Scottish Independence: to What End?

Sometimes divorce is the right answer. Even Jesus, whose statement in Matthew 19 that “anyone who divorces his wife… and marries another woman commits adultery” is one of the most emphatic biblical condemnations of divorce, makes an exception for cases of “sexual immorality”: i.e., where the covenant of marriage has been irretrievably broken down due to a party’s unfaithfulness. But divorce still remains a “nuclear option”: it is not something to be done lightly, on the basis of individual advantage or flight of fancy. Although the grass may appear greener on the other side, such wishful thinking does not justify the trauma of separation.

While the analogy of divorce has been applied to the Scottish referendum on independence, it is an indictment of our age that neither divorce nor the possibility that Britain might be rent asunder are considered with due seriousness. As Martin Wolf comments in the Financial Times, ... Read More

A new gilded age?

Thomas Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century (Harvard University Press, 2014)

A recurring theme in these blog posts has been the effect of technological change on employment, income distribution and return on capital in the coming decades and the implications of these changes for public policy. To summarise the story so far:

  • We are currently entering a period of rapid technological change. According to Moore’s law, which predicts that computing power doubles roughly every 18 months, we are approaching a period where the exponential effects of this doubling will suddenly become noticeable. We can already start to see science-fiction becoming reality in a number of ways, from ubiquitous video conferencing and tablet computers to self-parking and even self-driving cars and computer programs that can perform tasks that previously required skilled human labour (such as legal document discovery).
  • This technological change will reshape ... Read More

Social Immobility

Gregory Clark, The Son Also Rises (Princeton University Press, 2014)

When I first came to Britain ten years ago, one of the things that struck me about British society was the extent to which social class is physically manifested. As the classic sketch with John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett suggests, you literally do look up to the upper classes. Princes William and Harry are both 6’3″, and that’s not unusual: go to any an upper- or “upper middle”- (i.e., rich but not titled) class gathering, and you will be hard-pressed to find anyone of below average height. Similarly, for someone of average height, it is striking to walk around some of the more deprived neighbourhoods in the UK and find that the average height is noticeably shorter. Lamarckian inheritance notwithstanding, the correlation between height and class in Britain suggests that there could be a significant genetic component ... Read More

Cutting Red Tape

Following on from my post about the importance of entrepreneurship a couple of weeks ago is a new report from the Institute for Justice on the burdens of occupational licensing. It finds that, in the US, the top 10 worst ranked jobs in terms of average licensing burden are:

  1. Preschool teacher
  2. Athletic trainer
  3. Earth driller
  4. Cosmetologist
  5. Barber
  6. School bus driver
  7. HVAC Contractor
  8. Skin Care Specialist
  9. Pest Control Applicator
  10. Bus Driver

Who knew earth drilling was so heavily regulated? We’ve had some personal experience with excessive licensing requirements: m0y wife briefly considered looking after one of our friends’ children as a way to make a bit of extra money until we discovered that to ‘child mind’ you not only need to be licensed but have an educational qualification in childminding! Because the burden was too high, we lost out on extra income, our friends weren’t able to have a person they already knew look after their child, and ... Read More

Why can’t we all just get along?

Dylan Matthews has a brilliant post up on the Washington Post‘s Wonkblog where he’s taken a piece written by liberal Jesse Myerson for Rolling Stone and rewritten it as a conservative wish list, while keeping the underlying policies the same. The five policies are (liberal / conservative):

  1. Guaranteed jobs / Making welfare recipients work for the government
  2. Universal basic income / Replacing welfare with a single payment to all taxpayers
  3. Government land ownership / Land-value tax
  4. Nationalisation of US businesses / Sovereign wealth fund
  5. Nationalised banks / Enterprise investment banks

While Dylan uses his post to show how important tribalism is in politics, it also highlights what I think is a more fundamental division in politics: pragmatism vs idealism. All of these policies fail, at least in the way they’ve been presented, either because they are politically untenable or because they grossly oversimplify all of the underlying issues:

  1. ‘Make-work’ programmes are inevitably inefficient, because if the ... Read More

A Dented Universe

We’re here to put a dent in the universe. Otherwise why else even be here?
(Steve Jobs)

George Gilder, Knowledge and Power
Tyler Cowen, Average is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation

In 1981, George Gilder published Wealth and Poverty, the book that developed the idea of supply-side economics that dominated economics during the Reagan-Thatcher years. You can tell that he’s been living off this fame for the past 30 years: Knowledge and Power is not a very well-crafted book, and reads more like a series of book reviews than an extended essay. Despite being indisciplined, however, it does contain a compelling thesis: that standard accounts of capitalism fail to adequately appreciate the importance of individual creativity and entrepreneurship.

From Adam Smith and his invisible hand of the market to the present day, economists have modelled the economy on the assumption that it is, at root, a random, mindless process that nevertheless ... Read More

Corporate Income Tax

Abolishing the corporate income tax is an absolute no-brainer: in this global age, companies can effectively set their own tax rates, which means that all corporate taxes do is keep capital offshore (and thus unavailable to be reinvested in ways that would generate economic growth and tax revenue). Witness the absurdity of Apple borrowing money to pay dividends rather than repatriate some of its $146 billion cash stockpile (and face the US’s ridiculous 35% tax rate). My tax colleagues needn’t worry, though—a policy this obvious has no political chance of ever being implemented.

Academic Job Market

People often ask why I decided to switch from academia to law — this article by Megan McArdle describes a big part of the reason. It’s not just that universities are taking tuition from far more postgraduates than can possibly find jobs and then exploiting them to reduce the costs of teaching, but that the whole academic business model is collapsing. This is actually quite an exciting time for higher education, but I expect many institutions won’t adapt fast enough to avoid being overcome by the changes ahead.

Paine in the Burke

Great review of Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine and the Birth of Right and Left by Jonah Goldberg. I can’t decide whether to read it, since I’m already pretty familiar with both writers and it sounds like I’m likely to agree with Levin. Everyone, though, can do with a heavy dose of Burke:

Politics ought to be adjusted not to human reasonings but to human nature, of which reason is but a part and by no means the greatest part.

And there, in a nutshell, is the problem with the left: communism, socialism, Keynesianism and international law might all work if we weren’t sinful humans with limited understanding living in a fallen world. But we are. And so we need to do the best with what we have (including our political and cultural institutions) rather than think we’re clever enough to build a utopia from first principles.