Archive for the 'Justice/Law' Category


Monetary policy still works at the ZLB

In case anybody was wondering, monetary policy definitely still has an effect at the zero lower bound.  In the UK, the banks have unwittingly (and certainly unwillingly) been part of a demonstration of a so-called helicopter-drop of money.  In a country of 60 million people, by mid 2008 there were over 20 million Payment Production Insurance (PPI) policies in effect and that number was growing fast.  In early 2011, they were ruled to have been mis-sold (customers were deemed, in general, to have been pressured or deceived into buying insurance they didn’t need) and banks were ordered to offer compensation.  Wikipedia has a summary here. From a pair of articles in the FT ([1], [2]):

[Article 1] About £4.8bn had already been paid out by the end of May – effectively acting as “helicopter money” dropped into the hands of those people who may be among the most likely to spend it.

[Article 2] The independent Office for Budget Responsibility, relying on estimates that PPI refunds would deliver £6bn over the year, revised up its estimate of the growth rate of real disposable household income by 0.5 percentage points in March from its November figure … the amounts set aside for PPI redress by the five biggest banks have now soared to almost £9bn.

[Article 2] The FSA said it does not know the average payout per claimant. But some of the “complaints management” companies, which have been making aggressive pitches to help consumers get their money back, say these average £2,000 to £3,000 per applicant.

[Article 1] “When I heard I was going to get over £2,000 in compensation I hired builders to fix a long-overdue problem with the eaves in my roof and put the rest of the money towards a holiday to Greece in September,” said Elaine Overten, a retired nurse from Derbyshire, who received compensation for PPI payments made on her NatWest mortgage over 10 years.

I just love the little (and not remotely subtle) hint from the FT that monetary stimulus would help Greece out of their hole.

Anyway, the point is simple.  If you put money in people’s hands, especially if those people are “credit constrained,” they will spend it.  That was the point of my “Monetary policy for 10 year olds” post a while ago.  It remains the point today.  It will always be the point.

The problem, of course, is that while PPI compensation payouts are acting as a positive stimulus, the corresponding hit to the banks will be causing them to hold back in their lending and so provide a negative stimulus at the same time.  If I had to guess, I’d say that the net effect of PPI compensation is to provide a positive stimulus because of the broad distribution and, I assume, the fact that a large fraction of the recipients really are currently credit constrained.


It’s not a fiscal union and Cameron didn’t veto it

A fiscal union would have transfers from various parts of the union to various other parts over the business cycle.  A guarantee to stand behind somebody’s debt while simultaneously insisting that you’ll never actually need to cough up a cent because you’ve made them pinky swear is not a fiscal union.

A veto stops a thing from happening (think of the UN Security Council).  The fiscal compact is going to go ahead, just without Britain.  Therefore, Britain did not veto it; they declined to take part.

That is all.

Update:

Okay, that isn’t quite all.  Just to be clear, I think that Cameron did the wrong thing.  I believe that, at a minimum, he should have committed to bringing the proposal to the UK parliament.  It may well have been voted down at that point, but nevertheless it should have happened.  Parliament is sovereign in the UK.  This was a serious proposal with potentially significant consequences from either agreeing to it or walking away from it; the people of Britain deserved to have their elected representatives decide.

I am undecided on whether signing up to the pact would be in the best interests of the UK.


To what extent should the media mention that somebody is from a minority?

It turns out that Tim Cook, the new CEO of Apple, is gay.

Felix Salmon suggests that this makes him the most powerful gay man on earth (an idea of which I am sceptical – surely at least one head of state among all the nations of the world has been queer at some point) and that the media ought to be celebrating this fact, or at least making mention of it:

Personally, I don’t care.  Why should I?  Fundamentally, the only relevant facts are those that inform me about his ability to do his job, and knowing whether he’s a member of ethnic group X, holds religious view Y or is turned on by Z is of no use in that regard.

In a completely post-bigotry world, those things might (or might not!) be included in a puff piece that wanted to tell you about Tim Cook, the man, as a sort of background colour (“raised a Catholic, Mary-Anne’s atheism was a source of family friction in her early adulthood, but …”), but they’d play no part in people’s opinion of him as a manager and so would never appear in a serious article about the future direction of whichever company he works for.

