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

Tedandralph

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.

Nightcap

  1. The Dark Forest theory: why aliens haven’t contacted us yet Scotty Hendricks, Big Think
  2. China’s “Dark Forest” answer to Star Wars optimism Jeremy Hsu, Lovesick Cyborg
  3. On the tradition of “Chinese unity” in geopolitical thought Nick Nielsen, The View from Oregon
  4. Rice Peter Miller, Views of the Kamakura

Nightcap

  1. There’s a long history of “grievance studies” in the US Chris Calton, Mises Wire
  2. The gap in preferences between men and women Alex Tabarrok, Marginal Revolution
  3. Asians are crazy and rich, but also generous Parag Khanna, Ozy
  4. Why it’s time to end factory farming Jacy Reese, Quillette

Lunchtime Links

  1. Delacroix in Morocco | Delacroix in Mexico
  2. The Jews in Europe | The Jews in Europe
  3. Barbarianism ain’t that bad | Barbarian liberty
  4. Why did we start farming? |  Why farms die (and should die)
  5. Daily hell of life in the Soviet bloc | reading Bertrand Russell

Ending supply management would not cost $30b

In Canada, the debates over supply management – the system of production quotas and import duties limiting the supply of dairy and poultry products – has intensified in recent years.  For ten years now (literally), I have been writing, testifying and researching this insane system which moves the supply curve leftwards (even if some try to deny it in some non-nonsensical arguments stating that prices would be higher if the supply increased).

One of the groups that has been spewing non-sense is, obviously, the dairy farmers union. In one of their often-made claim, which some politicians are taking up, is that ending the policy would cost $30 billions.

That is incorrect, widely off the mark and not properly contextualized.

First of all, the number relates to the market value of the quotas (see here). Many farmers bought the quotas many years ago at a much lower price and as such, compensation would be slightly below the $30 billions. More importantly, most quotas are acquired through mortgages by farmers. These mortgages represent a value of $30 billions (capital and interest). However, farmers are riskier borrowers than governments. If the government bought back all the mortgages, it would actually become the borrower (it would hold the liability). However, since the Canadian government is at a lesser risk of insolvency than farmers, it can easily renegotiate with banks for a haircut. In fact, banks would easily accept this. They know that the government won’t default on this which means the risks on their balance sheets have just dropped dramatically and they now hold a much safer asset. I guess that they would be willing to negotiate a form of haircut on the assets that would be somewhere between the new (risk-adjusted) value and the old value.

Secondly, who the hell said the quotas needed to be bought back in one shot? Farmers could be offered a choice between many options. First, there would be the option buy-back plan that gives them 50% (in government t-bills) of the value of the share of the mortgage that they paid. The second would be a higher percentage spread out over many years. The third could be over 100% of the value of the permit in tax credits. Basically, if a farmer has paid $200,000 of a $1,000,000 mortgage, the government would commit to pay the difference to the creditor institution and offer more than $200,000 in tax breaks to farmers and their families. For example, a farmer with a tax liability of 25,000$ every year would end up paying no taxes for 10 years (as such, he would 125% of the value of his quota). As such, the cost is spread over 10 years making this a $3 billion expense annually.

And what about the context? Well, according to the famous article (recently published) on the burden of supply management, the cost in higher prices is equal to 0.84% of household income. In short, this means 0.84% of the Canadian economy or $17.3 billion a year or $173 billion over 10 years. Now, this is annually – the savings are recurrent – and the estimates does not account for the fact that productivity gains might finally allow Canadian farms to benefit from the international increase in demand. So, the $173 billion figure is pretty conservative and yet, the inaccurate $30 billion figure accounts only for roughly 17.3% of the benefits. In terms of return on investments, I am pretty sure this qualifies as a great move through which you would not even need to go down the Australian route (imposing a transitory tax for ten years).

I am sorry, but there is no way that the cost of the buyback should be considered a deterrent especially if a buyback plan is spread out over many years.

Immigration and Jobs

A couple of thoughts about immigration. It seems that there is a widespread belief in the US that immigrants take jobs from Americans. It makes superficial sense if you also assume that the number of jobs to be filled is fixed and that just about anyone can do any kind of work.

Both assumptions are mostly false. Here is an example that illustrates why.

I keep hearing native-born Americans trained in various high-tech fields who claim that they are unemployed because of competition from low-cost H1B visa holders. H1B visas go to foreigners with skills deemed to be needed by the American economy. A large number of H1B visa holders are from India and many are from China; they also come from a wide variety of other countries, including Russia, France, Bulgaria, etc. The implicit affirmation is that were such visas stopped completely, those who complain would step right into the vacant jobs.

Two things. First the claim that foreign H1B visa holders work for less is largely unsubstantiated although it should be easy to investigate such abuse. Second, I think it’s illegal to pay H1B holders less than Americans. Why would many employers risk a distracting lawsuit? Of course, a few might because there are irrational people everywhere.

Next and last: Hundreds of thousands of high-tech jobs are going begging as I write. Are employers so vicious that they would rather have the work not done at all than to give it to a credentialed American? Or is it more likely that the unemployed native-born high-tech workers have skills that do not match demand? If the second supposition is correct, ending the H1B visa program would cause even more high-tech positions to remain empty. Of course, this would have a negative effect on everyone, on every American’s prosperity.

Missing from this narrative: the possibility that high power, accelerated re-training programs would bring unemployed Americans the skills the high-tech sector requires.

