Is Dominic Cummings a hypocrite, or does the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy just suck?

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On Saturday, The Observer revealed that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recently appointed chief of staff received around £235,000 of EU farm subsidies over the course of two decades in relation that his family owns. Dominic Cummings is often portrayed as the mastermind behind the successful referendum campaign to Leave the European Union. So he is currently enemy no.1 among remain-supporters.

I am unconvinced this latest line of attack plays in Remainers’ favor (I was a marginal Remain voter in the referendum and still hold out some hope for an eventual EEA/EFTA arrangement). Instead, this story serves as a reminder of probably the worst feature of the current EU: the Common Agricultural Policy.

The CAP spends more than a third of the total EU budget (for a population of half a billion people) on agricultural policies that support around 22 million people, most of them neither poor nor disadvantaged as Cummings himself illustrates. Food is chiefly a private good and both the interests of consumers, producers and the environment (at least in the long-term, as suggested by the example of New Zealand) are best served through an unsubsidized market. But the CAP, developed on faulty dirigiste economic doctrines, has artificially raised food prices throughout the European Union, led to massive over-production of some food commodities, and denied farmers in the developing world access to European markets (the US, of course, has its equivalent system of agricultural protectionism).

These economic distortions make an appearance in my new paper with Charles Delmotte, ‘Cost and Choice in the Commons: Ostrom and the Case of British Flood Management’. In the final section, we discuss the role that farming subsidies have historically played in encouraging inappropriately aggressive floodplain drainage strategies and uneconomic use of marginal farming land that might well be better left to nature:

British farmers currently receive substantial subsidies through the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy. This means that both land-use decisions and farm incomes are de-coupled from underlying farm productivity. Without the ordinarily presumed interest in maintaining intrinsic profitability, farmers may fail to contribute effectively to flood prevention or other environmental goals that impacts their output unless specifically incentivized by subsidy rules. If the farms were operating unsubsidized, the costs of flooding would figure more plainly in economic calculations when deciding where it is efficient to farm in a floodplain and what contributions to make to common flood defense. Indeed, European governments are currently in the perverse position of subsidizing relatively unproductive agriculture with one policy, while attempting to curb the resulting harm to the natural environment with another. These various schemes of regulation and subsidy plausibly combine to attenuate the capacity of the market process to furnish both private individuals and local communities with the appropriate knowledge and incentives to engage in common flood prevention without state support.

Our overall argument is that it is not just the direct costs of subsidies we should worry about, but the dynamics of intervention. In this case, they have led not only farmers but homeowners and entire towns to become reliant on public flood defenses with significant costs to the natural environment. There is limited scope for the government to withdraw provision (at least in a politically palatable way).

Turning back to The Observer’s gotcha story, it isn’t clear to me that Cummings is a hypocrite. I think the best theoretical work on hypocrisy in one’s personal politics comes from Adam Swift’s How Not To be Hypocrite: School Choice for the Morally Perplexed. In it Swift argues that the scope to complain about supposed hypocritical behavior, especially taking advantage of policies that you personally disagree with, can be narrower than intuitively imagined, mainly because of the nature of collective action problems. Swift’s conclusion is that, in some circumstances, leftwing critics of private schools are entitled to send their own children to private schools so long as others continue to do so and burden of doing otherwise is too strong. Presumably, this also means that strident libertarians are not hypocritical to use public roads so long as a reasonable private alternative is unavailable.

In an environment where every farmer receives an EU subsidy, it might be asking too much of EU-skeptic farmers to deny it to themselves. Instead, it seems legitimate and plausible to take the subsidy while campaigning sincerely to abolish it.

Do we want criminals to ‘feel terror at the thought of committing crimes’?

Last week, Priti Patel, the new British Home Secretary, provoked a media stir when she announced that she thought the criminal justice system should aim to strike fear into the heart of criminals. Critics combined her new interview with her previous support for the death penalty, banned in the mainline UK since 1965, to suggest that Patel represents a draconian and reactionary turn in British law enforcement.