Salmon’s point, I believe, is that (a) we’re not in a post-bigotry world and so there is a lead-by-example case for publicising Cook’s sexuality in the same way that people discussed that Hillary Clinton is female and Barack Obama is black; and (b) even if we were, the media is going out of its way to make no mention of it even in the puff pieces, that it’s going out of its way to self-gag and so, ironically, subtly reinforcing the closet.

I dunno.  I think that stuff like this is only relevant to public discourse — even puff-piece writing — if at some point it helped shape the subject’s motivations in life.  Furthermore, I believe that for at least some queer people now, and eventually for all of them, their sexuality (will have) played absolutely no role in shaping their motivations in anything other than who to look for in a partner.

As such, I’m instinctively sceptical of a need to draw attention to it.  Not even the puffiest of puff pieces would spend time discussing people’s preferences over ice cream flavours unless the subject made a point of bringing up their obsession with chocolate-mint.

When it comes to playing a role as a societal leader, I can’t help but feel that it’s up to Mr. Cook to decide for himself.

Dani and I rewatched “Good Will Hunting” last night.  I think there’s a parallel with the kid who’s a genius.  I always get angry when Ben Affleck’s character (the well-meaning, but idiot friend) tells Matt Damon’s character (the genius) that “you don’t owe it to yourself man, you owe it to me … ‘Cause I’d do fuckin’ anything to have what you got. So would any of these fuckin’ guys. It’d be an insult to us if you’re still here in 20 years” [IMDB].  It’s Rawls’ veil of ignorance turned arse-end backwards.  It’s also complete rubbish.

I can see a moral argument for why Rawls’ veil implies that society at large should help people who drew particularly shitty numbers, but why should any one individual be required to do something just because they drew a particularly awesome number?  The whole goddamn point of Rawls’ veil is that nobody consents to it in the first place and so, as a society, we ought to not force people into the pigeon-hole that the lottery put them in.  Just because you were born into a poor family doesn’t mean you have to stay poor.   Just because you’re black doesn’t mean you have to like basketball.  Just because you have an IQ of 180 doesn’t mean you must do research.  Messers Affleck and Damon need to reread “Brave New World”.

Nobody can deny that Barrack Obama is black, but the extent to which he makes speeches to the black community declaring that they can be black, proud and successful is entirely up to him.  People working to bring about racial equality might feel he has an obligation, but he really doesn’t.

If Tim Cook wants to try to improve the acceptance of gay people in society at large, he can, but the idea of saying that he ought to just because he’s gay himself is illiberal.


Ayn Rand, small government and the charitable sector

The Economist’s blog, Democracy in America, has a post from a few days ago — “Tax Day”, for Americans, is the 15th of April — looking at Ayn Rand’s rather odd view of government.  Ms. Rand, apparently, did not oppose the existence of a (limited) government spending public money, but did oppose the raising of that money through coercive taxation.

Here’s the almost-anonymous W.W., writing at The Economist:

This left her in the odd and almost certainly untenable position of advocating a minimal state financed voluntarily. In her essay “Government Financing in a Free Society“, Rand wrote:

“In a fully free society, taxation—or, to be exact, payment for governmental services—would be voluntary. Since the proper services of a government—the police, the armed forces, the law courts—are demonstrably needed by individual citizens and affect their interests directly, the citizens would (and should) be willing to pay for such services, as they pay for insurance.”

This is faintly ridiculous. From one side, the libertarian anarchist will agree that people are willing to pay for these services, but that a government monopoly in their provision will lead only to inefficiency and abuse. From the other side, the liberal statist will defend the government provision of the public goods Rand mentions, but will quite rightly argue that Rand seems not to grasp perhaps the main reason government coercion is needed, especially if one believes, as Rand does, that individuals ought to act in their rational self-interest.

