Don’t Be Evil

Do you remember when we had that big scandal surrounding MP’s expenses? And we found out all the crazy things they had been claiming for? And then they said that it was ok because their claims had been within the letter of the law?

I can’t help but spot the irony when, in more recent weeks, companies such as Google, Amazon and eBay have been summoned in front of MP committees to explain why, in spite of lots of sales, they have managed to pay so little tax in the UK.

“We’ve paid every penny according to the letter of the law!” They claim.

“But it wasn’t in the spirit of the law!” Say the MPs (who have presumably found some kind of salvation in the intervening months).

Since their dodgy expense claims were exposed, MPs seem to have had developed a sudden fetish for these televised committees in which they, (the goodies) can heap their new-found morality on the baddies – G4 security, the BBC, the newspapers, tax savvy multinationals etc. But has the fastening of these people in the metaphorical stocks, while our MPs throw their metaphorical rotten vegetables really achieved anything?

I’ll be clear – I don’t think Google et al should get away with paying so little in tax but this mock outrage from MPs gets my goat. Should we really be that surprised that a company turns out to be a bit of a shit just because their motto says, “Don’t be evil”?

It’s a nice thought but in reality it is simply unreasonable to assume that when you have tax loopholes in your system, someone (most likely a big and powerful someone) won’t take advantage of them. Companies will look at what the negative publicity will cost their shareholders and will look at what the reduced taxes will give their shareholders and they will make their decision based on that. If they didn’t they would be being negligent to their shareholders.

There is, of course, one way for our MPs to address this and that is to close those loopholes. These companies sell a lot of stuff here and make an awful lot of profit here. If the laws of the land don’t turn any of these profits into tax revenues then it is time to change the laws of the land and guess who makes them?

It’s up to our government to make sure that the loopholes are closed and it is fairly daft to expect these companies to pay tax that they could legally avoid because of “morality”. Yes, I’m sure our MPs all feel like paragons of virtue when they sit on their committees but let’s all be sensible here – these companies are concerned with profits, not morality and to be honest why shouldn’t they be?

When the UK has exploitable tax laws then it is the duty of our MPs to make them non-exploitable, not to faff around trying to play the morality card. And while we’re on that subject let’s be brutally honest here – given their history, these guys have absolutely no right to play that card.


The Immigration Fallacy

Immigration has been a hot topic recently. UKIP, (who seem to be founded on nothing more than the principal that British people are the best), did extremely well at the recent local elections. The Conservatives then panicked and decided that UKIP’s popularity showed that they must become even more tough on Europe and immigration themselves.

(Ed Miliband, being as always one headline behind everyone else, proposed a government subsidy for the living wage.)

I don’t think that Ed’s policy has much going for it but that’s not the subject of this blog. Today I’d like to talk about immigration – or more specifically the main arguments against it. They seem to fall into two categories:

  • Immigrants steal our jobs!
  • Immigrants just live on benefits and don’t contribute to the economy!

I’ll take each in turn…

Immigrants steal our jobs!

The arguments goes something like this.

In the UK we have net immigration – that is, we have more people arriving to live here than we have people leaving the UK to live elsewhere. The people who arrive from overseas take jobs away from those who were born here.

It’s understandable how you would draw that conclusion. Imagine a country who has a working-age population of 20 million people of whom 1 million are unemployed. Over the next five years the working age population increases by 500,000 due to immigration. At the end of the five years there will be 1.5 million unemployed people and because people move into and out of work during this time, lots of the immigrants will have jobs and those jobs will have come at the expense of a lot of the people who had jobs before those immigrants arrived.

Simple enough, right?

Wrong. Things are not that simple. It is, in fact, perfectly possible to add people to the working-age population without increasing unemployment. How? Trickery? Sleight of hand? Government statistics? No.

During the 20th Century, the UK population increased by about 21m people. We have, in fact been adding more people without increasing unemployment for a very long time. When we add more people to the economy, more goods are made and more services are provided and this leads to economic growth and to the creation of more jobs. It is easy to think of the economy as having a finite number of jobs and employment as a “one-in, one-out” market but that is not the case.

A much more useful way of looking at it would be this:

For every 100 people I add to the population, by how much does unemployment change?

Or to move the argument back to immigration:

For every 100 immigrants I add to the population, by how much does unemployment change?

It’s an intriguing question. Fortunately, NIESR has done the analysis and guess what they found out?

(UKIP, Tories, Daily Mail – you might want to look away now.)

The results show a very small negative and generally insignificant correlation between the migrant inflow rate and the change in the claimant count rate. A hypothetical example can help give a sense of how small this coefficient really is. A 2 percentage point increase in the migrant inflow rate, akin in magnitude to the large and sudden inflow of A8 migrants in the years 2004-2006, would, according to these estimates, be associated with a fall in the claimant count rate in the order of only 0.02 percentage points.

I don’t think I am doing them a disservice here if I summarise that if we are worried about unemployment, we can quickly exclude immigration as a significant factor. The effect is nigh on nothing.

(UKIP, Tories, Daily Mail – you can look again now, it’s gone.)

Let’s look at the second argument.

Immigrants just live on benefits and don’t contribute to the economy!

Well that would account for the fact that immigrants don’t take people’s jobs. Perhaps they just turn up, don’t attempt to get a job and just claim benefits?

