Cameron’s dreadful case for national pride

This is just wonderfully revealing from Cameron today:

Whatever the obstacles to growth today, we still boast some of the best universities in the world, the most favourable timezone in the world, and the world’s first language.

Hundreds of years ago we conquered and colonised a load of places and they and their trading partners now speak our language. Also, by historical fluke, we just so happen to sit in between populus Asia and wealthy North America.

So this is what national pride has come to. No celebration of the English Pub, the centre of the community, no longing for days of imperial grandeur, no ideological fervour for christ, cricket and capitalism. Nope, something more like this…

A cosy 25 million bedroom nation with excellent local amenities, a large secluded garden and great transport links. Comes complete with lovely views of France and neighbours who will begrudgingly speak your language.

Migration as Technology

I was a little confused by this Robin Hanson post. He cites with approval the fact that since 1970 40% of all the extra consumption in the world has occurred in the United States. Below are the top 30 gainers in terms of tens of billions of dollars a year.

United States 583, Japan 183, China 103, United Kingdom 73, Germany 63, France 53, India 47, Brazil 47, Italy 39, Canada 37, Mexico 37, Spain 28, Indonesia 14, Netherlands 11, Greece 9, South Africa 8, Thailand 8, Switzerland 8, Belgium 8, Austria 7, Colombia 7, Sweden 7, Philippines 7, Norway 7, Malaysia 7, Portugal 6, Chile 6, Finland 5, Ireland 5, Denmark 4. (source)

Robin argues that this is argument against Tyler’s notion of a slow down in technological innovation. But the population of the US is 48% bigger in 2010 (310,000,000) than in 1970 (209,000,000). At first I couldn’t see why this would counts as evidence against some notion of a slow down in intensive growth. The US got more from more which is great for all those people involved, but it is not evidence we can get more from less, is it?

Well, in a way it is, although you have to denationalise your perspective. The US does have an overwhelming lead in one “technology”; that of receiving and assimilating migrants. The factors behind this are geographical, historical and cultural, but it still as a really important technology in terms of increasing “our” productive and consumptive capacity.

The productivity of millions of people has been hugely increased simply by them moving across a border. Allowing more migration is an innovation that can make many people better off by improving their productivity. But it is a technology which cannot be excercised by a single firm, it is better thought of as a society-wide innovation akin to germ theory or corporation law.

ATOS, Actually TOSsers

This beggars belief…

From the local press, so usual caveats apply, but this story really is astonishing. I’ll quote the important parts below.

Wheelchair users have to climb a flight of chairs to prove they are disabled enough to get benefits at a centre in Croydon.

Although there are lifts in the disability benefits assessment centre, anyone in a wheelchair or who cannot climb stairs is banned from using them due to health and safety requirements.

Anyone who cannot tackle the 42-step staircase is instead forces to make a 14 mile round trip to Balham because the centre in Cherry Orchard Road is not disabled friendly.

The local Tory MP called it “ridiculous” in a letter to Chris Grayling.

This is grist to the mill for those who think that the Tories are 1) evil and 2) not actually any good at running a government any more.

Laban Tall, fancy earning £20 for your favourite cause?

Laban, understandably, is rather annoyed with the Bank of England’s apparent inability to hit its 2% inflation target. Lets remind ourselves, the Retail Price Index is at 5.6% and the Consumer Price Index is at 5.2%. Laban scoffs at the idea that inflation will fall significantly in 2012 whereas I think it is incredibly likely that it will, even with the bank printing up another £75bn in freshly minted electronic cash. Only one way to settle this, I propose a bet.

I reckon inflation won’t average above 2.5% and I’ll donate £20 to anyone Laban wants if it does. If Laban will take the mirror of this bet we have ourselves a deal.

As far as why I’m so confident, this morning’s post explained why QE is a good idea when an economy is depressed and Luis‘s explains why QE isn’t really too different from your common and garden interest rate cut. I’ve already covered why temporary factors are what is to blame for elevated inflation, factors which are unlikely to be repeated:

One major source of inflation has been successive increases in VAT. In the last two years it has increased from 15% to 20%, adding at least a percentage point to inflation. A lot of inflation is also still working through import prices since sterling devalued. Lastly, crisis in Europe and continued depression in the US means the UK’s economy can expect little external support.

And finally Paul explains why inflation is unlikely to rise next year; nobody has enough money to keep it going…

Here’s the key graph, from the Office of National Statistics:

Like the US, Britain has no wage-price spiral — wages are going nowhere.

Plus we have continued contraction of the state sector which will cause people to be unemployed, to lose their services, and will have various knock on effects through the rest of the economy. Unlike Hopi I am not worried that we will soon need to battle inflation, inflation will splutter down on its own to a more comfortable rate.

So, Laban, that is why I am not worried about inflation. Would you like to take me up on my bet?

Money gets printed, get over it

Guest post by Luis Enrique (edited from an e-mail by LO)

Something I find particularly striking is how few people seem to recognise how similar QE is to standard monetary policy. QE is often called something like a bank bailout by the back door, or corporate welfare, or a harbinger of hyperinflation, but that doesn’t make much sense in the context of actually existing monetary policy.

In standard macro theory, if people want to hold more money they will sell interest bearing bonds for cash, which would increase interest rates. But if the BoE is targeting say a 2% rate, it will create money and buy bonds to keep they rate at 2%. So changed in money demand are accommodated.