The idea of private goods vs. public goods, I think, is something that Rand would have recognised, if not in the formally defined sense we use today, but I do not think that Rand really knew much about externalities and the ability of carefully-targeted government taxation to improve the allocative efficiency of otherwise free markets.  I think it’s fair to say that she would probably have outright denied the possibility of anything like multiple equilibria and the subsequent possibility of poverty traps.  Furthermore, while she clearly knew about and despised free riders (the moochers  in “Atlas Shrugged“), the idea of their being a problem in her view of voluntarily-financed government apparently never occurred to her.

However, this does give me an excuse to plump for two small ideas of mine:

First, I consider the charitable (i.e. not-for-profit) sector as falling under the same umbrella as the government when I consider how the economy of a country is conceptually divided.  In their expenditure of money, they are essentially the same:  the provision of “public good” services to the country at large, typically under a rubric of helping the most disadvantaged people in society.  It is largely only in they way they raise revenue that they differ.  Rand would simply have preferred that a (far, far) greater fraction of public services be provided through charities.  I suspect, to a fair degree, that the Big Society [official site] push by the Tories in the UK is about a shift in this direction and that, as a corollary, that Mr. Cameron would agree with my characterisation.

Philanthropy UK gives the following figures for the size of the charitable sectors in the UK, USA, Germany and The Netherlands in 2006:

Country Giving (£bn) GDP (£bn) Giving/GDP
UK 14.9 1230 1.1%
USA 145.0 6500 2.2%
Germany 11.3 1533 0.7%
The Netherlands 2.9 340 0.9%

Source: CAF Charity Trends, Giving USA, Then & Spengler (2005 data), Geven in Nederland (2005 data)

Combining this with the total tax revenue as a share of GDP for that same year (2006), we get:

Country Tax Revenue/GDP Giving/GDP Total/GDP
UK 36.5% 1.1% 37.6%
USA 29.9% 2.2% 31.1%
Germany 35.4% 0.7% 36.1%
The Netherlands 39.4% 0.9% 40.3%

Source: OECD for the tax data, Philanthropy UK for the giving data

Which achieves nothing other than to go some small way towards showing that there’s not quite as much variation in “public” spending across countries as we might think.  I’d be interested to see a breakdown of what services are offered by charities across countries (and what share of expenditure they represent).

Second, I occasionally toy with the idea of people being able to allocate some (not all!) of their tax to specific government spending areas.  Think of it being an optional extra page of questions on your tax return.  Sure, money being the fungible thing that it is, the government would be able to shift the remaining funds around and keep spending in the proportions that they wanted to, but it would introduce a great deal more democratic transparency into the process.  I wonder what Ms. Rand (or other modern day libertarians) would make of the idea …

Anyway … let me finish by quoting Will Wilkinson again, in his quoting of Lincoln:

As Abraham Lincoln said so well,

“The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves—in their separate, and individual capacities.”

Citizens reasonably resent a government that milks them to feed programmes that fail Lincoln’s test. The inevitable problem in a democracy is that we disagree about which programmes those are. Some economists are fond of saying that “economics is not a morality play”, but like it or not, our attitudes toward taxation are inevitably laden with moral assumptions. It doesn’t help to ignore or casually dismiss them. It seems to me the quality and utility of our public discourse might improve were we to do a better job of making these assumptions explicit.

That last point — of making the moral assumptions of fiscal proposals explicit — would be great, but it is probably (and sadly) a pipe dream.


France is set to ban the burqa and niqab

The French Senate has passed the bill after the General Assembly (lower house) did in July.  From that HuffPo piece in July:

Officials have taken pains to craft language that does not single out Muslims. While the proposed legislation is colloquially referred to as the “anti-burqa law,” it is officially called “the bill to forbid concealing one’s face in public.”

It refers neither to Islam nor to veils. Officials insist the law against face-covering is not discriminatory because it would apply to everyone, not just Muslims. Yet they cite a host of exceptions, including motorcycle helmets, or masks for health reasons, fencing, skiing or carnivals.

I’d really like to read a literal translation of the bill.  I’m curious whether it effectively also bans this sort of thing or this sort of thing.  Do French citizens have a right to privacy?  Wouldn’t this bill violate such a right?