You might believe that if you base your beliefs on what you read in certain newspapers but the reality is clearly going to be more complicated. A better way of looking at this question would be:

Is the overall contribution of immigrants to the economy positive or negative?

Fortunately the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration have done a comprehensive study that answers this question.

(UKIP, Tories, Daily Mail – you might want to look away now.)

Yes, it’s positive. They found that immigrants on average paid 30% more into the economy via taxes than they took out through public services. But not only was it positive – the analysis found that on average, immigrants contribute more and take away less than non-immigrants. Jonathan Portes discusses it very well here.


So what can we conclude? Firstly, we have very good data that shows that not only does immigration not increase unemployment but also that immigration does boost the UK economy. Although the UK economy is doing badly at the moment it isn’t the fault of immigrants – we would actually be doing even worse if it weren’t for them.

Given this, it’s bizarre that these days we always seem to find ourselves surrounded by politicians wanting to show how “tough” they are on immigration. Given the facts it’s hard to understand – but when were politicians ever concerned by those?

The UK economy is in the longest depression in living memory, longer by far than The Great Depression of the 1930s and throughout it, unemployment has remained stubbornly high.

When such a situation occurs people naturally want to look around for someone to blame and, shameful as it is, politicians have done their upmost to direct that rage onto immigrants (and the recipients of benefits). But why would they do that, given that such a campaign is completely contradicted by the facts?

To win votes by explaining the benefits of immigration takes more time and effort than it does to win votes by saying that immigrants are job-stealers and benefit scroungers.

Politicians care far less about doing the right thing and far more about winning easy votes

Oh, and regarding why they want to blame these easy targets specifically for the depression? Well that one’s easy – the depression was created by the politicians themselves.


A Problem of Politics

I don’t have children. I’ll be honest – I don’t like them very much. Many of my friends however, hold the opposing view and over the past four or five years, I have seen many of them pair off and then unfortunately, find out what happens when they combine their DNA with one another.

Before Christmas, I was out with a few such couples and their resultant chimera and at some point during the meal, two of the latter had a minor disagreement over toy-ownership and proceeded to attack one another. Their parents quickly broke up the melee and each offspring was separately told that if they behaved in such a way, Father Christmas would not bring them any presents. The threat had the desired effect and good behaviour was quickly restored.

Sometimes I wonder how future generations will look back on how we dealt with the current economic crisis. As I have mentioned on here before, I don’t think we are now dealing with an economic problem – the economics that would have engineered a recovery long ago are well understood – what we are dealing with now is purely a political problem.

At the moment we have a right-wing government whose political ideals are to seek a smaller government sector. In certain economic circumstances that kind of ideal is easier to achieve than it is in others. At the moment, as we have seen, achieving it is very difficult. When the economy has high unemployment, low demand and interest rates at the zero lower bound, cuts to public spending will not be offset, in the short-term by increases in private spending. That is, if the government makes a bunch of civil servants redundant, the private sector won’t immediately expand and give them jobs. The private sector will probably eventually adjust and take them on but that could take (and has already taken) years  to happen. While we wait for that adjustment to occur people remain unnecessarily unemployed and long term damage is done to both the well-being of those people and the economy as a whole.

As I’ve mentioned more than a few times in the past, cutting government spending under such circumstances is nothing other than negligent but if the economics says one thing, how can the government continually get away with doing the opposite? It’s not an easy question but I think I have an answer. My answer is simply the difference between economics and politics:

  • Economics is a discipline that helps us to understand the best policies to pursue in order to improve the economy
  • Politics is a discipline that helps its proponents win the next general election

But surely they would align themselves? Surely the easiest way to get elected at the next election would be to fix the economy? Right?


Let’s take ourselves back to the story with which I started this post. My friends could have dealt with it by explaining to each of their spawn, the importance of sharing and two individuals working together to achieve the best overall outcome for both parties. Or they could just say that Father Christmas wouldn’t turn up.

The former is a harder message to convey. The latter was much less effort to explain and much less effort for their audience to understand.

It’s the same with the economy. Explaining to people why cutting spending leads to more debt is a hard sell because it involves giving the public a basic understanding of macroeconomics and while it is only a basic one they need, it is still far easier to do this:

  • The previous government went on a spending binge that caused all of this!
  • Our country is just like an indebted household!
  • We need to immediately pay off our debts in order to recover!

And that’s an easy sell. None of those things are actually true but the truth is harder for people to understand.

Democracy has a lot going for it but never for a moment believe it’s perfect. Look at the range of subjects over which a voter has to preside. The economy, education, foreign policy, immigration, the environment, health, crime. The list goes on and on. These are not simple things to understand and yet we are all asked to decide on them every time we vote.

Politicians could spend lots of time explaining these things to people and honestly giving the pros and cons of a particular policy but it’s much easier to just go ahead and do what they want and then give us a few simple, misleading soundbites as to why it is right. When you look at it in these terms it isn’t hard to understand why politics continually fails us so badly.

It’s not just the government though. A big part of UKIP’s recent successes is because they understand this and do it better than anyone else. They say that climate change is all made up. That’s much easier than explaining that driving an SUV burns a lot of petrol and that when petrol is burnt one of the consequences is releasing carbon-dioxide into the atmosphere and that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causes a reduction in the amount of the sun’s energy that is reflected away from the Earth and that such a reduction causes the temperature of the planet to increase. And even if you got that far, you haven’t even started on the consequences of that temperature increase.