Then a couple of days ago, a YouGov survey showed, that 72 per cent of the British public agreed with her. Media commentators can forget quite how high support is for law and order among ordinary citizens. Support for the death penalty itself still attracts almost half of the population.

Are the public right? The meat of the Government’s new policy is an increase in the number of police officers; this at a time of increasing violent crime and concerns about rising knife crime in London. On that front, the evidence points in Patel’s favour. More police often reduce crime and do so through a variety of mechanisms, including situational deterrence (for example, patrolling in high-crime areas) as well as increasing detection rates. There is general agreement that increasing the certainty of apprehension contributes to deterrence.

What about punishment severity? There the evidence is decidedly more mixed. There is remarkably little evidence, for example, that the death penalty deters crimes like murder more than an appropriate prison sentence.  Using a new data set of sentencing practice in all police force areas in England and Wales, myself and some great colleagues at the Centre for Crime, Justice and Policing at the University of Birmingham produced a study just printed last month: ‘Alternatives to Custody’. We compared the way a previous year’s sentencing influenced the subsequent year’s recorded crime.

What we found was that for property crime, our largest category, and robbery, community sentences generally reduced crime more than prison. In fact, one of our models suggested increased use of prison caused subsequent crime to go up. On the other hand, prison seemed to work (and was the only thing that worked) to reduce violent crime and sexual offences. (We summarised our results for the LSE British Politics and Policy blog.)

The lesson that we draw is that deterrence isn’t an overwhelming explanation of the impact of sentencing. Harsher sentencing probably works to deter some offenders. But at the same time carrying out punishments can have criminogenic effects. Experience of prison often makes convicts less employable and can effectively socialise them into having an enduring criminal identity. Of course, many offenders in the real-world are not particularly well informed about the criminal justice system. They may also have less self-control than a typical member of the public. So information about an increased penalty for a crime may never effectively filter into the deliberation and reflection of some offenders until they are sentenced, at which point you get the high financial and social costs of prison kicking in.

Getting caught by the police, perhaps on a few occasions,  is a more immediate sign to an offender that their behaviour is unlikely to pay off in the long-term. What does this mean for Patel? It suggests that fear of the consequences can play a role, but what we really need is graduated sanctions, avoiding prison when possible. This gives offenders plenty of options to exit a criminal career path. Relying on terror, by contrast, can lead to a large prison population producing a lot of stigmatized and harmed individuals who quite possibly will re-offend when they are released.

One weird old tax could slash wealth inequality (NIMBYs, don’t click!)

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What dominates the millennial economic experience? Impossibly high house prices in areas where jobs are available. I agree with the Yes In My Back Yard (YIMBY) movement that locally popular, long-term harmful restrictions on new buildings are the key cause of this crisis. So I enjoyed learning some nuances of the issue from a new Governance Podcast with Samuel DeCanio interviewing John Myers of London YIMBY and YIMBY Alliance.

Myers highlights the close link between housing shortages and income and wealth inequality. He describes the way that constraints on building in places like London and the South East of England have an immediate effect of driving rents and house prices up beyond what people relying on ordinary wages can afford. In addition, this has various knock-on effects in the labour market. Scarcity of housing in London drives up wages in areas of high worker demand in order to tempt people to travel in despite long commutes, while causing an excess of workers to bid wages down in deprived areas.

One of the aims of planning restrictions in the UK is to ‘rebalance’ the economy in favour of cities outside of London but the perverse result is to make the economic paths of different regions and generations diverge much more than they would do otherwise. Myers cites a compelling study by Matt Rognlie that argues that most increased wealth famously identified by Thomas Piketty is likely due to planning restrictions and not a more abstract law of capitalism.

Rognlie also inspires my friendly critique of Thomas Piketty and some philosophers agitating in his wake just published online in Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy: ‘The mirage of mark-to-market: distributive justice and alternatives to capital taxation’.

My co-author Charles Delmotte and I argue that for both practical and conceptual reasons, radical attempts to uproot capitalism by having governments take an annual bite out of everyone’s capital holdings are apt to fail because, among other reasons, the rich tend to be much better than everyone else at contesting tax assessments. Importantly, such an approach is not effectively targeting underlying causes of wealth inequality, as well as the lived inequalities of capability that housing restrictions generate. The more common metric of realized income is a fairer and more feasible measure of tax liabilities.

