Paste your Google Webmaster Tools verification code here

Budget 2021: The political consensus on low taxes could be completely wrong

Budget 2021: The political consensus on low taxes could be completely wrong

In the run up to most Budgets there is almost always one key question shaping debate: should the screws be tightened or the floodgates opened?

This time round, a near unanimous consensus has arisen. Taxes should not go up, for fear of jeopardising the recovery.  Even the Leader of the Labour Party has signed up to this view.

The last time economists and commentators appeared so united was in the years immediately prior to the financial crisis of the late 2000s.

The view was that a new economic paradigm had been established by the Great Helmsman, Gordon Brown.  Boom and bust, as he himself proclaimed, had been abolished.  Levels of debt were irrelevant, and growth would continue uninterruptedly for ever.

Only a few paid up members of the awkward squad dissented, but their voices were drowned out.

What about this time round?  Could the consensus be completely wrong again?

The UK government confronted both a huge level of public sector debt and a large annual deficit, boosting debt even higher, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.

The outstanding stock of debt relative to the size of the economy was even higher than it is now, at some 260 per cent of GDP.  The annual deficit was smaller, but was still large by historical standards, at some £125 billion (in today’s prices) in the first full year of peace, 1946.

The Labour government led by Clement Attlee is seen as being the most radical in British history.  It established the NHS and, as was then fashionable in left-wing circles, nationalised industries such as coal and rail.

But in its fiscal stance it was the very model of austerity.

The large deficit of 1946 was turned by 1948 into a surplus of some £85 billion (again at 2021 prices).  Similar surpluses were generated until Labour lost office in 1951.  Taxes were increased and public spending controlled.

Yet economic growth remained buoyant, at over 3 per cent a year in real terms, above the annual average over the entire post war period of 2.5 per cent.

In the decade of the 1950s, the Conservative government continued this, well, conservative fiscal approach, though not as dramatically as Labour had.  There was a public sector deficit, but it only averaged some £10 billion each year (at today’s prices), compared to the 2020 deficit of getting on for £400 billion.

Again, growth was not harmed, averaging 3.5 per cent over the 1950s as a whole.

The growth under both Labour and the Conservatives in the late 1940s and 1950s was driven by supply-side factors.

The government did not boost the economy. The private sector did. Corporate investment boomed to provide consumer goods, after being suppressed in favour of military spending during the Second World War.

This key historical episode suggests that higher taxes can slash massive public sector deficits with no harm to the economy.

But there is a big proviso.  The dynamic, wealth creating sectors must be shielded for rapid supply-led growth to take place.

As published in City AM Wednesday 3rd March 2021
Image: Budget Day by Number 10 via Flickr
Read More

Vaccine passports: a free market and plentiful pubs mean they won’t work in the UK

Vaccine passports: a free market and plentiful pubs mean they won’t work in the UK

As the country emerges slowly from lockdown, the debate over so-called vaccine passports gathers pace.

Yesterday, Matt Hancock confirmed Britain was looking into the proposition for international travel.

Countries such as Greece and Spain have a strong incentive to develop a system with us. Each attracts large numbers of British tourists in a normal year.

Whatever the details of the system might be, they would be monitored and enforced by officials at borders.  Despite potential bureaucratic inefficiencies and delays, it would work.

Could the idea be applied with the UK itself?

The Israelis are opening up their economy with vaccine passports.  But already almost half the population has been jabbed

Last spring, the idea of allowing the young to move about freely gained some traction at a high level in the UK.  Then, the argument was that there is very little health risk to them from the virus.  A key reason it was dropped was the obvious discrimination against older people.

The reverse argument applies now.  Younger people would feel justifiably aggrieved if regulations prevented them from enjoying freedom of movement granted to older, vaccinated people.

Mass testing, which the government is keen on, appears to resolve this age-related problem.  Freedom could be granted to anyone with either proof of vaccination or of a recent negative test.