Immigration is another example. An easy sell is telling the electorate that the economy is broken because there are hoards of foreigners arriving on our shores every day and stealing our jobs or sitting around claiming benefits. Although that isn’t true, it is much harder to educate the public on all of the very real economic benefits of immigration and so the xenophobic soundbites win and such policies become popular and everyone loses out because of them.

Our politicians owe us more than this. They should appreciate the weaknesses in the democratic system and make it their absolute duty to clearly explain the realities of the situations that we face. They should not, as they do currently, exploit the weaknesses in the democratic system for their own gains.

So anyway, what then became of my friends’ recently-created miscreants? Well they took onboard the threat, behaved as they were told and got their Christmas presents (none from me, I might add). That said, three years after the country chose to go along with the current government’s economic plan, our Christmas presents still haven’t shown up.

And when we look at what politicians are all about, should we really be surprised?


The Things We Used to Know

Last weekend when discussing the Reinhart-Rogoff mess I wrote this:

We never needed “new cutting edge research” to solve this problem. The problem we have and the solutions to it are all covered in the first year of an undergrad economics degree.

On the following Tuesday (Economics Nobel Laureate) Paul Krugman, on the same subject, wrote this:

Econ 101 macroeconomics, as I often point out, has worked pretty well…The point is that radical new theories haven’t been needed at all; off-the-shelf economics, tools we already had, provided plenty of guidance.

He probably reads my blog.

So what are those things that first-year economics students know that should have stopped the depression happening? Before we look at those, let’s step back in history and remember how we got here:

The Financial Crisis

  • Banks borrowed lots of money and then lent it out, a lot of it to risky borrowers
  • Banks also encouraged individuals to build up debt through cheap loans and credit cards
  • This not only led to a huge increase in private debt, it helped fuel a housing bubble in much of the developed world
  • The banks had no plan-B if the housing bubble burst
  • The housing bubble burst
  • Oops

When people couldn’t make their debt repayments the banks suddenly became insolvent. Governments borrowed huge sums of money to bail them out and prevented a full collapse of the global banking system but were left with weak economies and high debt. Due to high levels of personal debt, rising unemployment and an all round lack of confidence in the economy, people switched very quickly from spending to paying off debt and saving. In the economy, my spending is your income and your spending is my income. Spending disappeared and a severe recession resulted.

Turning a Recession into a Depression

Governments initially responded by cutting interest rates. Low interest rates make saving less attractive and spending more attractive and in a normal recession this is enough to engineer a recovery. This was not an ordinary recession though and governments found that even with interest rates at almost zero, people continued to save and pay down debt rather than go back to spending. Low interest rates were not enough to fix the economy.

As any first-year economics student can tell you though, monetary policy is not the only tool a government has to boost growth. If the people don’t want to spend, the government can increase spending and fill the gap. Many governments, either through incompetence or the blind pursuit of their political ideals did the opposite and cut spending, which had the predictable effect of exacerbating the problem.

Governments likened their situation to that of an indebted household who must pay off their debt as fast as possible but the analogy, although easy for the public to understand, was disingenuous. In the economy spending and income are two sides of the same coin and in an economy suffering from a lack of demand from the private sector, cutting government spending was only ever going to lead to one thing.

A recession, which we had all of the knowledge and tools to turn into a recovery, turned instead into a depression. Here’s what happened in the UK when the current government took over and slashed public spending. The green diamond shows the point when they were elected:

UK Depression

UK Depression

The amazing thing is that this is all basic, textbook macroeconomics. It is hard to comprehend how the government could try the opposite of what this stuff said they should do and then, when the economy entered depression, just sit around scratching their heads wondering why things didn’t work out.

But anyway – the damage is done now and the government would commit political suicide if they ever admitted that their policies, far from creating a recovery, had in fact caused a wholly unnecessary economic depression. From the day they chose austerity in the face of basic economics, they have had only one way forward: Wait until the economy sorts itself out anyway and then market this as absolution. I’ve come to terms with that now but I really hope we could all at least agree on this:

In 20, 30, or 40 years time when then next big recession happens, could we all take a look back on this period in history when our politicians, with their poo-pooing of basic economics, failed us so badly? Could we all take a look back on this period in history and say that we will never again make mistakes such as these? Let’s instead choose those basic economic rules that have, during this depression, continually got things right.

Let’s remember the things we used to know.


Excel Mistakes are the Least of our Worries

If you follow economics outside of this blog you will no doubt have seen this week’s big hoo-har about Reinhart-Rogoff (R-R). In case you haven’t I’ll explain what happened.

About three years ago, two Harvard Economists published a paper that concluded that when a country’s debt to GDP ratio exceed 90% it caused the country to experience significantly lower economic growth (actually on average a recession). Paul Krugman describes the subsequent events here but essentially there were two immediate problems with the paper:

Correlation and Causation

A very common problem in statistics is confusing correlation and causation. Correlation between two factors means that as one changes the other does too. Causation between two factors means that as one changes it causes the other to change. This might seem like a small difference but it isn’t. It is very important.