Instead, we propose that authorities should focus on taxing income based on generally applicable rules. Borrowing an idea from Philip Booth, we propose authorities start including imputed rent in their calculations of income tax liabilities. We explain as follows:

A better understanding of the realization approach can also facilitate the broadening of the tax base. One frequently overlooked form of realization is the imputed rent that homeowners derive from living in their own house. While no exchange takes place here, the homeowner realizes a stream of benefits that renters would have to pay for. Such rent differs from mark-to-market conceptions by conceptualizing only the service that a durable good yields to an individual who is both the owner of the asset and its consumer or user in a given year. It is backward-looking: it measures the value that someone derives from the choice to use a property for themselves rather than rent or lease it over a specific time-horizon. It applies only to the final consumer of the asset who happens also to be the owner.

Although calculating imputed rent is not without some difficulties, it has the advantage of not pretending to estimate the whole value of the asset indefinitely into the future. While not identical and fungible, as with bonds and shares, there are often enough real comparable contracts to rent or lease similar property in a given area so as to credibly estimate what the cost would have been to the homeowner if required to rent it on the open market. The key advantage of treating imputed rent as part of annual income is that, unlike other property taxes, it can be more easily included as income tax liabilities. This means that the usual progressivity of income taxes can be applied to the realized benefit that people generally draw from their single largest capital asset. For example, owners of a single-family home but on an otherwise low income will pay a small sum at a small marginal rate (or in some cases may be exempted entirely under ordinary tax allowances). By contrast, high earners, living in large or luxury properties that they also own, will pay a proportionately higher sum at a higher marginal rate on their imputed rent as it is added to their labor income. Compared to other taxes on real estate, imputed rent is more systematically progressive and has significant support among economists especially in the United Kingdom (where imputed rent used to be part of the income tax framework).

This approach to tax reform is particularly apt because a range of international evidence suggests that the majority of contemporary observed increases in wealth inequality in developed economies, at least between the upper middle class and the new precariat, can be explained by changes in real estate asset values. Under this proposal, homeowners will feel the cost of rent rises in a way that to some extent parallels actual renters.

For social democrats, what I hope will be immediately attractive about this proposal is that it directly takes aim at a major source of the new wealth inequality in a way that is more feasible than chasing mirages of capital around the world’s financial system. For me, however, the broader hope is the dynamic effects. It will align homeowners’ natural desire to reduce their tax liability with YIMBY policies that lower local rents (as that it is what part of their income tax will be assessed against). If a tax on imputed rent were combined with more effective fiscal federalism, then homeowners could become keener to bring newcomers into their communities because they will share in financing public services.

The long-run risks of Trump’s racism

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This week, the United States and much of the world has been reeling from Trump’s xenophobic statements aimed at four of his Democratic opponents in Congress. But the U.S. economy continues to perform remarkably well for the time being and despite his protectionist spasms, Trump is widely considered a pro-growth, pro-business President.

This has led some classical liberals to consider Trump’s populist rhetoric and flirtations with the far right to be a price worth paying for what they see as the safest path to keeping the administrative state at bay. Many classical liberals believe the greater risk to liberty in the U.S. is inevitably on the left with its commitment to expanding welfare-state entitlements in ways that will shrink the economy and politicize commercial businesses.

In ‘Hayek vs Trump: The Radical Right’s Road to Serfdom’, Aris Trantidis and I dispute this complacency about authoritarianism on the right. In the article, now forthcoming in Polity, we re-interpret Hayek’s famous The Road to Serfdom in light of his later work on coercion in The Constitution of Liberty.

We find that only certain forms of state intervention, those that diminish the rule of law and allow for arbitrary and discriminatory administrative oversight and sanction, pose a credible risk of turning a democratic polity authoritarian. A bigger state, without more discretionary power, does not threaten political liberty. Although leftwing radicals have in the past shown disdain for the rule of law, today in the U.S. and Europe it is the ideology of economic nationalism (not socialism) that presently ignores democratic norms. While growth continues, this ideology may appear to be compatible with support for business. But whenever the music stops, the logic of the rhetoric will lead to a search for scapegoats with individual businesses in the firing line.