The problem here is that the tests would have to be done so frequently that many would soon come to see them as an imposition.

Perhaps, as we move through the year and the vaccination numbers rise, the free market will do the job of regulation.

Already, some leisure and retail outlets are raising the idea of barring those without proof of negative status. This would give an incentive to bear the inconvenience of frequent testing and avoid being discriminated against in this way.

However, Milton Friedman argued many years ago that the free market would prevent this from working.

Quite simply, he thought that companies which discriminate impose avoidable costs upon themselves. As a result they will be driven out of business by their competitors.

As ever in economics, the strength of the argument depends upon how well its assumptions correspond to reality.  The key one here is of a “competitive market”, one with many companies, none of which can exercise any real power over the market as a whole.

Expensive restaurants in affluent areas do not need to put in their adverts, as Basil Fawlty once memorably did in Fawlty Towers, “no riff-raff”. They do have a degree of localised monopoly power over a specialised part of the market.  Discrimination would work here.

But for many hospitality and leisure outlets in towns and cities, Friedman’s assumption seems reasonable.  If a pub keeps you out because of a lack of certification, there is another reasonable one not far away.  The situation is not quite the same in rural areas.

But why leave it to either the regulators or the pubs themselves to say who can and cannot go into a pub?

Just let individuals decide for themselves which outlets to use, like they have always done.  That will be true normality.

As published in City AM Wednesday 24th February 2021
Image: Restaurant via Pixabay
Read More

Beware those who’d lock us down and throw away the key

Beware those who’d lock us down and throw away the key

Rather like dedicated Remainers, pro-lockdown enthusiasts never seem to give up.

Their ardour will have been fuelled by leaks over the weekend of results from the epidemiological models.

Apparently, even though quite soon all the over-70s will have been jabbed, lifting restrictions before the summer would lead to a massive third wave of the virus.  Daily death rates would once again soar over 1,000.

The SAGE modellers seem to have arrived at a totally different view to that of the Chief Executive of the NHS, Simon Stephens.  He told a House of Commons committee last week that Covid would soon become a much more treatable disease.  We can look forward, he said, to a “much more normal future” over the course of the next year.

Instead of wallowing in gloom, we might usefully look at Sweden.  The country has not just the prospect of a normal future but the actual reality of a normal past and present.  In Stockholm today, for example, you can walk up to the bar and order a beer.

In terms of economic outcomes, Sweden has performed better.  In 2020, output in the UK fell by over 10 per cent, and by just over 3 per cent in Sweden. The UK is running a public sector deficit of over 13 per cent of GDP, getting on for £400 billion. The comparable figure in Sweden is 4 per cent.

The Covid death rate in Sweden is rather high, at 1144 per million people.  But in the UK, it is 35 per cent higher, at 1550.

Currently, and adjusting both rates to the UK population size, the daily death rate in Sweden is around 100, and more than 1000 here.

Could a policy of very few restrictions have worked in the UK?

The virus spreads more easily in dense populations.

Much of Sweden is essentially completely uninhabited. In fact, slightly more Swedes live in urban areas than do Brits, 87 per cent compared to 83. So no difference there.

The Swedes are definitely less fat. Just under 20 per cent of them are clinically obese compared to 28 per cent of the UK population. Obesity is a key determinant of serious illness and death in Covid cases. But even adjusting for this, Swedish death rates are hardly likely to have exceeded those of the UK.

No politician would dare as to even hint at this. But could it be that the Swedes are, well, more sensible than we are?

They could be trusted to behave in ways which did not lead to the virus getting out of control.  The epidemiological models do not in general include the possibility of people adjusting behaviour in the face of a pandemic.

Overall, compared to the UK and many other Western European countries, Sweden, with virtually no lockdown restrictions, has had a good crisis.  Behavioural changes can make a massive and sustained difference to outcomes.

With only minor modifications of behaviour and armed with the new vaccines, it seems that Simon Stephens’ vision of a return to normality is close to being realised.