This is more easily explained with an example. If you were to plot on a map of Great Britain the location of every mobile phone mast and then were to plot the locations that children were conceived, you would get a striking correlation. This does not mean that mobile phone masts cause conception and it doesn’t mean that conception causes mobile phone masts. What is actually going on is that both conceptions and mobile phone masts are more likely to occur in areas of high population density. However, if you didn’t know the difference between correlation and causation you could easily, (and wrongly) conclude from your research that mobile phone masts increased fertility.

There is another problem in implying causation from correlation. Even if there is a causal relationship it could run either way. Do mobile phone masts cause increased birth rates or do increase birth rates cause mobile phone masts? In the case of the R-R paper, not only did they decide there was a causal relationship in the correlation, they decided that it was high debt that caused low growth without entertaining the possibility that low growth might cause higher debt.

This was problem number one.

Peer Review

Problem number two was that with the same set of data, no one else could reproduce the result showing some special tipping point at 90%. Lots of people tried it but no matter what they did, they couldn’t reach the same conclusion that R-R managed and because R-R had not published their workings no one knew how they’d reached that conclusion.

This was problem number two.

So move on three years to the current day and what has happened? Well in the interim, pretty much every austerity advocate had used this paper as proof of why austerity must be pursued at all costs. But this week after many requests, Reinhart and Rogoff released the Excel spreadsheet they’d made and on which they had based their findings. Oops.

In addition to the previous problems there were three more very obvious problems with their workings.

Cherry-Picked Data

The analysis that R-R did was not over all of the available data. Oddly they had chosen to exclude specific countries’ performance in specific years with no explanation as to why they had done it. Worse still, if you included them the magic 90% threshold disappeared.

Bizarre Weighting

In coming to their overall conclusion, R-R weighted certain results higher than other results using a method behind which no one can quite understand the motivation. Weight the results using any conventional means and guess what? The magic 90% threshold disappears.

Excel Error

Most embarrassing of all was that there was a basic Excel error in the spreadsheet – they’d averaged over a column of numbers and got the range wrong so missed a bunch of the numbers out of the average. Guess what happens if you correct it? Yep.

As Paul Krugman concludes in his article on all of this:

So will toppling Reinhart-Rogoff from its pedestal change anything? I’d like to think so. But I predict that the usual suspects will just find another dubious piece of economic analysis to canonize, and the depression will go on and on.

And this is really the important point. The R-R paper only ever became as famous as it did because it told the “usual suspects” what they wanted to hear. It gave them some kind of economic credibility on which to base the policies that they wanted to implement anyway. R & R shouldn’t be blamed for all of the ways in which their paper was used – politicians and the media should take some of that, especially when there were so many question marks over it from the start.

But the real thing I conclude from the whole debacle is simply this. When the crisis struck, governments had the option to follow the economic lessons we had learnt from the past. Lessons which had solved previous crises like The Great Depression of the 1930s.

But they chose not to.

They chose instead to pursue the things they wanted to do anyway and then cherry-pick any bit of research they could find to support it, irrespective of how many glaring problems it might have hanging over it. In all of this, until this week, the R-R paper was really their most coveted prize.

So what have we seen in the intervening days since the paper’s public demolition? We have seen the stimulus crowd publicly claiming a massive victory over the austerity crowd and while that might well be the case, I again worry we might miss the important point here. What we’re doing here is arguing over one piddly little paper that gained fame because it formed a new economic theory that supported the policies of austerity. But that paper really should never ever have become as big as it did.

We never needed “new cutting edge research” to solve this problem. The problem we have and the solutions to it are all covered in the first year of an undergrad economics degree. Yes, if a couple of Harvard economists come up with a new idea we should have a look at it but when it clearly had such big, unexplained problems from the outset, how could governments (ours included) end up basing their fiscal policy on it?

I mean – would it really be so ridiculous to go with the things we actually know?


Why Trade Makes Us All Better Off

When I was just a small rabbit, I received a computer game as a Christmas present from my parents. It was good – I played it for six months or so and pretty much played it to death. Another boy in my class had also received a game for Christmas and just like me he had also played his to death.

Seeing an opportunity, I suggested we trade them. Computer games are expensive and neither of us, with our limited supply of pocket money, could simply buy all the ones we’d like so a trade would benefit both of us. We would each lose a game in which we had little remaining interest but we would each gain a new game that we hadn’t played before. We each valued the other’s game more than our own and so we agreed to trade.

On returning home from school with a new computer game, my mum was immediately suspicious.

“Where did you get that?”

“From Malcolm.” *

“He lent it to you?”

“No, I traded it for the game you bought me for Christmas.”

My mum was not happy. It was a Christmas present, she said. I shouldn’t be trading presents that people had given me. She was cross. After Mrs Rabbit, my mum is the greatest person I’ve ever met but (also like Mrs Rabbit) making her angry is a bad idea. Oh well, lesson learnt.

Only the lesson hadn’t been learnt. In hindsight, this was a rare occasion when my mum got it wrong. After the trade, Malcolm* and I were both better off. We each had a new game to play and we each got another six months of enjoyment from playing them that we would otherwise have not had. I can understand the concern if there had been some emotional attachment such as if we’d traded family heirlooms or swapped cats but the computer games had no emotional investment from anyone other than ourselves.

(On a side note, I wish I had swapped our cat. It was a complete wanker.)