Several countries in Europe are much further down the 21st road to serfdom than the U.S., and America still has an expansive civil society and federal structures that we expect to resist the authoritarian trend. Nevertheless, as it stands, the greatest threat to the free society right now does not carry a red flag but wears a red cap.

Here is an extract from the penultimate section:

The economic agenda of the Radical Right is an extension of political nationalism in the sphere of economic policy. While most Radical Right parties rhetorically acknowledge what can be broadly described as a “neoliberal” ethos – supporting fiscal stability, currency stability, and a reduction of government regulation – they put forward a prominent agenda for economic protectionism. This is again justified as a question of serving the “national interest” which takes precedence over any other set of values and considerations that may equally drive economic policy in other political parties, such as individual freedom, social justice, gender equality, class solidarity, or environmental protection. Rather than a principled stance on government intervention along the traditional left-right spectrum, the Radical Right’s economic agenda can be described as mixing nativist, populist and authoritarian features. It seemingly respects property and professes a commitment to economic liberty, but it subordinates economic policy to the ideal of national sovereignty.

In the United States, President Trump has emerged to lead a radical faction from inside the traditional right-wing Republican Party on a strident platform opposing immigration, global institutions, and current international trade arrangements that he portrayed as antagonistic to American economic interests. Is economic nationalism likely to include the type of command-and-control economic policies that we fear as coercive? Economic nationalism can be applied through a series of policies such as tariffs and import quotas, as well as immigration quotas with an appeal to the “national interest.”

This approach to economic management allows authorities to treat property as an object of administration in a way similar to the directions of private activity which Hayek feared can take place in the pursuit of “social justice.” It can take the form of discriminatory decisions and commands with a coercive capacity even though their authorization may come from generally worded rules. Protectionism can be effectuated by expedient decisions and flexible discretion in the selection of beneficiaries and the exclusion of others (and thereby entails strong potential for discrimination). The government will enjoy wide discretion in identifying the sectors of the economy or even particular companies that enjoy such a protection, often national champions that need to be strengthened and weaker industries that need to be protected. The Radical Right can exploit protectionism’s highest capacity for partial discriminatory applications.

The Radical Right has employed tactics of attacking, scapegoating, and ostracizing opponents as unpatriotic. This attitude suggests that its policy preference for economic nationalism and protectionism can have a higher propensity to be arbitrary, ad hoc and applied to manipulate economic and political behavior. This is perhaps most tragically demonstrated in the case of immigration restrictions and deportation practices. These may appear to coerce exclusively foreign residents but ultimately harm citizens who are unable to prove their status, and citizens who choose to associate with foreign nationals.

Blockchain Distributed Governance

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This is a cross-post from the blog of the Centre for the Study of Governance & Society at King’s College London.

Over the last two decades online services have transformed from a product of a multitude of enterprises to being dominated by a handful of corporate-owned platforms such as Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Amazon. They specialize in connecting media producers to users. These are often mutual interactions with users both producing and consuming content. These platforms play an increasing role governing commercial exchange, as well as civil discussion, with plausibly pernicious implications for liberal democracy. As I propose in a recent paper ‘Markets for Rules’, blockchains offer a promising solution to this danger by helping to displace corporate ownership in favor of common platforms sustained by users themselves.

Corporate concentration has produced enormous efficiencies and innovations, improving user experiences and boosting investment in hardware and infrastructure. But it has also had several bad consequences. These enterprises face extremely low marginal costs and network effects whereby additional users add value to an existing user-base. Some of these effects are explained by these platforms’ business models of collecting personal data to target advertising more effectively at customers. The more interactions on a single platform users have with each other, the more useful the data for advertisers. The result is overwhelming returns to scale and a winner-takes-all competition for profits.