As published in City AM Wednesday 3rd February 2021
Image: Socialising in Sweden by Johan Anglemark  via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 2.0
Read More

Cash for Covid? Cash for jabs makes far more sense

Cash for Covid? Cash for jabs makes far more sense

As the snow fell on Sunday, I almost expected a Cabinet minister to address the nation that very evening: “Don’t go out in the snow. Don’t slip and sprain an ankle. Save the NHS!”

It could have been backed up by a scientist brandishing a chart and a “model” to demonstrate that icy weather led to an increase in broken limbs.

In this case, of course, the science would have been very well grounded and supported firmly by the evidence, something which has definitely not always been the case with Covid-19 pronouncements.

Economics, like epidemiology, is an inexact science. But It can still tell us useful things about the world.

What is probably the best supported insight of economics has been in the real news this past week. Namely, that when incentives change, people change their behaviour.

The proposal that those who catch Covid-19 be paid £500 as an incentive to self-isolate attracted widespread ridicule. The idea was well meaning. It would remove the incentive to go to work in order to get paid.

As many have already pointed out, the concept was flawed. It would create a perverse incentive, especially for younger people for whom the risks are very low, to go out and catch the virus. More simply, there was nothing to stop those who test positive from pocketing the loot and still going out to work.

Economists did point out early in the pandemic that test and trace systems in general faced challenging problems, even if the technology really did work properly.

Self-isolation is not simply a personal inconvenience. For many, it involves a loss of income. There are strong incentives therefore not to comply, which is indeed what has happened.

It is not easy to design a system of monetary incentives around test and trace which only reward good behaviour. The risk of people discovering how to game the system is high.

For example, a £10,000 fine was introduced for failure to self-isolate. This incentivised people either not to sign up at all, or to provide false information when asked.

Incentives still have an important role to play.

They need not be monetary. The over-60s have an incentive to have a jab, for example. The incentive here is to stay alive.

But there is worrying evidence that substantial numbers of younger people may not accept a vaccine when their turn comes. And we need high participation to squash the spread of the virus.

Why make the effort of going for a jab, especially if you might then not feel so good for a couple of days, when you personally are at very little risk?

The government could usefully offer everyone under 60 some ready cash if they get vaccinated. For the whole 16-59 year age group, at £25 a head the bill would come to just under £1 billion, a mere drop in the ocean in terms of the costs of Covid overall.

Public policy and personal incentives would be perfectly aligned. Cash for the under 60s when they get a jab. It makes good sense.

As published in City AM Wednesday 27th January 2021
Image: Covid Vaccine via Pixabay
Read More

Covid-19 has shown it is time to invest in Britain’s scientists

Covid-19 has shown it is time to invest in Britain’s scientists

Let’s start the New Year with a very positive point.

The speed of scientific innovation seems to be accelerating sharply. And it is innovation which ultimately drives our health, wealth and well-being.

The types of problems which have previously taken years or even decades to solve are being cracked in record times.

The development of the vaccines is of course a tremendous scientific achievement. It is the one unequivocally Good Thing to come out of the Covid crisis.

The typical time scale from the initial idea to developing a successful drug has been around ten years. Yet the vaccines were created and licensed for use in less than ten months.

But 2020 saw an advance in science which is even more exciting and important.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has been getting a bad press lately. Stories proliferate of how “algorithms” have led to bad decisions. The fiasco over the A-level results in August for example.

It has streams of Luddite detractors at a more intellectual level. They assert, for example, that it can never really think like a human.

The Deep Mind team at Google are famous, in some circles at least, for having created AI algorithms which can wipe the floor with human world champions at both chess and Go. The game of Go is so complex that in comparison chess looks easy.

So what, many may feel. These are only games.

But at the end of last year, the team announced that AI had solved one of the great challenges of biology.

Their algorithm AlphaFold can predict how proteins fold from a chain of amino acids into 3D shapes that carry out life’s tasks.