The other day I wrote a post about George Osborne’s recent speech on the need to cut benefits. One of the parts I took issue with said this:

We’re facing more and more competition from vast new economies like China and India. There are quite literally billions of people who are joining the world economy. That’s human progress. If we’re not careful, Britain risks being out-worked, out-competed and out-smarted by those hungry for a better life.

And the reason I took issue with it is that it suggests that the better that other countries do the worse we’ll do. Like there is a limited amount of “economy” to go around and if the Chinese get a bit more they’ll be taking that bit away from us!

It really does not work like this and George actually acknowledges this when it suits him. Ask him why our economy is weak and it’s all the fault of our European neighbours. The idea that Britain would be better off if all other countries were unsuccessful could not be further from the truth.

There’s a wonderful economics experiment a primary school teacher can do with her class that demonstrates this and it works as follows:

1. You get a bunch of children’s books (you need one per child).

2. You say that after this lesson there will be a special reading time where the children will each get to read a new book.

3. You distribute the books at random so each child has a book.

4. You ask them to each rate out of 10 how much they want to read the book they have during the special reading time.

5. You note down the results.

6. You give them 5 minutes in which they are allowed to swap books with one another if they wish to do so. It is important to point out that

a) they don’t have to swap if they don’t want to

b) swaps should only take place when both parties agree

c) they can swap as many times as they like within the time limit

7. After the swaps are done you again ask them to each rate out of 10 how much they want to read the book they now have.

What you will find is that the average score out of 10 is significantly higher the second time around. Why is that? Because the kids will only do a trade if there is a  gain for both of them. Supposing Child A has “The Gruffalo” and Child B has “The Mole Who Knew It Was None Of His Business.” Child A thinks poo is funny and Child B doesn’t (idiot). So before the trade Child A rates his book as a 7 out of 10 and Child B rates her book as a 3 out of 10. After the trade Child A rates his book as a 10 and Child B rates hers as a 6.

Note that Child B doesn’t think her book is the best in the world but she’d rather read it than read about a mole who spends the entire story wandering around with a (spoilers) dog poo on his head.

Anyway, the important thing is that both children are better off and the trade would not have happened unless both of them would have been better off.

It’s a brilliant exercise because it demonstrates why trade in the real world is so important. Take a look at Abu Dhabi for example. Abu Dhabi has lots of oil. Without trade, Abu Dhabi would be a poor country but with trade they are very rich. Lots of other countries want to use more oil than they can produce themselves and Abu Dhabi can produce lots more oil than they want to use themselves.

On the other hand Abu Dhabi isn’t very good at making the machinery and vehicles needed to get the oil out of the ground and to its destination. Luckily there are other countries who are good at that so rather than having to try to build all that themselves they can get it through trade with other countries.

Anyway, what I’m saying is that when one of our overseas friends gains economic growth it is not something we should fear. Instead we should see a marvellous opportunity for us to increase our trade with them and make both of us better off.

Sadly it seems that all George sees is another reason to cut benefits for poor people.


* His name wasn’t really Malcolm. I’ve never actually met anyone called Malcolm. He looked like a “Malcolm” though.

Could the Real Opposition Please Stand Up?

It seems to me that the Labour Party are having a bit of trouble getting their message across, whatever it is. We know they don’t like the government’s policies but in most instances it’s very hard to get clarity on exactly what they would do instead.

The government is clearly polling badly but I fear that much of that is more that the public think they’re rubbish rather than the alternative is especially good. I know it is the opposition’s role to oppose but I would like to think they would also be offering specific and clear alternative policies to those of the government. I know for example they believe that the government has cut too far and too fast but I’m not sure exactly what they would do instead.

On Tuesday, Ed Miliband launched the Labour Party’s local election campaign with a speech that would give him the perfect platform to give us some details. As you probably noticed, Ed managed to coincide his speech with the death of Margaret Thatcher. For a party leader who has severe trouble getting his message across this was fantastically unfortunate. What was surely destined to be the top story on the evening news was reduced to a couple of minutes at the end. As Margaret’s spirit descended from this world to the next, I’m sure that last achievement put a smile on her face.

But anyway, Maggie aside, was the speech actually any good? I don’t really think it was. He did an ok job of criticising some of the government’s failures on the economy, their income tax for rich people and their linking of the Philpott case to the need for welfare reform but again, their was precious little about specifically what policies Labour would implement instead.

We were given one new policy – the power for councils to ban new pay-day lender shops from opening in their areas:

One of the fastest growing businesses on the high street are the payday lenders. In hard times, it is no wonder people turn to them. But often they just engulf people in debts that they cannot pay. Interest rates of over 1000 per cent. Of course we need national action to cap the cost of credit. But we also need local action too. Currently if a bank branch closes down, a payday loan shop can move in and open up in the same place. Even if there’s already a payday lender just down the street. And there’s nothing the local council can do. That can’t be right.

This policy is little more than a band-aid though. The deep-rooted economic and social problems that have, in recent years, caused people to turn more and more often to payday lenders are not addressed simply by preventing payday lenders opening new shops. Problems such as:

  • How can we return to a healthy economy so that real wages are not going down?
  • How can we make banks start lending again so that people actually have the option of more affordable borrowing?
  • How can we address poverty and inequality in our society?
  • How can we better educate the public in personal finance so that they don’t take loans that they cannot afford to maintain?

