and coercions is also going to be a world of "free" international trade! Just what the government planners mean by free trade in this connection I am not sure, but we can be sure of some of the things they do not mean. They do not mean the freedom of ordinary people to buy and sell, lend and borrow, at whatever prices or rates they like and wherever they find it most profitable to do so. They do not mean the freedom of the plain citizen to raise as much of a given crop as he wishes, to come and go at will, to settle where he pleases, to take his capital and other belongings with him. They mean, I suspect the freedom of bureaucrats to settle these matters for him. And they tell him that if he docilely obeys the bureaucrats he will be rewarded by a rise in his living standards. But if the planners succeed in tying up the idea of international cooperation with the idea of increased State domination and control over economic life, the international controls of the future seem only too likely to follow the pattern of the past, in which case the plain man's living standards will decline with his liberties.

So much for “peak oil”

It seems a long time ago, now, but just prior to the recent recession the price of oil reached new heights and wild predictions of $200 a barrel and more were flying around. At the time, many energy- and environment-pundits, including some among the Liberal Democrats, believing that we had now reached “Peak Oil”, that mythical time when the increase in our rate of consumption outpaces the increase in our rate of discovery and so initiates an accelerating decline in supply until the oil runs out and civilisation as we know it ceases to exist.

Those who talk about it often have a slightly excited look upon their faces, as though they cannot wait for the final cataclysm to come so that they can say “I told you so” as the cities begin to go up in flames and people collect together in small bands to try to eke out some semblance of survival in the mountains.

They appear to have gone rather quiet recently, however. Once again, “peak oil” has turned out to be nothing more than a foothill in the great undulating range of energy prices. Oil prices have fallen by two thirds in the past six months to end up $100 a barrel below their Summer peak at just $50 a barrel.

Of course, peak oil is nonsense anyway. Firstly, it is based upon a deliberate obfuscation of known, economically viable reserves on the one hand, and what is in fact under the crust on the other: oil companies only list the reserves that they have so far identified, and they do not list reserves that are, at current prices, too expensive to be viable, while at a higher price they would be worth drilling for. As Russell Lewis explains,

Oil reserves are never remotely equivalent to all the oil in the earth’s crust.
The proven reserves are what the oil companies have decided to look for and
which are known to be exploitable under prevailing technical and economic
conditions. They are designed to provide the oil industry’s working inventory of
oil stocks. There is a limit to the amount of money the oil companies can spend
on searching for more or deeper wells because prospecting and drilling are
expensive, and there are other competing obligations which affect their
long-term profits, such as advertising, marketing, research, building refineries
and distribution. The best indicator of whether oil is getting scarcer is its
price, and though prices have risen sharply in the last two years [and bearing
in mind that this was written before the collapse in prices in the last six
months], that fact does not necessarily point to a long-term upward trend.
This does not mean that oil could never run out, however. That is left to the price mechanism. As the supply of oil diminishes, the price will inevitably rise. This will not, however, trigger a mad rush to capture ever shrinking reserves until the oil economy collapses; rather, it will lead to a steady rise in prices that will encourage greater efficiency, spur research into make alternatives more cost-effective. For example, if fossil fuels quadrupled in price, wind turbines would be able to generate electricity more cheaply and so they would become a viable alternative. The increase also pushes up the cost of high-energy products and services (such as flights) and so discourages consumption. And finally, as we have already seen, rising fuel costs encourage consumers to pay more attention to the miles-per-litre that their car can achieve and so encourage producers to invest in more efficient engines.

In fact, this last points to another flaw in the peak oil theory: it ignores human ingenuity. Even accepting that there is a set amount of oil, it is irrelevant to our ability to produce power from it. By inventing an engine that is twice as efficient, or a new means of producing plastics that requires half and many hydrocarbons, we have effectively doubled the amount of fuel available even if we have the same number of litres. If we invent alternative technologies, lakes of oil are made available for the remaining needs. In truth, we will never run out of oil, because before that ever happens human action and rising prices will have rendered oil surplus to requirements.

So the next time you see that fuel prices are rising and hear somebody mutter about peak oil, you can rest assured that new research is underway that will soon bring prices back down, and that there is plenty of oil left under the ground. More, in fact, than we will ever need.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Queen's Speech a textbook example of meddling and failure

Today’s Queen’s Speech is another fine example of government meddling and failure.

One Bill after another is being introduced to interfere with people’s legitimate freedoms and try to paper over the cracks in their interventionist system.

I have recently written on the phenomenon that government intervention is doomed to fail and that in doing so it encourages further intervention as governments try to repair the unintended consequences of their own legislation. Clear examples of this are to be found in the Queen’s Speech.

There is too much in the speech, and there is too much as yet unclear, to make a comprehensive attack on the Labour agenda for 2008-9, but the following is an analysis of some of the problems raised.