I have to begin a confession that’s going to make me even more unpopular locally than I already am. I mean unpopular among my conservative friends. I taught in an MBA program in the middle of Silicon Valley for 24 years, two quarters each year. It was an evening program squarely directed at the ambitious hard-working. During that span of time, I must have had 150 students from India. I remember only one who was a bad student. I was intrigued, so I made inquiries. Sure enough, he had an Indian first name and last name, and the corresponding appearance but he was born in the US.* I cannot report so glowingly about other, non-Indian students that sat in my classroom through the years.

This little narrative proves nothing, of course. Consider it food for thought. Do it especially if you voted for Pres. Trump – as I did.

Reminder: H1B visas are awarded to individuals with an occupational qualification deemed to be in short supply in the US. Right now, it’s likely that most of those who get an H1B are trained in some IT area but that’s not all. For a long time, farriers from everywhere could easily get one. (If you don’t know what a farrier is, shame on you and look it up.)

There are other – presumably non-specialized – categories of immigrants who are widely suspected of taking jobs from Americans. The truth is not always easy to discern, not even conceptually. Five or six miles from where I live in Santa Cruz, there are growers who are tearing off their hair. Their problem is that they can’t figure out who is going to pick the crops they are now putting into the ground. As I have said repeatedly, the Mexicans they counted on in years past have largely stopped coming.

A quarter of a mile from where I live, and in the same direction, there are dozens of perfectly healthy US-born Americans who are working as “sales associates.” The apparent conceptual issue is this: sales associates earn $10/hr while a moderately experienced crop picker earns $15. The question arises of why we don’t see a full exodus from the sales positions to jobs that pay 50% more?

I think it’s lazy to call the US-born sales associates “lazy.” The reality is that the Mexicans who came, and are still coming, to pick vegetables and fruits in California overwhelmingly came from a rural population. They were reared under conditions where almost everyone around them labored in the fields. When they arrive in the US – legally through family reunion – or illegally, they are ready to take picking jobs. They then just do here more or less the same work they would do at home but for five times the pay or more.

In American society that kind of population disappeared several generations ago through mechanization and, of course, through the importation of foreign labor, precisely. Native-born Americans won’t do the work because it’s alien to their background. I think US-born people of Mexican ascendancy whose parents labored in the field won’t do the work either. Their parents do what they can to make their own work experience alien to their children. I am not surprised, that’s another expression of the American dream. It’s  what many would do back in Mexico but then, why emigrate?

I am pretty sure that any immigration reform should include a temporary agricultural program, a sort of H1A ( “A” for “Agriculture”) visa. It would allow foreigners to come to the US legally, just to work in the fields and for a set period only. It would not lead to permanent residency, nor, of course, to citizenship. Such a program existed between the forties and the early sixties, if memory serves. It was called the “Bracero program.” I don’t know why it was terminated. (Perhaps a reader can tell us.)

Mexicans would be the first to take advantage of such a program. As Mexico’s economy develops, they may be replaced by Central Americans and, eventually, by Africans. Such a program would sidestep the kind of assimilation problem France, for example, is facing right now with its North African population.

PS Personally, I think Mexicans make good immigrants to the US. I would bet than in ten years we will be begging them to come.


* Disclosure: I am married to an Indian woman. She is not in high-tech unfortunately.

Sex, again

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.


Note: This takes place in Brittany when I was sixteen.

The threshing work was divided by age and sex. Young men and boys would stand on the very tall wheat pile; it was thirty feet high or so at the beginning of the process. From there, they would throw sheaves of wheat down to a handler who placed them on a conveyor belt leading into the business end of the machine. That was a dangerous job left to a specialist because the threshing teeth, designed to strip the grain from the stalks, could mangle the man’s arm as he positioned the sheaves. Out of the other end of the machine, came sacks of grain and bales of compressed straw that someone had to tie immediately. Moving and stacking those outputs was the job of girls and young women.

The heat was infernal, the dust was infernal, and the cadence was infernal, so that each team worked only for one hour at a time. At the end of each hour, a supervisor would blow a whistle above the thresher’s din, signaling replacement, which was accomplished in one fell sweep, without breaking rhythm. Those being replaced would move to the area outside the kitchen where food was served continuously, or they would walk out to the hedges lining every road, to relieve themselves. They pretty well had to because they drank without cease, possibly several gallons a day. Since no one ever drank water, they took in huge quantities of cider.

Though low in alcohol, and although heat and exertion probably burned some of that alcohol, cumulatively, the cider must have had some positive effect on the prevailing mood. In addition, everyone dressed lightly because of the same heat and exertion, the girls, in not much more than a sleeveless blouse and a skirt, possibly nothing more at all. No wonder, then, that during breaks, some young people walked well past the point that public decency required for a simple leak. They would wander into meadows made deserted by the on-going work around la mécanique (the thresher). Unavoidably, some young men and some young women ran into each other there. It was summer and the grass was tall under the apple trees, easily concealing people lying down. Anyway, I think, perhaps that was the normal Breton betrothal ceremony. This was so well understood that every time I came back from my break that day, older boys would asked me loudly if I was engaged yet. I was not, not yet, but I came close, damn close! Several times. With several girls. Eventually, I moved away from Brittany, and even from France, and it took me another fifteen years to tie the knot. It would have been sooner if I had lived near a wheat-threshing machine, no doubt.