This is a complex problem requiring a non-simplistic solution. Simply preventing payday loan companies opening shops does not address any of the real issues and if people want a payday loan without a local shop, I doubt they will struggle to find it on the internet anyway.

At the next election I want an option to vote for a party who will have thought these things through properly and give me some sensible policies for which I can vote. Not a couple of “quick-fixes” that miss the very serious underlying issues that cause a problem like this.

This policy is just an example of a wider concern I have with the Labour party. The current government is truly abysmal and for any kind of well-organised alternative, they are there for the taking. If however, the alternative is a party who is not prepared to commit to specific policies that address the true problems I can’t see myself being motivated to get off my arse for them on election day.

Yes, that’s still two years away but the clock is ticking.

So, before it’s too late – could the real opposition please stand up?


Don’t Mention the Pension

Declan Gaffney talks much sense here, showing relative spending on benefits in 1980 and 2009 and wondering why basic information such as this seems to be almost completely absent from the debate on welfare. (I strongly recommend reading that.)

Anyway, I dug a bit deeper into the OECD figures to have a look at how spending on the various branches of benefit had changed during the period in question.

So what did I find? Did unemployment benefit shoot through the roof? Did incapacity benefit become unsustainable?

UK Public and Mandatory Private Cash Benefits (1980 - 2009)

UK Public and Mandatory Private Cash Benefits (1980 – 2009)

Nothing here looks remotely scary apart from spending on the elderly and that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise – people are living longer so the number of people who qualify for a old-age benefits is increasing.

It’s not hard to understand how this situation happens though. The government wants to reduce spending on benefits but needs to ensure they can spin it into being popular with the public. Convincing the electorate that people on JSA or incapacity benefit are all work-shy scroungers is a lot easier than mounting a campaign against pensioners. The Daily Mail will be with you all the way on the former. Probably not so keen on the latter.

By the way – I’m not suggesting they should mount a campaign against pensioners, I am simply pointing out that if the government is as serious as it says about making benefits sustainable, it’s probably the important area to think about.

Still, I’m not going to hold my breath. The government’s never going to expend much effort on a responsible debate regarding benefit costs for the elderly.

Not while the other people on benefits are such easy targets.




The Worst Speech Ever Made

Yesterday, George Osborne became the latest Tory politician to be sent out to demonise the poor and made, I think, one of the worst speeches I have ever heard. You can read the full transcript here if you like.

All done? Well then – allow me to retort.

Let’s look at what George said:

For too long, we’ve had a system where people who did the right thing – who get up in the morning and work hard – felt penalised for it, while people who did the wrong thing got rewarded for it.

Ok, so let’s get this out of the way quickly. If this were the case then why would people ever have had any incentive to work at all? If people were penalised for working and rewarded for avoiding work, people would not work. Something doesn’t add up and we can see that the statement from the chancellor is purely wrong by comparing how the value of job seeker’s allowance has faired relative to wages over the past 30 years. Jonathan Portes does just that here. As you can see, with JSA being pegged to inflation, and earnings increasing on average significantly quicker, that JSA has steadily fallen from 22% of average earnings in 1979 to 15% today. Work is more attractive relative to JSA today than at any time in the past.

Now, those who defend the current benefit system are going to complain loudly. These vested interests always complain, with depressingly predictable outrage, about every change to a system which is failing. I want to take the argument to them. Because defending every line item of welfare spending isn’t credible in the current economic environment. Because defending benefits that trap people in poverty and penalise work is defending the indefensible. The benefit system is broken; it penalises those who try to do the right thing; and the British people badly want it fixed. We agree – and those who don’t are on the wrong side of the British public.

I think this intentionally misrepresents what those of us who oppose benefit cuts are actually saying. I am not defending every line item of welfare. I don’t even know every line item. I’m sure it is not perfect and could be improved. I do dispute though that the benefit system is a significant factor in the reason that we have high unemployment. I don’t believe the reason that we do is that people who would otherwise be working are trapped, for the reasons I gave above.

But! I have vested interests!

Well let me divest them now.

I don’t receive any benefits. I am lucky enough to have a job. I “get up in the morning and work hard” and have never felt that the welfare system penalises me for doing so. My interests are:

  • I would like to live in a society that looks after the poor and the vulnerable
  • I believe that something as important as welfare should not be reformed based on misrepresentations and lies
  • I believe that pushing the poor and vulnerable further and further into poverty is more likely to trap them there than the alternative

But I’m on the wrong side of the British public!

Well, as FiatPanda points out here – the government’s way of measuring this is to say the least, underhand, misleading and dishonest. But should we be surprised that a large section of the public believes that benefits are evil? We have a government and a right-wing press who have mounted a huge campaign to convince the public that people on benefits are lazy scroungers. You’ve probably all seen the Daily Mail today right?

We’re facing more and more competition from vast new economies like China and India. There are quite literally billions of people who are joining the world economy. That’s human progress. If we’re not careful, Britain risks being out-worked, out-competed and out-smarted by those hungry for a better life.

Oh no! Jonny Foreigner is going to take all our jobs again! Except they won’t. When developing countries become developed countries we all benefit through increased trade and more jobs are created and we are all better off. China and India’s development is a huge opportunity for us to increase exports to those markets and boost growth. Well it would be if we had a government who could understand that, rather than thinking of these countries as foreign rivals who must be beaten at all costs.