If the BoE wants to cut the rate from 2% to 1% it announce it is doing so and will print money and buy bonds to get it there. This will cause bond prices to rise, creating a “windfall” for bond holders and banks that charge fees for trading bonds. The money it creates thus doing is every bit as inflationary as the money created by QE. Probably more so, in fact, because the money is less likely just to sit in reserve.

Many people object vociferously to QE yet yet wouldn’t blink at a decision to cut interest rates from 2% to 1% despite their similarities.

Why we should support QE in language an undergrad student can understand

Here’s a piece on QE I wrote for the LSE student rag (with some help from Luis Enrique).

Printing £75bn does not sound like a plan to make us all richer. It sounds like a plan to turn us into Zimbabwe. But last week Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, announced that is exactly what he will be doing. When complete, the Bank’s Quantitative Easing, or QE, programme will have seen £275bn leave the printing presses, nearly £5000 for every person living in the UK. Informing the Bank’s decision is the news that more than two and half million people are now unemployed, including nearly a million young people. In fact, many students reading this will have chosen to come to LSE because finding employment has been difficult. Urgent action is obviously needed to tackle this, but printing money appears a method of dubious merit. Of course, there is a logic to the Bank of England’s action that may mean students graduating this time next year will find it easier to get a job than they expect.

The Bank’s actions appear odd, even dangerous, only because of the rarity and extremity of our situation. In normal times the Bank doesn’t announce how much money it will be printing, it just changes the interest rate at which it will lend. To keep growth steady, when the economy is decelerating they cut interest rates to encourage spending and when the economy is accelerating they raise interest rates to discourage spending. You can raise interest rates as high as you like, but can only cut them to zero, and that is where they’ve been since March 2009. This means they have to try to encourage spending through other methods.

Over the last nine months the economy has seen no growth when normally it would be almost two per cent larger. If an economy stops growing it may be because bad policies prevent new companies from setting up shop and creating and employing new technologies. Alternatively, an economy may falter because there is too little demand for those new industries and technologies. Whether the Bank’s actions are wise will depend very much on which describes our current situation.

The idea that firms and people may be lying idle because nobody wants their produce is a strange idea at first. If people are willing to work that must mean they want to consume. If they didn’t people would be happy to stay at home and relax. But there is one good people want to buy which won’t put others to work. You buy a car to get from A to B and you employ a mechanic. You buy a sheep because you want mutton or wool and you employ a shepherd. You “buy” money to swap it for something else by working or saving, but you don’t employ anyone because money can be created for free.

In nervous times, we all would like to improve our balance sheets, we all want to build up buffers of savings, and that often involves wanting to hold more money in our current accounts. When one person does this it causes no problems, but when we all become more nervous we all end up wanting to build up a safety buffer. Now with only so much money in circulation this can only happen if we each spend less than we earn. But this is impossible because everyone’s spending is someone else’s earnings. Unless extra money is put into circulation we get slowly poorer until people decide they have the right amount of money relative to their earning and spending. We have a recession. We have our current stagnation. QE is designed to put more money into circulation and to create more safe places to invest that money. That should lead to healthier balance sheets and more demand to employ people and will bring the economy back to life.

In an economy held back by bad policy, printing money does exactly what you would expect it to and makes everything more expensive. At a time of stagnant wages and austerity budgeting this would be a terrible result. Some people have pointed to high inflation as proof the bank has already printed too much money. In one story growth falters because people start demanding relatively more money than goods and services. In that world, printing money -whether through changing interest rates, QE or targeting total cash spending – will make us richer. In the other it makes us poorer.

Looking at the UK and global economy, three things imply the Bank’s actions will help more than hinder. One major source of inflation has been successive increases in VAT. In the last two years it has increased from 15% to 20%, adding at least a percentage point to inflation. A lot of inflation is also still working through import prices since sterling devalued. Lastly, crisis in Europe and continued depression in the US means the UK’s economy can expect little external support. The Bank of England has little influence over any of these and has ignored them to focus on what it can influence in the domestic economy.

In the last three years a lot has changed. Whether more QE is a good idea or not depends on whether the economy has been damaged to the point where we can employ a million fewer people than we used to. If the financial crisis or government policy has wrought such damage upon us then QE will merely produce ever higher prices. If there is still some slack in the economy then we will see more people employed and better living conditions for everyone. Simplistic comparisons with Zimbabwe may be attention grabbing, but in reality QE may be the best hope we have to get the UK back on track.

UK NGDP makes me go “epp!”

Graph and commentary courtesy of Chris Giles.

There is a rule of thumb that says you want nominal gross domestic product to grow by around 5 per cent a year. It is a pretty good guide, because it roughly accounts for the sum of Britain’s long-run productivity growth and a stable inflation rate close to the Bank of England’s 2 per cent CPI target.. Strip out the VAT rise and underlying nominal GDP (at basic prices) grew by 1.9 per cent – split into 1.4 per cent inflation and 0.5 per cent growth. Worrying about inflation in this climate is crackers…

You will notice that declines and slowdowns in NGDP growth are associated with bad things, and that steady 5% growth is associated with good things. This graph is a reason Hopi is wrong to see a fight with inflation looming, deflation remains our enemy.

Two questions, where will inflation come from with nominal growth so weak and were will real growth come from with nominal growth so weak?