Business Rate Supplements Bill

The proposals to enable upper tier local authorities and the Greater London Authority to levy a supplement on their business rates, and use this to promote economic development, have a certain charm in that they restore a tiny modicum of tax-raising discretion to local authorities (though not, infuriatingly, to the 32 London Boroughs!).

Of course, any wise local authority would exercise the better part of discretion and not exercise the power. Increasing business rates by up to 2p in the pound will simply squeeze business profits, putting some out of business, driving others away and reducing the ability of the remainder to invest in capital goods (including training) that improve their productivity (and thus the wages of staff). The money raised will never achieve the level of “economic development” that would otherwise be achieved by individuals allocating resources based on their own priorities (a level of information detail that no government can hope to emulate) but will instead be wasted on schemes that appeal to legislators and those who are best able to influence them. It will replace the freedom, efficiency and effectiveness of the market with imperfect politicised outcomes.

Interestingly, the Bill makes provision for allowing businesses to vote on any proposals. It must be assumed that this vote will not be extended to those businesses (with rateable values of less than £50,000) that will not be taxed, as representation without taxation would just allow them to pillage the profits of their more-successful rivals.

It does raise an interesting question, however: why not allow Council Tax payers a similar freedom: a plebiscite enabling them to veto any council policy that would be funded primarily by local taxation. That would certainly put the wind up spendthrift officers and councillors.

Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill

The devil is in the word “Construction”. Little detail is available on this one, but it does appear to include provisions for a more level playing field for construction businesses, particularly smaller local ones, in construction contracts. Whether this is more anti-success regulation is unclear, but considering the onerous costs that businesses and authorities already have to incur putting tenders through OJEU and other legal competitiveness tests, this can only be detrimental to business. Fairness is best achieved through a free market, where those that discriminate against providers for any reason other than efficiency will be forced to pay higher prices for poorer goods or services and so will see their businesses suffer.

Saving Gateway Accounts Bill

The government’s plan to establish a Saving Gateway scheme, administered and approved by HMRC, with the government “matching” every pound saved with 50p from government up to a maximum of £300 (not the “matching” that Anglophones will be familiar with!), is old-fashioned redistribution of wealth with an added paternalistic twist: the poor must “do the right thing” – by which Labour means save money in bank accounts – to earn their redistributed wealth.

Glossing over questions about the sense of or justification for transferring wealth, this is bad legislation for two reasons: firstly, because it creates a massive dead-weight cost in that the government will have to pay people who would have saved the money anyway; and secondly because it will encourage rent-seeking as people make arrangements to borrow-to-save, for example by borrowing on credit cards (at rates of, say, 25% or 30%) knowing that there is a guaranteed profit of 50% in the first year.

Children, Skills and Learning Bill

The Children, Skills and Learning Bill promises to enforce compliance with the Standard Teachers’ Pay and Conditions Document. The very existence of this document is a problem, as the setting of national standards across England ignores the different costs of living and levels of supply and demand, and further undermines educational independence. At worst, it could see pay and conditions set at too low a level to attract staff to some areas, while being unnecessarily generous (with the resources of local taxpayers) in others.

It also creates a statutory entitlement to apprenticeships for all those suitably qualified by 2013. Unless the meaning of “apprenticeship” has changed, this is idiotic. Apprenticeships involve qualified individuals working for established providers so as to learn on the job; the government cannot increase the number of apprenticeships beyond the demand among qualified workers for apprentices. The proposed duty on the Learning and Skills Council to provide apprenticeship places may easily morph into the provision of further course-based training, which would defeat the supposed purpose.

Policing and Crime Bill

A bill to protect vulnerable groups, particularly women and children, may seem welcome at first. But one has to wonder at a government that considers 51% of the population to be a “vulnerable group” simply because of their gender!

The main problem with this bill is the plans to tighten regulations on lap dancing clubs and the sale of alcohol. Lap dancing clubs are places where consenting adults go to watch other consenting adults perform erotic dances; it should have nothing to do with the government what these individuals (or groups) choose to do. Similarly, government has no business interfering with the right of businesses to sell, or adults to buy and consume, alcohol. As I have noted before, this kind of legislation is never directed at our claret-swilling elites, but at those whom they see as they look down their wine-flushed noses.

Where there are ancillary problems (for example, anti-social behaviour in the environs of the club or pub) they should be dealt with in their own right,

Marine and Coastal Access Bill

The Marine and Coastal Access Bill continues the assault on private property by forcing property owners to allow trespassers to walk over their land simply because they happy to have bought property adjacent to the sea. If the proposal was applied to all properties, so that ramblers may cross anyone’s land at will, it would be fair, but it would also be as welcome as the Poll Tax.

Constitutional Renewal Bill

Finally, something good in the government’s proposals. Thank heavens they are finally repealing their own, oppressive legislation. One law down, 10,000 more to go!