This has troubling implications for economic inequality, especially if we end up with a handful of corporations taking a bite out of every conceivable transaction. Of greater concern is the way owners exert control over who can join and what people are allowed to do on their platforms. Content producers can be demonetized or banned, effectively denying them access to a user-base or revenue. Online sellers can find themselves frozen out of a platform payment system without legal remedies. Controversial or unpopular producers survive at the whim of executives or, at best, a patchily enforced official policy.

This reliance on private governance is a problem for consumers, producers and ultimately citizens. But it is also a challenge for executives who find themselves mediating acrimonious personal disputes and political debate. With all the data in the world, they struggle to judge consistently what belongs on their platforms. The fact that these corporations have ended up functioning as unofficial censors and wielders of sanctions has led some commentators to propose regulating these platforms as public utilities or, more radically, nationalizing them so that access to them is decided democratically. These solutions have their own perils because any centralized system of monopoly control, whatever the underlying democratic credentials, can produce authoritarian outcomes. Liberal democracies up until now have been sustained by an independent civil society constituted by overlapping and competing spheres of governance, not the monopoly of either democratic or corporate government.

The prosecution of the CEO and founders of Backpage, who failed to exclude sex workers from their platform, illustrates the reliance of these private enterprises on government support on controversial policy issues even in relatively free societies. The combination of privately-developed data-collecting networks with over-arching state control is arguably reaching a nadir in China which is rolling out an unaccountable surveillance system of ‘social credit’ that can identify political dissidents and automatically exclude them from significant spheres of civil society.

Is there a way that blockchains can help navigate around the centralising and authoritarian impetus of technology-facilitated governance? Blockchains emerged from two pre-existing technologies – public ledgers and asymmetric cryptography – to produce a way of sharing data across a network that is resistant to manipulation by unauthorized actors. Initially conceived as offering alternatives to state-backed currencies, blockchains are now used to build decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) and dapps (decentralized apps). They can supply similar functions as corporate platforms but without an overall owner.

These systems are sustained by rewarding network participants with tokens (through completing intensive computing processes called mining). Tokens are convertible into ordinary currency, albeit currently at volatile rates. The entrepreneurs that build these platforms typically reward themselves and investors a large stake in those tokens but once the network is launched, they do not have control over how it is utilized. The rules of each network are self-enforcing. These rules can be changed, either through the original (or new) developers launching a rule-set that others may choose to switch over to (a fork). Alternatively, the rule-sets might contain provision for amendment. Such amendment schemes are, of course, open to manipulation as is the case for all political processes. Nevertheless, what these schemes offer is a way of interacting and exchanging at large distances without an overarching ruler. Instead, conduct is permitted on the basis of fixed rules enforced mechanically by people’s decisions to participate in the system. One way of looking at these schemes is that they have decentralized properties of communal norms, combined with the possibility of more deliberate design and experimentation of more formal rules and institutions. I call this common government.

The implications of this new technology and kind of governance might turn out to be very far-reaching, approaching that of the development of the Internet itself or even the printing press. But what could it mean for familiar Internet platforms in the medium-term? First, participating in mutual platforms might better align the incentives of users and platform designers. Right now, platform owners rely on squeezing as much data out of users as possible in order to sell it on to advertisers and to sell additional services. Mutual platforms, without responsibilities to shareholders, can experiment with different funding models. Individual users might elect to sell access to their profile to advertisers but the data itself can be made more secure as it will be a property of an encrypted network rather than a profile stored in a central private database. Privacy can be better assured than private management with public regulation.

Second, the networks can be more robust both to natural and political perturbations. Under decentralized protocols, ordinary users help store and serve content to each other. With the addition of blockchains, these users can be compensated for making their idle computer resources available for network use. This means that data doesn’t have to travel so far as is currently the case from host to user and the network as a whole can better cope with outages from particular nodes without data loss. Without a central controller, there is no particular agent that a government can coerce or punish for allowing specific interactions over a platform. Governments would then face the more difficult choice of permitting or prohibiting Internet communications altogether. It is thus more robust against arbitrary government censorship and manipulation of trade.

The relationship between users on a platform is mutual. The relationship between users and platform owners, however, is presently hierarchical – a private dynamic that government agencies can exploit. What blockchains may eventually permit is the provision of relatively efficient networks reliant neither on a single public agency nor private owner.