By taking hard decisions in the last few years to save money, this Government has cut that deficit by a third.

I would phrase it as. “By making bad decisions coupled with dodgy accounting sleight-of-hand we have reduced the deficit by much less than we said we would and missed yet another economic target.”

Some politicians seem to think we can just wish away Britain’s debt problem. They want to take the cowardly way out, let the debt rise and rise and just dump the costs onto our children to pay off. I don’t think that would be fair. And I don’t think we’d get away with it. The interest charges would soar. Interest rates would rocket. People with mortgages would struggle. Businesses with loans would go bust. Jobs would be lost.

Again, George is intentionally misrepresenting his critics. There are countless people who have made very strong economic arguments as to why the government’s economic policy is flawed and have described sensible alternatives. Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, Jonathan Portes, David Blanchflower, Brad de Long, Martin Wolf etc. etc. are not “wishing debt away” when they use the discipline of economics to analyse the mess the government has created.

Oh, and interest rates would not soar – I covered that here and there is absolutely no economic basis for such a claim. Until recently we were told interest rates would soar if we were to lose our AAA credit rating. What happened when we did?

…one in every six pounds of tax that working people like you pay was going on working age benefits. To put that into perspective – that’s more than we spend on our schools. That’s one reason why we’ve got such a big deficit.

No it isn’t. The Labour government was running a surplus between 1997 and 2003 with the same benefits system. The reason we have such a big deficit is because the banks caused a huge financial crisis. Still, can’t blame the rich can we? Not when the poor are such easy targets.

So our reforms have one simple principle at their heart – making sure people are better off in work than on benefits.

But they already were! Just look at the figures! A million people didn’t decide when the financial crisis hit that unemployment benefit suddenly looked good and therefore quit their jobs.

When I took this job, I discovered there were some people who got £100,000 a year in Housing Benefit.

No evidence is given for this claim. No figures to show who they were, what their circumstances were or if they even really existed. But even if we take that claim at face value, it is hardly a reason to cut benefits for every single person who receives them. This again, is a thinly-veiled attempt to demonise the poor by taking the Daily Mail line that every one of them is a rich scrounger.

Some have said it’s the end of the welfare state. That is shrill, headline-seeking nonsense. I will tell you what is true. Taxpayers don’t think the welfare state works properly anymore. When did this start to happen? When we created a system that encouraged people to stay out of work rather than find a job.

Another gross misrepresentation of the facts. As we know, the system has over time seen unemployment benefit falling further and further behind working wages. The line about taxpayers not thinking it works is just more rhetoric designed to divide the country. I am a taxpayer and I don’t believe that the system encourages people to be out of work. If it did I would have chosen to be out of work.

Our reforms are returning welfare to its most fundamental principles – always helping the most vulnerable, but giving people ladders out of poverty.

So pay the vulnerable less money and they’ll just see the error of their ways and go out and get one of those freely available jobs? If you want to help people get back to work, fix the economy so there are some jobs for them to go to. The idea that people are just choosing to be unemployed at the moment is plainly stupid. There are no jobs because of a financial crisis caused in the banking sector but George seems to think it’s “fair” that the poor and vulnerable should foot the bill.

And here’s another change we’re making. On Saturday, the top rate of tax will be reduced from 50p to 45p… In a modern global economy, where people can move anywhere in the world, we cannot have a top rate of tax that discourages people from living here, setting up businesses here, investing here, creating jobs here. If you don’t believe me, ask France. They’re planning to whack up their top rate of tax – and you know what’s happening? Job creation is down as people are leaving the country. The opposite is happening here because we are welcoming entrepreneurs and wealth creators – and the jobs they bring with them.

So let me get this right. With income tax for rich people at 50%, the rich all go and live in Monaco but with income tax at 45% lots of rich people are all moving to the UK? That sounds suspicious. Perhaps we could have some evidence to back that claim up? Err…. no.

So this all seems like smoke and mirrors for something more sinister. Fortunately George went on to explain exactly what that was.

I’m a low tax Conservative. I believe what you earn is your money, not the Government’s money. So I want to take away less of it in tax, and leave you to spend it how you wish. Give me the choice between people choosing how to spend their own money, or a politician choosing how to spend it, and I know who I would pick. That’s good for the economy. That’s good for society – the more people get to keep from what they earn, the more likely they are to work, the more independent and responsible they will be.

As much as George would have you believe it, tax is not a fundamentally bad thing. It’s true we could do away with it and just pay for everything directly but where would that leave us?

A couple of months ago there was a massive pot-hole in my road. The council came along and filled it in, (paid for by taxes). Now we could say that we won’t pay taxes to cover road maintenance and when a pot-hole opens up in my road the residents will all club together and pay to repair it….

Oh, but wait a minute, I don’t have a car – I don’t care. I’m not going to pay for it. And actually most of the traffic coming down my road probably isn’t from people that live on it anyway. I receive the tiniest share of the pain from the pot-hole in my road, so why am I going to put money towards it? But then everyone will have this attitude and the pot-hole won’t get fixed and over time my road will fall to bits without anyone doing anything about it.

At the moment the council collects my rubbish, (paid for by taxes). We can pay for it individually ourselves but I suspect a lot of people, rather than pay individually to arrange to have it transported to the local landfill are just going to go out in the middle of the night and wang it in each other’s hedges.