Human researchers have made some progress in this area. But it has been slow, and many attempts have failed. Structures have been solved for only about 170,000 of the more than 200 million proteins discovered across life forms.

All very techie and incomprehensible to most of us. But tremendously important.

Science is one of the two top scientific journals in the world. The tone of its pieces is usually measured and guarded. The journal is certainly not given to hyperbole. But in Science, leading biologists have described the achievement as “fantastic” and one which will “change the future of structural biology”.

AlphaFold has not quite solved the problem completely, but it has advanced the science of this topic by decades.

In practical terms, it could, for example, enable drug designers to work out the structure of every protein in new and dangerous pathogens like SARS-CoV-2. This is a key step in the hunt for molecules to block them.

Crucially, the team has agreed to reveal sufficient details of AlphaFold for other research groups to re-create it. No wonder that biologists are excited.

Both the Astra Zeneca vaccine and AlphaFold are a particular triumph for Britain.

The Astra-Zeneca vaccine was developed in conjunction with Oxford University, and Deep Mind was acquired by Google from the computer science department at UCL.

The government must devote more resources to the world beating scientists in our top universities.

As published in City AM Wednesday 6th January 2021
Image: Laboratory by Belova59 via Pixabay 
Read More

The Government scientists’ credibility is shot to pieces

The Government scientists’ credibility is shot to pieces

Imagine.  No, not the silly childish song by John Lennon.  Imagine there were no vaccines available.  What would Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health, do?

He might ask people to pay more attention to the scientific advice.

But the plain fact is that the credibility of Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, and Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief science officer, is shot to pieces.

They have cried wolf too many times and issued too many Project Fear-type projections for people to have any confidence in their pronouncements.

Without a vaccine, the government would have been forced to confront the single most damaging and destructive aspect of the whole pandemic.

Namely, the apparent inability of the ranks of epidemiologists and government scientists to understand the crucial need to alter behaviour, rather than to rely on lockdowns.

Lockdowns can only work in certain rather extreme circumstances.

They need to be harsh. They need to last for a couple of months. The country needs to seal its borders. And there needs to be a willingness to comply.

So-called “firebreak” lockdowns of a couple of weeks duration cannot work at all.

On average, Covid victims are infected for a couple of weeks. When a lockdown is imposed, many of  those infected at the time will be free of the disease when it ends. But not all. A small percentage will remain infectious.

More importantly, on day one of lockdown, other people will become infected, and still more on each subsequent day.  So a pool of infected people will emerge from lockdown, and the epidemic will spike up again.

Such is the deranged obsession with lockdowns that not only has the Labour leader, Sir Kier Starmer, been a strong enthusiast for firebreaks, they have been implemented in Wales and Northern Ireland.

But as a matter of simple logic, not opinion, they cannot work.

The same logic applies to all but the most rigorous and lengthy lockdowns.  Unless there is a fundamental shift in behaviour, the virus will simply spread again once lockdown is lifted.

A policy of successive lockdowns may very well change behaviour.  But for the worse.  With each one, the willingness to comply is reduced.

This is exactly what has been happening in the working class areas of the UK – the central belt in Scotland, the old mining valleys in Wales, whole swathes of the North and the East End plus its Essex and Kent extensions.

It is in these areas that infection rates have gone through the roof, even when lockdowns were in place. It is not that the rules were insufficiently strict. It is that people have paid less and less attention to them.

Government scientists appear to have no idea about life in these areas.  It is not an easy one.

People get a lot of pleasure from socialising with friends and family, who typically live close by. The longer the restrictions last, the greater the incentive to ignore them.

Imagine we had epidemiologists and health bureaucrats who understood that behaviour must change if a virus is to be contained.

Imagine we had politicians who were not in thrall to pseudo-science. At Christmas, is this too much to imagine?

As published in City AM Wednesday 24th December 2020
Image: Lockdown in Glasgow by Jxseph14 via Wikimedia  CC BY-SA 4.0
Read More