Learn more about Nick’s work here.

Britain’s Pornographer and Puritan Coalition

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Brexit isn’t the only ridiculous thing happening in the United Kingdom. In April, the British government is rolling out statutory adult verification for pornography websites and content platforms. This requires all adult content providers to have proof of age or identity for all their users, whether a passport or a credit card (or more ludicrously a ‘porn pass’ that Brits wishing to browse anonymously will have to buy from local newsagents). The government plans to require internet service providers to block pornography websites that are not in compliance with adult verification once the system is in place. For those with university institutional access, Pandora Blake has written a timely explanation and critique published in Porn Studies: ‘Age verification for online porn: more harm than good?’.

Technical challenges with rolling out the system have led the dominant pornography search platform owner, MindGeek, to develop proprietary solution, AgeID, in cooperation with regulators. This cooperation between the dominant commercial pornography platform supplier and a Conservative government publicly intent on restricting access to pornography might appear surprising. However, it can be explained by a particular pattern of regulatory capture identified in public choice theory as a Bootlegger and Baptist coalition. Bruce Yandle observed that throughout the 20th century, evangelical Christians in the United States agitated for local restrictions on the sale of alcohol with the avowed aim of reducing consumption but with the secondary effect of increasing demand for alcohol for illegal bootleggers. Hence both interest groups, apparently opposed in moral principle came to benefit in practice. We now have a classic British case study. In this case, MindGeek is not acting as a literal bootlegger. It intends to be fully legally compliant with the filtering regime. However, the law will block all non-compliant competitors without a comparable verification system. They can gain a competitive advantage with a proprietary technical solution to the barrier introduced by the government.

Introducing identity verification systems has high fixed costs and low marginal costs. It is costly to develop or implement but easy to scale once integrated. The larger the pornography enterprise, the more easily these costs can be absorbed without the risk that it will not be worthwhile to serve the British market. For many smaller international pornography websites, without in-house legal advice or technical expertise, it might prove uneconomical to serve British users directly. So MindGeek’s platforms could become the least-cost legal gatekeeper between small enterprises producing pornographic content and the British public. The government is raising transaction costs to accessing pornography in a way that impacts larger and smaller platforms asymmetrically and favors one dominant platform in particular.

Both the premise of this policy and its likely impact on the market for pornography is unpromising. At its most benign, this could be a characterized as a ‘nudge’ against the consumption of pornography and reducing access of inappropriate content to minors. But these limited benefits have costs for both producers and consumers. On the consumption side, it increases risks to data security and privacy because it will plausibly tie records of pornographic access to verified identities, with a clear likelihood of being to infer an individual’s sexuality from private browsing. This could represent a particular vulnerability for LGBTQ identifying individuals who live in communities where there is still stigma attached to minority sexual orientations.

On the supplier side, it takes what already appears to be a market with strong tendencies towards a winner-takes-all model, and then augments it so that a dominant platform has a legally enforceable competitive advantage over potential rivals in the market. Ultimately, it threatens to further strengthen the bargaining position of a single corporate pornography platform against the sex workers who supply their content.

It’s no longer the economy, but we are still stupid

Motivated Reasoning, Public Opinion, and Presidential Approval‘, an interesting new paper forthcoming in the journal Political Behavior (summarized here), by Kathleen M. Donovan, Paul M. Kellstedt, Ellen M. Key, Matthew J. Lebo finds that support for sitting presidents has become increasingly misaligned with national economic expectations. Rather than being a sign of voters realizing that presidents play little role determining economic performance, they attribute this to increased partisan polarization.

I think this is a compelling account. All I would add is a potential causal mechanism. My current favorite dimensions for analyzing democratic trends in the developed world is demography. Voters are ageing. When retired, they tend to have much less direct involvement with the productive economy than when they were working. On average, the elderly are quite rich and living off entitlements they have acquired during their working lives. So they are both less reliant on current economic opportunities and less knowledgeable of them. This means their personal costs of partisanship, relative to good policy, is lower than it used to be. And this is what lets all the culture-war nonsense creep into people’s decision functions.