Or how about the armed forces, (paid for by taxes)? The next time that there is a need for a peace-keeping force to protect citizens in a third world country beset by civil war, are we all going to have a whip round and see what kind of private army we can muster?

This is, of course, all nonsensical government spin. While it is easy to make it sound good that I should get my wages and then choose how it is spent, I don’t want to spend 100 hours a day deciding on how much I should be spending on the armed forces and how much I should spend on a hole in my road. Taxes have an absolutely essential place in any society and they are not just something that we can do without.

Taxes have another important benefit though, and it is this one that I think the chancellor was hoping to curb. The overall tax system is set so that someone who is rich pays more than someone who is poor. This allows redistribution of wealth within our society. Although through taxes we all paid for the pot-hole repair, or the peace keeping mission, or the NHS, or the police, the richest amongst us did contribute more and the the poorest amongst us did contribute less.

After a big speech on why we should cut benefits for the poor and vulnerable and why we should cut income tax on the richest few, (neither of which, as we’ve seen, had any factual basis), this point is really what it came down to:

The multi-millionaire George Osborne would like to prevent redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor.

And this man has the gall to say that I have a vested interest.


Economic Insanity

Earlier this week I wrote the short story, George’s Magical Mystery Tour, in which a bus driver called George refused to acknowledge the reason that his bus wouldn’t get up a hill, preferring instead to implement superficial changes to his bus in order to make it look like he was doing something.

Some of you may have spotted the subtle metaphor in my story. I was in fact making a hugely clever reference to the economy and the budget. So metaphor aside, why do I think this budget was so bad?

Let’s quickly recap the problem that we should be trying to solve. The UK is experiencing an economic depression. This means that the economy is operating significantly below potential for a sustained period without any sign of recovery.

Now you’d think that having presided over a depression that has already gone on significantly longer than the Great Depression of the 1930s this budget would be all about restoring growth. You’d think that but it wasn’t. In fact there was pretty much nothing in there at all that even attempted economic growth.

As the OBR pointed out in their budget report:

The Government has announced a number of policy measures that are expected to have a broadly neutral fiscal impact in aggregate between 2012-13 and 2017-18, with ‘giveaways’ almost exactly offsetting ‘takeaways’ over this period. Correspondingly, we also assume that they will have a broadly neutral effect on the economy, with no impact on the level of GDP at the end of the forecast horizon.

It seems incomprehensible but it really is the case. The government chose to implement a budget that would have no overall effect on economic growth.

That’s not to say it was entirely made up of bad ideas. The raising of the personal allowance to £10,000 will help out low earners and will increase economic growth because a large part of the extra cash in their pockets will be spent. It’s a very small amount though. The OBR forecast an effect on GDP of less than 0.1% and that, they pointed out, would be offset by other GDP reducing elements of the budget in any case.

Another good idea is giving tax breaks for child care. Lowering the cost of child care makes it more attractive for parents to work rather than stay at home looking after the kids themselves. However, at the moment the economy is suffering from a lack of jobs rather than a lack of people who want to work. Increasing the number of people who want to work will have a positive effect when the economy starts to recover but won’t do much to effect that recovery.

There was also a mind-numbingly bad idea in there called the Help to Buy scheme, which as Jonathan Portes from NIESR points out is nothing more than a taxpayer funded bank subsidy:

The government will offer banks a guarantee on high loan-to-value mortgages – mortgages for between 80% and 95% of property value – on existing as well as new houses, both for new borrowers and those wishing to refinance. If a borrower defaults, the first loss will fall not on the bank that made the loan, but on the taxpayer. And it is for banks to decide which of the qualifying mortgages they want to keep and which they think are sufficiently risky that they want to pass the first slice of credit risk on to taxpayers.

The economic rationale for designing a mortgage market intervention in this way is almost impossible to understand. There are well-known market failures in both the retail and wholesale markets for mortgages, so there’s plenty of scope for radical reform. But, instead of explaining what problem it is trying to solve and how, the Treasury has created yet another subsidy for banks. Worse still, the structure of the subsidy will weaken competition even further by propping up incumbent banks and perpetuating an unreconstructed housing finance market with fundamental weaknesses.

A bad economic idea from George Osborne is hardly big news these days though and although this one is particularly bad there was something far worse in the budget. Although no effort had been made in putting any sensible growth strategy in place, there was clearly a huge effort put into dodgy accounting tricks to make the deficit look smaller than it really is. Tim Harford does an excellent job of breaking that down here.

This really is the political equivalent of telling people that you’re cooking them a slap-up Sunday roast and then placing a small parsley sprig on top of some putrified road-kill. For George Osborne it is clearly the priority to put all efforts into making a failed strategy appear less of a failure than it really is, rather than diverting any effort into actually addressing the underlying problem.

Economically this is pure insanity – a budget that makes no attempt to move things in the right direction and every attempt to use every accounting fiddle to make it look like it actually is.

It’s abundantly clear that the government are now pinning all hopes on the economy just sorting itself out on its own. In spite of their policies that will happen one day but why not do something to make that day come sooner? Or more to the point, why didn’t they do it three years ago?

To be honest, after three years, I don’t know why this stuff still surprises me. Politically astute, economically insane – welcome to the UK.